Study Guide

The Turn of the Screw Gender

By Henry James

Gender

This person proved, on her presenting herself, for judgment, 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 a Hampshire vicarage. One could easily fix this type; it never, happily, dies out. He was handsome and bold and pleasant, offhand and gay and kind. He struck her, inevitably, as gallant and splendid, but what took her most of all and gave her the courage she afterward showed was that he put the whole thing to her as a kind of favor, an obligation he should gratefully incur. She conceived him as rich, but as fearfully extravagant – saw him all in a glow of high fashion, of good looks, of expensive habits, of charming ways with women. (Prologue.13)

The overwhelming manliness of the Governess's employer is his most outstanding feature – he's really a very generic, undetailed, impersonal rich man as far as we can tell. However, this is enough to win over the Governess from the moment she meets him.

"Well, that, I think, is what I came for – to be carried away. I'm afraid, however," I remember feeling the impulse to add, "I'm rather easily carried away. I was carried away in London!"

I can still see Mrs. Grose's broad face as she took this in. "In Harley Street?"

"In Harley Street."

"Well, miss, you're not the first – and you won't be the last." (1.6-7)

This brief exchange comments upon the implicitly female tendency to be "carried away" by men (Miles is referenced beforehand).

"I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that you've never known him to be bad."

She threw back her head; she had clearly, by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. "Oh, never known him – I don't pretend that!"

I was upset again. "Then you have known him –– ?"

"Yes indeed, miss, thank God!"

On reflection I accepted this. "You mean that a boy who never is –– ?"

"Is no boy for me!" (2.12-15)

Boys are here given more leeway than girls; while Flora is expected to be flawless, Mrs. Grose admits that she wants Miles to be a little naughty.

An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was – a few more seconds assured me – as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind. (3.11)

The tension between the "unknown man" and the Governess is palpable, even at a great distance (remember, he's standing atop a tower, and doesn't pose an immediate threat to her). This perspective on the relationship of men and women implies the threat of violence at any time.

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. They were extraordinarily at one, and to say that they never either quarreled or complained is to make the note of praise coarse for their quality of sweetness. (9.3)

Miles and Flora's unique relationship is sweet on one hand, but a little too sweet on the other, if you ask us. The phrasing of this description comes off as condescending to our contemporary ears (we have to remember that this was the common view of the status of men in relation to women in James's day), and we wonder for the umpteenth time if Miles is really as swell as he seems to be.

Turned out for Sunday by his uncle's tailor, who had had a free hand and a notion of pretty waistcoats and of his grand little air, Miles's whole title to independence, the rights of his sex and situation, were so stamped upon him that if he had suddenly struck for freedom I should have had nothing to say. I was by the strangest of chances wondering how I should meet him when the revolution unmistakably occurred. (14.1)

Miles and the Governess are sitting on an odd metaphorical seesaw – the question is, when does a woman in an authority position get outweighed by a male child, who has more heft simply because of his gender?

"I want my own sort!"

It literally made me bound forward. "There are not many of your own sort, Miles!" I laughed. "Unless perhaps dear little Flora!"

"You really compare me to a baby girl?" (14.12)

Ah ha – finally we see Miles betray some inner tension. While the Governess rather naively thinks that Miles and his sister are equals because of their birth and status, Miles's bitter reply shows that he rates them on different levels – by deriding Flora as a "baby girl," he claims superiority not just by age, but by gender.

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