Subtext of Sexuality in Victorian Era in Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw"

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Submitted: January 29, 2017

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Submitted: January 29, 2017

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11/16/16

Subtext of Sexuality in Victorian Era

Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw, reflects upon the corruption of the innocent through temptation of the religiously forbidden, which mirrors the Victorian ideology of purity and innocence for women of that era, especially in terms of sexuality. The story’s main motive amplifies just how much of an affect the ghosts have on the governess and the children she teaches as they corrupt them with sexual thoughts and motives. The governess’s unrestrained tone, which magnifies as the story progresses and the ghosts’ torment continues, expresses her lack of thought and justification of the ghost’s existence, and subsequently, the lack of thought when justifying sin and sexuality, which reflects upon the Victorian ideology that women should act illogically. The Turn of the Screw employs supernatural imagery that forms a foreboding mood, which mirrors victorian ideology on the supernatural and it’s affect on the mind. Lastly, the metaphor of light as God’s protection from irreligious beings and ideas plays an important role in indicating corruption of innocence throughout the novella, amplifying the importance of religion and virtue to the Victorian people.

Throughout the story, the Governess’s tone seems unrestrained, which reflects her willingness to accept absurd ideas and the corruption of her innocent virtuous mindset. Her scattered thoughts seem said without the filter of thought. She often speaks before she thinks and simply follows her intuition. In chapter 1, she meets Ms. Grose, who tells her a bit about Miles. She mentions that Miles acts remarkable, charming, and will surely carry her away. In response, the governess writes the following:

“Well, that, I think, is what I came for-- to be carried away. I’m afraid however,” I remember feeling the impulse to add, “I’m rather easily carried away. I was carried away in London!”.

In this line, she doesn’t hesitate to add that she felt swept away by him. In fact, she feels an impulse to! In the victorian era, women should present themselves as modest, and rarely speak of their sexual attraction to someone?. The governess seems to break both of these rules. Her tone indicates that she already starts to lose some of the victorian ideas. Her unfiltered tone shows how willing she can change and justify ideas, especially without regard to morals or logic. This tone proves itself especially true when scenes with the supernatural occur. An example of this seems present in the following statement:

“Dear little Miles, dear little Miles, if you know how I want want to help you! It’s only that, it’s nothing but that, and I’d rather die than give you pain or do you wrong,-- I’d rather die than hurt a hair of you. Dear little Miles” -- oh I brought it out even if I should go too far-- “I just want you to help me save you!”

At the time the governess uttered this line to Miles, the governess truly believes that the children are under the influence of the ghosts and their immoral, sexual ideas. Previously in the book, she stated for the protection of the children, she wouldn’t let them know about her “investigation” of the ghosts. Here, in this moment, she loses all will and begs Miles to allow her to help him. She knows that she shouldn’t say this; she interrupts the dialogue to explain that she goes too far-- yet continues anyway! She can seem easily swept by her feelings and because of her involvement with the ghost, she tends not to logically think things out anymore, just as the victorian era expects her to. Sometimes her statements are so scattered and unrestrained that she doesn’t make sense, such as in the statement, “Our not seeing it is the strongest of proofs” (chapter 19). In this statement she tries to explain how she can “detect” the ghost without seeing. In the midst of trying to find the ghost of Miss Jessel, she answers this paradoxical and unreasonable answer, which presented itself as not well thought out. This unrestrained idealism allows the reader to get the impression that because she willfully accepts such an absurd idea (that ghosts exist and that they are haunting the children) it makes it seem that she can willing accept even more absurd ideas, even those having to do with sexuality and sin. The Victorian era claims that women usually act illogically?. This portrayal of women seems true in the story. The ghosts have caused her, over the course of her stay at Bly, to lose her sense of logic and agree to anything she thinks or feels, including anything sexual. Just by noting the governess’s tone throughout the book, the ghosts successfully corrupted her pure and innocent mindset to believe such sinful ideas.

The supernatural imagery amplifies the foreboding mood that James employes throughout the novel. Just in chapter nine, as she reads a book in the middle of the night, she says that she, “noted the soft breath of the open casement just move the half drawn blind.” The words “soft breath” seem to paint a picture in one’s head. Not only does it feel eerie and unexpected, but it characterizes the window as something that moves, something that acts almost alive but shouldn’t act so. This supernatural image doesn’t sit well with the reader, and allows the reader to foreshadow something terrible occurring, creating a foreboding mood. Later in that chapter, after the governess promptly stops when something intrigues her. She states:

“With all the marks of deliberation that must have seemed magnificent had there been anyone to admire it, went straight out of the room...and, taking a candle, I went straight out of the room and, from the passage, on which my light made little impression, noiselessly closed and locked the door.”

The moment when the governess says, “must have seemed magnificent had there been anyone to admire it” feels truly amazing. Although she states that nobody seemed to be watching, the reader tends to think about “what if somebody or (something) could be watching?”. The reader gets chills up their spine and a feeling of impending doom and fear crosses. As the passage progresses, certain supernatural images, such as thin hallways and dim lit candles add to the foreboding mood. The books tries to explain how irreligious acts, such as associating with ghosts, leaves an anxious mindset. Victorian philosophy stated that proper females followed faith?. The supernatural imagery makes the governess and the reader feel a foreboding mood constantly to show the consequences of not following faith and giving into temptation, whether it be interacting with ghosts or feeling sexual.

Over the course of the book, one main metaphor continues: Light represents virtue, innocence, and God’s will, while a lack of light, or darkness, represents sin or the ghosts’ influence. In addition to this, the ghosts tormenting the children and the governess represents the characters losing their innocence to sin. The more they get corrupted, the farther away they span from what seems religiously and morally correct. James often uses a loss of light or vision as a metaphor as an indicator of victorian and religious mores. Right before a moment that pertains to uncanny visitation or something against God’s will, a candle goes out or day turns to night. For example, in Chapter three, the governess claims that she likes to roam around around sunset. One day while she does this, she dreams of how delightful she would feel to meet someone. She states, “It would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone.” She says this as the sun goes down. Light, in this sense, can represent God or His virtuous watch. As the sun goes down, her mind trails off into thoughts that seem the opposite of heavenly. She grew up with her father as a minister, and she should be incredibly naive to sexual knowledge. Victorian women should have been seen as anything but sexual and sensual?, but she goes against this. Without the light of God, she seems to fall under the control of the the ghosts and their sinful ideas, such as sexuality. In fact, after stating her fantasy to meet someone, she seems someone indeed-- a ghost!

One of the prevalent times when the lack of God’s protection causes the interaction of ghosts seems present after she seems the ghost of Quint. She notices that Flora’s bed looked empty, and that she looks outside the window again. The governess goes to another floor above her to see what Flora looks at. In the darkness, she describes the following (chapter 10):

“The moon made the night extraordinarily penetrable and showed me on the lawn a person, diminished by distance, who stood their motionless as if fascinated, looking up to where I had appeared-- looking, that is, not so much straight at me, but something that was apparently above me… The presence on the lawn-- I felt sick as I made it out-- was poor little Miles.”

In this passage, Miles stands in the dark, on the lawn. He stares  at something above the governess, presumably a ghost. What allows the governess to see Miles? The light of the moon allows her to see him. In a sense, God lights up the truly innocent: Miles. Later, when she runs to the garden to retrieve him she states that, “[She] can still see his wonderful smile, the whites of his beautiful eyes and the uncovering of his clear teeth, shine me to the dusk.” It seems that she knows how innocent he should be, the light, most likely the light of God, penetrates from him, representing his true virtue. He claims that he did this to scare the governess and prove that he could act bad. Yet by now, the reader and the governess could tell that Miles couldn’t be evil, but ghosts that haunted him that made him commit such evil acts. What else could he have been looking above the governess for? This beautiful child should exists innocently and free of all sexual knowledge; he should live under God’s protection. Instead, the ghosts’ possession of him has caused him to fall under the temptation of sin: repeating fowl language, getting expelled from school, and scaring the governess.

A similar occurrence happens when the governess speaks to MIles in his bedroom. At this point, she seems positive that Miles under the influence of the ghosts and she seems apprehensive to talk to him. After pleading to allow her to help him, he maniacally laughs, and the candle she held goes out. Because the light only disappeared when in the presence of an embodiment of sin, one could assume that Miles’s behavior seemed fully influenced by the ghost. This supports the point that the children seemed corrupted by the ghosts with thoughts of sin. Miles also admitted that he blew out the candle, which can mean that Miles forced the disappearance of God’s virtues, further exploiting the effects of the ghosts corruption on a once innocent boy. The light in the previous examples explains how without the presence of God, which light represents, the characters are influenced by the ghosts and submit to their sexual and sinful ideas, which is against victorian and religious standards.

Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw, reflects upon the corruption of the innocent through temptation of the religiously forbidden, which mirrors the victorian ideology of purity and innocence for women of that era. The story exhibits just how much of an affect the ghosts have on the governess and the children she teaches through corruption using sexual thoughts and motives. The governess’s unrestrained tone, which continues as the story progresses and the ghosts’ torment continues, expresses her lack of thought and justification of the ghost’s existence, and subsequently, the lack of thought when justifying sin and sexuality. The Turn of the Screw employs supernatural imagery that forms a foreboding mood, which mirrors victorian ideology on the supernatural and it’s affect on the mind. Lastly, the metaphor of light as God’s protection from irreligious beings and ideas plays an important role in indicating corruption of innocence throughout the novella, amplifying just how large of a role religion had on Victorian people. Victorian mores and religion play a huge role on the societal expectations of the characters, and what the ghosts do to prevent them from being virtuous people.




 

Citations

The citation below is the source for all information stated that had the “ ? ” symbol.

Radek, Kimberly M. "Women in the Nineteenth Century." Women in the Nineteenth Century. N.p., 2001. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.


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