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The Turn of the Screw: A Cultural Studies Perpspective

Updated on June 24, 2014

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Henry James



It is often suggested that the many theoretical perspectives tend to overlap with each other in their analyses of literature texts. A contributing factor to this phenomenon is that there is a “basic frame of mind which [literary and critical] theory embodies” which Peter Barry clearly prescribes in his discussion on the evolution of contemporary literary and cultural theory (Barry 35). While the many approaches to literary analysis work to point out different aspects of a text and tend to interpret similar passages in different ways, because of this “basic frame of mind” to theory, one can also find a common ground centered on these five concepts that Barry provides. A culture studies analysis, for example, may simply seek to point out the different aspects of culture found within a text, and use the aforementioned concepts to consider the potential functions of the elements of culture being analyzed. “The way people behave while eating, talking with each other, becoming sexual partners, interacting at work, engaging in ritualized social behavior such as family gatherings, and the like [all] constitute culture” (Rivkin and Ryan 1233). The various representations of culture in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw strengthen Barry’s claim that in literature: politics is ubiquitous, language is constitutive, truth is provisional, meaning is contingent and that human nature—as a totalizing notion—is a myth (Barry 33-35).

Politics in Literature

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What does ubiquitous mean?



Culturally-based ideals and practices deeply influence and shape political structures in society; moreover, politics are ever detectable in literature, and often expressed by authors through various representations of power and political motifs in their prose. “Historians have nearly always regarded literature as an integral part of cultural and intellectual history” (Kroll). The Turn of the Screw is no exception. 1895-1900 has been labeled “The Treacherous Years” for Henry James, and it was at this period in his life that he wrote this culturally-predisposed and power-perplexing novella (Edel 424-513). This period for England was an era of political and social unrest (Lambert). The “war scare [, caused by political outcry against England in the American press,] had brought home to him the length of his absence from America [; and, as Henry confessed,] ‘those were weeks of black darkness for me’” (Edel 449). Therefore, his personal situation and the tension-building world events had a direct impact on the content and representation of politics in this novella.

Mass politics of the late nineteenth century and the growing of power of labor in England lead to lower and middle class “action for more pay, lower prices, and better working conditions” (Hunt et al. 839-841). Consider the following excerpt from the novel in question:

…an excellent woman, [Mrs. Grose] was now housekeeper and was also acting for the time as superintendent to the little girl… [The new] governess [of course,] would be in supreme authority. …and there were, further, a cook, a housemaid, a dairywoman, an old pony, an old groom, and an old gardener, all likewise thoroughly respectable. …the salary offered much exceeded her modest measure [, and so] she succumbed. (James and Broun 7-8)

Middle to lower class occupations, such as servants, cooks, housemaids, dairywomen, gardeners and governesses, were a vital part of British culture and society at this time and—it is logical to assume—were intentionally glorified by James in this novel as a political attempt to appeal to such individuals.

Power and authority in the novel constantly shift back and forth between individuals of different rank, class and age; which, mimics the political instability of the time, and shows culture’s role to play in late-nineteenth-century domestic power. First of all, it is important to mention that ultimate authority in the story is given to men; because women, at this time in western history, had just began to stand up for their rights and “battle for suffrage” (Hunt et al. 842-844). The power starts with our anonymous narrator (assumedly male because of his contemptuous attitude toward the sensation-hungry women at the gathering), then on to Douglas (the teller of the governess’ tale) which hands power over to the uncle (the proprietor of the house and servants, and guardian of the children). These three men represent the ultimate power, to which all the other characters in the story owe their allegiance. Mrs. Grose, who was temporary “superintendent” to Flora, was happily relieved by the governess (who was given “supreme authority”) by the uncle—whose orders the governess was sworn to obey—and who was constantly controlled by her maternal desire to protect the children from Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and easily manipulated by “loveliness of the children” (James). At the end of the story, the governess’ power is threatened by Flora’s defiance and consequential illness, and she relies on Miles and Mrs. Grose for support; though, the story ends with Miles’ death and it can be assumed that her position at Bly ended with that as well (James). Hence, affected by political situations (both national and international), the growing power of labor, and James’ internal cultural-identity conflict, The Turn of the Screw is a dark novel with fluctuating representations of power in terms of culture and social structure.


Language, an element at the very foundations of culture, is often used in literature as a means of creating and establishing what and how things are. The Turn of the Screw demonstrates the constitutive power of language in many ways. For example, when the governess describes every detail of the “nobody” that appeared to her in the following passage:

His eyebrows are, somehow, darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange—awfully; but I only know clearly that they’re rather small and very fixed. …

My companion’s face had blanched as I went on; her round eyes started and her mild mouth gaped. “A gentleman?” she gasped, confounded, stupefied: “a gentleman he?”

“You know him then?”

But he is handsome?”

I saw the way to help her. “Remarkably!”

… She faltered a second. “Quint!” she cried. (James and Broun 35)

The governess uses descriptive language to create an image of the man for the reader, and Mrs. Grose is able use this language to confirm exactly who the governess saw, based on those descriptions. Before describing him to Mrs. Grose, Quint was “like a nobody” to the governess, but the language used to describe him, allowed Mrs. Grose to give the apparition a name and from then on in the story exists as Peter Quint (James and Broun). Here, we see language being utilized in the forms of: vivid descriptions used to discover the identity of a supernatural being, the determining factors as to whether a man is “handsome” or not, and suggestions of a belief that supernatural beings exist; and, these differing forms of language, all influenced and controlled by cultural ideals and standards.

Two of the most significant abilities that language possesses are the powers to create unwritten rules and contracts, and establish authority. The following excerpt from the text provides an example of the first ability: “What was settled between us, accordingly, that night, was that we thought we might bear things together; and I was not even sure that, in spite of her exception, it was she who had the best of the burden. …but it took me some time to be wholly sure of what my honest ally was prepared for to keep terms with so compromising a contract” (James and Broun 37). Believing the governess, thanks to her precise description of Mr. Quint, the language between the two established an unwritten contract—an agreement, a mutual understanding—between them. The second ability of language, to establish authority, is often applied in this novella by the use of narration, directly “stating” said authority or by the “mention” of the obedience thereof, which is determined by cultural circumstances. As in the following examples: “…the lady who should go down as governess would be in supreme authority” (James and Broun 7). And, “They were at this period extravagantly and preternaturally fond of me… They got their little tasks as if they loved them, and indulged, from the mere exuberance of the gift, in the most unimposed little miracles of memory” (James and Broun 57).

Finally, it is important to look at the ethnically and culturally related concept of literacy. Literacy can be understood as the ability to read and write language, and world history shows the connection to being able to read and write with the advancement of new ideas, technology, the empowerment of an individual, and the ability to create. In this novella, it is established early on that Mrs. Grose is illiterate (James and Broun 16). Her occupation as a housemaid establishes her social class—and essentially, her culture—within this society; and, as a member of the lower class, it’s reasonable to assume she couldn’t afford an education and began working as housemaid once she was old enough. Here, we see that her illiteracy is directly related to her social class—and lack of power—and the inability to really make things happen in this society; which mirrors the reality of the relationship between literacy and social status. Therefore, the notion that language is constitutive can be supported by observing language in The Turn of the Screw and the way it allows for things to exist in culture; like, establishing a person’s identity, the belief in ghosts, and contracts between individuals and authority. Not only that, but the novella shows how the inability to comprehend written language hinders a person’s ability and confidence to be authoritative.


Elements of culture represented in literature can also show that truth, in both a universal and fictional sense, is quite provisional. Take, for example, the belief in the supernatural (as previously mentioned) in The Turn of the Screw. Originally assuming that there was some “intrusion” the governess did not reveal her belief that the dead could walk among the living until her descriptions of the man confirmed that it was Peter Quint and after Mrs. Grose had established that he was, in fact, dead (James and Broun 27-35). It was then that Mrs. Gross accepted the governess’ story as truth; but, when they were both out near the pond after finding Flora, and Mrs. Grose could not see Miss Jessel, her trust and the housemaid's belief that the governess was telling the truth had faded—not to mention the governess’ brief contemplation of her own sanity because of this (James and Broun 108-112). Only when the governess’ position was in jeopardy, and she once again, pleaded her case (and presented her “evidence”) to Mrs. Grose, did the housemaid say that she believes (James and Broun117). This example from the novel shows that truth is conditional, especially in cases of beliefs and matters of trust. In the end, the reader is left to make their own conclusion as to whether or not the apparitions truly existed, based on the evidence provided by the story.

Another factor in the novella contributing to Barry’s claim that truth is provisional is the lack of credibility our main narrator—the governess—gives herself. There’s no doubt that memory, in general, has a tendency to be fallible, but the governess herself admits to having forgot some of the details. Consider: “I call it time, but how long was it? I can’t speak to the purpose today of the duration of these things. That kind of measure must have left me: they couldn’t have lasted as they actually appeared to me to last” (James and Broun 30-31). While, being humble and admitting one’s fault are common and acceptable cultural phenomena, her credibility as a narrator is lost, and the reader has to make a choice to take what she says as “truth” or not.

What does "contingent" mean?



Meaning, within works of literature, is often another culturally-contingent entity that James manipulates in his works of fiction in different ways. Sometimes, external factors are relevant to interpreting the meaning of unsure matters within a novel. For example, the economic situation of the author, the events taking place around the time in which the prose was written, the personal beliefs of the writer, as “the relationship of the writer to a particular class, group, or segment of the social structure” can all help shed a light to the interpretation of meaning (Kroll). In The Turn of the Screw, for example, conversations between the governess and Mrs. Grose bring up questions concerning sexual and sexuality matters. This is the case in the following passage:

“Oh, it wasn’t him!” Mrs. Grose with emphasis declared. “It was Quint’s own fancy. To play with him, I mean—to spoil him,” She paused a moment; then she added: “Quint was much too free.”

This gave me, straight from my vision of his face—such a face!—a sudden sickness of disgust. “Too free with my boy?”

“Too free with everyone!” (James and Broun 39)

Passages like this are can be used to accuse Quint of inappropriate relations with the children, Miss Jessel, and possibly even Mrs. Grose, as well as support an inappropriate—yet harmless—relationship between the governess and miles. Questions of morality and appropriateness often fall within the discretion of culture, and this novel has many passages that can bring up these sorts of questions. When considering the possible meanings of the passage above, one could juxtapose Henry’s James’s life—the fact that he had never gotten married, chose to surround himself with handsome men, and that his father had a less than favorable outlook toward women—with passages like this concerning Peter Quint; which, as shown here, provides evidence to support different interpretations concerning both his and the author’s sexuality (Wolf).

Another culturally related concept in The Turn of the Screw that is open to different interpretations of meaning can be found beginning in chapter twenty-three and ending in chapter twenty-four concerning the death of Miles. The successive passages throughout these two chapters bring up many questions as we reach Miles’ immediate demise: “‘You want so to go out again?’ ‘Awfully!’ He smiled at me heroically, and the touching little bravery of it was enhanced by his actually flushing with pain” (James and Broun 126-127). This first reference to “pain”, bring ups the question: Was he flushing with the pain of excitement, as a young child might at the prospect of being able to go outside, or showing symptoms of something serious? “It was like fighting with a demon for a human soul, and when I had fairly so appraised it I saw how the human soul—held out, in the tremor of my hands, at arm’s length—had a perfect dew of sweat on a lovely childish forehead” (James and Broun 129). The child is sweating, is he nervous or is a real fever coming on? “…I enfolded, I drew him to my breast, where I could feel in the sudden fever of his little body the tremendous pulse of his little heart, I kept my eyes on the thing at the window and saw it move and shift its posture’… ‘Nothing, nothing,’ he sadly repeated. I kissed his forehead; it was drenched” (James and Broun 130). Is she so caught up in her inquiries and “the thing at the window,” that she doesn’t notice something may really be wrong with him? “He looked in vague pain all round the top of the room and drew his breath, two or three times over, as if with difficulty. He might have been standing at the bottom of the sea and raising his eyes to some fain green twilight” (James and Broun 131). Is it really his fear to tell the truth that is causing him to sweat and struggle to breathe, or is he seriously ill? “He was soon at some distance from me, still breathing hard and again with the air, though now without anger for it, of being confined against his will” (James and Broun 132). Is this getting progressively worse? Finally:

...after a second in which his head made the movement of a baffled dog’s on a scent and then gave a frantic little shake for air and light, he was at me in a white rage, bewildered, glaring vainly over …

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped. (James and Broun 134)

Does this mean that, the closer the governess got to getting the truth out of Miles, the more frustrated his “demon possessor” became, until he left the child’s body leaving him for dead? Or, he was seriously ill, like Flora seemed to be, and progressively getting worse—while the governess, obsessed with her interrogation, didn’t realize this—until he literally collapsed and died from said illness? Like many other uncertain situations in the novella, the meaning of this particular sequence of events was intentionally left “uncertain” by the author, for the reader to engage in their own imagination. The reader is left with many questions connected to these two individuals and their culture: Did the governess lose her mothering nature in her search for the truth? Was Miles too obsessed with growing up and being a man that he refused to admit he was ill? Had the governess realized that something was wrong with Miles, did she have the knowledge to save him? If the child was possessed, was he possessed by Peter Quint or Miss Jessel, and why?


Looking at the way culture is depicted in literature, it is also concludable that “human nature—as a totalizing notion—is a myth. Concerning human nature and gender differences, one can generally find that there is a “greater investment in reproduction and child-rearing among females, hence less risk-taking; and concomitantly less investment and greater risk-taking among males” (“human nature”). Looking back at The Turn of the Screw, there are certain conflicting situations regarding actions being taken and general human nature concerning such action. The governess, for example, according to the above standards, should be more interested in finding a mate and raising children, but is found choosing to accept a position which seemed “grim” and risky; and, though it provided her a chance to raise children, the package came with great responsibilities and loneliness. As the following excerpt from the text demonstrates:

… “I should have wished to learn if the office brought with it—–”

“Necessary danger to life?” Douglas completed my thought. “She did wish to learn, and she did learn. You shall hear tomorrow what she learnt. Meanwhile, of course, the prospect struck her as slightly grim. She was young, untried, nervous: it was a vision of serious duties and little company, of really great loneliness. She hesitated—took a couple of days to consult and consider. But the salary offered much exceeded her modes measure, and on a second interview she faced the music, she engaged.” (James and Broun 7-8)

It is clear that her actions here, compared with the presumed actions a woman of her era should take, are a little different. Instead of accepting a job that will put her near people, where she can socialize, court gentlemen and do other ladylike things, she chooses this (high responsibility = high risk) job because of lust and greed—the appeal of a higher salary than she’s worth, and the chance to increase personal comforts, both of which are typical to actions men might take. The cultural drive to climb up the ladder of social hierarchy (despite the risk and promise of loneliness), and her lust, her sexual appeal toward the uncle being a deciding factor—despite the fact that he says she must never contact him—and the desire for her to enjoy his (the uncle’s hard earned or possibly inherited) wealth, property and comforts, are all qualities that were more than likely not favorable or commonly attributable to a late-nineteenth-century woman. And a clear distinction between expected behavior in this culture and actual behavior is evident.


So, an analysis of the way Henry James utilized and manipulated the aforementioned elements of culture within The Taming of the Screw, modeled on the basic frame of mind to which Peter Barry claims all theory embodies, sheds a light on the way culture is—and can be—depicted and interpreted within literature. The way authors can use culture as a tool for political, creating, plot thickening and defamiliarizing purposes becomes clear. It also becomes evident that various components of culture can also be used to prove that—in literature—politics are ever present, language has constitutive power, truth and meaning are conditional and often ambiguous, and that human nature is indefinite. The analysis and interpretation of culture representations in a text can also open the doors to new discoveries within other realms of literary theorizing, the possibilities are endless.

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Works Cited:

Barry, Peter. "Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory." 3rd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.

Edel, Leon. Henry James: a life. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Print.

Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R.Po-chia Hsia, and Bonnie G. Smith. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 788-928. Print.

“Human Nature.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012. Credo Reference. Web. 9 June 2014.

Kroll, Morton. “Politics in Literature.” Political Research, Organization and Design 3.5 (1960):3. ProQuest. Web. 6 June 2014.

Lambert, Tim. "A HISTORY OF ENGLAND IN THE 19th CENTURY." 19th Century England., 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 1 June 2014.

James, Henry, and Heywood Broun. The turn of the screw, The lesson of the master. New York: Modern Library, 1930. Print.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “Introduction: The Politics of Culture” Literary Anthology: An Anthology, Second Edition. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 2004. 1233-1234. Print.

Wolf, Abby. "Henry James." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 8 June 2014.


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