The role of repression in Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw"

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The role of repression in Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw"

Jorge Rodriguez

One of the most troubling aspects of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" is determining whether the apparitions that the governess sees are real ghouls or mere hallucinations. Even after its conclusion, the novella provides no definite evidence that may help the reader decide and consequently, this question remains open to the interpretation of the reader. Usually one is eager to believe the governess as a trustworthy narrator and to conclude that the two children Miles and Flora were being threatened by the alleged ghosts of Peter Quint and the previous governess, Miss Jessel. But one needs to remember that since we are supposed to be reading the governess' manuscript, she could have omitted important facts and manipulated the truth according to her own choosing. Even if it never was her intention to become an unreliable narrator, she may be unconsciously repressing important aspects of the story. This seems to be the case in regard to her relationship with the children's uncle and her infatuation with him. Could it possibly be that the visions the governess sees are just the product of her repressed love for the master?

It certainly does seem to be the case that the governess was truly in love with the master and that she continued loving him throughout the course of the novella. In the prologue to the governess' manuscript, the characters speculate about the governess' affection for a certain man. Even Douglas, who claims to have known the governess, says: "Yes, she was in love. That is she had been. That came out- she could n't tell her story without its coming out" (James, p. 5). As Douglas continues his account of the events and as he describes the man that the governess was going to be working for, her reasons for falling in love with him become obvious: "this prospective patron proved a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered anxious girl out of Hampshire vicarage" (p. 7). The governess therefore had enough reasons to admire the master as he proved to be the promise of prosperity for a young girl of a declining class.

This love first becomes obvious when the governess sees the first apparition. She admits to have been thinking of someone when she first saw the so-called ghost of Peter Quint: "some one would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve" (p. 19). What is even more surprising is her disappointment when it turns out to be someone else instead of her loved one: "the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed" (p. 20). She never clearly states, however, that she was necessarily thinking of the master, and neither does Douglas state in the prologue that it was the children's uncle with whom she had fallen in love with. But from the references made in both occasions, it is inevitable to conclude that the governess was thinking about the master, and, consequently, that the discussion in the prologue was making reference to him.

The ambiguity surrounding the identity of this man when he is mentioned in the governess' manuscript demonstrates the repression of her emotions. It is precisely because of this repression that the apparitions which haunt the governess have originated. After repressing her love for the master, these emotions recur in the shape of the apparitions. She is terrified by the visions because she is reminded by them of the love she has tried so hard to keep hidden. This is better explained by Sigmund Freud's study of the role of the 'uncanny' in literary works, as his theory provides new insight on James' novella. In his essay "The Uncanny", originally published in "Writings on Art and Literature", Freud states:

"If psycho-analytic theory is correct in maintaining that every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if repressed, into anxiety, then among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs" (Freud, p. 217).

Sigmund Freud's study of the 'uncanny' suggests that the apparitions seen by the governess are the product of her repressed love for the master. Furthermore, Freud's statement helps establish that the apparitions seem 'uncanny' to the governess because the emotions she has hidden for so long have now taken shape. It is important to remember, as mentioned before, that when these apparitions manifest themselves for the first time, when the governess sees Peter Quint by the tower, she had been thinking of the man she loves. An association between these apparitions and the repression of her feelings for the master then becomes obvious as she begins to have her hallucinations at one of the moments when she has the uncle in mind.

This reading of the novella according to Freud's theory raises further questions. Why is it that the apparitions that governess sees are those of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel instead of the master himself? And how does she come up with such vivid descriptions for both of them if she had never seen them before? In his essay "The Uncanny", Freud describes the concept of the 'double', or "a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self" (p. 210). In the case of the governess, she unconsciously doubles her repressed love for the master with the secret relationship that the previous governess was involved in. Consequently, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel become a reflection of the master and the governess or, as Sigmund Freud would call them, their 'doubles'. According to Freud's arguments, it is the 'uncanny' similarity among these four characters and their different relationships which validates the governess' association of the apparitions with her repressed love. Since the apparitions act as a symbol of her hidden desires, this doubling actually becomes the method by which she processes her anxieties and thus produces her hallucinations.

This concept of doubling also accounts for the fact that the governess sees an apparition of Peter Quint and not of the master himself. Although she is really in love with the master, Peter Quint symbolizes the man she truly loves. After she first spots him, the governess learns that he had been wearing the clothes of the master, for which reason she says that Quint was dressed "in somebody's clothes. They're smart, but they're not his own" (p. 29). After this initial suggestion that Quint is representing the master, we learn that he had been going out with Miss Jessel, the previous governess. This secret relation between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel then becomes representative of the relationship that the governess secretively hopes to have with the master.

The question still remains of how the governess knew how Quint and Miss Jessel looked like if they were both dead by the time she arrived at the house. As has been discussed, considering that it is the governess' manuscript what we are supposed to be reading, it is not impossible to believe that she may have omitted certain aspects of the story. Mrs. Grose certainly plays a crucial role in the novella, but she is not the only other employee at the house besides the governess. There definitively must have been others at the house that she does not mention in her narration. We can then assume then that the governess may have heard a description of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel from several of the other employees and, therefore, created a clear image of what they must have looked like. Furthermore, this all fits with Freud's theory about repression. We can then understand that the governess had repressed the descriptions that she had gathered from different sources and that she had unconsciously used them to create the images that appeared to her during her hallucinations. This would also account for the fact that she omits the instances in which any of the attendants have described the two dead ones.

Sigmund Freud's study of the 'uncanny' in literature truly helps us understand how an author can create this effect in his writings. Henry James certainly integrated many of these elements to produce the desired atmosphere in his novella "The Turn of the Screw". His use of ambiguity and of intellectual uncertainty surrounding the most crucial events in the story generates an 'uncanny' environment. However, Freud's essay provides more than a simple explanation of how James achieved his goal of making the novella so 'unfamiliar'. "The Uncanny" provides us with a better understanding of the characters and with answers to the most troubling questions. Freud's ideas permit us to understand why the governess saw such apparitions and why she was so frightened of them. Without the help of these Freudian concepts, the most problematic questions raised by the novella would remain unsolved.

Works Cited:

James, Henry. "The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction". Bantam Books, October 1981.

Freud, Sigmund. "Writings on Arts and Literature". Stanford University Press: 1997

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