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 Turn of the Female Adventure

Marie Sager

National Public Radio's segment Fresh Air, often features book critic Maureen Corrigan, who recently published a literary memoir titled, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading. In her work, Corrigan, an obsessive reader, explores the extent books have shaped her life, and how, in turn, her life shaped her reading. She also presents a critique of literature, and, for me, introduced a novel concept– the notion of the female extreme adventure story, as distinguished from the better known, classic genre of extreme male adventures. On a similar note, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, tells the story of a "young, untried, nervous [governess...with a] vision of serious duties and little company, of really great loneliness" (297). Moreover, he presents an unmarried woman, beset by a range of emotional struggles, who quietly, yet unrelentlessly, fights against the spirits of Bly, for herself, and for her young charges. However, throughout the course of time, discussion of the novella centered mainly on the mental capabilities of the governess, causing readers to question her sanity and emotional stability. Yet, in bringing a slightly feminist approach to the work and reading it through the lense of a female extreme adventure, the view of the governess shifts. Instead, she emerges as a woman, who, confined by her traditional nineteenth century landscape, endured and conquered her emotional trials, rather than physical challenges, with profound courage and strength. In definitively defining a female extreme adventure story, one must first examine the well- known male extreme adventure story. An immensely popular genre of literature today and in the past, it is a "one-shot testosterone expenditure of physical courage that pits man against nature/man/himself, with man (the narrator usually) left standing, bloody but unbowed, amidst the wreckage of his fancy sporting gear...[it is a] scale the mountain, weather the storm at sea (or not), fight the war, the fire, the flood" type of story (Corrigan, 5). The Perfect Storm, by Sebastien Junger and Moby Dick, by Herman Melville exemplify male extreme adventures. Naturally, there are literary exceptions, especially in more recent years, but typically, past works refrain from placing women in these predominantly male roles, especially in the realm of the nineteenth century novel. The "extreme" aspects of a female adventure story are much less defined in a physical sense. Indeed, two characterizing features include anxious waiting and endurance; endurance not in terms of physical strength and stamina, but in terms of emotional capacity. More particularly, Corrigan asserts, Much space is devoted in these stories to the value of a woman quietly keeping her nerve through the hours-sometimes years- of strain. And above all, it's the quotidian quality of their pain that separates the women from the boys... Blinding blizzards may last a few hours, maybe days...[then] the nightmare is over. In contrast, the torments particular to women's extreme adventure tales continue year after year (9). Moreover, the women who meet these unique challenges often face them indoors- within kitchens, parlors, and bedrooms. Though physical risks are not entirely absent, the emphasis centers mainly on the "threatened loss of their sanity and their sense of self" (18). Referring again to James' The Turn of the Screw, the female extreme adventure story becomes a useful categorization and offers a unique perspective to the text, especially through the role of the governess. Two essential components in female extreme adventure stories, endurance and silence, provide a fitting description of the governess's character. The governess, in receiving the job as caretaker of her employer's niece and nephew, Miles and Flora, accepts a life cut off from almost all contact with the world outside of Bly Mansion. States Douglas, "His [the employer's] main condition...[was] that she should never trouble him- but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself...take the whole thing over and let him alone" (297-8). The governess does not meet this demand with complaint, but finds satisfaction in her ability of accomplishing this "mission" alone and when her sole companion, the servant Mrs.Grose, suggests writing the children's uncle, she immediately refuses and thinks, "She didn't know- no one knew- how proud I had been to serve him and to stick to our terms" (354). Thus, the governess willingly acknowledges her capacity to handle the situation alone. Without help from the outside world, and even more, without help from a man, she silently endures the terrifying mysteries that haunt Bly and the children. Still another aspect of female adventure found in The Turn of the Screw is the notion of the marriage-market extreme adventure. The governess, at the young age of twenty years old, is unmarried, and therefore sentenced to a "death-in-life future as a female dependent- years spent outside the home as a governess or companion..."(Corrigan, 19). Labeling James as the "great male master of this subject," Corrigan writes, "I read accounts in the nineteenth-century novels of young female characters reining themselves in and waiting breathlessly for a male partner to take notice of them" (20). Indeed, this observation describes the governess's own feelings, for, while conversing with Mrs. Grose, she silently states, "I myself saw: his derision, his amusement, his contempt for the breakdown of my resignation at being left alone and for the fine machinery I had set in motion to attract his attention to my slighted charms" (354). Though ultimately the governess rejects any attempt to contact the uncle, her underlying motive may be to impress and please him. The truth behind the apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and thus, the sanity of the governess, are main topics of debate surrounding the story. James' provides the reader with no conclusive answer to these questions. However, the "loss of sanity...and self" composes another aspect of the female extreme adventure. The governess's repeated visions of two people, supposively dead, threatens to undermine the qualification of her sanity. However, it is the governess's reaction to these visions, whether real or fake, that reveals her true character and determines the stories ultimate categorization. For example, upon meeting Peter Quint for the second time, the governess notes, "This flash of the midst of dread...produced in me the most extraordinary effect, started, as I stood there, a sudden vibration of duty and courage" (316). Furthermore, plagued by a painstaking job of teaching young children, while stuck in a situation of extreme loneliness, the question of her madness loses its original importance and instead, shifts toward the fact that she bravely faces these apparitions of horror. Caught in the midst of intense emotional upheavals, the governess never loses sight of her ultimate purpose of protecting the children. States the governess to herself, "Something within me said that by offering myself bravely as the sole subject of such experience, by accepting, by inviting, by surmounting it all, I should serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquility of my companions. The children, in especial, I should this fence about and absolutely save" (323). Alone, the governess prepares to face evil, and though a friendship exists between she and Mrs. Grose, neither have any contact outside of Bly, and it is never completely clear if Mrs. Gorse truly trusts the governess. Again, the governess silently endures and shows bravery and emotional strength in the face of haunting perils. The Turn of the Screw, a story of an "extreme emotional adventure" presents a situation "where, because the social options are, the heroine has no other alternative but to tough things out, silently" (Corrigan, 10). The absence of the typical "male" adventure elements found throughout literary history spurs the genesis of a "novel" category- the female extreme adventure story. Though James leaves the reader unaware of the governess's future, her bravado throughout the story is clear. A forbearer of feminism, the female extreme adventure story highlights the challenges traditionally faced by women and places its women, like the governess, among the ranks, and perhaps atop, of men, before such ideas seemed plausible.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

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