The Absent Employer
It is very difficult to make an argument about most aspects of The Turn of the Screw without first announcing whether one belongs to the group that views the tale as a ghost story or to the group that feels the governess's ghosts are really hallucinations. This essay will take the latter view as a starting point and discuss the reasons behind the governess's hallucinations. It is her master's curiously absent status, coupled with the governess's unrequited love for him, that drives the young woman to her hallucinations.
When the governess applies for the job at Bly, her employer tells her that there is one binding condition that no other woman has been able to meet: "she should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything." Instead, the governess is to be totally in charge and should "meet all the questions herself ... take the whole thing over and let him alone." The governess is unsure at first, especially because she knows the position will entail "really great loneliness."
If she had her way, on the other hand, she would be governess in the house of the master himself, on whom both Douglas and the governess imply she has a crush. As Douglas notes in his introduction to the tale, when the governess first meets the master, she notes that he is "a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage." The governess is drawn to him on their first meeting and gives other clues throughout the story that she is pining for a romantic relationship, preferably with him. This feeling is compounded, first of all, by the fact that Bly is her first assignment: "She was young, untried, nervous."
As Leon Edel notes in his article, "The Point of View": "she has ample reason to be nervous about the duties and responsibilities conferred upon her ... a young girl taking her first job." Even though she is nervous at the thought of the job at Bly, she is also eager to impress her new master, as she notes when she takes her walks alone in the garden: "I was giving pleasure—if he ever thought of it!—to the person to whose pressure I had responded." The governess thinks that she has made her employer happy since she is the only one who has been able to adhere to his guideline of no contact. She starts to congratulate herself immensely: "What I was doing was what he had earnestly hoped ... and that I could, after all, do it proved even a greater joy than I expected." In fact, the governess starts to fancy herself "a remarkable young woman and took comfort in the faith that this would more publicly appear." In other words, she is hoping that her great deed will attract the master's attention.
It is telling that, in this frame of mind, she starts to have a romantic daydream, "a charming story suddenly to meet someone." Who is this someone? The governess's further description identifies this "someone" as a person who "would stand before me and smile and approve. I didn't ask more than that—I only asked that he should know." The governess is having a romantic daydream, imagining that her master will appear so that she can see his approval "in his handsome face." As Harold C. Goddard notes in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, the absence of the master is having a very real effect on the governess's psyche. Says Goddard, when "a young woman, falls in love and circumstances forbid the normal growth and confession of the passion, the emotion, dammed up, overflows in a psychical experience, a daydream."
However, the daydream that appears before the woman on the tower is not the one she expects—"the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed." Her conscious mind is asking for the appearance of the master so that she can show him how good she is being and perhaps be rewarded. But it is the deeper, subconscious mind, freshly affected from all of her thoughts about how she wants to prove herself to the master, that precipitates the "ghostly" vision. In her mind, the governess is creating a challenge for herself, something that is greater than merely following the master's orders and something that will perhaps yield a greater reward, once the master sees how she has been victorious.
The governess does not realize this, of course, and attributes the vision to the dead ghost of Peter Quint, once she has spoken with Mrs. Grose and gotten this idea in her head. However, Mrs. Grose has already planted other ideas in the governess's head, prior even to the time when the governess sees her first...
(The entire section is 1900 words.)