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The Turn of the Screw through Psychoanalytical Lens

In his chef-d’oeuvre novel, The Turn of the Screw, Henry James underlines the psychoanalytical premise that the unconscious mind significantly controls and directs the conscious mind of humans. An unnamed governess, the narrative’s protagonist, qualifies Sigmund Freud’s notion that the normal human mind, in most cases, cannot rationalize its thoughts, which then implies that people could act irrational, at times. The governess is acting from a point of fear, always seeing illusions and ghosts, which is a reflection of repressed desires leading to the deterioration of her mind. Based on Freud’s personality theory, this paper will give an understanding of the governess’s actions, hinged on her repressed desires, which are deeply hidden in her subconscious mind, ultimately affecting her conscious mind – she is neurotic.

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As the story opens, the governess’s neurotic behavior, which underscores repressed thoughts, stands out when she starts fabricating apparitions. Even though the author does not let the audience glimpse into the governess’s repressed desires and instincts, it is clear that her unconscious mind is inventing ghosts, which ultimately affects her conscious mind hence her actions. During her conversation with Miles and Flora, she deliberately avoids discussing topics that society deems inappropriate. She says, “Forbidden ground was the question of the return of the dead in general and of whatever, in especial, might survive, for memory, of the friends little children had lost” (James 79). She expends so much energy trying to avoid these “forbidden grounds” until she becomes delusional to the point of seeing ghosts. The fact that those around her cannot see the alleged ghosts is a clear indication that she is neurotic. For instance, she accuses Flora that she does not even “feign to glance in the direction of the prodigy” (James 102). In other words, she wants Flora to see what she (governess) sees because she is disillusioned. However, the reason Flora is not worried or concerned is that there is probably no ghost – the governess is a mental case.

The governess’s confused behavior towards the children is another clear indication that her unconscious mind is affecting her waking reality. She is obsessed with the kids and overly protective at the same time for no good reason. While the audience does not ultimately understand anything about the “forbidden grounds”, their impacts are obvious through the governess based on her infatuation with Miles and Flora. However, this infatuation is being used as an escape from her reality. She says, “Of course, I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly know I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain…” (James 43). This alleged pain seems to exist only in her unconscious mind, which then manifests itself through the way she behaves as though haunted by ghosts from the “forbidden grounds”. The dysfunctional state of her mind is also seen when interacting with Miles. She notes, “You know, my dear, that for a fellow to be with a lady always–!’ His ‘my dear’ was constantly on his lips for me…” (James 83). This conversation is inappropriate between a child and an adult, but the governess’s rational mind cannot understand this simple premise. In her mind, she thinks that it is acceptable to have sexual affairs with children because she is mentally sick. This is the only possible explanation of her pedophilic thoughts and inclinations towards Miles.

The last emergence of the governess’s neurotic mind comes out toward the end of the story when Miles dies. She says, “My face must have shown him I believed him utterly; yet my hands–but it was for pure tenderness–shook him as if to ask him why, if it was all for nothing, he had condemned me to months of torment” (James 118). This conversation is sensual and it implicitly insinuates that the governess wanted to have sex with Miles, a child. Earlier, Miles, when explaining his expulsion from school, notes that he “said things…[to] those I liked…they must have repeated them. To those they liked” (James 118). While this statement is subject to interpretation, it could mean that Miles implied that he was gay, which hurt the governess deeply by being condemned to torment for months. In other words, Miles failed to reciprocate the governess’s love for a sexual affair, and it hurt. She becomes nervous and as anxiety kicks in, she sees another ghost, and in that confusion, Miles dies.

From a psychoanalytical perspective, it is clear that the governess in The Turn of the Screw has mental health problems. She is delusional, which explains why she sees ghosts everywhere, but nobody else can corroborate her allegation. Her mental problems are characterized by fear and nervousness, and thus she is constantly acting irrationally. Additionally, due to her mental health issues, she is somehow sexually attracted to a child, Miles, which is inappropriate for a normal human being. Ultimately, driven by her nervousness and irrational fear for ghosts, in an attempt to protect Miles from these non-existent beings, he dies in her arms. Therefore, it suffices to conclude that the governess is a mental case, which seemingly arises from repressed emotions seated deeply in her unconscious mind, but influencing the way her conscious mind perceives the world.

Work Cited

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Edited by Peter G. Beidler, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

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