The Governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw - Heroic Savior or Possessive Neurotic

Seminar Paper, 2001

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

A Introductory Paragraph

B The Role of the Governess: Heroic Savior or Possessive Neurotic?
I Basic Information on the Governess as Presented in the Story
II The Point of View and Its Effects on the Reader
III The Governess’s Character and Motives
1 The Governess as a Psychological Case
2 The Governess as the Children’s Unselfish Protector
3 The Governess as the Children’s Possessive Oppressor

C Conclusion

D Bibliography

A Introductory Paragraph

Henry James’s short story (or novella, as it’s also sometimes labeled) “The Turn of the Screw,” which was first published in installments in Collier’s Weekly Magazine in 1898, is at the same time one of his most popular works of fiction and also the one that has been most controversially discussed. In fact, the question whether the apparitions the governess sees are real ghosts haunting and trying to corrupt the children or merely hallucinations of a neurotic woman “blessed” with an overactive imagination has stirred so much controversy that it has even led to the formation of two opposing critical camps sometimes referred to as the apparitionists, i.e. those who believe that the ghosts are real, and the non-apparitionists, i.e. those who believe that the ghosts are just a product of the governess’s overactive imagination. This question of the ghosts’ reality is of course closely linked to the role of the governess as the main character and also narrator of the story, as well as her personality, aims, and motives.

Therefore, even apart from the question of the ghosts’ reality, which probably will never be solved to everybody’s satisfaction anyway, one aspect of the story seems to be worth having a closer look at: is the governess rather a heroic woman unselfishly and self-sacrificingly attempting to save the children from the evil influence the ghosts exert on them, or a hysterical and overly protective character wanting to possess her charges and control their every move? In order to shed some light on this conflict (which, just like the aforementioned question of the ghosts’ reality, probably can never be definitely solved), I will first try to sum up the basic information on the governess as provided in the prologue to the actual story, then briefly talk about the point of view from which the action is presented in the narrative proper as well as the effects it has on the reader, and finally discuss various possibilities of characterizing and assessing, based mainly on her actions and statements, the governess and her motives, which I will do in connection with a brief outline of the position some more or less influential critics or critical schools have taken in this matter in the time since the story came out.

B The Role of the Governess: Heroic Savior or Possessive Neurotic?

I Basic Information on the Governess as Presented in the Story

As stated before, I will begin my discussion of the question whether the protagonist of “The Turn of the Screw” is an admirable or a rather shady character by extracting the basic information about the governess given in the story. In order to illuminate if the governess really has nothing on her mind but shelter the children placed in her care in order to secure their well-being, or her real motives are actually of a more selfish nature in terms of wanting to completely control and even possess little Flora and Miles, it might be useful to find out something about this woman’s background first.

The only productive source of more or less reliable information concerning the

governess’s background is not the narrative proper, as it is told entirely from the governess’s perspective, but the prologue narrated by an unnamed man who is one of a group of people staying at an old house around Christmas and meeting by the fireside in the evenings to tell each other ghost stories. This man introduces us to another member of the group named Douglas, obviously the narrator’s friend, who owns the governess’s manuscript of the events which took place at the country estate Bly at the time when she was looking after her employer’s eight-year-old niece Flora and ten-year-old nephew Miles there, and who eventually reads out this manuscript to the other guests one night. Douglas claims to have known the author of the narrative, meanwhile dead for twenty years, from the time when she worked as governess for his younger sister. On the night of the third day of their stay at the old house, one night before reading out the manuscript to the other guests, he provides them with some preliminary remarks about the state of events before the governess’s narrative takes up the story, and also about the governess herself. Therefore we learn that she was “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson” (153) from Hampshire, and that she was only twenty years old when she applied for the position offered her by her wealthy employer on London’s Harley Street. We also learn she had never worked as governess before. So what we have is a young, inexperienced woman from the country, out of poor social circumstances and confronted with a completely new situation and environment, who consequently shows up for her interview with her future boss “in trepidation” (153). Small wonder he makes an immediate impression on her:

This person proved, on her presenting herself for judgement at a house in Harley Street that impressed her as vast and imposing – this prospective patron proved a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered anxious girl out of Hampshire vicarage. (153)

In fact, there is evidence that she was more than just impressed by this man. According to Douglas, she even fell in love with him: “Yes, she was in love. [...] That came out – she couldn’t tell her story without its coming out” (150). That would pretty much explain why the governess, apart from the considerable salary, accepted a position that, as she herself was probably quite aware of at the time, might easily have demanded too much of her (especially considering her employer’s condition not to contact him at any time and to take care of everything herself): “Meanwhile of course, the prospect struck her as slightly grim. She was young, untried, nervous: it was a vision of serious duties and little company, of really great loneliness” (153).

Apart from what has been mentioned so far, we don’t get any more basic information on the governess from Douglas, and as far as all the statements he makes about her character are concerned, it must be questioned whether he’s really a reliable source of information. This is mainly due to the fact that he – as he himself admits – “liked her extremely” (150), which is to say that he probably was in love with her, and therefore may not be fully objective in his judgement of the governess. He attributes to her qualities like “charming” and “most agreeable.” He says he found her “worthy of any whatever” (149) and that “she struck [him] as awfully clever and nice” (150). So, according to Douglas, the governess is certainly an admirable woman with indisputably outstanding characteristics; but, in the light of his admiration and affection for her, to what extent can we trust his judgement? And even if we take for granted that the governess really was like that at the time Douglas knew her, we must still take into consideration that he became acquainted with her a long time after the events referred to in her manuscript. At the time he knew her, she was a much older, much more experienced woman than when she worked as governess at Bly, and it’s no secret people may change in the course of time. However, the point of all this is by no means to say that the governess was, at the time of the events at Bly, a completely different person than the one Douglas saw in her, or even that he lies about her. It’s rather to clarify that we must be careful not to mistake his characterization of the governess as the definite truth when it’s in fact merely his opinion of her.

II The Point of View and Its Effects on the Reader

We must be equally careful when it comes to the narrative proper. The reason for that is the point of view from which the action is presented here. Obviously it is presented from the governess’s point of view, which means we have a first person narrator who is at the same time the protagonist of the story. The effects of this are pretty obvious and actually needn’t be discussed at length. By seeing the events through the governess’s eyes, the reader virtually becomes a participant in the story. Moreover, he is completely dependent on the information he is given by her and on how she perceives the action going on around her. Of course one might rightly object that the reader of a fictional text is always dependent on the narrator, his readiness to give information and his judgement of the things happening; still, in the case of “The Turn of the Screw,” this fact is especially significant as there is no all-seeing, all-knowing omniscient narrator floating, as it were, above the events and objectively providing us with all the facts we have to be aware of. Instead, we have a narrator who only has a very limited perspective. This limited perspective forbids the governess to have insight into everything which is going on so that she can only speculate about events which remain concealed from her and the thoughts and intentions of the other characters she’s dealing with. However, it’s not only that there are things she simply cannot have any knowledge of. As she’s not just an observer watching things from a distance and not in any way personally affected by what’s happening, but an acting character directly involved in the events she’s relating to in her narrative, she probably can’t be fully objective. In fact, the reader must carefully evaluate what he’s told by the narrator. That doesn’t mean he should persistently disbelieve or distrust everything the governess says, because then there would be no story. We certainly must accept her rendering of the basic events or the conversations she has with the children or Mrs. Grose as the truth. What we should not blindly trust and take for granted, however, is her judgement of these things and her own actions. For instance, simply because the governess claims the children and the ghosts “perpetually meet” (236), it doesn’t necessarily mean that this is actually the case. Likewise, simply because she fancies herself an “expiatory victim” who’s mission is to “guard the tranquillity of the rest of the household” and “absolutely save” (195) the children, that doesn’t mean we have to share her view.

The fact that there is (as has been said before) no omniscient narrator giving us all the information we require lends increased significance to the frequent conversations between the governess and Mrs. Grose, in whom she seems to place complete trust. She eagerly confides her thoughts and assumptions to the housekeeper, who plays the role of her major (and only) ally at Bly and apparently believes pretty much everything her superior tells her: “She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch’s broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan” (231). That makes these conversations the most reliable source of information in terms of the conclusions the governess draws from the occurrences around her, because it doesn’t seem likely she would lie to her only ally.

Overall, I would describe the effect the point of view has on the reader as challenging. The reader doesn’t see or know more than the governess and constantly has to decide whether he wants to share her interpretation of events or make something utterly different of them. Some may find that this adds additional suspense to the story and makes it even more entertaining, while others may perceive the permanent uncertainty as simply annoying. Either way, it cannot be denied that, would James have chosen an omniscient narrator for his story (as most authors of fiction before him did), “The Turn of the Screw” would surely not have roused the interest of so many people, let alone caused even a fraction of the critical debate which has been going on over the decades.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw - Heroic Savior or Possessive Neurotic
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Nineteenth-Century American Short Stories
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
448 KB
James, Turn, Screw, Nineteenth-Century, American, Short, Stories, Amerikanische Literatur, Amerikanistik, Kurzgeschichte
Quote paper
Bernd Steiner (Author), 2001, The Governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw - Heroic Savior or Possessive Neurotic, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: The Governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw - Heroic Savior or Possessive Neurotic

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free