Study Guide

The Turn of the Screw Society and Class

By Henry James

Society and Class

The scene had a greatness that made it a different affair from my own scant home, and there immediately appeared at the door, with a little girl in her hand, a civil person who dropped me as decent a curtsy as if I had been the mistress or a distinguished visitor. I had received in Harley Street a narrower notion of the place, and that, as I recalled it, made me think the proprietor still more of a gentleman, suggested that what I was to enjoy might be something beyond his promise. (1.1)

Part of the appeal of Bly is the notion of escaping one's class and playing at wealth – we see it here in the Governess, and, in an interesting common trait, we see it in Peter Quint later.

I used to speculate – but even this with a dim disconnectedness – as to how the rough future (for all futures are rough!) would handle them and might bruise them. They had the bloom of health and happiness; and yet, as if I had been in charge of a pair of little grandees, of princes of the blood, for whom everything, to be right, would have to be enclosed and protected, the only form that, in my fancy, the afteryears could take for them was that of a romantic, a really royal extension of the garden and the park. (3.8)

The children are consistently set above everyone else; we don't know what the actual social status of the family is, but they're certainly of a different breed, so to speak, than the rest of the characters.

It lasted while I just bridled a little with the sense that my office demanded that there should be no such ignorance and no such person. It lasted while this visitant, at all events – and there was a touch of the strange freedom, as I remember, in the sign of familiarity of his wearing no hat – seemed to fix me, from his position, with just the question, just the scrutiny through the fading light, that his own presence provoked. (3.12)

Both the Governess and her "visitant," Quint, are perhaps a little too familiar with the house – she makes a big fuss about how he's not wearing a hat, while at the same time, she assumes that she already has the right to know everyone and everything about Bly.

She thought a minute. "Was he a gentleman?"

I found I had no need to think. "No." She gazed in deeper wonder. "No."

"Then nobody about the place? Nobody from the village?"

"Nobody – nobody. I didn't tell you, but I made sure."

She breathed a vague relief: this was, oddly, so much to the good. It only went indeed a little way, "But if he isn't a gentleman –"

"What is he? He's a horror."

"A horror?"

"He's – God help me if I know what he is!" (5.9-11)

Interesting – apparently, the only options for social status are either a "gentleman" or a "horror" in this context. Does that make all people of a lower social status "horrors?"

"Oh, it wasn't him!" Mrs. Grose with emphasis declared. "It was Quint's own fancy. To play with him, I mean – to spoil him," She paused a moment; then she added: "Quint was much too free."

This gave me, straight from my vision of his face – such a face! – a sudden sickness of disgust. "Too free with my boy?"

"Too free with everyone!" (6.8-9)

It becomes clear that the real source of Quint's evil was his inability to stick to the limitations of his class – Mrs. Grose, who certainly knows her place and stays there adamantly, doesn't approve of the liberties he took with all the members of the household when he was in charge, playing lord of the manor.

So, for a little, we faced it once more together; and I found absolutely a degree of help in seeing it now so straight. "I appreciate," I said, "the great decency of your not having hitherto spoken; but the time has certainly come to give me the whole thing." She appeared to assent to this, but still only in silence; seeing which I went on: "I must have it now. Of what did she die? Come, there was something between them."

"There was everything."

"In spite of the difference – ?"

"Oh, of their rank, their condition" – she brought it woefully out. "She was a lady."

I turned it over; I again saw. "Yes – she was a lady."

"And he so dreadfully below," said Mrs. Grose.

I felt that I doubtless needn't press too hard, in such company, on the place of a servant in the scale; but there was nothing to prevent an acceptance of my companion's own measure of my predecessor's abasement. There was a way to deal with that, and I dealt; the more readily for my full vision – on the evidence – of our employer's late clever, good-looking "own" man; impudent, assured, spoiled, depraved. "The fellow was a hound."

Mrs. Grose considered as if it were perhaps a little a case for a sense of shades. "I've never seen one like him. He did what he wished."

"With her?"

"With them all." (7.18-20)

Again, Mrs. Grose ominously indicates that Quint was, as she says earlier, "too free" with everyone – particularly Miss Jessel. Their cross-class romantic relationship is one of the central disturbances of this story; the Governess, who, whether she likes it or not, identifies in a way with Miss Jessel, is both revolted and fascinated by the "abasement" of the previous governess.

I drew a great security in this particular from [Mrs. Grose's] mere smooth aspect. There was nothing in her fresh face to pass on to others my horrible confidences. She believed me, I was sure, absolutely: if she hadn't I don't know what would have become of me, for I couldn't have borne the business alone. But she was a magnificent monument to the blessing of a want of imagination, and if she could see in our little charges nothing but their beauty and amiability, their happiness and cleverness, she had no direct communication with the sources of my trouble. If they had been at all visibly blighted or battered, she would doubtless have grown, on tracing it back, haggard enough to match them; as matters stood, however, I could feel her, when she surveyed them, with her large white arms folded and the habit of serenity in all her look, thank the Lord's mercy that if they were ruined the pieces would still serve. (11.1)

Unlike Quint and Miss Jessel (and perhaps the Governess herself), Mrs. Grose is the ideal hired help – she knows exactly what the limitations of her job and rank are, and she doesn't even think about stretching beyond them. She is also apparently exceptionally unimaginative, and takes everything at face value, from the Governess's claims to the children's innocence.

Mrs. Grose watched them with positive placidity; then I caught the suppressed intellectual creak with which she conscientiously turned to take from me a view of the back of the tapestry. I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority – my accomplishments and my function – in her patience under my pain. 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. (11.2)

Again, good old Mrs. Grose shows us just how amenable she is to abiding by class definitions– though the Governess basically just keeps filling her mind with rather poisonous thoughts, she keeps accepting them, perhaps largely because she acknowledges the superiority of the Governess's office – and therefore her supposed superiority as a person.

Seated at my own table in clear noonday light I saw a person whom without my previous experience I should have taken at the first blush for some housemaid who might have stayed at home to look after the place and who, availing herself of rare relief from observation and of the schoolroom table and my pens, ink, and paper, had applied herself to the considerable effort of a letter to her sweetheart. (15.5)

Though we know that Miss Jessel is/was a "lady," here she is compared to a servant writing a love letter. This implies that a different moral code might be applied to the working classes – it's all right for a mere maid to have a sweetheart somewhere, but it was not OK for Miss Jessel and Quint to have a relationship. We wonder if this image also plays upon the Governess's own desires to have a sweetheart somewhere to write to.

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