There is much suggestion about an inappropriate relationship between Miles and Peter Quint, but what about between Flora and Miss Jessel? Evidence?What about the relationship between Peter Quint...

There is much suggestion about an inappropriate relationship between Miles and Peter Quint, but what about between Flora and Miss Jessel? Evidence?

What about the relationship between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel?   All in reference to the theme "Corruption of the Innocent"

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most of the works by Henry James leave topics open to interpretation. However, the topic of sexuality has been approached from many points of view by different scholars. The one I will discuss is the theory of sexual hysteria.

This theory points at the possibility that Miss Jessell and Peter Quint's relationship was so open and graphic (they were essentially running the household while the gentleman remained in the city) that it corrupted the children's view of relationships all together. As a result, Flora was already "tainted" by Miss Jessell in that she may have seen, heard, or witnessed, her caretaker, who is supposed to be a model of decorum and manners, in a few compromising situations. This is not when the sexual hysteria comes in. This just sets the scenario for it.

Enter the governess, and we meet a woman with her own proneness to develop her own sexual repression issues, perhaps even a propensity for sexual deviance, which exists within all of us. However, when she learns the story of Miss Jessell, and claims to even see her ghost, maybe what she is doing is fearing her own weaknesses, mirroring herself onto Jessell, who may be more similar to her than we think. And, just like that, now we have two sexually repressed women in the lives of the two children. Repressed people collaterally damaging the children whom they were supposed to care for. 

This theory is supported by, among many other writings, by the article`Miss Jessel': Mirror Image of the Governess," published in Literature and Psychology (1968) pp 30-38. 

Essentially, the theory is summarized by saying that, when the governess enters the household, she encounters the two kids in their natural, innocent stage. However, as her own sexual frustrations start to manifest, she sees how the children, who are 8 and 10, could also fall prey to bad thoughts and influences. When she sees the ghosts (or thinks she sees them), she realizes that the children have already been tainted by some form of impurity in their past. That, like already mentioned, they have witnessed Peter Quint and Miss Jessell's improper conduct.

The idea of Miss Jessell, her life, her death, and her deviant behavior, make the governess feel as if she, too, could end up like her. As such, she mirrors these views on Flora, and she starts to dislike her. She (Flora), too, may face the same dire future. As a result, Flora begins to look "ugly" in the eyes of the governess:

"[her] incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failed, had quite vanished . . . she was hideously hard; she had turned common and almost ugly."

According to Siegel, the evidence of sexual hysteria in the governess are very clear:

  • Isolation—Bly was a faraway country estate
  • Depression—she was away from family for the first time
  • Stress—from such an enormous household and being a young woman with no previous experience in childcare being entirely in charge of children
  • Sexual frustration—she apparently fancies her employer, whom she sees maybe twice, and he hardly notices her. 
  • Loneliness—she is literally on her own in that huge home with the exception of the other service people

Therefore, the sexual hysteria and repression that oppresses the governess, just like the sexual deviant behavior of Jessell and Quint, all contribute to the overall corruption of the innocence of the kids.

ivana | Student

Peter Q. and Miss Jessel  were in a sexual relationship. They both died. As children's guardians they had  obviously  influenced them. The present governess is sure that the children have been corrupted by them. Still, that is her opinion. We cannot be sure. (as always with Henry James)

Some critics say that there are sexual connotations in a scene when the girl is playing by the lake. That would suggest that she was exposed to some inappropriate behaviour from Miss Jessel (her former teacher) or that she had witnessed something that was happening between Miss Jessel and Peter Quint (perhaps some physical contact). However, the child could just be playing a game. We cannot be sure. (as always with Henry James)

The fact is that Peter and Jessel have died and that the children are traumatised. What caused the trauma is hard to tell. Maybe the children are just trying to get some attention from their older brother, the only living member of the family they have, and who is so determined to ignore them.

I guess it all come down to interpretation again. If we assume that the governess is insane than all her theories about corruption of the innocent could be overreacting.

Read the study guide:
The Turn of the Screw

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