Investigating Ambiguity: Sources of Insanity in “The Turn of the Screw” (P8)

Scene where the governess first sees the ghost of Peter Quint (from 1961 film adaptation, ”The Innocents”).

The century old debate revolving around the 19th century Gothic novella The Turn of the Screw, written by Henry James has long sparked ongoing discussion about the books theme. Various critics take different stances on this matter, but the most prominent argument is by far the apparitionist vs. non-apparitionist debate. Those who follow the apparitionist perspective believe that the novella is a tale in which a newly hired young governess begins to see ghostly entities in the manor of Bly, in which she is responsible for the care of the children of the house, Miles and Flora. Apparitionists believe the ghosts that the governess sees are in fact the real, evil entities of former house employee Peter Quint and the previous governess Miss Jessel. On the other hand, non-apparitionist followers take the stance that the ghosts are not real beings, but that the governess is simply overcome by insanity.

1898 Gothic novella, by renowned writer, Henry James.

When this ambiguous novel is brought up, people most often jump straight into a heated debate about the sanity of the young governess, and James’ use of impenetrable ambiguity. Yet readers and critics alike often disregard the even deeper roots of James’ writing. The aparitionist vs. non-apparitionist argument is a superficial argument that neglects the abundance of other aspects James skillfully inserts into the novella, such as hints of sexual repression, social class and pedophilia. According to an article titled Even Scarier on The Turn of the Screw, “Fine, intelligent readers have confirmed the validity of the ghosts” such as Truman Capote, while “equally fine and intelligent readers have thunderously established the governess’s madness” such as Edmund Wilson. Yet with both of these arguments, even profounder meanings must be drawn from the reader. These deeper and more complex ideas surrounding the novella are what struck a chord within myself as a reader. They helped me become immersed in James’ writing in attempt to try to grasp these psychological puzzle pieces, put together by Henry James.

Insane or Haunted?

While initially reading the novel, my mind swirled with various theories regarding the events of the book. Initially, I questioned the obvious, are the ghosts in fact real or is the governess simply insane? I personally came to the conclusion that the governess was overcome with insanity. But as I continued reading, what struck interest within me was attempting to decipher the causes of the governess’s insanity, and the reasons why she was hallucinating the ghosts of former grounds man Peter Quint and former governess Miss Jessel. Other critics have attempted to provide their personal theories and approaches, I will expel these to you the reader, in an attempt to compile a multifaceted theory that encompasses the abundant amount of evidence composed by Henry James. Foremost, it is important to note that no single critical theory takes precedence over the next. My goal is to present to you that although all of these critical essayists are correct in their thoughts, they are not correct independently, as they disregard the other theories set forth. I aim to prove to you that ALL of the proposals regarding the novella work together to create an interwoven series of derangements that push the governess into a hallucinatory fit. But once more, even these critical readers have failed to address an imperative point of James’ work, which is to establish a sense of sympathy, rather than hatred, towards the governess.

Critical Theories from the Ages:

Mrs. Grose and the governess.

The first intriguing theory set forth by a literary critic is the Marxist theory. This criticism states that James’ focuses on the effects of social class on the governess’s behavior. One supporter of the Marxist criticism explains that this theory, when applied to The Turn of the Screw, implies that the novella demonstrates the “struggle for power between different social classes” (Ohaneneye). This struggle for dominance can be seen amongst the interaction between the governess and a fellow employee, Mrs. Grose. The governess speaks to Mrs. Grose in a sarcastic and insulting tone, in addition to often finishing Mrs. Grose’s sentences. Evidence of this can be seen when Grose states “Would you mind, miss, if I used the freedom — “ to which the governess interrupts with “To kiss me? No!” (James, pg. 14). This is due to the fact that Grose is socially and economically below the governess, she feels a sense of superiority over Grose and feels as though her voice is more important and more correct than that of her fellow employee. This gives insight into the pressures the governess feels to live up to the standard high society woman that the house master expects her to live up to. Could this ever present pressure have pushed the governess towards insanity? Perhaps, and perhaps the above statement also begins to reveals the impending pressures thrust upon the governess by her affluent employer. Yet despite these overwhelming pressures, the behavior of the governess also paints her in an unflattering light, readers often view her as cold, harsh, and arrogant.

This transitions into the next notion revolving around sexual repression of the young governess. American critic Edmund Wilson stated in his 1938 essay that it was his belief that The Turn of the Screw is “a neurotic case of sex repression” (Parkinson). His thought was that the governess was not truly seeing ghosts, but instead hallucinating due to her repressed sexual urges towards the housemaster, who does not reciprocate these feelings. He points out in his essay the “governess’s youth, inexperience, and romantic attraction to the children’s uncle”, noted in Douglas’s prologue as the basis for his theory. It is important to note a specific instance in which Flora and the governess are sitting by a lake.

The governess sees the ghost of Jessel by the lake. “Suddenly, in these circumstances, I had become aware that, on the other side of the Sea of Azof, we had an interested spector” (James, pg. 28).

The governess looks upon the tree line and sees the ghost of Jessel, she then diverts her attention to Flora who has chosen to pick up a “small flat piece of wood, which happened to have in it a little hole that had evidently suggested to her the idea of sticking in another fragment” (James, pg. 29). This moment in time expresses that whenever the governess happens to stumble upon a sexual thought, she distracts the reader with the appearance of one of the ghosts, in order to conceal her true thoughts. These hallucinations spawn from the urge to impress the house master whilst still hiding under the guise of an innocent and pure young woman. These sexually latent deliriums also play into the so-called “strange” relationship between Miles and the governess. Yet again, the readers dislike for the governess is heightened, she is viewed as untrustworthy and some may even go as far as to say she is disturbed.

Notice in this interaction between Miles and the governess, Miles’ adultlike manners, as well as the odd glances stolen by the governess.

This relationship then transitions into yet another theory, regarding pedophilia. Some critics believe that this novella is a tale of pedophilia leading to the demise of a young boy. These critics describe James’ piece as “an enthusiastic romance of children and sex. The implication that Miles, the young ward of an impressionable governess is sexually aware, sexually experienced, and sexually hungry has its draw” (THE FEMALE PAEDOPHILE). One instance of this odd dynamic between the governess and Miles can be witnessed on page 43 where the governess views Miles outside staring at a tower, atop of which the ghost of Peter Quint stood. The tower is the first object in the novella that can be interpreted as a phallic symbol, and Miles’ connection to it is seemingly peculiar. It provides a quick intuition on the previous relationship between Miles and Peter Quint that could be responsible for the young Miles’ inappropriate sexual awakening. On various occasions Mrs. Grose seems to imply that Quint has corrupted the young boy. For instance, Grose states, “It was Quint’s own fancy. To play, with him I mean — to spoil him” (James, pg. 25). She paused a moment; then she added; “Quint was much too free” (James, pg. 26). This corruption of Miles draws in the governess who is trying her greatest to hide her sexuality from her employer. At this point, the reader is disgusted by the governess, her behavior is inappropriate and the reader no longer feels any sympathy for the young woman.

The governess prays, as the hallucinations eat away her sanity.

The final proposition that I feel as though is prominent throughout the novella is the feminist critical theory. This theory states that the governess simply fulfills another hysterical female archetype of the time period. Critics with the feminist agenda believe that “the figure of the governess holds a privileged position in hysterical stories, mostly because of the complicated relationship she must hold to the master of the house as asexual replacement mother” (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw). This theory once again ties back into the concept of sexual repression, as it is believed that the governess’s repressed love for the house master led to the typical female breakdown. It is due to this breakdown that the governess is driven mad and hallucinates the ghosts of Peter Quint and the former governess. The interconnections between all of these various critical interpretations, simply supports the fact that there is no one theory that is utterly correct. Instead the evidence is intertwined into various theories that all lean on each other for support.

Theoretical Puzzle:

A final exchange between the governess and newly deceased young Miles.
“Peter Quint — you devil!” (pg.86).
“We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.” (pg.87).

While I agree with the broad theory that the governess is insane, rather than actually haunted by ghosts of old members of the Bly residence, I believe that all of the above theories are what influence this insanity. As a critical reader of The Turn of the Screw myself, it is my belief that the insanity of the governess spawned originally from the stress on her class status. The pressure to live up to the standard of the higher class woman started to cause stress to the governess, but was not the breaking point that led to her spiral into insanity. When the governess reached Bly, she started to feel certain sexual urges toward her employer, in an attempt to repress these urges she is pushed further into a cloud of insanity. The romantic feelings of the governess were then heightened by the development of her typical hysterical female role. Her feelings pushed her further and further towards her breaking point and the ghosts were projections of these feelings. She imagined them in an attempt to prove her worthiness by revealing that she could manage to take care of the children and keep them safe. Another instance in which she tried to impress her employer was through the close relationship with Miles, as she attempted to prove that she could handle the troubled youth despite her inexperience. Yet the governess fails miserably. At the conclusion of the story, the governess states “Peter Quint — you devil” as the ghost of Quint has come to claim the live of Miles (James, pg. 86). And finally, it is stated that Miles’ “little heart, dispossessed, had stopped” (James, pg. 87). Those who believe in the formalist approach would believe that the ghost of Peter Quint took the soul of the young Miles. But those who compile the evidence as I have done, will realize that Peter Quint was simply a projection of the governess’s subconscious and therefore she was the one to take the life of the young boy. My all-encompassing theory works to connect the various aspects of the book that other critics attempt to disprove. According to Bethany Dietrich, “Understanding how the ambiguity is established in the story leads to understanding the various ways in which it is interpreted”, the skillful avoidance of revealing the true purpose of the novella forces the reader to evaluate all of the events and possibilities of the story. All of the literary critics I have referenced, do an excellent job at drawing out deeper meanings from the book and coming to a conclusion about the source of the governess’s folly. Yet, what they fail to do, is connect all of the evidence in order to establish a theory that doesn’t simply ignore the prominence of the others. It was my aim to draw together these ideas in order to demonstrate that no one theory can successfully stand on its own, when trying to explain the deep psychological workings that James poured into the character of the governess. Consequently, creating a theory that does not single out one possibility as correct, whilst disregarding others, is crucial in determining a true meaning.

The Governess: Feelings and Attitudes

The governess in hysterics due to the presence of hallucinatory apparitions.

With that being said, it is important to note that this puzzle-like system of theories has forced the reader to develop a hatred, or at least a severe dislike for the governess. While these feelings are rational, it is important to take a step back and re-evaluate her character. The governess is a 19th century woman who lacks sexual freedom, true companionship, and a sense of self-worth. Her only duty is to serve the wealthy housemaster and care for his young and spoiled niece and nephew. It is stated that:

She (a governess was always female) had to be well-educated and understand social etiquette, but she was not considered an equal to the family she served. However, she was also thought to be in a station above other servants in the household. (Metz).

The governess is in a constant battle for a sense of self belonging, she fits in nowhere, not with the wealthy house owners, not with the lower class servants. She is alone and isolated. She is stuck in between the borders of various social identities, she is not allowed to have sexual relations, she is not allowed to develop herself as an individual, and she has no power. As a young woman myself, I cannot imagine having to endure the challenges that the governess faced in The Turn of the Screw. These obstacles are enough to drive anyone insane, imagine living isolated in a world where you are solely expected to care for others, and disregard yourself and your natural urges. I believe in understanding this novel, that it is crucial to evaluate the various theoretical approaches that collide and explain the source of the governess’s madness. But it is even more important to keep an open mind and sympathize with the governess, as it was her paradoxical conditions that pushed her to her ultimate breaking point.

Authors Note:

With this piece, my aim was originally to address the most common argument, a surface deep argument, revolving around the existence or non-existence of apparitions at the manor of Bly. As I began to establish my thoughts, I realized that rather than this argument, the sources of the governess’s insanity is a more pressing discussion. I began to connect the various theories established by critical readers of the novella, and noticed that the governess is often painted in an unfavorable manner. This pushed me to analyze a more feminist approach, revolving around why the reader shouldn’t label the governess as an unlikeable, arrogant and, crazy character. But rather, should attempt to show sympathy for the young woman who is attempting to balance the deplorable internal and external pressures of being a 19th century caretaker.


I would first like to thank my editing group members Tiffany and Kody for their helpful insight on how to create a balance between critical discussion and my own voice. Their commentary was useful to me in establishing a coherent and understandable essay. I would also like to thank Professor Harris for his extremely helpful advice on how to work towards expressing my unspoken thoughts about the importance of James’ novella. Without his help I would have been unable to advance my thoughts a step further by discussing my feelings towards the character of the governess. His wise words on how to organize my thoughts fluidly were a great help in writing my piece. Additionally, I am grateful for the many critics, who like myself, took the time to analyze James’ thought provoking novella. Finally, I would like to express my appreciation for Henry James himself, for his ambiguous and eerie tale which forced me to hang onto the story of the governess way past my initial reading of the work.

Pay special attention in this clip, to the ways in which the governess interacts with the various members of the house. Including, but not limited to, Miles, the housemaster, and Mrs. Grose.

Works Cited:

Dietrich, Bethany. “The St. Lawrence Review.” The St. Lawrence Review. Accessed May 01, 2016.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Print.

Metz, Stephanie. “The Governess: Caught Between Children and Adults.” The Governess: Caught Between Children and Adults. Accessed May 08, 2016.

Leithauser, Brad. “Ever Scarier: On “The Turn of the Screw”.” The New Yorker. October 29, 2012. Accessed May 01, 2016.

Ohaneneye, Frances. “From Theory to Literature: Marxism and The Turn of the Screw.” Frances Ohanenye a Literary Nomad. 2015. Accessed May 01, 2016.

Parkinson, Edward J., PhD. “The Turn of the Screw.” The Turn of the Screw. Accessed May 01, 2016.

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.” Tales from the Reading Room. 2006. Accessed May 01, 2016.

THE FEMALE PAEDOPHILE.” Billierosie’s Blog. April 18, 2014. Accessed May 01, 2016.