The Turn of the Screw

by Henry James

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Is there any suggestion of inappropriate relationships between Flora and Miss Jessel, or Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in the theme "Corruption of the Innocent"?

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Evidence of sexual hysteria/repression: 1. Isolation 2. Depression 3. Stress (of caretaker) 4. Sexual Frustration 5. Loneliness (the need to find a savior) 6. Reading way too much into Peter Quint's death, seeing Jessell ghosts and in general the obsession with sin 7. Her appearance and her "repugnance"

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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...

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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.

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