“The Turn of the Screw” a Novel by Henry James

Words: 2861
Topic: Literature


As literature about socioeconomic, cultural, and political differences and bias between genders continues to accumulate, some authors of books seem to change their writing agendas towards focusing on addressing the forgotten women influence in the modern world (McCollum 49). Feminism is a common theme that has dominated modern literature, with most writers incapable of justifying the feminist role in a positive manner and regularly placing women in the midst of cultural bigotries (McCollum 49).

Whereas a plethora of books and book authors have persistently discussed about the plight of women and the manner in which their feminist nature influence their social, economic, and cultural lives, few have addressed the contribution of modern women in the communities (McCollum 49). Since gender disparity became a controversial social matter, most literature confine to the notion that the social role of women as barely nurturing mothers and caregivers of patriarchal families (McCollum 43). In this view, this essay argues the novel, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, describes gender issues and renaissance of women in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Overview of the Novel

The Turn of the Screw is a fictitious novel that uses the technique of storytelling to present several issues cutting across political, cultural, and social dimensions that influence lifestyles in the modern day world (McCollum 42). The novel involves women and their variance in interaction capabilities, wealth, and gender chauvinism, education and the political dimension of women in a modern society compared to the old societies (Brett 6).

The novel demonstrates the manner in which education influences social interactions, communal attitude towards individual women, and the child-nurturing behaviors of learned women such as the young learned governess. Since its first publication in 1898, the uncanny incidents surrounding the stories of women and children at Bly have attracted numerous recognitions and criticisms as it portrays the influence of education and modernity in women that results in the loss of certain moral virtues (Brett 7). The novel distinguishes the social behaviors and attitudes of four major women based on educational and wealthy differences.

The Turn of the Screw according to Brett is a postmodern novel that James writes to portray a continuum of social issues that are protracting and affecting modern societies that comprises of a majority of the vociferous youth population and aggressive young women (Brett 9). More than merely a ghostly story presented through a novel, The Turn of the Screw, comprises major social and cultural lapses evident in the modern societies, with James portraying a series of events that involve romance of young children and sex (Davidson 457).

The novel combines elements of male chauvinism, sexism, gender disparities, and broken social-cultural values into discussing the plight of Miles and the dilemma of several others that James features them in the ghost story. According to Davidson (460), the main intent of the novel is to demonstrate the powerful unseen leadership fraction of women in communities and highlight the major changes that modernity has brought about that has resulted to major cultural transformation witnessed today.

The Theme of Postmodern Feminism

The most powerful and dominant theme that takes over the writings of Henry in his novel The Turn of The Screw is the feminism subject matter that carries gender discrimination and gender equality aspects as social and cultural issues that continue to influence the lives of individual (Davidson 457). Although articulated in a manner that portrays women in somewhat a positivism manner regarding their contribution to major changes in communities, the novel feminist aspect is critical and controversies arise from other analysts (Davidson 457).

In his novel, James portrays the regularly undermined power of women in the communities and demonstrates the negative part of men that makes them lose communal values. Approximately half of the entire book discusses major issues associated with feminism and the renaissance of women in the social and political paradigms that James seems to elaborate throughout his romantic novel (McCollum 43). The young government and her little child Miles are two important actors to discuss feminism.

There are four female characters in The Turn of the Screw that seem to demonstrate a crucial role in explaining feminism, modernity of women, political power in women and the manner in which power and money influence the morality of mature women in a society (Davidson 462).

Miss Jessel, the young governess, Mrs. Grose and the youngest woman Flora, play a significant feminist role in the novel. Mrs. Grose is the oldest, illiterate, and lower class woman working as a housekeeper in the governess’s house and acts as the confidant to the governess (Davidson 457). The governess is the young and educated woman from a poor socioeconomic background, but her educational level makes her professionally marketable. Miss Jessel is the retired governess, who falls into an intimate affair with the servant Peter Quint, demonstrating the class difference the influence of affluence and education on modern women (Davidson 457). Flora is the youngest woman, although in the children’s category, but she plays a critical role associating with feminism.

An ever-disturbing issue even in the contemporary world is the reason behind the dominance of traditional cultural norms slightly twisted to fit the conditions of the modern world, as they are always shifting (McCollum 45). A young governess is focal to the deemed positive contribution of women in the modern society where politics is the food for producing millionaires and a point for international discourses. In patriarchal societies that are still existing and virtually powerful depending on cultural manifestation, a woman has little opportunities towards scaling high in political classes (Walton 8). Generally, just as evident globally in the arrangement of political structures in patriarchal societies and nations dwelling in old conformist ideologies, women have little political space for men have the greatest dominance over leadership (Walton 8).

To grow as a woman in a patriarchal community presents serious challenges to ambitious women seeking genuine leadership though political activities. Women encounter numerous challenges while struggling for political power in patriarchal communities.

Social reprimands, mocking, intimidation, allegations, and abuses are common challenges that women politicians struggle to overcome in chauvinistic communities where men have the greatest value and authority over leadership systems (Walton 8). The young governess manages to attain and retain a political position, but she achieved it through the turmoil and hardships resulting from communal attritions and subjugations (Walton 8).

Socialists believe that a woman struggling for power must undergo certain abuses to emerge victorious in the political realm. According to Walton (10), sex and manipulation are common while men try to support female revolutionists and politicians into political environments. In the contemporary world, political scientists call such affairs that develop for the essence of women’s power acquisition, sexual politics, or pedophilia. Contrastingly, powerful women with affluence and political influence tend to manipulate the young and energetic children for romance and sexual affairs (Brett 3). In the story, the male counterparts allege that the governess admires the young and energetic male children due to sexual desires that have resulted to hysteria in her romantic feelings.

Money is the key determinant of power in the in The Turn of the Screw, and such powers influence the behaviors of rich women in the societies as James assumes. The power of women and the manner in which they interact with men in the society relies on several aspects of modernity that women have exposure to, including education and leadership (Davidson 463). Mrs. Grose, the governess, Flora and Miss Jessel are the four major female characters that have demonstrated an important role in the story. Power in women makes them behave differently and have a different attitude towards the real meaning of love and romance as the current young governess and the former Miss Jessel demonstrated a unique behavior of interaction as they interact with men of lower socioeconomic class purposely to romantic relationships (James 55). The interest of the young governess lies in the erotic behaviors of children, whereas Miss Jessel interest lies in romantic affairs for she is in love with Peter Quint, a mere servant. The conversation between Quint and Miss Jessel goes this way:

“Oh, handsome, very, very,” I insisted; “wonderfully handsome, but infamous.” She slowly came back to me. “Miss Jessel—was infamous.” She once more took my hand in both her own, holding it as tight as if to fortify me against the increase of alarm I might draw from this disclosure.“ They were both infamous,” she finally said. So, for a little, we faced it once more together; and I found absolutely a degree of help in seeing it now so straight. (James 54).

Power, level of education, and exposure to modernity normally classifies women into certain social categories that are normally clearly observable but on rare mentioning (McCollum 53). Powerful women in communities as James seem to express, have a strong education background and proper exposure to modern lifestyles. To describe the relationship between power and education among women, it is important to consider the character of the young educated governess (Brett 2).

According to Walton (6), although from a comparatively poor socioeconomic background, the young governess manages to earn respect and credence from the old uneducated woman, Mrs. Grose. Mr. Grose whole-heartedly and respectfully chose to serve the young governess despite a number of people requiring help. James postulate that “there were plenty of people to help, but of course the young lady, who should go down as governess would be in supreme authority” (9). This indicates that education in the modern view of feminism acts as an important aspect that determines sociopolitical credence of women.

The novel demonstrates the cultural dimension of protectionist behavior of women towards their children as caregivers. The feminist part of protecting children reared without true fathers appears in the novel. Despite the emotional attachment of women towards their young ones, it is still difficult to bring the children appropriately as single mothers. The fear of women like the governess, to protect their children from ghosts that represent the heartless sexist men from moral depletion becomes unquenchable despite their primly tactics to protect their children. The entire story entails Miles, “a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again” (James 3). The mother’s protection never proves enough as the young boy ends up in the hands of the ghostly canny man Peter Quint, who depletes the morality of Miles through introducing him to sexual immoralities.

Criticism about the Demonstrated Theme of Feminism

The feminism theme that James presents has a mixture of positivism towards modernity in women, but presents the worst behaviors that learned women are likely to portray. Despite the common notion behind women is that they are normally benevolent and caring for their siblings, James presents completely a different perceptive with a high degree of truism regarding the modern life of exposed women (Al-Qurani 84). Sexual infidelity, unfaithfulness, careless child-nurturing behaviors, and negative attitudes towards their male counterparts regarding social differences are among the issues that James clearly demonstrates in his novel.

The differences in the behaviors the four women indicate a critical occurrence that is currently a major problem in many postmodern families. The women portray the postmodern western culture that seems to put sexuality as the basis of identity, knowledge, and power that are somewhat significant to the marveling of women, but significantly dangerous to the important cultural and social norms that represent good virtues in societies.

Postmodernism, better education, and professional exposure that most modern women are eyeing for, puts families at stake of losing important virtues that currently seem depleted and eroded due to poor upbringing of children (McCollum 35). Poor upbringing of Miles through the struggling helpless servant, who bears little education and influence on the young and powerful governess, results to depleted virtues in the child. According to Davidson (457), poor nurturance behaviors of learned and employed women in the novel, demonstrate the manner in which children gradually lose their moral virtues under the influence of friends. Mile and Flora fall into the traps of the evil Peter Quint, nicknamed as the ghostly man, who manipulates the children into engaging in underage sexual behaviors (McCollum 40).

Low parental care, poor upbringing, and depleted morals in parents, who fashion around with men in Bly leads to confusion among young children on the right morals to adopt as parents often witnessed the continuing homosexuality and infidelity with no contempt. James observed the situation and described it as:

I had had brothers myself, and it was no revelation to me that little girls could be slavish idolaters of little boys. What surpassed everything was that there, was a little boy in the world, who could have for the inferior age, sex, and intelligence so fine a consideration. (James 66).

The two children Flora and Miles engage in a series of sexual behaviors, including homosexuality that finally leads to psychological influence in their brains and build up a hysterical sexual behavior that becomes uncontrollable (Brett 9). The practice becomes visible to parents and instead of governess acting coldly to the situation to show considerable concern as a parent; the governess seems to enjoy such actions.

Contrastingly, Al-Qurani states that the governess lives in such allusions of child sex and forces an establishment of hysterical reactions that mount on her brains, consequently seeing them as ghosts representing the sexual awakening of child sex in her dreams (86). It further results to psychological issues and psychiatric disorder known as pedophilia, which happens to adults in illusions of having sexual attraction and sexual affair with prepubescent children (Al-Qurani 85). Such incidences represent the feminist nature of postmodern western women in a failing manner, as child nurturing is a crucial social and cultural aspect irrespective of the era.

Most criticism against the happenings of Bly that women and their fellow leaders contributed involves the sexual motives, eroticism, and prostitution. The sexual behavior characterized by unfaithfulness, crave for wealth and identify is evident in the case Miss Jessel the retired governess and the learned young governess, who unfaithfully demonstrate their illegitimate affair with Peter Quint (Walton 11).

Stable women hunt men for sexual affair and expose such ill behaviors to their young innocent children at the expense of financial stability, fame, beauty, and identity. Alcoholism and stories connecting prostitution involving women along the Bly streets portrays the negative part of post-modernized women and tints the real positive meaning of feminism. Both low and middle class women struggle for beauty and affluence from men in nightclubs and drinking sprees (Al-Qurani 83). In a conversation, the women discussed woeful night experiences where they encountered and notice prostitution activities happening across the Bly streets during the nightfall.

Tormented in the hall, with difficulties and obstacles, remember sinking down at the foot of the staircase, suddenly collapsing there on the lowest step. Then, with a revulsion recalling that it was exactly where more than a month before, in the darkness of the night and just so bowed with evil things, I had seen the specter of the most horrible of women. (James 98).

As just a mere housekeeper, the character that Mrs. Grose and the two women, the governess and Miss Jessel demonstrate in the novel completely differs (Brett 8). Despite her little educational knowledge that makes her unable to write or read, the old housekeeper seems to demonstrate exemplary wisdom as her attitude towards life is logical compared to the perceptions of the governess, who views life from a dangerous postmodern view. In contempt, Mrs. Grose tells governess, “see what I see, know what I know, that they [the children] may see and know nothing” (Brett 15). In the end, the governess notices that too much commitment to her professional duties caused negligence to her son. Such sentiments make the governess finally recognize the amount the nurturance failure she has caused to her son Miles and she postulates, “it was an immense help to me, I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back!—That I saw my service so strongly and so simply” (James 47).


As postmodernism results from westernization, it has caused decadence and negligence of important social and cultural virtues that deem significant for upbringing children, which is the most important feminist role both in conventional and contemporary world. The romantic novel by James and its story, The Turn of the Screw, is a replica of such situations, where women seem to have awakened to postmodernism and it has spurred their renaissance through their educational wellbeing and professional engagements. As women, engage in politics and leadership due to their professional education abilities, some end up intrigued by the political, and employment opportunities that can with the influence of affluence.

The young governess becomes lucky to take leadership and control, with money and illegitimate love from appealing men turning to be her favorites, and consequently forgetting her child nurturing duties to her only son. Although modern women are fighting patriarchal families, my personal conviction drawn from the story is that male parents are important because they protect and nurture children.

Works Cited

Al-Qurani, Shonayfa. “Hallucinations or Realities: The Ghosts in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.” Studies in Literature and Language 6.2 (2013): 81-87. Print.

Brett, Philip. “Britten’s Bad Boys: Male Relations in the Turn of the Screw.” Fall 1.2 (1992): 5-25. Print.

Davidson, “Almost a Sense of Property: Henry James’s The Turning of the Screw, modernism, and commodity culture.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 53.4 (2011): 455-478. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. London: Cricket House Books, 1998. Print.

McCollum, Jenn. “The Romance of Henry James’s Female Pedophile.” An Online Feminist Journal 3.1 (2010): 39-56. Print.

Walton, Priscilla. The Disruption of the Feminine in Henry James, Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Print.