Study Guide

The Turn of the Screw Repression

By Henry James

Repression

"[…] It sounded dull – it sounded strange; and all the more so because of his main condition."

"Which was – ?"

"That she should never trouble him – but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone. She promised to do this, and she mentioned to me that when, for a moment, disburdened, delighted, he held her hand, thanking her for the sacrifice, she already felt rewarded.

"But was that all her reward?" one of the ladies asked.

"She never saw him again." (Prologue.18)

As a proper young lady, we can imagine that the Governess doesn't often feel the touch of a man – and so this brief contact with her dashing employer seems like enough of a reward for the isolated life she's about to embark upon.

It was a pleasure at these moments to feel myself tranquil and justified; doubtless, perhaps, also to reflect that by my discretion, my quiet good sense and general high propriety, I was giving pleasure – if he ever thought of it! – to the person to whose pressure I had responded. What I was doing was what he had earnestly hoped and directly asked of me, and that I could, after all, do it proved even a greater joy than I had expected. I daresay I fancied myself, in short, a remarkable young woman and took comfort in the faith that this would more publicly appear. (3.9)

While the Governess never comes right out and admits that she's carrying a blazing torch for the children's uncle, she indulges in a lot of speculation about him and the, er, "pleasure" she might bring him.

One of the thoughts that, as I don't in the least shrink now from noting, used to be with me in these wanderings was that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone. Someone would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve. I didn't ask more than that – I only asked that he should know and the only way to be sure he knew would be to see it, and the kind light of it, in his handsome face. (3.10)

Ah, so what the Governess is really seeking is male approval – her wildest fantasy, it appears, is that of finding someone to validate her.

I quickly rose, and I think I must have shown her a queerer face than ever yet. "You see me asking him for a visit?" No, with her eyes on my face she evidently couldn't. Instead of it even –as a woman reads another – she could see what I myself saw: his derision, his amusement, his contempt for the breakdown of my resignation at being left alone and for the fine machinery I had set in motion to attract his attention to my slighted charms. She didn't know – no one knew – how proud I had been to serve him and to stick to our terms; yet she nonetheless took the measure, I think, of the warning I now gave her. "If you should so lose your head as to appeal to him for me – "

She was really frightened. "Yes, miss?"

"I would leave, on the spot, both him and you." (12.9-10)

The Governess still can't come to terms with her desire for her employer, which she continues to displace into her feelings about her job – her dire need to follow the rules he set is her only means of expressing her love for him.

Transcribed here the speech sounds harmless enough, particularly as uttered in the sweet, high, casual pipe with which, at all interlocutors, but above all at his eternal governess, he threw off intonations as if he were tossing roses. There was something in them that always made one "catch," and I caught, at any rate, now so effectually that I stopped as short as if one of the trees of the park had fallen across the road. There was something new, on the spot, between us, and he was perfectly aware that I recognized it, though, to enable me to do so, he had no need to look a whit less candid and charming than usual. I could feel in him how he already, from my at first finding nothing to reply, perceived the advantage he had gained. (14.2)

The Governess can't – or won't – put her finger on what has changed between her and Miles. We can only note that he grows more and more like a man and less childish as the story goes on, and his greater degree of independence also gives him a greater sense of power – in our eyes and in those of his teacher.

Dishonored and tragic, she was all before me; but even as I fixed and, for memory, secured it, the awful image passed away. Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers. While these instants lasted, indeed, I had the extraordinary chill of feeling that it was I who was the intruder. It was as a wild protest against it that, actually addressing her – "You terrible, miserable woman!" – I heard myself break into a sound that, by the open door, rang through the long passage and the empty house. (15.5)

Miss Jessel is depicted with some amount of sympathy here and throughout the story; though she is certainly described as an evil presence, the Governess is also clearly fascinated with her. We wonder if Miss Jessel is a kind of evil twin to the Governess – the shamed woman acts upon her desires and suffers the consequences, while the Governess keeps hers bottled up inside.

It made me, the sound of the words, in which it seemed to me that I caught for the very first time a small faint quaver of consenting consciousness – it made me drop on my knees beside the bed and seize once more the chance of possessing him. "Dear little Miles, dear little Miles, if you knew how I want to help you! It's only that, it's nothing but that, and I'd rather die than give you a pain or do you a wrong – I'd rather die than hurt a hair of you. Dear little Miles" – oh, I brought it out now even if I should go too far – "I just want you to help me to save you!" But I knew in a moment after this that I had gone too far. (17.25)

Anyone as tightly wound as the Governess is bound to explode sometime. Here, we see the first of her explosions – her outburst towards Miles demonstrates her desire not simply to save him, as she suggests to him, but instead to possess him, a much more violent (and interestingly, rather Quint-ian) idea.

It was Flora who, gazing all over me in candid wonder, was the first. She was struck with our bareheaded aspect. "Why, where are your things?"

"Where yours are, my dear!" I promptly returned.

She had already got back her gaiety, and appeared to take this as an answer quite sufficient, "And where's Miles?" she went on.

There was something in the small valor of it that quite finished me: these three words from her were, in a flash like the glitter of a drawn blade, the jostle of the cup that my hand, for weeks and weeks, had held high and full to the brim and that now, even before speaking, I felt overflow in a deluge. "I'll tell you if you'll tell me – –" I heard myself say, then heard the tremor in which it broke.

"Well, what?"

Mrs. Grose's suspense blazed at me, but it was too late now, and I brought the thing out handsomely. "Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?" (19.6-9)

… And here we have explosion number two from the Governess. After hiding her suspicions for most of the summer, she finally goes through with the dramatic accusation she envisioned earlier, even though Mrs. Grose silently implores her not to, proving that we simply can't contain things internally forever.

While this was done Miles stood again with his hands in his little pockets and his back to me – stood and looked out of the wide window through which, that other day, I had seen what pulled me up. We continued silent while the maid was with us – as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. "Well – so we're alone!" (22.5)

OK, ick. The sexual tension between the boy and his teacher is unbearably uncomfortable – yet, like all hints of sexuality in this text, it goes unmentioned, which makes it even less comfortable for readers. Miles's statement, "We're alone!" paired with the bridal imagery, makes us wonder unpleasantly what's going through the Governess's mind, that even she might not recognize.

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