“Turns of the Screw”: The Psychology of the Story

“The Turns of the Screw” is one of the most famous mystic works of the 19th century. There were many interpretations of the story and provoked much debate. Indeed, this story deserves attention, as there are many aspects worthy critics’ attention and which to be explored and discussed.

The story was analyzed and interpreted in different ways and from different points of view. However, one of the “central question” that still bother literary critics the reliability of the narrator and the reality of the ghost. The central figure of the story is the governess who attracts the critics’ attention till nowadays.

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There are doubts concerning the psychological state of a young woman. Thus, there are three points of view: the first one is that the ghost really existed, the second point of view provides that the ghost was the creation of the governess’ imagination, and the third argument is that a young woman had psychological disorders. The focus of this paper is the psychology of the story.

The author presents the story as a sequence of events that really existed, however, in this paper we will provide the argument that the reliability of the narrator can be argued and that ghost was only the figment of the imagination of the governess through the critical analysis of the psychology of the story based on interdisciplinary approach.

“The Turns of the Screw” is a mixture of psychology and supernatural. When the novel was first published, it was accepted simple ghost story which was common for the England of the Victorian period. From the novel, we come to know that telling the ghost stories was a sort of tradition for Christmas, “… on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he has met…” (James 1). For a long time, the central figure of the story, the governess, was treated as a woman who wanted to protect children from evil ghost.

However, later, the question of the “mental health” of the woman came into being, “the reason there are such compelling arguments for both sides is that both possibilities regarding the ghost or the governess’s mental condition are present at the same time” (Rust 142). The reason that the mental condition of the governess was not put in the spotlight is that in the Victorian era, the governesses were not considered as full members of the society. It was usual that they spent all life caring about children.

Moreover, a young girl who became a governess was so often into her responsibility that she was “obsessed” with her duties and was ready to do everything for a child. The marriage was not a privilege that the governess could enjoy, consequently all hoe love and care were given to the master’s child, as a result, “it seems clear enough that both that “the governess destroys the children is saving them”, and that this is “understandable” only in light of the fact that “her contemporaries were doing so all around her” (Banerjee 543).

This statement finds prove in the text of “The Turn of the Screw” when the governess wanted to protect Miles from the ghost, she was holding him so strong that a question arises: “why did the boy die?” and “was it the fault of the ghost or the governess?” It goes without saying that the governess could not kill the child premeditatedly. In the light, the question of her mental health arises.

As it has already been mention, the question of the mental health of the governess produces much debate in different times, “In 1934, Edmund Wilson’s Freudian analysis initiated an extended controversy over whether the ghosts are to be read as true apparitions symbolic representations of evil or projections of neurotic desire” (Dryand Kucinkas n. p.). Since then, the literary critics began focusing their attention on the psychology of the novel, especially, on the psychology of the behavior of the governess.

There are many evidences that a young woman demonstrated the signs of psychological instability of her emotional behavior from the very beginning of the story. She had a simple background and he was not paid much attention when she was a child herself as she was, “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson” (James 5). When she came into the house, she had to cope with too many responsibilities, much more than a young girl of 20 with not developed psyche could bear.

The reader can observe that she was nervous, and her emotional state was instable. One of the reasons of her emotional instability lies in the fact that she could not demonstrate her “good job” to her maser. The girl was striving to do her best so that her master could appreciate her endeavour: “I only asked that I only asked that he should know; and the only way to be sure he would be to see it, and the kind light of it, in his handsome face” (James 20). However, she was let know in advance that master had not to be aware of her job.

This condition creates a paradox that influenced the psychological state of a young girl. Thus, it is the first premise of her mental instability and it happened just before she saw the ghost for the first time. Another “psychological stroke” happened when she saw the figure of a stranger at the tower. She says, ““two distinct gasps of emotion the shock of my first and that of my second surprise” (James 21).

She understood that it was not a real human, but a ghost. She did not sleep well for several nights that contributed to the development of her mental instability. Moreover, as all women of a Victorian are she was impressed by the ghost stories and this impacted her unconscious perception of reality.

Thus, every slightly unexplained phenomenon seemed to be paranormal. Another fact that confirms the statement that the ghost did not exist was that she was the only person who could see it, “the story then came to be read as a psychological one in which the ghosts are in the governess’s mind – thus, still have inner extension but now “in” a character extended in the story’s inner world” (Mansell 56).

In the text of “The Turn of the Screw” we can read such lines, “I definitely saw it turn, as I might have seen the…wretch to which it had once belonged turn…with my eyes on the villainous back…” (James 54). The attention should be paid to the words “might have” that provide the idea that a girl was not sure of her words. This adds doubts to the fact of existence of the ghost. In fact, there are many confusing “moment” that provides “a double opinion” concerning the story.

On the one hand, the events that took place in the novel do not leave doubts that the story is real, on the other hand, the psychological state of the governess gives reasons to think that the ghost was only the imagination of a young woman, “the reason there are such compelling arguments for both sides is that both possibilities regarding the ghost or the governess’s mental condition are presented at the same time” (Rust 442). In this light, a closer look at the text itself should be taken.

Providing a critical analysis of the text, it should be mentioned that the construction of the text and sentences brings the existence of the ghost in question. As it has already been mentioned, there is a great ambiguity in the text that is caused by the pressupositional construction, “by means of these constructions, information about the ghosts is consistently presented as though already assumed by both narrator and reader” (Dry and Kucinkas n. p.).

Thus, the reader can notice that the way the governess tells about the existence of the ghost is uncertain from the point of view of the construction of the sentences:

“My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had … supposed…. the figure that faced me was … as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind…. the man who looked at me over the battlements was definite a picture in a frame” (James 21).

From this example, it can be noticed confusion on the way the governess talks and thinks. Thus, the ambiguity of the speech is a great example of how the author leads the reader into confusion.

Furthermore, the psychology of the story and its psychological influence on the reader can be seen in the symbols used I the novel. The most significant symbol is the number 28. The study by Steven F. Walker about the mystery of numbers provides that they have a great influence on the reader and on the way the psychology of the story discovered:

“28 December is a crucial but curiously elided date in the frame’s fussing over dates. It is the probable date on which the governess’s account of little Miles’s death is read out loud. It is also the day on which the Church of England celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents. (Walker n. p.).

So, the symbolism of numbers can be taken as the basis for the critical analysis of the story.

Thus, it cannot be denied that “The Turn of the Screw” is “a novella that, paradoxically, celebrates the achievement of narrative identity” (Wesley 80). It is a deeply psychological novel that creates much debate and contains many aspects worthy attention and analysis. The psychology of the story can be seen in its content, the characters of the main characters, as well as in the structure of the text.

The most thought provoking and paradoxical character in the story that puts in question the reliability of the narrator is the governess. Her emotional instability creates special psychological tense of the story.

Works Cited

Banerjee, Jacqueline. “The legacy of Anne Bronte in Henry James’s `The Turn of the Screw.’.” English Studies 78.6 (1997): 532. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

Dry, Helen Aristar, and Susan Kucinkas. “Ghostly ambiguity: Presuppositional constructions in The Turn of the Screw.” Style 25.1 (1991): 71. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Forgotten Books, 2009.

Mansell, Darrel. “THE GHOST OF LANGUAGE IN THE TURN OF THE SCREW.” Modern Language Quarterly 46.1 (1985): 48. Professional Development Collection. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

Rust, Richard Dilworth. “LIMINALITY IN THE TURN OF THE SCREW.” Studies in Short Fiction 25.4 (1988): 441. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

Walker, Steven F. “James’s THE TURN OF THE SCREW.” Explicator 61.2 (2003): 94. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

Wesley, Marilyn C. “The Remembered Future: Neuro-Cognitive Identity in Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw..” College Literature 31.2 (2004): 80-98. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.


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