Therapy for the Governess; A Psychoanalytic View of her Sickness and Crime

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Therapy for the Governess; A Psychoanalytic View of her Sickness and Crime

Laura Otten

Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is the classic ghost story; a haunted mansion, innocent children, a woman tormented by devils. However, from a psychoanalytic perspective, this story narrates a case of victims and their mentally ill abuser. The governess is mentally unstable and sexually disturbed. Her frustration, due to lack of physical satisfaction, escalates after a brief encounter with her employer leaves her lust unquenched. Entering into a relationship with the children, being both sick and starved, she begins to abuse them sexually. Her unconscious guilt manifests into a diversion story in which she believes ghosts stalk and harm the children. The mentally unstable and guilty governess uses ego defense mechanisms and experiences hallucinations so that she may assume the false role of guardian as opposed to reality, in which she is a threat to the children.

Incidents of sexual abuse against the children appear frequently. With Flora, her advances are subtle. The governess insists that Flora sleep in her bedroom, even though the child has a room of her own. "I should have night, her small white bed being already arranged, to that end, in my room." (James pg. 300) The governess takes every opportunity to contact the child physically, "catching my pupil in my arms, covered her with kisses" (James pg. 305). Between Miles and the governess, the sexual undertones are more overt. Though the boy is approaching puberty, his caregiver never ceases to touch him. "At this, with a moan of joy, I enfolded, I drew him close; and while I held him to my breast, where I could feel in the sudden fever of his little body the tremendous pulse of his little heart," (James pg. 399). The most disturbing interaction between these two occurs in the middle of the night, when the governess enters his bedroom. Miles pleads for his freedom by requesting that he be sent back to school, but metaphorically he is asking to be let alone. In response, the governess breaks physical boundaries, "I threw myself upon him and in the tenderness of my pity I embraced him. 'Dear little Miles, dear little Miles-!' My face was close to his, and he let me kiss him," (James pg. 372). Like Miles in this uncomfortable scenario, the children find ways to voice their fear. In the presence of Mrs. Grose, when the governess begins raving about ghosts, the small girl screams, "'Take me away, that me away oh, take me away from her!'" (James pg. 383) After this outburst, "Flora was so markedly feverish...she had passed a night of extreme unrest, a night agitated above all by fears that had for their subject...her present, governess." (James pg. 384) The terrified reactions from the children are not from fear of the nonexistent ghosts, but from fear of their crazed and abusive governess who lavishes them with tainted affection.

It is important to note the governess' personal psychological history and to understand her breaking point and the actions afterwards (abuse of the children). According to the primary narrator, Douglas, the governess was "'a most charming person'" (James pg. 293) and "'the most agreeable woman I've ever known'" (James pg. 293). The change in her mental state occurred when she met her future employer, the master. Douglas confirms that, "'Yes, she was in love.'" (James pg.293) "He was handsome and bold and pleasant, offhand and gay and kind. He struck her, inevitably, as gallant and splendid..." (James pg. 295) Clearly, there was a "'seduction exercised by the splendid young man. She succumbed to it.'" (James pg.297) The governess herself later admits that, "'I'm afraid, however, I'm rather easily carried away. I was carried away in London!'" (James pg. 301) She is referencing her first and only meeting with the influential master, but she also acknowledges a significant trait of her personality. Her tendency to be 'carried away' proves that she is aware of her abnormal mental state. Because of her infatuation with the master, from this point on, her pent-up sexual desire seeks expression. When the governess finds no recipient, the children bear the abuse of her misplaced actions. In her unconscious, she realizes her mistake, but lacking the mental capacity to redirect herself, the governess falls further into her madness. Near the end of the story, she throws a physical fit, "Of what first happened when I was left alone I had 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." (James pg. 383) This episode confirms that the governess is mentally ill because she admits abnormality (lacking memory) during a crazed state.

The governess is abnormal which means her mental functioning is not reliable. Freud proposed that for the average human "mental events...were no longer assumed to be 'in consciousness'" (Freud pg. 99). The governess uses repression, an ego defense mechanism which stops "painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness" (Butcher pg. 75), as a natural means of coping. "The process of repression preventing it (the idea) from becoming conscious. When this happens, we say of the idea that it is in a state of being 'unconscious'."(Freud pg. 98) Once the governess has denied the existence of her appalling actions, she must find a substitute explanation for the consequences (the children's fear). Here she reverts to experiencing restitutional symptoms (Gleitman pg. 652). "Restitutional symptoms include elaborate, and often eccentric, false beliefs (delusions) and hearing voices that are not there (hallucinations)...Delusions are beliefs that result from the misinterpretation of real events. In contrast, hallucinations are perceptions that occur in the absence of actual sensory stimulation." (Gleitman pg. 652) The ghosts were born of her unconscious, the governess' conscious perceives them as reality, so they classify as hallucinations.

The governess unconsciously uses ego defense mechanisms in reaction to her guilt. Reaction formation, which is "preventing the awareness or expression of unacceptable desires by an exaggerated adoption of seemingly opposite behavior" (Butcher pg. 75), explains her ever-present love and praise for the children. Her unacceptable desire is to molest the children. Attempting to curb that impulse she adopts the opposite desire, she loves them tremendously. With this exaggerated opposite behavior she often raves about the beauty of the two children. Of Flora, she says, "the little girl appeared to me...on the spot a creature so charming...she was the most beautiful child I had ever seen," (James pg. 299). Of Miles, she claims, "He was incredibly beautiful" (James pg. 307). The governess tries to be overly tender and nurturing towards them. She states, "I reflected that my first duty was, by the gentlest arts I could contrive, to win the child into the sense of knowing me" (James pg. 302). The sense of trust between her and the children is false but she pretends it is reality. Characteristic of her over-the-top personality, she declares, "I was lifted aloft on a great wave of infatuation" (James pg. 308). Because she uses reaction formation, it is clear that she does not love them, but is dangerous to them. This defense mechanism is ineffective because she does give into her desires.

Another ego defense mechanism the governess applies is projection. Projection is "attributing one's unacceptable motives or characteristics to others" (Butcher pg. 75). She attributes her unacceptable motives to the ghosts, believing they are capable of harming the children. The ghosts themselves are a rationalization, a "contrived 'explanation' to conceal or disguise unworthy motives for one's behavior." (Butcher pg. 75) The ghosts are fake, they are hallucinations, but in her mind, they are logical. In her disastrous situation, the governess exercises a denial of reality, which is "protecting the self from an unpleasant reality by refusing to perceive or face it" (Butcher pg. 75). Her refusal to acknowledge the consequences of her actions leads her unconscious to take control of coping with the scenario. Thus, these defense mechanisms operate so that she may consciously live with an artificial focus, battling ghosts. Within the story, the governess' 'interactions' with the ghosts are wholly fictional. This plot exists only in her conscious mind. It is her distraction. The first hallucination, which is a projection, rationalization and denial of reality, is when the governess 'sees' a ghost upon the roof (James pg. 310). Soon after this encounter, she tells Mrs. Grose and, being superstitious, Mrs. Grose believes there is a crisis. Warranting fear of the ghosts is an important part of the governess' projection. In the children's eyes, the governess is terrifying, so she must create a subject of equal danger in order to transfer the attention.

The Turn of the Screw is a disturbed and perverse report of sexual abuse. The interactions between the children and their supposed caregiver are sad and difficult to accept. However, apart from the wrongs committed by the governess, there is much to observe in this story. The psychoanalytic perspective brings her mental process under inspection. This story gives insight to the brain, which delegates the basest human desires and motives. Unfortunately, by herself, the governess represents a dramatized, inaccurate picture of the mentally ill. Within this story, she is a danger, yes, but this sickening impression leaves no room for forgiveness. The intolerant reader may dismiss her actions as inexcusable. Such rejection widens the gap between abnormal and normal beings, a regression that is far more frightening than any ghost story.


Butcher, James N., Susan Mineka, and Jill M. Hooley. Abnormal Psychology. 12th ed. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.

Freud, Sigmund. Metaphysical Essays; The Unconscious. New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1963.

Gleitman, Henry, Alan J. Fridlund, and Daniel Reisberg. Psychology. 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1995.

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