The James Brothers on Emotion: Representation of Emotion in The Turn of the Screw

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 Second Web Report

On Serendip

The James Brothers on Emotion: Representation of Emotion in The Turn of the Screw

Angeldeep Kaur

In the beginning of our class, we read 'The Turn of the Screw,' a novella written by Henry James. In conjunction with this novella, we read William James' theory on 'What is an Emotion.' Reading W. James' theory shed an interesting light on his brother H. James' story, especially in the different ways in which it can be read. I am attempting to make an argument for structure of 'The Turn of the Screw's narrative, using W. James' theory on emotion, suggesting that the structure does offer several justifiable readings of the governess' thinking and behavior.

William James' theory with regard to the nature of emotions is an unconventional one. He states the emotional response registered by the human mind is not caused by a stimulus but is rather the result of a person's reaction to the stimulus. The example he used that was mentioned very often by our classmates was the response to an encounter with a bear: a man runs away from the bear and thus feels fear. Conventional understanding, based on experience rather than theory, would argue that the action of running away is caused by fear of the bear, not vice versa. However, James' argues that point a little differently.

He makes a study of only those emotions that bring about a physical response in humans. He describes the condition as being 'possessed' with a mental state (Henry James: What is an Emotion, page 2), which is an interesting choice of words. It suggests an uncontrollable manifestation of a certain mental state in people, which is argued to be the governess's state in 'The Turn of the Screw.' As previously mentioned, he says that the emotion felt by man comes from the bodily changes that are experienced as a result of situation. Without the physical reaction existing first the emotion becomes entirely cognitive, which he does not consider a concrete or real source of human emotion. This thesis can be extended to suggest that emotions serve as the brain's method of articulating and interpreting the instinctual reactions in the body. He uses biological evidence to prove this point, illustrating the nervous system as an information system that is predisposed to undergo changes in a particular pattern. Then, the work of the brain becomes translating these impulses into an emotional understanding. He includes the circulatory system as one such other information source. Here, W. James takes away the cognitive agency of the human mind to an extent, negating the process of coming up with an explanation and emotion that would be easier to deal with, as an emotion would remain unreal if no bodily reaction accompanied it.

The fashion in which 'The Turn of the Screw' is written presents an interesting case study for William James' theory. The novella by Henry James consists mostly of a diary written by an unnamed woman who served as a governess for Douglas' sister. Douglas is the character who introduces us to the governess and then reads this diary to us. However, the words that we hear come from the governess, and serve as her representation and understanding of her emotions and experiences in a country house in Bly. By looking at the account she presents us with and taking her words to represent the range of emotions she felt, we can see how she explained her mental situation to herself. The catch here is that we see everything through her eyes only, a fact that was a source of distress for many students in the class, as they did not trust her and were unable to find a viable solution to the story because of this. I would argue that by exploring the stories she adopted, we can try and see if William James' theory does in fact stand true in his brother's representation of characters, and can study how she coped with her situation using the governess' own words. The viable solution doesn't come from knowing whether or not Miles did really die at the end of the story, it comes from understanding how the governess came to act the way she did.

Throughout the novella, we see several instances at which the governess describes her actions and tries to justify them, presumably after the incidents have gone by and when she is sitting down to write them out. She forms her opinion about the characters she meets in an impulsive and emotional manner, without really thinking or analyzing the facts before her. She goes along with the bodily response that is produced when she encounters characters; she is taken by the charms of Flora and Miles in this fashion, rejecting any claims made against either of them simply based on their appearance of goodness. Her encounters with the ghosts are described with a similar importance placed on her physical and instinctual reactions at the moment, and how she explained them to the reader. When she first lays eyes on Quint, she describes feeling two gasps of shock and surprise, one following the other. She felt as though she was surrounded by death in that one moment, as she froze in shock and it seemed to her that everything around her did too. She also says that writing about it brought back all those emotions. The reader can imagine her sitting in her room, writing in her journal and beginning to feel her heart race as she remembered staring at a stranger who turned out to be not of this world.

Similarly, she describes her other encounter with Quint as occasions when her brain took decisions in the moment, without her engaging in rational thought. It can be argued that at these times her mind was paying more attention to the way in which her body responded to her environment. Whether it was an understanding that Quint was not in the house for her, or that the children might be less innocent that she had supposed, all realizations came suddenly without active cognition on her part. All these descriptions can be read through W. James' definition of emotion, and the importance of bodily functions in actually experiencing emotion. The governess repeatedly emphasizes her reactions to situations in this way.

H. James insists, through the voice of Douglas, that the story be heard through the voice of governess. This was also a point of great vexation for our class as many students declared James to be coward for not simply writing as a woman, and instead placing other male characters as layers into the story. However, this insistence of hearing the governess' voice can be seen as H. James' attempt to allow the reader to follow the process of understanding events as the governess had explained them to herself. In effect, he gives us the role of the governess' brain, presented with a bodily reaction to a stimulus and having to explain what exactly was going on. Her inability to define her actions in the moment and rash decisions all reflect on this lack of agency over the feelings she was having.

This brings us to the ultimate question of the novella – was the governess insane and creating these ghosts, coming up with stories to deal with her sexual repression or was the house really haunted by spirits, looking to destroy and corrupt the children as the governess tried to be valiant and protect them? W. James' theories on emotion can offer some insight into the problem, but not show us a solution, The presence of the bodily reactions suggests the presence of a true reason for distress; however, we know that the state of the governess' mind would be affecting the way in which she perceived the reaction. The stories she presents to the reader through her journal are those she adopts to make the ghosts real to her, and that is all that we have accessible to us. If we believe what she has written, the ghosts were the reason she felt how she did and reacted accordingly. Her emotional impulsiveness and lack of cognition makes her unreliable to the reader, along with our biases with regard to the existence of spirits. So, an alternate story could be that her mind created images to frighten her, which caused her body to react, forcing her brain to reinterpret the situations she found herself in and respond accordingly. If this were the case, she would be clinically insane as she would be hallucinating and would really believe in the existence of the ghosts she made up. A third possible argument could be that she doesn't see the ghosts, but chooses to say she does anyway. In this case her diary would be a well constructed façade, created to fool the reader by trying to provide a realistic representation of her dilemmas and the reasons why she chose to do what she did.

Each of us can come up with an interpretation of what really caused the governess to end up with a 'dispossessed' Miles in her arms. However, if read using W. James theory on emotion, her account as presented in 'The Turn of the Screw' can provide a very good example for W. James' argument. Her emotional responses are defined in terms of the bodily reaction they produced along with the stories that went along with them to understand and articulate the emotion being felt. But did she save Miles or kill him? Neither of the James' brothers are willing to give us that answer.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:38 CDT