Is sexual child abuse evident in The Turn of the Screw?
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In the novel The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, the characters of Peter Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessel, a governess, consistently appear to siblings Flora and Miles, in an apparent quest for their souls. Both, Quint and Jessel, are deceased. However, the children's governess senses that their influence on the children (when they were alive) was clearly corrupting and "contaminating." The assumption is that this is the reason why the two want to come back from beyond: To complete the destruction of the children.
However, the writing style of Henry James offers a lot of intimations that do not give away much information. This is an attempt to appeal to the reader's own psychological schema so that it is the reader, and not the writer, who will "fill in the blanks" as to what went on between the children and the two dead servants. This way, the connection that is created between the reader and the story becomes more in-depth.
Yet, specific words typical of the Victorian vocabulary of the day are cited each time the actions of Quint and Jessel are remembered. The words include: Corruption, contamination, evil, and the libertine idea of little Miles being so openly flirtatious with his governess. These terms and ideas invite the reader to assume that both Miles and Flora had been exposed to some form of carnal knowledge.
However, The Turn of the Screw is hardly the tale of two abused children under the spell of their dead abusers: It is actually an in-depth analysis of the effects of isolation in the human psyche. It includes Gothic elements that only help accentuate the tragedies of despair and fear in human nature. In all, the possibility of sexual abuse is there, but it is insinuated as a possibility and not offered as a fact in the novel.
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