A Victim of Her Own Device

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Big Books Home

2006 First Web Report

On Serendip

A Victim of Her Own Device

Lauren Sweeney

At the start of "The Turn of the Screw," Henry James introduces his reader to the governess through the voice of Douglas, a narrator absent from the rest of the story, and one who supplies his audience with very little information about the woman whom he knew and loved. This lack of description allows the reader the chance to engage her imagination and fill in the blanks. James and Douglas provide their respective audiences with only the least bit of information, forcing them to piece together the abstract bits of information in an attempt to create a seamless whole. This allows us the chance to become an active participant in the process of reading the story, but in particular, it allows us to flesh out the character of the governess more fully. Though she is the "heroine," and narrates the story from the first person, she is the character about whom we know the least; we do not even know her name. In guarding against what he termed "vulgarity," James makes us create the character of the governess in our own minds, thereby allowing the reader to create an appropriate lens through which to interpret the story. In coming to an understanding about the governess, it becomes easier to understand the story as a whole.

James lets us know enough about the governess's past to understand that she has had a relatively uneventful life. She is identified as "the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson, [who] had, at the age of twenty, on taking service for the first time in the schoolroom, come up to London, in trepidation, to answer in person an advertisement" (295.) From this little bit of information we gain a picture of a young and impressionable girl, nervous about her first job and her trip to London. She has grown up poor and among many sisters, presumable sequestered in a humble, convent-like farm. Given this knowledge we know that she is inexperienced and without very little change or hint of adventure in her life.

Her trip to London is the first stirring of any true emotion that she may have felt outside of the monotony of her cloistered existence. We are told of her encounter with her employer:
"This person proved, upon her presenting herself, for judgment, at a house in Harley Street, that impressed her as vast and imposing—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 a Hampshire village"(295.)

These are the first words written in the story that reveal how the character of the governess felt, something that she spends considerable time describing throughout her own narration.
We are told that the girl was "fluttered and anxious;" she is impressed by the very sight of her master's house. (There was surely nothing like it in the village where she was raised!) As for the gentleman himself, she can only compare him to something she saw in a dream or read about "in an old novel." This gives us a bit of insight into the girl's own thought processes. Clearly she has read for pleasure, presumable romance novels and other books of that sort which might involve rich young bachelors "in the prime of life," and this glimpse of metropolitan grandeur sparks her imagination. The thought of having an adventure in London must have been exciting enough, but to think that her flames of her fancy were fanned by the sight of the palatial house and the handsome gentleman helps the reader to understand that this girl has an active imagination. Unfortunately, we can deduce that she was given very little opportunity to exercise this active creative mind in her father's house.

Her trip to London is the first time that the girl is on her own, but it is also the first time that she is allowed to think for herself. She sees that some of the things that had previously existed only in her mind now exist in a three-dimensional reality. When she is provided with the real-life stimulus of the master, the true emotion that she feels inspires her to feel more.

Given her first taste of emotional dramatic emotional stimulation, the governess longs to feel more. She opens her narration with the recollection "I remember the whole beginning as a series of flights and drops, as little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong"(298.) In a rather abstract and lovely way, she starts by mentioning what she felt. All of the sensations, her sense of foreboding and the dissipation of that premonition, are illustrated in the following passages. However, in their description, James drops the first clue as to the reasons why the governess sees the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.

The governess has been bored and longing for emotional stimulation for her whole life, and she gets a taste of it when she goes to London. She convinces herself that if she takes the job working for the gentleman, she too will become a part of his world, and live the life she imagines he lives in his impressive home. She was excited in London and assumes that she will be excited at Bly, however, Bly proves to be disappointing because she is bored there too. There is nothing wrong with the children and nothing interesting about the property (aside from its aesthetic grandeur,) so she creates an adventure for herself, so that she might have the opportunity to feel something. During her journey to Bly, the governess has the feeling that "this is a bad idea," but when she gets there, she realizes that there is nothing wrong, the weather is lovely, the house is lovely, and the little girl Flora is very nice and very pretty. She becomes so desperate for entertainment, that she creates entire scenarios in her own mind. She convinces herself that "something bad is going to happen" so when it does not, she invents a scenario to occupy both her mind and her time so that she can feels something. She enjoys the sensation of feeling so much that she makes herself scared, and then plays the role of the righteous savior to continue the sense of romantic fantasy that she experienced in London.

By creating scenario in which the children are in danger, she gets to save them and makes herself a heroine, a role which no one else in the story can fulfill. She is the only who might act as a heroine because she is the one creating the situation. She knows more than anyone else about what is going on. We presume that she knows more than the children because we are never entirely sure that the children see the ghosts at all. (We also can't be sure that the governess sees the ghosts, but we can be sure that she thinks she sees them and so is able to describe them in detail.)

The governess develops extremely strong maternal feelings for both Flora and
Miles. This lets the reader know that she wishes she were a mother, rather than simply a governess. She longs for an emotional connection with another person. Everything she reveals about herself shows how unhappy she is with the lack of stimulation in her existence. She tells us that she is lonely at Bly. Her closest friend and confidante is the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who is not by any means a suitable companion for the young girl. They have very little in common outside of their jobs, but they share their boredom and so take interest in the governess's manufactured adventure. The ghosts are, in a sense, imaginary friends whom the governess uses to populate the desolate landscape of her mind.

The governess is a quixotic figure in the grand style of Cervantes. She speaks of the children and the weather in excessively gushing, flowery terms, like bad poetry. She longs for the romance of an escapist adventure and so, like Don Quixote, she chooses to live the adventures she creates in her mind rather than in the real world that she finds uninteresting. As soon as she is granted the position of governess, she is granted some sense of authority, unlike anything she experienced before. She even mentions that she is treated "as if I had been the mistress or a distinguished visitor"(299.) This total change of position shocks her. Everything in her life alters so that it becomes more like things that she had previously only imagined. Her ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy is thrown off and she indulges her senses in whatever feeling she chooses to experience.

Although there exists a compelling argument for a Freudian reading of Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," I find it more plausible that the figure of the governess is desperate for any kind of emotional stimulation and is not merely motivated by her repressed sexual desires. Her initial encounter with the master still serves as the launch pad for her imagined adventure and subsequent hallucinations, but she acts as a traditionally quixotic figure, inventing an alternate reality that she finds preferable to the reality in which she lives as a simple governess.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:39 CDT