How can Vladimir Propp's ideas of functions and the "seven spheres of action" be applied to Henry James's The Turn of the Screw?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Vladimir Propp used Formalism to analyze Russian folklore. Formalism argues that all literary works can be understood on their own, outside of social and historical context. To understand a literary work, Formalists broke works down into certain intrinsic patterns and symbols ("Formalism (1930s-present)"). More specifically, Propp saw similarities in plot and characters in Russian folklore and grouped the aspects of plot into 31 different functions. He constructed similar groupings of characters but only designated 7 different "character types," which he himself also called "spheres of action" (Yara Kaas, "Literary Theory: 'Morphology of the Folklore' (1928) by Vladimir Propp"). According to the article posted by Kaas and the article "Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale: Character Types--Functions--Actions," the following are Propp's 7 "spheres of action":

  1. The Villain, who opposes the hero.
  2. The Donor, who "tests the hero" and only provides "magical support or advice" when the hero succeeds in the test. A common example of a Donor is a "fairy godmother" ("Donor (fairy tale)").
  3. The Helper, who assists the hero on a quest, often using magic; the Donor and Helper can often be one and the same.
  4. The Princess, who the hero wants to marry but is prevented by evil, usually in the form of the Villain.
  5. The Dispatcher, who "sends the hero off" on the quest; the Dispatcher can often be the same as the Donor and Helper.
  6. The Hero, who goes off on the quest, "reacts to the Donor, defeats the Villain, and weds/rules at [the] end."
  7. The False Hero, who claims to be the Hero but is "always discovered/punished"; the role can often be "merged with the Villain."

Since Henry James's novel The Turn of the Screw is not really folklore but rather a perfect example of literature from the realism movement, a movement dedicated to painting life as it truly is, it can be considered by some to be a stretch to use Propp's structural analysis of seven "spheres of action" to analyze the characters in The Turn of the Screw. It is especially a stretch since no magic is present in the novel, except in the form of supernatural possession. That being the case, we really have to eliminate the possibility of there being either a Donor or a Helper.

We might, however, consider the unnamed uncle of Miles and Flora to be the Dispatcher because it was the uncle who posted the ad to hire a new governess to watch over them at the Bly estate after their previous governess had died. Since the unnamed governess in the story answered the ad and started on a quest to protect the children, we can easily see how the uncle acts as a Dispatcher, since he is responsible for starting the governess on her quest. We can also easily see how the governess acts as the Hero, since she strives to protect the children from the ghosts, who are obviously the Villains.

It may also be a bit of a stretch to pinpoint a Princess in this story; however, we can loosely see the Princess as Flora. One reason why we can loosely see Flora as the Princess is because Propp observed that not all folk tales contained princesses; instead, others contained prizes the Hero sought rather than a princess's hand in marriage ("Vladimir Propp: Characters"). Flora is the only character in the story the governess succeeds at protecting from the evil ghosts because she successfully sends Flora to her uncle, away from the Bly estate, under the care of the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. If we can see the children's protection as the prize the governess seeks, then, since obtaining Flora's protection was successful, we can easily see Flora's protection as the more specific prize and see Flora as a Princess of sorts.