Henry James’ 19th
century gothic novella ‘The Turn of the
Screw’ explores the exploitation and violation of boundaries between social
classes and the governess’s struggle for power through a Marxist lens. James tells
the thrilling ghost story and tale of morbid psychology using Marxist themes
and troubles of social status. When searching for Marxist ideologies in the
novella, one must first analyse why the story was written. Published in Collier’s Weekly newspaper, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ was written over
a period of twelve weeks between January and April 1898 at a time where stories
of monsters and ghosts were popular in England and America. An increasingly
common idea in the late Victorian era, James along with many other authors used
this method of publication to increase their earnings, a Marxist ideology
according to Terry Eagleton. In his Theories of Surplus Value, Eagleton
claims that a writer is a worker not in so far as he produces ideas, but in so
far as he enriches the publisher, in so far as he is working for a wage (Eagleton,
p.56). It is known that around the time of publication, James had just signed for
a house in Sussex and was planning on leaving London, and the writing of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ was undoubtedly a
way of aiding his move financially, showing that although the story was
intended to entertain, James is still a part of the superstructure trying to
earn a living.

James’ lead
character in ‘The Turn of the Screw’, the
governess, plays a crucial role in the display of conflict within social hierarchy
in the story. The authority of the governess shows that the story is centred
around class; not only is she the author but her view of the world is distorted
by class distinctions and regulations. The governess herself, along with Mrs.
Grose and most notably the ghosts are a representation of the working-class
members of Marx’s economic superstructure, the proletariat, whereas the master
represents the bourgeois, the ruling class who holds influence over everyone
else. In ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence’, Gerald Allen Cohen claims that “the
proletarian is the subordinate producer who must sell his labour power to
obtain his means of life” (Cohen, p.73), providing a Marxist explanation of the
governess’s role in the household and how she must sell her life to the master
and live by the rules and regulations of being a governess. The social class of the children Miles and Flora is unknown,
but the governess describes them as delicate beings, that they are somehow a
different, more pure species where anything “might bruise them. They had the
bloom of health and happiness…” (James, p.23). It is evident in the
story that the governess grows fond of the master and develops feelings for
him. She appears somewhat star struck and “for a moment, disburdened, delighted, he held her hand,
thanking her for the sacrifice, she already felt rewarded” (James, p.9). This
innocent gesture from the master has been exaggerated as an act of flattery by
the governess, showing an infatuation with the ruling members of society and a
constant desire to please. The conditions at which she was hired by the master
“allows the governess to think of herself as a friend and social equal with the
master, and to think they have a special and secret relationship that transcends
her working for payment” (Orr, p.60). The cash nexus prevents love in this
case, as the governess is unable to show any signs of affection to the master
due to differences in social classes. It could also be argued that the
alienation of the governess due to her new role at Bly causes her to go insane
and the love she cannot show the master aids this. Furthermore, in ‘The German Ideology’ Marx explains his belief
that ‘men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas…’ (Marx, p.733) and are
unable to think for themselves, which provides a Marxist explanation that the
governess’s thoughts and feelings for the master are a result of her repressed
role in the super structural society.

Although ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is undeniably a
horror story, the exploration of different social classes and roles are a
crucial part of the Marxist take on the novella. The power struggle between the
governess and Mrs. Grose shows a battle for dominance in the story which can be
seen throughout. The governess speaks to Mrs. Grose in a patronising and
sarcastic tone, probably due to the fact she is higher both socially and
economically and feels a sense of superiority over her. This power imbalance
can also be seen when Mrs. Grose learns of the ghosts and tries to inform the
master immediately. The obvious solution to ending the hauntings would have
been to remove the children from the house and escort them somewhere safe, but
the governess’s inferior status prevents her from reaching out the master. It
was requested by the master that the governess “should never trouble him – but never, never: neither appeal
nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive
all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone”
(James, p.9). In her desperate attempt to appear worthy of the masters’
praise, she fails to notify him of the ghosts when the need is most dire. In ‘The German Ideology’ Marx explains that
‘the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time
its ruling intellectual force’ (Marx, p.733), which shows that the master has
such significant influence over the governess and their relationship resembles a
business partnership. The governess’s refusal to inform the master of the
ghosts also infer that the governess is aware the ghosts could just be a
delusion of her twisted imagination, which is further supported by Marx who
describes the possibility of ‘phantoms formed in the human brain’ that are
‘bound to material premises’ (Marx, p.733). Marx believes ‘life is not
determined by consciousness’ (Marx, p.733) and that ideology comes from
‘historical-life processes’.

The significance
of Marx’s class structure and superstructure when evaluating ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is immensely
important. The master holds a higher status than the other characters in James’
book, both socially and economically, even though he is hardly present in the
story. It appears that even though his character may be absent for most of the
initial plot, he plays an imperative role in the development of the social
structure of the novella. However, Miles and Flora are left in the care of the
governess for the entire story, showing a change in the social structure: “the
uncle’s refusal to assume any direct responsibility for the care and education
of the children makes it easy for critics to trivialize his power as that of deus absconditus who leaves the field
open to the governess” (Orr, p.61). From a Marxist perspective, the governess
is in fact the bourgeois figure along with the master, as her role of raising
the children and taking charge of their education and wellbeing is crucial. A
popular argument amongst critics revolves around whether the governess really
saw the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, or if her repressed role in the
social superstructure caused her to go insane. The apparitionist view is that
the ghosts are in fact real, whereas the contrasting view claims the governess
was purely overcome by madness, the latter being the more Marxist approach. As
Marx himself claims, the ‘materialistic interests of the dominant social class
determine how people see human existence’ (Selden, p.69), inferring the
governess was so overcome with frustration at the unrequited love she had for
the master, it drove her to insanity and the ghosts were merely a physical
representation of this sorrow. Bly, the house at which the governess lives with
the children is a symbol of wealth and high social class. The ‘fresh curtains’,
‘bright flowers’ and ‘golden sky’ (James, p.11) paint a pleasant setting at the
beginning of the story, but it could be argued that this is ‘nothing but
ideology in a certain artistic form’ (Eagleton, p.16). The charming description
of Bly is overshadowed when the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are
present, turning the house with its ‘grey sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces
and scattered dead leaves’ (James, p.74) into something closer to a nightmare
than the fairy-tale the governess once thought it to be. From a Marxist point
of view, James has used this setting to isolate the governess, suggesting she
sees what she wants to see as opposed to the reality.

The influence of the
ghosts in the story is important to analyse for Marxist ideologies. The
relationship between Miles and Quint is intriguing and shows a defiance towards
the social class structure in the novella. It is stated by the governess that “for
a period of several months Quint and the boy had been perpetually together”
(James, p.51), which suggests that Miles has a disregard for the social
boundaries and believes he can befriend whoever he wishes, despite the status differences
between the proletariat representative ghosts and the more upper-class status
he holds himself. It seems Miles puts himself above the structure of the social
classes and chooses to befriend the ghost, showing “It is not the consciousness
of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that
determines their consciousness” (Marx, 1859). In addition to this, the death of
Miss Jessel, which James leaves unknown to the reader, could be interpreted in
terms of Marxism. It is explained by Mrs. Grose that Jessel had been in love
with Peter Quint who was far below her in social class standing. Quint had been
given too much power when the master had left Bly and this represents the
breakdown of the social hierarchy in the novella. One could interpret that the
death of Miss Jessel is a representation of the consequences of mixing and
associating with other social classes, and the importance of everyone
understanding their place on the social ladder.

Overall, it is
clear that James has transformed the fashionable gothic mansion ghost story
into a perplexing tale of psychological horror and defiance of social perimeters.
Though the story is mainly populated by members of lower social classes, the
conflict that revolves around the acceptance of the boundaries set in place at
the time of publication ignites a thrill in the reader and allows the novella
to be interpreted through a Marxist lens. Marx’s ideas and beliefs on the
superstructure of society and the supernatural ‘phantoms formed in the human
brain’ (Marx, p.733) are undoubtedly present in the plot of the story. The psychoanalytical
themes in the story as well as the unique alienated position of the governess
provoke Marxist readings and it is beyond question that James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ “timelessly
transcends its historical conditions” (Eagleton, p.3).

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