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Explore the Psychological Landscape Represented in The Turn of the Screw.

What is the relation between the psychological concerns and the literary conventions of realism and/or modernism? One of the various interpretations of The Turn of the Screw could be overtly concerned with psychological factors. You could class it as a realist novel simply about ghosts. However the representation of the characters, and particularly the governess, suggests that there are psychological elements to the novella.

For years after The Turn of the Screw was first published, it was largely dismissed as a simple ghost story. Critics repeatedly thought of the governess’s character as that of a benevolent woman, protecting the lives of Miles and Flora. As the years passed, several critics hinted at the governess’s madness and eventually Edna Kenton published an essay in 1924, placing the theme of madness over ghosts and the children.

It is highly likely that James put psychological elements into the novella. His own sister, Alice, was mentally disturbed and his brother, William a renowned psychologist. This also means that James possibly read Freud, or if he didn’t he may have been informed of the psychologist by his brother. The Case of Miss Lucy R. is often claimed as an influence. Lucy R. was one of Freud’s patients who also happened to be a governess. Several critics believe this to be an influence and Oscar Cargill even went as far as to say, James’ dependence on his personal knowledge of hysteria and on ‘The Case of Miss Lucy R.’ make it clear that there are no ghosts in the story and that the phantoms are creations of a hysterical mind—only hallucinations.

Whether this is true or not, is in doubt and depends on how you choose to read the novella. In The Turn of the Screw there are various examples that suggest madness. For example the closeness of the governess to the children, I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable…They had nothing but me, and I-well, I had THEM.

The extent of which the governess values her duties towards the children is particularly excessive and could be seen as a little disturbing. If you are to believe this then you could say that this emphasises her benevolence. However it could also be seen as an unhealthy dependence that she cannot live without.

The governess may be particularly close to the children earlier on in the novella and be stunned by their innocence and beauty. However, as it goes on, she becomes increasingly paranoid that they are communicating with the ghosts. It is also very possible that the governess killed Miles, “I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped. “

Unless you believe that the ghost exists and Miles simply had a heart attack, it must surely be the governess who killed him. Her madness has finally drawn her over the edge and she has taken her anger out on Miles for a number of reasons.

As well as his death in the final chapter, there are also some revelations on why he was expelled from his school. They are put across in a very ambiguous way and it is still a little unclear as to what he did. As Miles puts it himself, he just ‘said things’. Several critics have suggested that Miles’ ‘things’ that he said were of a homosexual nature and there are also hints in the novella that he was either abused or told ‘things’ by Quint.

The homosexual connotations come from the fact that Miles’ comments were ‘too bad’ by his own admission and he only told ‘Those I liked’. It is true that sexual connotations are evident throughout the text. In Victorian ‘polite society’, sexual matters were very rarely discussed, as it was not particularly socially acceptable. Therefore Victorians tended to read into things as being sexual more than the modern society would.

In 1934, Edmund Wilson wrote what is regarded as a particularly influential essay that drew heavily on Freudian theory. In that he stated.

This statement is very possible and explains why she hallucinates and sees ghosts. Sexual misconduct was often suggested where governesses are concerned in Victorian times, particularly in novels in the gothic genre. If you believe in the sexual connotations to a great extent, then you could say that The Turn of the Screw is a parody of the sexual anxieties of the Victorian society.

If you were to look at the novella as a realist text, then most of the sexual references could be completely ignored or disregarded. It is true that despite his background being associated with psychological influences, James also had an interest in ghosts, or was at least surrounded by people with an interest. William James conducted research in the field of spirits and his father was also interested in the subject.

Rob Pope defines realism as, Specific aesthetic movements which at various times have claimed to represent that reality accurately.

So therefore to take The Turn of the Screw as a realist text you have to take certain things for granted. The first thing that you have to do is to trust the governess’s story. You then have to take on board conventions that you are familiar with from other texts, in this case there are many recognisable conventions from the gothic genre and in particular ghost stories.

The whole setting of the novel is very gothic; the tower where Quint is first seen, the misty lake and the narrow corridors are certainly not revolutionary ideas. The scenes are always dark and candle lit and the garden outside is also typical of ghost stories. The way that Quint is described is particularly stereotypical of the genre. The fact that he looks ‘like nobody’ with a ‘pale face’ and ‘sharp, strange’ eyes paint him out to be a particular chilling, fearful character. This description to Mrs Grose works in defence of the governess’ madness as the description is so close to that of Peter Quint that it would have had to be some great coincidence for it to be a hallucination.

Was there a ’secret’ at Bly-a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?

These are allusions to the gothic texts, Udolpho and Jane Eyre. The fact that she read texts such as this could be a reason for her seeing ghosts and for going mad. The fact that she goes mad could be a combination of her fascination with gothic novels and the surroundings that she has found herself in. It is rather like the character of Jack in Stephen King’s, The Shining.

Whether the text, ghost sightings et al, can be described as a realist text is debatable. If you were to compare it to another realist text, such as Dickens’ Oliver Twist, you could argue that it is not one. In Dickens’ novel he relies on a setting that is very accurate to London and doesn’t touch on such issues as the supernatural, however it does have some ideas that could be seen as being unrealistic, for example where Mr Brownlow talks about Oliver after he has taken him in, (Oliver) “was cast in my way by a stronger hand than fate”.

This shows that other realist texts contain things that are not entirely realistic. However in Victorian times, there was more emphasis or belief in religion and all things spiritual,

The use of the narrative in the novella is particularly interesting and contributes to the ambiguity. The story is actually told by an un-named narrator. His story is transcribed from the governess’s manuscript, which was read out by Douglas several years earlier. Therefore, the story that we read is not the actual manuscript.

This could mean an awful lot of things. The story could certainly have been embellished, as ghost stories often are. This would support the fact that the novella is a realist text, as some of the details that suggest the governess’s madness could have been made up or exaggerated. The un-named narrator could have changed any detail that he wanted to put his own slant on the text or make it more interesting for his audience.

I think that is why James has put so much emphasis on storytelling in the text. Of course, a story teller hasn’t actually embellished any facts, as it is all one big story, written by Henry James. What I earlier stated about having to trust the governess to take the text as a realist one, is of even greater importance in The Turn of the Screw as you also have to trust Douglas and the un-named narrator.

As well as looking at The Turn of the Screw with realism and psychology in mind, you can also consider modernism and new criticism. Some modernists believe that we should ignore historical and social context, where as others believe it is of great importance. The latter often believe that texts do not reflect the world, but help shape it. They also often involve psychological elements and closure in their texts is very rare. Henry James did share a couple of these beliefs, despite being around before the First World War, the period most generally accepted as the start of modernism.

It is particularly interesting that Henry James has taken elements from all three of the movements that I have discussed to produce a text that could be talked about for hours on end, without ever finding the one, clear cut meaning behind it. He, himself wrote in a preface to his novel The Portrait of a Lady, the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather, every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.

This statement, made by the author himself, sums up the reading of The Turn of the Screw. It basically states that it is up to the reader to take what they want from a text. It also means that the reader will read absolutely anything into his texts, every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable. Regardless of the intentionalist fallacy, the reader will take what s/he want from a text, a fact that James seems to be perfectly fine with.

In The Turn of the Screw, the literary conventions of realism and modernism only further the psychological concerns. The governess’s and, to a certain extent, Miles’s madness are induced by their environment and things the have happened to them in the past. The governess has a fondness for gothic novels and is in her first job of this kind. Miles has been abused, mentally and/or physically by Peter Quint.

The novel is a ghost story and therefore, you have to take on board certain facts about the genre to accept it. On the other hand, it is a story incorporating the psychology of the mind. The three issues that I have discussed work hand in hand and only enhance each other.

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