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Anxiety and Truth in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw
Steph Herold Literary critic Edmund Wilson suggests that the Governess' supernatural illusions are nothing more than a neurotic expression of her repressed desires for sex and power, citing Freud's psychoanalytic theories on these topics as evidence of the possibility of this connection.* What Wilson ignores, however, is Freud's theory on anxiety, useful in deconstructing the development of the Governess' own anxiety in relation to her sexual repression and desire for power, among other factors. Wilson is too forceful in his claim that The Turn of the Screw is simply a matter of Freudian sexual analogies, forgetting that the matter of truth in regards to storytelling is infinitely more ambiguous and complex than any psychological theory can account for. What becomes important in understanding The Turn of the Screw is the necessity of multiple interpretations of the text, blurring the line between truth and fiction.
In his essay on anxiety, Freud claims that there are various levels of this emotion that range from "objective" anxiety to neurotic anxiety to hysterical anxiety. Of particular pertinence to the Governess is his discussion of "free-floating" anxiety, which he describes as a "general apprehensiveness...ready to attach itself to any thought which is at all appropriate..." (107). As The Turn of the Screw develops, the Governess accrues multiple rational reasons for developing this kind of "free-floating" anxiety. At the most basic level, the experience of acquiring a new job and having to move to a new house is certainly a source of understandable anxiety. Additionally, she is given this job by a wealthy, attractive man who then wants absolutely no part in her life. When she arrives at Bly, the Governess is faced not only with another caretaker there, Mrs. Grose, but also with the task of teaching the two children she thought she would simply have to care for, not enrich academically. The discovery of Miles' suspension from school and her puzzlement at his charming demeanor despite this punishment provides her with an additional source of stress. Clearly, the Governess' anxiety is not simply based on her repressed sexuality and need for power, but on concrete, rational occurrences that arise because of the nature of her situation.
This is not to suggest, however, that the Governess' anxiety does not cross the anxiety spectrum and develop into a form of hysteria. At first, the Governess is plagued only by suspicions of dread, saying in her first few days at Bly, "There had been a moment when I believed I recognized, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when I found myself just consciously starting as at the passage, before my door, of a light footstep," (300). From the start, the Governess is disconcerted regarding the nature of her environment, qualms that become manifest in her first vision of the ghost of Peter Quint. Freud describes this kind of "neurotic anxiety" as a tendency to "anticipate the worst of all possible outcomes, interpret every chance happening as an evil omen, and exploit every uncertainty to mean the worst," (107). The Governess clearly displays these attributes as she searches for the meaning of the appearances of these ghosts, automatically assuming that these supernatural beings must have some connection to the safety of Miles and Flora when there is no logical explanation for this relationship. She goes even further in her anxiety-ridden endeavors, culminating in directly accusing Miles of contact with the supernatural, causing such a psychological stir in the boy that "his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped," (403). The Governess' anxiety-driven hysteria causes her to refuse to give up on the possibility that Miles is somehow connected to the ghosts, ultimately ending his life to fulfill her personal desire for the psychological truth. This is directly in line with her Freudian diagnosis as someone with "free-floating anxiety," as she has a marked amount of "expectant dread," fearing the absolute worst out of every situation instead of exploring the rational possibilities.
In addition to this Freudian analysis of the Governess' anxiety, the notion of "truth" becomes an essential element in analyzing the story of the ghosts. The Governess meticulously describes the physical features of the ghosts, leading the reader to believe that they are in fact appearing before her. Yet when she is in the presence of both the ghosts and other humans, she is the only one who can see these supernatural beings. The Governess describes how Mrs. Grose reacts to not being able to see the ghosts, saying, "She looked...and gave me, with her deep groan of negation, repulsion, compassion – the mixture with her pity of her relief at her exemption – a sense...that she would have backed me up if she could," (382). Up until this point, readers have believed, perhaps half-heartedly, in the appearance of these ghosts. Now that the Governess is the only one who can see these creatures, her reliability as a narrator immediately comes into question. Do we continue to trust the Governess, even though her sanity is now in doubt? Or do we trust Mrs. Grose, who wanted desperately to believe in the ghosts as the "evil" force behind the Bly estate, but could not sacrifice her morals by claiming to see something she that was not there?
Compounding our skeptical trust of the Governess is her continuous awareness of her descent into some kind of madness. Immediately before seeing the ghost of Peter Quint for the second time, she states, "Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that...I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an anecdote to any pain, and I had more pains than one," (315). The Governess is not only seeing ghosts, but is conscious of the fact that she is under some kind of delusion, suggesting that she might be able to control these visions if she exerted the power of her logical conscience. This is again apparent when she is speaking to Mrs. Grose, frantically trying to discover the agendas of these ghosts, when the Governess exclaims, "'...the more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don't know what I don't see – and what I don't fear!'" (330). As before, the Governess is acknowledging that she is aware of her over-analyzing of the situation, that she doubts her own visions of these ghosts yet simultaneously asserts their evil intentions. This underscores the hazy line between the fiction and "reality" of the narrative. The Governess is unsure of her own reliability, doubting her visions yet firmly believing in their wickedness, permanently diluting the "reality" of the novella. The ghosts and characters themselves inhabit the muddled area between truth and fantasy, unsure of the legitimacy of their own realities, creating a bizarre, disconcerting narrative landscape. In creating this atmosphere, James illuminates the ambiguous nature of storytelling, revealing the necessity of this uncertainty as an element of staying "true" to the essence of fiction.
Wilson's claim that the Governess' descent into insanity is based on sexual and political endeavors ignores her logical reasons to develop a kind of neurotic madness. Wilson also ignores the fundamental ambiguity between what is "truth" versus "fiction" in storytelling, leaving no room for diverse readings of the text. The malleability of meaning in The Turn of the Screw is the only reliable constant in this novella, suggesting the incredible relevance of uncertainty in the presence of madness and desire.
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