Screwing It Up:
The Designation of
Difference as Monstrosity in The Turn of the Screw
Carolyn Laubender L-SAW 2009
"The monster is the transgression of natural limits, the transgression of
classifications, of the table, and of the law as table...there is monstrosity
only when the confusion comes up against, overturns or disturbs civil, cannon,
or religious law....[It] is the kind of irregularity that calls law into question
and disables it."
The Victorian culture that framed the creation of The Turn of the Screw by
Henry James was one fascinated by the existence of the perverse. Ostensibly,
Victorian society was indeed one where the prescription of "the normal"
pervaded countless discourses (such as sexuality, psychology, and criminality)
becoming the standard by which all acts were judged. The normal--being all
those who were heterosexual, white, male, and classed-- were established as that
which was natural and therefore that which was objectively right or intended.
Any divergence from this white hetero-normative model then created a situation
in which that individual (or group) seemed to be challenging the very
intentions of nature-the person was different, abnormal, irregular, and thus
amoral because of their "deliberate" difference. By labeling these "other
as perverse and even monstrous, those citizens masquerading as normal effectively
created distance between themselves and the abnormals with whom they were so
interested. This label was part of a process of objectification through which
Victorian society created an atmosphere of removed and almost scientific
curiosity that eliminated any threat to the citizen of association with those people
possessing monstrous qualities of difference. This allowed for Victorians to
satiate their rather perverse fascination with the abomination while still
maintaining their normatively respectable position in society. In this way,
the persons of difference were made scientific and inhuman, merely the objects
of study, in other words, monsters.
Through this understanding of monstrosity as the display of non-normative behavior in
the Victorian era, the Turn of the Screw is quickly rewritten as a novel
about nothing but the construction of a monster. The text becomes "a
material product to be understood in broadly historical terms" (Murfin 318).
Its work is to "enforce and reinforce the prevailing ideology [of the time]...to
which the majority of people uncritically subscribe" (318). The governess,
unlike any other character, exhibits unique measures of social difference and
transgression in three dominant realms of normativity, thus opening her
character up to various readings as the ultimate portrayal of a monster. In the
case of The Turn of the Screw, her difference is her downfall, making
her the object of horror and disgust for both readers and other characters. The
three realms of traditionally normalized behavior that James addresses through
his construction of the governess's monstrosity are sexuality, class, and
psychology. The governess's fluid sexuality and questionable class
transgressions along with her deeply rooted psychosis reveal her to be
distinctly different from typical society and thus utterly monstrous.
"The monster is essentially a mixture...It is the mixture of two sexes: the person who
is both male and female...."
~Foucault, Abnormal, 63
According to Foucault, homosexuality has been in existence as an identity taxonomy since the
late 19th century.
Prior to this time, while there were acts of sodomy, but there was no distinct
separation between sexual orientations; self recognized identity labels such as
homosexuality or heterosexuality, gay or straight did not exist. For Foucault,
"homosexuality appeared... when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy
onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul" (HS 43). The homosexual as
"a species" became a confusion of the feminine and the masculine, an inversion
of sorts that claims physical allegiance to one sex while claiming
psychological allegiance to the other (43). This confusion of the "natural"
order of sexuality is the reason Victorian society termed the homosexual
monstrous. S/he broke down binaries, crossed boundaries, transversed
established structures, creating a chaos through h/is/er difference.
In The Turn of the Screw it is just this gender confusion that that prompts many readers
to identify the governess as being a monster in her own right. As the
governess's story begins, narrated 10 years after her experiences by a man
named Douglas, she is quickly characterized as a "fluttered anxious girl" whose
"young untried" nature renders her susceptible to "the seduction exercised by
the splendid young man" who would later become her employer (TS 28, 26, 28).
The governess's innocence and femininity, established early in the novel, then
become a source of confusion and contradiction as she assumes her rather
patriarchal authorities as governess of Bly Manor (Walton 311). She must be at
one time both male and female in her existence: "trying to supplant the male
authority figure" as head of Bly Manor while still striving to maintain the
traditional notions of femininity expected of her sex (Walton 312). This almost
schizophrenic split in the governess's gender identity makes her a distinctly
unnatural and different member of Victorian society. She insists on
simultaneously occupying two contradictory gender roles, mixing the two
categories and (re)creating herself as "the person who is both male and female"
(AB 63). In this way, the governess's difference becomes her monstrosity. She
challenges the normative understanding of the age and, because of the chaos and
confusion she agitates, is labeled a monster in the process.
The governess's difference, however, is not simply limited to her position. On numerous
occasions throughout the novel, the governess's rather fluid and somewhat
perverse sexuality is highlighted as another arena for abnormality. After
assuming her position at Bly, Douglas implies that the governess has developed
a passionate romantic fascination with her employer, the master. As she settles
into her position and becomes increasingly satisfied with her work, the
governess begins to fantasize that (in a interestingly eroticized way) she is "giving
pleasure" to the master by performing her tasks in the way that "he had
earnestly hoped [for] and directly asked of her" (TS 38). This heterosexual
desire is then complicated by the governess's interactions with Mrs. Grose, the
housekeeper of Bly. Like all of the sexual encounters at Bly, the relationship
between the governess and Mrs. Grose is only hinted at with ambiguities and
subtleties. However, as the paranormal occurrences witnessed by the governess
become more frequent, the governess narrates an increasing closeness between
herself and Mrs. Grose, divulging that Mrs. Grose "desired to cling to [the
governess]" in moments of stress or fear and, far from being put off by these
occasions of intimacy, the governess "lik[ed] to feel her close" (TS 51, 37). The
intensity of the pair's frequent kisses and embraces is only redoubled by the
overtly sexualized way that the governess describes these encounters, often
recalling the "tight[ness]" of the hold or the prolonged nature of their
touches (TS 76, 37). But what then do we make of the governess-is she
heterosexual or homosexual? She describes erotic attractions to both genders
which only blur the lines of her sexual identity. Not only does she express
homosexual urges that belie the "interior androgyny" that many in Victorian
society came to see as unnatural and monstrous, but she further aggravates this
"unnatural" sexuality by also expressing heterosexual desires (HS 43). The governess's
abnormal fluidity of sexuality makes her more monstrous than even homosexuality
would because her sexuality challenges and confuses all of the
established categories. Her sexuality lies in the ambiguous world of "other"
where her difference and individuality become the reasoning behind her
"...Class transgression immediately brands them...as evil spirits..."
"...Supernatural evil cannot be readily distinguished from the 'unnaturalness' of servants
stepping out of their place"
Just as a fluid sexuality that challenges the rigid structures of society prompts
the label of "monster", so does a permeable understanding of class status
warrant a similar categorization. During the 19th century, social
classes were supposed to be fixed, impermeable. A person was born into a set
class and was expected to marry and live within that class for the rest of
their life. Any move to transverse class distinctions or ignore social limits
was viewed by society with a certain amount of horror and shock. For this
society, class mobility was unnatural-it's "irregularity" and difference
called into question accepted social norms and laws and so, in reactionary
fashion, society labeled these transgressors, these others, evil, amoral, and
even monstrous because of the chaos and disorder they evoked.
Thus, even the governess's most "normal" heterosexual desire for the master is
tainted by an air of monstrosity. After accepting the master's offer for the
position of governess and vowing to "never trouble him" with any problems, the
governess travels to Bly where her passionate fascination with him only
increases (TS 28). She frequently notes that her own thoughts often stray to
the master in her desire to perform her duties in a manner that she assumes
would please him (TS 38-39). The governess becomes so preoccupied with her
longing for the master's approval that she imagines scenarios in which, on her daily
walk around the property, she would stumble upon him and he would "stand before
[her] and smile" upon the excellent quality of her service (TS 39). Even though
the governess does not directly acknowledge the forbidden nature of her desires
(and, in fact, does not even directly admit that her desire is sexualized or
romanticized), her longing for the master is completely unacceptable for the
time. The master is not only her employer, but also a member of the elite upper
class, while the governess "is, after all, nothing but an upper servant"
(Robbins 345). By longing for someone so far removed from her own social class,
the governess is essentially trying to do something unnatural: she is trying to
exercise social mobility. Her attraction leads her to want "nothing but the
erotic transgression of class" and yet, at the same time, this eroticized
transgression sets her apart from the strictly classed Victorian society in
which she lives, painting her as monstrous because of her deliberately scandalous
"In the formation of symptoms in paranoia the feature that earns the name projection is especially
striking. An internal perception is suppressed and, by way of substitute, its
content, having undergone a degree of distortion, is consciously registered as
an external distortion."
The Schreber Case, 56
world of madness was to become the world of exclusion...[composed of] a whole
series of individuals who were highly different...in short, all those who, in
relation to the order of reason, morality, and society, showed signs of
Mental Illness and Psychology, 67
Although the governess's sexuality and class dislocation provide a strong argument for
an understanding of her character as abnormal and thus monstrous, the most
convincing evidence for her monstrosity comes from the psychotic episodes she
experiences which serve as the foundation for most of her story. The
governess's particular form of psychosis is understood most clearly when viewed
through the lens of a manifestation of sexual hysteria which was characterized
as a "psychosexual disorder mainly afflicting women... caused by a profound
conflict between their natural sexual impulses and the repression of sexuality
required by society and exaggerated by Victorian idealism" (Renner 274). By
means of a strong repression and sublimation of socially unacceptable desires
(such as those for her upper class master or for her female co-worker Mrs.
Grose), the governess quite ironically exacerbates the "otherness" and
difference she seeks to eliminate. She unintentionally turns herself into the
epitome of Victorian monstrosity-that psychotic hysteric whose own difference
is not even self-realized.
Within the governess, this psychotic hysteria is recognized by the reader through her
delusional and paranoid projections of the "ghosts" of the former governess
Miss Jessel and the former manservant Peter Quint. The first of these
metaphysical encounters occurs during the middle of one of the governess's fantastical
daydreams about the master as she sights on a distant tower a figure that she
initially interprets as her "imagination...turned real" (TS 39). Almost instantly,
however, the governess realizes that the figure is not that of her master but
of "an unknown man" whose presence on the property is inexplicable (TS 40). Shaken
by the spooky experience, the governess excuses the man's appearance as the
result of an "intrusion" and moves on (TS 42). Days later, she sees the same
man yet again, this time "looking straight in" from "the other side of the
window" (TS 44). Upon this second visitation, the governess goes to Mrs. Grose,
describing all that she has seen and together the pair identifies the "specter"
as the form of Peter Quint, the master's deceased manservant, who Mrs. Grose
divulges "was defiantly and admittedly bad" because he was much "too free with
everyone" around him, most especially one of the governess's charges, Miles (TS
Determined to heroically defend the two children, Miles and Flora, from the "ghosts", the
governess actually does just the opposite, confronting the ghost of Miss Jessel
while outside with Flora (TS 55). Flora does not acknowledge the apparition, a
sure sign, in the governess's mind, that the children are in league with the
pair of ghosts whose relationship and personages Mrs. Grose describes as "a
horror of horrors" (TS 56-57). In the subsequent weeks, the happenings at Bly
only become more and more abnormal for the governess, who has numerous less
intense visions of the two haunting-visions to which no other member of the
household is privy (TS 67, 70, 88).
The continuation of these visitations makes the governess overly paranoid about the
questionable relationship between the ghosts and her charges. As she has
learned from Mrs. Grose, both Quint and Miss Jessel were the ultimate
"infamous" pair: not only did they indulge in a personal relationship with one
another that ignored class delineations (for Quint was a manservant while Miss
Jessel was a "lady"), but they also forged inappropriate-and quite possibly
homoerotic-connections with Miles and Flora respectively (TS 58). Together, Quint
and Miss Jessel are the embodiment of every latent desire and repressed urge
the governess has felt since her induction into the world of Bly. She refuses
to acknowledge a forbidden attraction that transverses class lines, while they
a conducted a relationship that did just that. She refuses to recognize the
existence of homo- and heterosexual desires, while they each freely exercised
both urges (Renner 275). Logically, these two figures are the governess's
projections of every urge repressed, every unacceptable desire sublimated, and
every difference denounced. Quint and Miss Jessel are, quite literally, the
"ghosts" of the governess's difference taken on a psychotic reality.
As the governess's case of psychotic sexual hysteria worsens and her conspiracy
theories about the children's involvement deepen, the other people at Bly (and,
most especially, the removed listener and reader) become increasingly concerned
for the governess's mental stability. The governess, in her paranoid desire to
try and save her charges from Quint and Miss Jessel, approaches each of the
children repeatedly, trying as best she can to trick them into admitting to
their devilish associations. The children, however, maintain an air of innocent
naïveté with regard to governess's sleuthing, actually reacting with
considerable fright and concern as their governess's hysteria worsens (TS 69,
75, 94, 101-102). Even Mrs. Grose, who has thus far been the most devoted
follower of the governess's speculations, begins to note the "change" in her
companion (TS 76).
The narrative begins to climax as the governess, noting Flora's absence one day,
fanatically follows the child across the property in order to prove once and
for all her knowledge of Miss Jessel's existence (TS 100). Upon "seeing" the
ghost with the girl, the governess directly confronts Flora about it, demanding
that she admit to the ghost's presence which the governess unwaveringly
believes she is aware of (TS 101). Flora is shocked and horrified by the
accusation and begs Mrs. Grose to take her away from the "cruel" governess's
presence, insisting all the while that "[she] see[s] nobody" ( TS 103). After
being so aggressively pressed by the governess, Flora takes ill and to aid her
recovery Mrs. Grose takes her to London, leaving Miles and the governess alone
at Bly (TS 106). In their solitude, the governess again takes to questioning
Miles, inquiring about the reason for his mysterious expulsion from school.
Miles answers the governess by alluding to certain homoerotic comments that he
directed at his peers as the reason he was expelled (TS 118-119). Just as he
admits this, the governess sees the visage of Quint behind Miles and,
passionately believing that Miles too is aware of Quint's presence, "press[es]"
Miles to her and psychotically demands that he confess to his involvement in
the whole affair. Miles desperately scans the room trying to see the ghost of
Quint and unable to see anything "but the quiet of day", is "hurled [into the]
abyss" of death, falling lifeless in the governess's arms (TS 120). Unwilling
to consider the possibility that she is mistaken, the governess's hysterical
psychosis (which only developed because of her strong desire to be "normal" and
accepted) ironically leads to her ostracization. Her mental illness, caused by
her suppression of non-normative urges, becomes the root of the monstrous designation
Mrs. Grose and the children give her. Far more than her sexuality or class
transgressions, the governess's mental illness is the realm in which the
judgment of "monster" proves the most unavoidable.
This horrific ending works perfectly to deepen and solidify the governess's
monstrous image-an image that is perceived (and reiterated) not only by the
characters that surround her, but also by the readers and listeners hearing her
story years later. She is the ultimate perversion of what was assumed to be
normal; the ultimate divergence. Different in all of the wrong ways-sexually,
socially, psychologically-Victorian society had no better way to separate and "other"
her for the disgust and confusion she produced than by labeling her a
monster. Existing in an age where normativity was the norm, the governess's
difference was ultimately the locus of her monstrosity.
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 This term was coined by Steve Marcus
and used by Foucault in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 to refer to
all those members of Victorian society who possessed "illegitimate
sexualities", see Part One: We "Other Victorians" (1-14).
 Foucault identifies the exact date of
1870 as the period when the category of homosexuality, as the term is used today,
was invented. See page 43 in Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality,
 See 'Works Cited' for the list of