The Symbolic Frame of The Turn of the Screw
"This life is worth living, we can say, since it
is what we make it, from the moral point of view."
The Principles of Psychology
"Religion...is a man's total reaction upon life."
The Varieties of Religious Experience
-- William James
Henry James wrote of the governess in his novella The Turn of the Screw, "[the story exhibits] her relation to her own nature" and "it constitutes no little of a character indeed...that she is able to make her particular credible statement of such strange matters. She has 'authority'" (121). Yet given her youth, what formative experiences can have prepared her to face and make sense her ordeal? The reader is told only that she is the daughter of "a poor country parson" (4) and has read the gothic romances and ghost novels of the time (17). James' novella utilizes conventions of both the gothic and ghost genres but, reflecting the governess' upbringing, can the story also be understood in terms of the Christian paradigm, a world view that acknowledges as Robert Heilman posits, "the struggle of evil to possess the human soul" (215)? Heilman, in his essay The Turn of the Screw as Poem, credibly and exhaustively argues that it can. And perhaps, if one accepts this reading of the story as a retelling of the Christian explanation of the human condition, it can function umbrella-like - a "mobile" under which all other readings may comfortably hang.
Heilman's argument rests on a thorough examination of James' use of recurrent imagery and symbolic language throughout the tale. Step by step, Heilman painstakingly teases out the images associated with the characters. He lists the repeated and various descriptions of the extraordinary "beauty" of Flora and Miles (217), and how they are continually associated with images of "light" (218). He concludes, "their radiance suggests the primal and the universal"; in their innocence, the children represent the archetypes of male and female, Adam and Eve, embodying the potentials of both great achievement and self-destruction (218). As the governess becomes convinced of the children's corruption, the light imagery changes, becomes "glaring" and their youthful innocence gives way to Miles being described "as an older person" while Flora is becoming "an old, old woman" (220).
Likewise, the governess willingly assumes the role of spiritual savior. She "uses words like 'atonement'; she speaks of herself as an 'expiatory victim,' of her 'pure suffering,' and ...of her 'torment'" (224). At the same time, she is determined to "absolutely save" them, "to protect and defend the little creatures," which involves bringing the children to confess their consorting with Evil, embodied especially by Quint, at one point described as a serpent: "his eyes are sharp, strange-awfully; ...rather small and very fixed. His mouth's wide, and his lips are thin..." (220) and both Jessel and Quint want to draw the children into "damnation." Similarly, Heilman examines the way Bly suggests Eden and how the descriptions of the changing seasons contributes to the overall impression of the "spiritual withering that is the story's center" (220). At one point, the governess describes the children as "blameless and foredoomed," suggesting the notion of original sin (225). Thus, the governess fails to save the children because original sin precludes the retention of spiritual innocence. The frame story supports this reading since what better way to "catch the jaded" than to reiterate the original themes of Christianty at a holiday ritual that has perhaps become lacklustre and mechanical?
Harold C. Goddard states that the governess is "bent on staging...a heroic drama" (188). Yet this drama is also informed by her religious upbringing; she is a moral heroine as well as a romantic one. And although I think James intended that the reader question the governess' viewpoint - to realize that she is certainly interpreting events "according to her own nature," that she may even be mad and is undoubtedly sexually repressed - he casts a wider net to catch the reader, both psychologically and morally. For we too must interpret the nature of the evil in the story. James confirms this intention when he writes that he wanted to "make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough ...[that] his own experience, his own imagination...will supply him with all the particulars" (123). We follow in the governess' missteps in interpreting according to our own natures.
More importantly, the moral view the governess is operating from, illustrated by the allegorical subtext Heilman so skillfully highlights, is familiar to all readers educated in the Christian/Western tradition. As Heilman remarks, "James has hit upon some fundamental truth of experience that no generation can ignore and that each generation wishes to restate in its own terms" (215). If this pliable thematic skeleton is indeed drawn from our common cultural heritage, the governess' story becomes the "universal story," a comment on the dual nature of man and on the human struggle to make sense of our dilemma. So we are caught in the cultural frame, the screw turns as the story unfolds, and the reader finds herself finally inside the portrait with the governess - looking out.
© 1996 Shirley Galloway
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