Self-Perpetuating Fear in the Turn of the Screw

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Self-Perpetuating Fear in the Turn of the Screw

Adina Halpern

Henry James writes that feelings emerge from emotions – physiological responses. In this paradigm, then, fear is the result of physiological functions such as the quickening on the heart and the breath. This kind of reasoning is apparent to me in William James' Turn of the Screw. I see the apparitions in this novel as figments of the narrator governess' imagination, creations of her mind. When the governess arrives at Bly, she already exhibits the physiological signs of fear. These emotions stem from her love for her employer as well as a fear of being blamed for Miles' expulsion from school. It is from this emotionally altered state that she believes that she sees ghosts. The fear that these visions cause perpetuates more fear until her visions reach a crisis point. Additionally, Mrs. Grose's gradual disbelief of the governess' tales adds to her stress and fear and causes her physical signs of fear to worsen and her sightings of the apparitions to become more intense and scarier.

According to Henry James' account of emotion, feelings are the result of physiological responses to stimuli. Henry James calls these physiological responses "emotion." As part of his argument for his theory, he writes of emotions that cause feelings that in turn cause emotions. In my own definition, the words "emotion" and "feeling" are almost interchangeable, so this point can be thought of as "self-perpetuating emotions." Henry James writes:

"Everyone knows how panic is increased by flight, and how the giving way to the symptoms of grief or anger increases those passions themselves. Each fit of sobbing makes the sorrow more acute, and calls forth another fit stronger still, until at last repose only ensues with lassitude and with the apparent exhaustion of the machinery...Refuse to express a passion and it dies" (6).

In the case of the Turn of the Screw, the self-perpetuated emotion is fear. When the governess arrives at Bly, she is already fearful. Her account begins, "I remember the beginning as a succession of flights and drops" (298). From even before her arrival, she experiences a range of intense feelings. Fear initiates a "fight or flight" response, and in this first sentence, the governesses experiences the entire range of these emotions – she feels flights, and she feels drops, or a depressed, confronting emotion.

It is possible that these emotions – these physiological responses – are the same as those felt out of love, and that the governess felt them first not because she was afraid, but because she was in love with the man who was to become her employer, the children's uncle. (After all, love, too, can cause the respiratory and heart rates to quicken.) Her love for this man is apparent throughout the book, and it is directly associated with her intense fear. When she first sees the ghost of Peter Quint, she thinks it is this man with whom she is in love. The vision of Quint

"Produced in me, this figure, in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were, sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed."

Her reaction to this mistake, and the combination of these two intense emotions is that of shock and violence, a term I read in this case to be interchangeable with "passion," that is, intense physiological reactions associated with emotion and feeling.

The governess exhibits this fear and love from the very beginning of her stay at Bly. When Mrs. Grose tells her that Miles was expelled from school, the governess is horrified that such a thing could happen to such an innocent and beautiful child. However, at this stage of the novel, the governess has never met or even seen Miles. She simply has Mrs. Grose's account of him to believe. She believes that this instantaneous belief stems from fear: "There was such a flood of good faith in [Mrs. Grose's response] that, though I had not yet seen the child, my very fears made me jump to the absurdity of the idea" (304). Just what these fears are is unclear, but it is later suggested that the governess is afraid of having to account for Miles' punishment: "My fear was of having to deal with the intolerable question of the grounds of his dismissal from school, for that was really but the question of the horrors gathered behind" (363) . Perhaps she is afraid that her employer will blame her for the expulsion and not love her the way she loves him.

It is clear, then, that the governess exhibits the physiological signs of fear even before she sees, or believes that she sees, the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Once her fear causes her to believe that she sees these apparitions, the visions cause her even more fear, which in turn causes her to have more visions. She becomes obsessed with the ghosts of these two people; the fear of seeing them perpetuates itself and she continues to see them as a symptom of her fear.

After the governess' first sighting of Peter Quint, she begins to exhibit even more nervous behaviors. For example, before she tells Mrs. Grose about seeing Peter Quint, she locks herself up in her room to think. This is not because she is afraid that she will see the ghost, but because she is afraid that she will become afraid of seeing him. She recalls, "It was not so much yet that I was more nervous than I could bear to be as that I was remarkably afraid of becoming so" (313). The governess even recognizes that these heightened emotions made her more aware of her surroundings and more sensitive to sighting of the ghosts. She writes, "The shock I had suffered must have sharpened all my senses" (313).

Later, after she has seen both Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and is convinced that Miles and Flora see them too, she worries progressively more about the ghosts' presences and feels a psychic connection to their whereabouts. One night she is reading in bed when "though I was deeply interested in my author, I found myself, at the turn of a page and with his spell all scattered, looking straight up from him and hard at the door of my room" (341). At this point, she creeps downstairs and sees Quint out the window. Had she really been interested in her author? Or had her body been constantly (and in Freud's terms, unconsciously) going through the responses of fear?

About half way through the text, Mrs. Grose begins to doubt whether the apparitions exist at all. She realizes that these so-called apparitions have never done any harm to the children or anyone else, and the only reason she has believed in them is by the governess' word. She begins to think more rationally and is influenced less by emotional fear. Even if the apparitions are there, she realizes that they do not harm the children and so should probably not be feared. The governess describes Mrs. Grose's thought process upon coming to this conclusion:

"Flights of fancy gave place, in her mind, to a steady fireside glow, and I had already begun to perceive how, with the development of the conviction that—as time went on without a public accident—our young things could, after all, look out for themselves, she addressed her greatest solicitude to the sad case presented by their instructress" (348).

It seems to me that the governess is not only afraid of the ghosts themselves, but of the possibility of her own insanity. There absence is then more frightening than their presence. Furthermore, she is afraid of losing the children, which, in her mind, would result in losing any love that their uncle might have for her – or the possibility of gaining such love. This combination causes her emotions to elevate and she appears even more insane, experiencing a kind of mental breakdown. Following this incident, she sees Quint and Miss Jessel again and writes,

"If it was a question of a scare, my discovery on this occasion had scared me more than any other, and it was in the condition of nerves that produced it that I made my actual my room, I flung myself about, but I always broke down in the monstrous utterance of names" (357).

The governess' physiological signs of fear become interchangeable with signs of insanity when, at the end of the novel, Mrs. Grose does not see the apparitions and realizes that she has never seen them and therefore they must not exist at all; and she learns that the children have never seen them even though throughout the novel she had professed that they saw them often. It is here that she breaks down completely, giving into the fear of not knowing, the fear of her beloved Miles and Flora no longer caring for her, and her perpetual fear of being forced away from them and their uncle – a fear that is now looking much closer to a reality:

"Of what first happened when I was left alone I have no subsequent memory. I only knew that at the end of, I suppose, a quarter of an hour, an odorous dampness and roughness, chilling and piercing my trouble, had made me understand that I must have thrown myself, on my face, on the ground and given way to a wildness of grief. I must have lain there long and cried and sobbed, for when I raised my head the day was almost gone" (383).

William James wrote that emotions were self-perpetuating. This idea is evident in his brother, Henry James' novel, the Turn of the Screw. Here, pre-existing fear adds to feelings of love. This deadly combination perpetuates physiological reactions that cause to governess to become insane.

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