The Representation of the Role of Women in "The Turn of the Screw"

How the Novel is Symbolic for the Repression of Women during the Victorian Era

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2018

18 Seiten, Note: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Victorian Era
2.1 A Short Outline
2.2 Focus on Women

3. The Narration-Style

4. T/7e Turn of the Screw: The Main Characters
4.1 The Governess Development Throughout the Novel
4.2 The Children Miles and Flora and the Governess' Relation to Them

5. The Mystery at Bly - The Apparitions and Their Meaning
5.1 Quints Apparition on the Tower
5.2 Quints Apparatlon Behind the Window Glass
5.3 Mrs. Jessel's Apparatlon at the Lake
5.4 Mrs. Jessel's Apparition In the Schoolroom
5.5 The Central Meaning of the Apparitions

6. The Aspect of Property In The Turn of the Screw

7. Conclusion

8. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Few, if any historical time periods were characterized by such profound change, penetrating all areas of political, social, and cultural life, as was the Victorian Era in England and Great Britain. The British Empire with its colonies spanned the whole globe and new influences, needs, and inventions partly called for and partly brought about change in all shapes and forms.

One very important part of this overall change was the fight for women's rights and the starting change of the traditional gender roles. Many people fought for women's right to vote, more rights inside of a marriage, and much more, leading to the first wave of feminism. Of course, a topic of such social importance was not only discussed in political debates but permeated through many aspects of the life of the time, one of which being literature. Many authors reflected traditional gender roles in their works, by showing female characters behaving in new and uncommon ways or putting them in difficult situations.

Henry James was one of the most prominent of these authors. Being born in New York he came to England with an outside view, giving him a perspective on many questions that was different from the one of local authors. He frequently featured uncommon women in his novels and stories that corresponded to the image of the New Woman, which "challenged the Victorian ideals of womanhood which Dickens and Eliot had promoted" (Wynne, 124). An example of this can be found in his short novel The Turn of the Screw. A governess is in the unusual situation of working in a haunted mansion, where the ghosts of her predecessors try to take the children she has to look after away from her. An unusual situation calls for unusual behavior and the governess tries to save the children from the influence of the two ghosts.

This paper shall take a look at how Henry James' The Turn of the Screw reflects on the situation of women at the time of its publication. I want to argue that the novel symbolizes the repressive structures under which women of the Victorian era had to live and thereby criticizes the way women were treated in the British society of the time. To do this, I want to begin with a historical overview of the real social situation of the Victorian era and the women of the time. After supplying a groundwork for the setting of the novel, I want to narrow my focus on The Turn of the Screw and look at different aspects of the novel. These will be the style of narration, the main characters of the novel, the governess and the children, and, of course, the mansion itself and the ghostly apparitions happening there, what they mean and symbolize. Finally, I want to take a look at the aspect of property in the novel, which was a very important factor in the political emancipation of women during the Victorian era.

2. The Victorian Era

2.1 A Short Outline

The Victorian Era was named after Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901. Being also called "The Age of Improvement" (cf. Breton, 1), the Victorian Era brought many changes in "the technological, industrial, political, social, legal, and cultural order of things" (ibid.). These changes were widely welcomed, yet they left the Victorian society in a state of transition between the past and the new, modern and socially advanced future. John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and politician, wrote: "Mankind have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones" (Mill, 1).

2.2 Focus on Women

In the Victorian Era women were confined to being at home, caring for the household and for their children. There was an "increasingly suffocating Victorian image of the proper role of women and their 'sphere'" (Dailey, 7). The Victorians saw women as belonging only to the domestic sphere, working in the household and raising children and therefore would not let them take part in anything that was done in public. Doing business and making money were clearly defined as something only men could do. This image of women can for example be observed in Coventry Patmore's poem The Angel in the House. While at the beginning of the 19th century, there was no "evidence of a recognizable women's movement" (Dailey, 7 f.) at the end, the "voices of concern began to coalesce" (Dailey, 8). Many women, such as Harriet Martineau and Frances Cobbe, not only demanded a better education for women to improve their chances on advancement, but now also on problems like "marital and property rights, and domestic violence" (Dailey, 9) and began to refer to Woman's Rights as an "identifiable cause" (Dailey, 9). The fact that more and more women began to publicly demand their rights in the Victorian era started a snowball effect and women began to organize themselves to fight for their cause. The results became visible in "Married Women's Property Committee of 1855" (Dailey, 10) for example, as well as the forming of many clubs, like the Ladies of Langham Place or the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (cf. Dailey, 10). Another success for the Women's Movement was the admittance of women into several colleges in Great Britain during the Victorian era and even reaching positions in school boards, which is, even if only on a low level, a position in government (cf. Dailey, 11). These activities of the Women's Movement in the 19th and early 20th century, so in the Victorian era, would later be called "first-wave feminism". The primary goal of the first-wave feminists, next to the afore-mentioned, was "gaining the right of women's suffrage" (Dailey, 13). The goals that feminists of the Victorian era had set themselves clearly show the image that most Victorians, at least the male Victorians, had of women. They were denied the right to vote, a proper education, and in the case of the Contagious Diseases Acts, women could be arrested only for walking the streets at night. Women were part of the household and were supposed to stay at home for most of the time, granted as little contact with the public sphere as possible. All these things were certain to let women feel like second-class citizens, having no right and no chance to influence anything the government of their country did, if it concerned them or not. The well-being of a woman was highly dependent on her social status: Being brought up in a wealthy family, chances were high to marry a man with a high status, too. However, if that man divorced her or if she lived out her sexuality with somebody else than her husband, she is likely to descend on the social ladder, eventually being a 'Fallen Woman'. As women were not allowed to have their own property, they often did not have their own money either and to survive as a Fallen Woman, they prostituted themselves. Once caught in that downward vortex, it was almost impossible for women to gain back financial stability and social recognition.

An exceptional position for a woman in the Victorian society was the work as a governess in another family's household. Governesses were often women who had enjoyed a proper Victorian upbringing and who were not able to find a man to marry or whose father had lost all his money and who are now responsible for themselves. They were still considered ladies, but without having any beneficial opportunities in life they were just fit to take over all the maternal responsibility for other women's offspring (cf. Bell, 92). Governesses had the "task of upholding and transmitting the increasingly Victorian domestic ideal" (Bell, 91). That means she did not only have to look after the children but also teach them in different subjects like languages, mathematics, arts and music. In her position she was not able to marry and to men she met in the household she was employed at, she was the "tabooed woman" (Bell, 95). Since the work of a governess was a full-time job, she did not have any chance to enjoy free time out of the house, which eventually led to having no friends and little contact to her own family. "In many families, especially in the higher ranks, the governess lives so secluded that she is as much out of society as if she were placed in solitary confinement "(Bell, 95). She often is a "depressed woman who might break down under the conditions of her narrow life" (Bell, 95). Bell furthermore writes that this treatment not seldomly led to "much unhappiness" and even "madness" and that governesses made up the largest number of female inmates in hospitals forthe insane (cf. Bell, 95).

3. The Narration-Style

The main story in the novel The Turn of the Screw is experienced by the governess, who is the protagonist of the core narration. After what the governess had experienced at Bly - the house she serves in and the place where mysterious events happen - she tells her story to Douglas, a young man whose sister was formerly governed by her. She then writes down how her story and the manuscript with the core narration falls in the hands of Douglas. On a Christmas Eve a group of friends gathers in an old house and Douglas begins to read out the governess' manuscript to them. The happening of Douglas' reading aloud is told by a First-Person narrator, who is a member of the group that Douglas reads to. The Turn of the Screw therefore not only consists of one but of four layered narrations. Sigrid Rénaux, Professor of English Literature, visualized this layered narration as a spiral with the governess' oral narration as the core. The other narrations and narrators then start to wrap around this initial narration (cf. Rénaux, 34 f.). The shape of the spiral is furthermore visible by a defined beginning and end, since the narration starts with the phrase "the story" and ends with the word "stopped" (cf. Rénaux, 35). Referring to the novel's title, this narration-spiral not only bears an optic resemblance to a screw, but also has a similar meaning: The "simultaneous turning and piercing of the screw" (Rénaux, 35) as well as the immovable guiding line of a spiral have in common that both eventually lead to a fixed and fastened position. In the spiral's case that fixed position would be its end - the inner core of the spiral - whereas a screws function lies in being fixed and immovable. Transferred to the novel this means that there is one certain position, one destination or one goal that is striven for. For the governess this goal is the revealing of the mystery at Bly.

4. The Turn of the Screw: The Main Characters

4.1 The Governess Development Throughout the Novel

The governess is the protagonist in The Turn of the Screw and at the same time she holds the position of the First-Person Narrator of the core-narrative. Every fact we as readers know, we know from her. This faces US with the fundamental question of the narrator's reliability: Since the governess is limited to her own observations we do not have any information about what is going on with the other characters, we do not get any inside views of them, no background stories or other personal information. Our factual knowledge of the novel is limited to what the governess lets US know and even then, we cannot be certain about the truth of her statements. There is for one the problem of her holding back important information that could give US indication of the secret behind the story and on the other hand there is the possibility of her misinterpreting the events which happen at Bly. In any case one has to evaluate the information given by the narration of the governess. This is especially important in assessing the apparitions, which are further discussed in a different chapter.

The Governess, whose name is never mentioned, introduces herself to the reader on her drive to Bly - a mansion on the countryside and her new workplace - as a governess for the orphaned children Miles and Flora. Being employed by the children's uncle, who she is in love with and whom she wants to please, she feels unsure about her choice of agreeing on this employment.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 18 Seiten


The Representation of the Role of Women in "The Turn of the Screw"
How the Novel is Symbolic for the Repression of Women during the Victorian Era
Universität Paderborn
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Turn, Screw, Women, Victorian, era, Victorian Era
Arbeit zitieren
Alice Sturm (Autor:in), 2018, The Representation of the Role of Women in "The Turn of the Screw", München, GRIN Verlag,


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