In The Turn of the Screw how have gothic conventions been manipulated/adapted to different cultures and times?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Let's answer your question step by step, shall we? :)

Henry James uses his literary license to refrain from excessive descriptors, dramatic endings, nor embellished narrative, in his novel, The Turn of the Screw. Don't get me wrong, the novel IS complex in its central theme, but it is also written as a typical ghost story to engage an audience of Gothic readers. This being said, the connection between his style and the style of Gothic conventions coincide in the following:

  • The use of isolation as way to enable the characters to intertwine with metaphysical and supernatural forces.
  • The treatment of the topic of human psychology to explore anger, fear, despair, loneliness, and depression.
  • The inclusion of death as a subtopic to explain how fate is inevitable in human reality.
  • The manipulation of the atmosphere: Darkness, fog, coldness, dampness...every element that helps the audience feel in a very scary place.

These are the Gothic conventions in the story.

When it comes to cultural adaptation, it means that people of different backgrounds aim to solve the problem of the story, at the same time, and within their unique parameters of age, education, and social upbringing. 

As you can see, there are three different generations that aim to explain what is going on: 

The older maid explains how Jessel and Quint "corrupted", and "contaminated" the children. The young governess claims that the spirits of Jessel and Quint want claim the children's souls. Then you get the children's perspective: They do not claim a thing. They cannot see anything. They are simply oblivious and wish to be left alone.

Hence, Henry James says everything and nothing at the same time through his use of Gothic conventions.

He uses the generation gap of his characters to illustrate how they things they way they see it. Then, he leaves it up to the reader to make assumptions. Each of the characters explains their situation according to their personal history and system of values. It is up to the reader to choose which side is correct.

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