Female Ignorance: The Fear of Knowledge in Henry James’s
The Turn of the Screw
- Author: Omnus Wiebke
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 19, Issue1, p125~147, 30 Apr 2011
The Turn of the Screw(1898) represents the female voice from a very intimate and yet displaced perspective. The present article reads the governess’s battle against the ghosts at Bly as a quest for knowledge, and, ultimately, an attempt to break out of the straightjacket of appropriate female behavior as prescribed in the late nineteenth century. I link the philosophical model of “double consciousness” to the dynamic between ignorance and knowledge as theorized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet(1990), arguing that the dilemma of the governess is a rebellion against traditional gender roles, inasmuch as her character challenges the Victorian association of knowledge with men and ignorance with women. Structurally, the narrative of The Turn of the Screwis itself closeted by its own frame, as the voices of Douglas and the ungendered narrator dominate that of the governess; it is in the frame narrative that the governess is established as a typically feminine character who is motivated by irrationality, which ultimately takes away from the impact of her voice, but cannot silence it.
Henry James , feminism , double consciousness , psychoanalysis , the closet , hysteria
The Turn of the Screw(1898) is haunted by thoughts that cannot be permitted because they are too selfdestructive, as James’s protagonist, the governess, desires knowledge which she simultaneously fears. The present article reads the governess’s battle against the ghosts at Bly as a quest for knowledge, and, ultimately, an attempt to break out of the straightjacket of appropriate female behavior as prescribed in the late nineteenth century. Torn between knowledge and ignorance, reason and emotion, the masculine and the feminine, the governess fails to establish a clear position, and her attempt to make her struggle heard by capturing it in writing is undermined by the way in which her narrative is framed in The Turn of the Screw.
In an attempt to provide a fuller reading of the governess in
The Turn of the Screw, my essay links the philosophical model of “double consciousness” to the dynamic between ignorance and knowledge as theorized by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet(1990). The model of the closet–as an oppressive structure that confines the homosexual individual—is one framed by ignorance and knowledge (68). The Turn of the Screwis also the story of “coming out,” though not in the context of same-sex desire—the dilemma of the governess is her attempt to step out traditional gender roles, a process during which her character challenges the Victorian association of knowledge with men and ignorance with women. Introducing the notion of a “double consciousness,” which, according to late nineteenth-century psychologists like Henry James’s brother William James, is a common symptom of hysteria, I map out the governess’s fight for emancipation, which originates in her master’s refusal to act in a masculine manner, and show how she ultimately fails to free herself. The governess’s “double consciousness” becomes a struggle between ideals of femininity on the one hand and their rejection on the other hand. I also show how, structurally, the narrative of The Turn of the Screwis itself closeted by its own frame, as the voices of Douglas and the anonymous, ungendered narrator dominate that of the governess; it is in the frame narrative that the governess is established as a typically feminine character who acts irrationally, which ultimately takes away from the impact of her voice.
In biblical history, the quest for human knowledge is originally made by a woman, as Eve chooses knowledge over ignorance for all of humanity when she eats the fruit from the tree of knowledge and convinces Adam to eat from it as well. In the book of Genesis, God says to Adam: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (2:17). The serpent tempts Eve, telling her that if she eats the fruit of the forbidden tree she can obtain divine knowledge: “. . . in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). As Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they lose their innocence/ignorance and become knowledgeable and, consequently, mortal; they are then driven out of paradise. Keeping in mind the nineteenth century demand that women be ignorant and passive, we can see that an original sin of sorts also lies at the heart of
The Turn of the Screw, insofar as it is a woman’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge that dooms her. The governess is thus confined to a severely limiting closet from which she unsuccessfully attempts to escape.
This essay reads the account of the governess’s struggles as a narrative about claiming power, exploring what Sedgwick calls the “transformative potential” of “coming out” (
Epistemology75). As the governess seeks independence and knowledge for which she, as a woman, is not supposed to strive, she finds herself on grounds of unstable identity. The crisis in The Turn of the Screworiginates from a male refusal to perform the role assigned to him by society, as James’s novella questions the way in which gender roles are performed in Victorian England. The governess’s master commands that he be left in ignorance of anything that occurs at Bly, although he is most likely aware of what has taken place there earlier in regards to the deaths of Miss Jessel, the previous governess, and Peter Quint, the valet. The “main condition” set by the master is “[t]hat . . . [the governess] should never trouble him–but 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” ( TS6). Thus, the space traditionally occupied by the male is physically empty–and this is the space the governess reluctantly decides to attempt to fill. It soon becomes obvious, then, that a woman acting “properly” cannot master the situation at Bly: while a man could have inquired of the headmaster of Miles’s school as to why the boy was expelled, the governess, as a woman, must remain ignorant of such matters, especially because the secret of his expulsion is most likely of a sexual nature.
To keep her status as a “lady” means to passively observe rather than participate in the action. The master, who easily could obtain and/or provide the information the governess needs, refuses to play his role and chooses to remain ignorant in a paradoxically authoritative gesture, forbidding anyone to inform him of any of the incidents. By writing to the governess, “[t]his, I recognise, is from the head-master, and the head-master’s an awful bore. Read him please; deal with him; but mind you don’t report. Not a word. I’m off” (
TS10), the master washes his hands clean of the situation. The governess has no real option to remain ignorant as she takes on the responsibility the master refuses to bear, nor can she fully gain knowledge. Finding herself caught in a quest for knowledge concerning which a part of her would prefer to remain ignorant because it is simply too dreadful to face, she has to compensate by developing a “double consciousness.”
Knowledge and ignorance are connected because ignorance necessarily must be the ignorance of something that can potentially be known, as “a particular ignorance is a product of, implies, and itself structures and enforces a particular knowledge” (Sedgwick, “Privilege” 104). This is the duality that frames
The Turn of the Screwand haunts the governess. She is aware of the presence of her own ignorance and fights to become knowledgeable, only to flee into ignorance once again. The governess can never return to a complete state of innocence, however, because she is at all times aware of, and haunted by, the knowledge of which she wishes to remain ignorant.
When seen in this light, the governess’s struggle is not linear but in fact marked by a series of contradictions and an oscillation between knowledge and ignorance. The philosophical concept of a “double consciousness,” in its multifarious appropriations by various thinkers, ranging from German transcendentalists to the African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois, has always connoted a conflict of interest whereby the two consciousnesses stand in opposition to each other in a dynamic that is highly self-destructive for the individual who attempts to unite them within him or herself. The “double consciousness” of the governess emerges as her future master proposes that she take on the complete responsibility for the two children and the entire situation at Bly. She is uncomfortable with this yet simultaneously excited by the prospect of being the only person in charge: “I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong” (
TS6). The governess decides to become an agent; she dares to see the unseeable and speak the unspeakable. At the same time, however, she is afraid of doing so and wishes that she could remain ignorant—which is clearly impossible once she has started to acknowledge her own ignorance and has begun to progress towards enlightenment. At the end of the eighth chapter, the governess says that “it suited exactly the particular deadly view I was in the very act of forbidding myself to entertain” ( TS36). This is a microcosm of the entire novella; it spells out the governess’s dilemma: what she wants to know is too horrible to grasp, thus she would like to choose ignorance. However, she can never fully restrain herself from the wish for knowledge. The term “deadly” is significant because the struggle of the governess is indeed one of life and death, since, by transcending traditional gender roles, the governess risks her own social death. The fact that she forbids herself to entertain certain thoughts makes it clear that she is an agent, or, at the very least, that she perceives of herself as an agent who consciously makes decisions. She has taken responsibility not only for the young children in her care, but also for her own life.
At other points in the narrative, the governess appears to be much more confused and irrational, as when she writes: “It was not so much yet that I was more nervous than I could bear to be as that I was remarkably afraid of becoming so; for the truth I had now to turn over was, simply and clearly, the truth that I could arrive at no account whatever of the visitor with whom I had been so inexplicably and yet, as it seemed to me, so intimately concerned” (18-19). This is a key passage in my reading of “double consciousness” in
The Turn of the Screw, as it exemplifies how the governess stands as an obstacle to her own quest for knowledge. The emphasis is placed on the governess’s nervousness, and her inability to grasp a rational truth. She is no longer an agent, but rather a victim of her surroundings, as she cannot deal with the world she has entered. In view of this fact, I suggest that her traditionally “feminine” side attempts to keep her from finding out what she is not supposed to know, because whenever the governess seeks knowledge too fiercely, she suddenly becomes highly irrational, emotional, and inactive. At the end of the novella, immediately before Miles dies in the governess’s arms as she forces him to face the ghost of Peter Quint, she experiences a moment of “double consciousness”: “My grasp of how . . . [Miles] received this suffered for a minute from something that I can describe only as a fierce split of my attention—a stroke that at first . . . reduced me to a mere blind movement of getting hold of him, drawing him close and . . . instinctively keeping him with his back to the window” ( TS81). This is the “emotional” side of the governess breaking through once again, as she presses the child to her chest in a classically dramatic gesture. Clearly, she is being reduced to motherly sentiments rather than acting as a rational, conscious human being.
The governess constantly oscillates between absolute certainty and complete insecurity, a state that is mirrored in her nervous “flash[es] of impatience”: “‘Then ask Flora—
she’ssure!’ But I had no sooner spoken than I caught myself up. ‘No, for God’s sake, don’t!She’ll say she isn’t—she’ll lie!’” ( TS30). After her initial passionate desire to discover what happened at Bly passes, the governess soon has moments of doubt and fear: “my own interest . . . had now violently taken the form of a search for the way to escape from it” ( TS33). The adverb “violently” demonstrates how radical and emotionally taxing the governess’s situation really is. She is helplessly tossed around by her emotions: “I caught my breath with all the terror that, five minutes before, I had been able to resist” ( TS40). The governess’s reality is unstable, as is her sense of identity. She remains unsure of the exact nature of her role at Bly, only retaining the awareness that this is a battle she needs to fight for the children’s sake as much as her own.
The presence of the dynamic of a “double consciousness,” as well as the fact that she claims to see ghosts, has led many critics to suggest that the governess in
The Turn of the Screwsuffers from hysteria. While there are many Freudian interpretations of the novella (e.g., Wilson 1934), Colm Tóibín contends that “[t]he problem for the Freudian reading of the story is that, while the children do not see the ghosts, the reader does” (239). The present essay takes a different approach and reads the governess’s mental state through the psychological thought of Henry James’s contemporaries, most importantly that of his brother and rival, William James. Freud sees the origin of hysteria exclusively in terms of suppressed sexual desire, which leads to a limited perspective of a highly complex illness (Hayward 10). William James, on the other hand, analyzes hysteria in a much more eclectic manner, given that he includes a detailed discussion of the idea of a “double consciousness” as a symptom of hysteria in his groundbreaking work Principles of Psychology(1890).
Henry and William James, as is widely known, kept their work strictly separated, in the sense that certain fields of knowledge were “explicitly consigned” to each brother (Cavell 248). Notably, the James brothers never examined each other’s works in depth, and were seemingly unable to provide insightful comments to each other (McDermott xvi). Henry’s biographer Leon Edel makes much of the constant competition between the two brothers, noting that, with the publication of the
Principles of Psychology, William James “was coming into belated success at the very moment when Henry, celebrated and respected in the literary world, was beginning to question the meaning of the fame that had come to him a dozen years before” (38). In a letter to William, Henry, who was waiting to receive the Principles of Psychologyin the mail, writes that “I yearn for the book—to lift me out of histrionics. . . . P.S. Please be utterly dumb about my histrionics” ( William and Henry James: Selected Letters248). This statement, while suggesting that there is a sense of rivalry between the brothers, also documents that Henry James was aware of and interested in his brother’s work.
William James and other early psychologists, like Pierre Janet, initially theorize split personalities as “dissociation,” based on the assumption that, since the individual remembers things by association, that which he or she cannot associate has simply been dissociated by him or her (Hilgard 5). In
The Major Symptoms of Hysteria(1907), a collection of essays delivered at Harvard University in 1906, Janet contends that “[h]ysteria is a form of mental depression characterized by the retraction of the field of personal consciousness and a tendency to the dissociation and emancipation of the systems of ideas and functions that constitute personality” (332). A hysterical person, according to this view, usually contains multiple personalities within him or herself. William James suggests that
The governess in
The Turn of the Screwexhibits exactly these symptoms, as I show below. She not only acts impulsively and occasionally unreasonably, but also obsesses about her mission of saving the children. The symptoms are most noticeable when the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel appear to her.
In more contemporary assessments, hysteria has come to be seen as a mechanism of societal control upon women. Michel Foucault discusses the “hysterization” of the female body in
The History of Sexuality(1976): “the hysterization of women, which involved a thorough medicalization of their bodies and their sex, was carried out in the name of the responsibility they owed to the health of their children, the solidity of the family institution, and the safeguarding of society” (146-47). According to Susan Bordo, the symptoms of hysteria are simply “an exaggeration of stereotypically feminine traits. The nineteenth-century ‘lady’ was idealized in terms of delicacy and dreaminess, sexual passivity, and a charmingly labile and capricious emotionality” (2366). Hysteria thus becomes a means of silencing women, and of limiting their experiences to illness instead of acknowledging that these experiences form a viable social critique, as well as an indication that women are unhappy and unfulfilled in the roles they play in society. The governess refuses to accept the idea that she is ill and should take medication; instead, she self-medicates by getting high on the excitement of crossing traditional gender boundaries.
In retrospect, the governess claims to have always been completely aware of her own state: “Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain, and I had more pains than one” (
TS19). She believes that she is always aware and in control of her surroundings, insofar as she ponders the strangeness of the fact that she knowingly embraces that which is most likely to destroy her. The governess gets a thrill out of convincing herself that she is doing a noble thing, that she is the heroine of her very own Gothic novel, which she also authors:
The governess takes pride in her “heroism,” a sense of achievement that sustains her during her difficult times. While this is partially a melancholic dramatization of reality that stems from her reading material, it is also an indication of the true pleasure she finds in her newly-gained responsibility, and in her possession of knowledge that extends beyond anything of which she had previously ever been consciously aware.
Describing her addiction to her new, adventurous life, the governess compares her pursuit of the ghosts at Bly to painkillers ingested so as to numb any kind of sensation. Oddly enough, her way of distracting herself from the bad news she receives from home is to think of the happiness she feels when being with the children, Flora and Miles: “with this joy of my children what things in the world mattered?” (
TS19). It is strange that, at this point in the narrative, the governess has already encountered the ghost of Peter Quint, although she does not yet know that it is he, and is very well aware that there is “a ‘secret’ at Bly” ( TS17). Thus, I proffer that she is expressing joy not only in the company of the children as their governess, but, more importantly, in having found a challenge, and that she is excited about the process of gaining knowledge, which begins the moment she receives the mysterious letter from Miles’s school. While true rebellion would have meant writing to the school to inquire about Miles’s expulsion, the governess does not go so far, but starts her investigations in the small, mostly female, microcosm of Bly. Nonetheless, she begins to suffer from “hysteria”: an inability to escape the pressure of the societal expectations that she feels strongly operating on her even as she subtly begins to act against them. Throughout The Turn of the Screw, the governess underlines that she is not crazy, and that she refuses to be treated as such, arguing that, even as she loses control of the situation, she always retains control of herself.
The governess insists on being completely sane: “I go on, I know, as if I were crazy; and it’s a wonder I’m not. What I’ve seen would have made
youso, but it has only made me get hold of still other things” ( TS46-47). Her addressee is Mrs. Grose, whose feminine fragility the governess constantly underlines, as if to distinguish her own actions from those of other members of the female sex. Clearly, though, the governess struggles to create an image of herself as a mentally healthy person. Very skillfully, she admits to almost having gone crazy precisely to assure her readership of her sanity at all points in the narrative. Thus she establishes the credibility of her voice and the truthfulness of her account.
Repeatedly using words like “truth” and “proof,” the governess hopes to create an illusion of security. However, she is least sure precisely when she employs these words: Mrs. Grose “accepted without directly impugning my sanity the truth as I gave it to her” (
TS24); similarly, “I began to watch them in a stifled suspense, a disguised tension, that might well, had it continued too long, have turned to something like madness. What saved me, as I now see, was that it . . . was superseded by horrible proofs” ( TS27). While the situation is clearly beyond her control, the governess tries to pretend that she knew what she was doing at all times, and that all her decisions were based on facts rather than instincts and emotions. In short, she goes through great pains to prove that she is not a hysterical individual, but a sane, balanced person who carefully evaluates situations.
The governess claims that she is completely rational and trusts the evidence before her own eyes: “There was no ambiguity in anything; none whatever at least in the conviction I from one moment to another found myself forming as to what I should see straight before me and across the lake as a consequence of raising my eyes” (
TS28). Not realizing, or at least admitting, that her eyes may very well deceive her, the governess represents herself in a manner that suggests she is scientifically analyzing her surroundings. James thus manages to show his reader that the reality of the governess is at least questionable, and that all her affirmations are to be read as the expressions of a woman under an immense pressure who, with varying degrees of success, strives to present a certain image of herself and who is terribly self-conscious (Klein 605). Constantly worrying about proving her sanity, the governess feels a “thrill of joy at having brought on a proof” as Miss Jessel appears to her in the presence of Mrs. Grose, who nonetheless cannot see anything ( TS69).
While the governess claims to be absolutely in control of the situation, her own narrative betrays her. When she exclaims “God help me if I know
whathe is!” ( TS22), this sentence is ambiguous: the governess means to suggest that the “horror” of Quint goes beyond what she can express. However, she simultaneously says that she does not want to “know whathe is.” Clearly, the governess finds herself in a great dilemma caused by the fact that she, as a woman, wishes to acquire knowledge that is “forbidden” by society. This knowledge is closely related to questions of choice and the ability to control one’s own destiny. It is the knowledge of all things deemed inappropriate for a woman to concern herself with. Resisting the cultural values that have been instilled in her since birth, the governess experiences a “multiplication” of personalities, as a part of her wants to rebel, while another part of her wishes to conform. As both desires are strong within her, none manages to dominate the other completely, which leads to the “double consciousness” that the reader witnesses throughout The Turn of the Screw.
In a sense, William James and a few of his contemporaries anticipated the reconfiguration of hysteria as a socially constructed phenomenon, as they began to argue that the “double consciousness” of hysterical individuals can, to a lesser degree, be found in all human beings. In
The Varieties of Religious Experience(1902), William James suggests that it is merely the extent to which individuals possess a “double consciousness” that varies (233). He expresses the belief that human consciousness goes beyond that which the individual knows: “Apart from all religious considerations, there is actually and literally more life in our total soul than we are at any time aware of” ( Varieties511). James goes on to cite a passage from Frederic Myers’s “Subliminal Consciousness”:
According to James, then, the unconscious consciousness the individual possesses manifests itself, for example, as he or she forgets things or as he or she remembers random bits of information, such as “silly jingles” that seemingly pop up in his or her head without a reason (512). James thus suggests that the individual, whether sane or insane, remains ignorant of a large part of his or her own being. The “double consciousness” is represented by a constant progressing and regressing, an oscillation between “self-realization” and “selfignorance.”
In her attempts to free herself by stepping out of the “closet” that confines late nineteenth-century women, the governess is crushed by a culture that cannot or will not hear her voice, and that does not value her experience; thus, she flees back into the closet. She wants to explore parts of her consciousness with which she is unfamiliar and to experience desires that she dare not imagine, because an array of social mechanism have taught her to view them as inappropriate for a woman, especially a “lady.” From the premise that ignorance is a feminine virtue, the seeking of knowledge becomes a socially condemned claim to “mastery and power” (Ender 140). The governess desires to be her own master, and an independently thinking individual, which is socially unacceptable. She risks being considered insane by claiming to have seen ghosts, and she argues fiercely that her experience is real, that she is not mad, trying to make Mrs. Grose see the same reality that she herself sees. Mrs. Grose, however, remains a true woman, as she refuses to abandon the traditionally female point of view. She chooses the safety of ignorance over the knowledge the governess seeks. Hence the ending of the novella presents Mrs. Grose nurturing Flora, the little girl who has been alienated by the governess, while the governess, either by forcing him to face the ghost of Peter Quint, or by suffocating him, causes the death of Miles.
The governess repeatedly portrays herself in a manner that is unfeminine, as when she tells Mrs. Grose, who remains properly unknowing until close to the end of the narrative, “you haven’t my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back, out of timidity and modesty and delicacy, even the impression that, in the past, when you had, without my aid, to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable. But I shall get it out of you yet!” (
TS35). I suggest that by getting “it out of” Mrs. Grose, the governess wishes to drag Mrs. Grose “out of it,” it being the closet of female ignorance the governess herself is trying to leave. However, the world outside that closet is frightening. In trying to master the situation, the governess is constantly in danger of being mastered by the situation: “I was taken with an impulse that might master me” ( TS56). As she strives to come out of the closet, she is unavoidably confronted with a harsh reality that does not welcome her true being, and thus immediately orients herself backwards, driven by a desire to return into the closet and remain hidden.
The Turn of the Screwis the story of a woman, the true horror of the occurrences at Bly is spelled out by Douglas in the frame narrative, the first-person account of a nameless, un-gendered narrator that leads up to the first-person narrative of the governess: “It’s beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it. . . . [D]readful—dreadfulness! . . . For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain” ( TS1). The frame anticipates the way “double consciousness” functions in the embedded narrative, as it constantly defers and postpones the reading aloud of the narrative itself. Douglas promises to tell a ghost story only to hesitate with a great gesture: “He turned round to the fire, gave a kick to a log, watched it an instant. Then as he faced us again: ‘I can’t begin. I shall have to send to town’” ( TS2). Douglas hesitates because, consciously or subconsciously, while he is eager to share the story of the governess, he is afraid of waking painful memories by reliving the account of a lost love. The narrator is very perceptive, noticing the peculiarity in Douglas’s action even before Douglas has admitted that he once loved the governess: “It was to me in particular that he appeared to propound this—appeared almost to appeal for aid not to hesitate” ( TS2). Douglas is described as being effeminate, perhaps to serve as a contrast to the governess. He is certainly more helpless and passive than the governess, who at least fights her own battle. In fact, unlike the way Douglas acts in the eyes of the narrator, the governess insists on making her own rational decisions rather than being influenced by others, although she sometimes cannot help following her moods and emotions as she instinctively becomes more “feminine” after having progressed too far out of the closet.
In her reading of
The Turn of the Screw, Shoshana Felman shows how the frame and the interior narrative of James’s novella are linked by a chain of voices, which cause interiority and exteriority to be twisted, as the story is told “by a voice inherently alien to it” (123). Kiyoon Jang argues that “the governess is not deprived of narrative authority, because the meanings that we make out of her narrative basically originate in . . . our readings of herstory, the merging and identification of our ‘I’s with her ‘I’” (23). However, the fact that the story of the governess is narrated by another suggests that the narrative itself is “closeted” by a structure of dominance; her voice is represented only in a manner that is several times displaced. Douglas reads aloud the governess’s narrative “with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author’s hand” ( TS6), while what is represented in the book is a subsequent “exact transcript” made by the narrator ( TS4). Hence, ultimately, neither the voice nor the writing of the governess are represented in her own tale as it is, at first, read out loud in a male voice, and then, spelled out by an un-gendered hand.
I submit that the frame narrative is a closet that contains the governess’s account in
The Turn of the Screw, a straightjacket she cannot reject because her narrative is being supplemented by it after her death. The narrator suggests that “the written statement took up the tale at a point after it had, in a manner, begun” ( TS4). This point justifies the fact that information that the governess herself deemed too personal, or simply did not find necessary and deliberately excluded, is shared by Douglas. It is this frame, or, I proffer, closet narrative, that establishes her femininity on various levels: she is the love-interest of Douglas, herself in love with the master, and she successfully continues taking care of children after Miles’s death. Douglas contends that there are things the governess herself does not, at least not explicitly, share in her narrative, which he spells out very clearly as he constructs a closet for her narrative:
Douglas violates the voice of the governess by “vulgarly” sharing information about the governess’s life that she chooses to exclude from the representation of her struggle against that very life. The reason she does not tell her story to any one person is precisely because “she couldn’t tell her story without . . . [the fact that she is in love with her master] coming out” (
TS3), as Douglas knows very well, because she directs those words at him. Thus, the additional information given by Douglas forms a closet as it reduces the governess to a traditional gender role and diminishes her struggle against feminine ignorance. The governess is represented as a lovelorn Victorian lady at the very moment she is trying to break free as an independent woman who, although perhaps unsuccessfully, at least attempts to choose knowledge over ignorance, and who decides to share the struggle of her “double consciousness,” the battle between the socially deemed feminine preference for ignorance and the nineteenth-century male choice of knowledge that takes place in her mind.
While the governess is frustrated in her attempt to gain a voice for herself by the fact that her narrative is supplemented by Douglas’s descriptions of her, she is nonetheless permitted to display her emotions in a first-person narrative, which is much more than many of James’s other female characters will ever be allowed to do. Sedgwick points out, for example, that the reader remains completely unclear about May Bartram’s personality and her emotions in James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” (
Epistemology199). The governess is never named and thus remains, to an extent, anonymous and somewhat distanced from the reader; however, her interiority is displayed in the narrative, though in a displaced manner, and the reader becomes intimately familiar with her thought processes, which is what makes The Turn of the Screwso accessible to psychological readings.
The novella ends in typical Jamesian ambiguity (Kramer 205). Through Douglas’s account in the frame narrative, the reader is informed that the governess remains a governess, and that her actions are motivated by her feelings for her employer more than anything else. The governess’s own account tells a different story, however. It presents a woman who, while clearly overwhelmed, takes pride in being in charge of a difficult situation. It also presents a woman who, while she cannot avoid bending to social forces that demand that a “lady” be ignorant of many of the details of real life, fights her fight until the point at which she purposely ends her narrative, without giving any information about her life after Bly.
In my reading of
The Turn of the Screw, the fact that she causes the death of a child signifies that the governess’s desire for knowledge automatically disqualifies her from the role of mother. The governess is not the source of life, but the destroyer thereof. A woman cannot simultaneously be in control of her own life and be a mother/caretaker of children, nineteenth-century society tells her. If she is going to care for children, she needs to do it properly, and if she strives for knowledge, she can no longer be a woman. This creates a divided mind and causes her to stand in her own way and sabotage herself, unable to bring the two sides together peacefully, which leads to the death of a child. Her “double consciousness” stems from the fact that society demands that she take care of the children and remain ignorant, but she feels she must give up her ignorance in order to protect the children. The knowledge that she gains allows her to question the passive role assigned to her by society, as she attempts to come out of her closet to claim a voice. Her “double consciousness” causes her to undermine her own quest and subsequently to return to a life of ignorance and child care. The fact that she ultimately remains in that closet, and that her voice is altered and displaced, reduces the impact of her account; however, by no means does it extinguish her voice completely.