Henry James’ 19thcentury gothic novella ‘The Turn of theScrew’ explores the exploitation and violation of boundaries between socialclasses and the governess’s struggle for power through a Marxist lens.
James tellsthe thrilling ghost story and tale of morbid psychology using Marxist themesand troubles of social status. When searching for Marxist ideologies in thenovella, one must first analyse why the story was written. Published in Collier’s Weekly newspaper, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ was written overa period of twelve weeks between January and April 1898 at a time where storiesof monsters and ghosts were popular in England and America. An increasinglycommon idea in the late Victorian era, James along with many other authors usedthis method of publication to increase their earnings, a Marxist ideologyaccording to Terry Eagleton. In his Theories of Surplus Value, Eagletonclaims that a writer is a worker not in so far as he produces ideas, but in sofar 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 fora house in Sussex and was planning on leaving London, and the writing of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ was undoubtedly away of aiding his move financially, showing that although the story wasintended to entertain, James is still a part of the superstructure trying toearn a living.
James’ leadcharacter in ‘The Turn of the Screw’, thegoverness, plays a crucial role in the display of conflict within social hierarchyin the story. The authority of the governess shows that the story is centredaround class; not only is she the author but her view of the world is distortedby class distinctions and regulations. The governess herself, along with Mrs.Grose and most notably the ghosts are a representation of the working-classmembers of Marx’s economic superstructure, the proletariat, whereas the masterrepresents the bourgeois, the ruling class who holds influence over everyoneelse. In ‘Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence’, Gerald Allen Cohen claims that “theproletarian is the subordinate producer who must sell his labour power toobtain his means of life” (Cohen, p.
73), providing a Marxist explanation of thegoverness’s role in the household and how she must sell her life to the masterand 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 adifferent, more pure species where anything “might bruise them. They had thebloom of health and happiness…” (James, p.23). It is evident in thestory that the governess grows fond of the master and develops feelings forhim. 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).
Thisinnocent gesture from the master has been exaggerated as an act of flattery bythe governess, showing an infatuation with the ruling members of society and aconstant 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 themaster, and to think they have a special and secret relationship that transcendsher working for payment” (Orr, p.60). The cash nexus prevents love in thiscase, as the governess is unable to show any signs of affection to the masterdue to differences in social classes. It could also be argued that thealienation of the governess due to her new role at Bly causes her to go insaneand the love she cannot show the master aids this. Furthermore, in ‘The German Ideology’ Marx explains his beliefthat ‘men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas…’ (Marx, p.733) and areunable to think for themselves, which provides a Marxist explanation that thegoverness’s thoughts and feelings for the master are a result of her repressedrole in the super structural society.Although ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is undeniably ahorror story, the exploration of different social classes and roles are acrucial part of the Marxist take on the novella.
The power struggle between thegoverness and Mrs. Grose shows a battle for dominance in the story which can beseen throughout. The governess speaks to Mrs. Grose in a patronising andsarcastic tone, probably due to the fact she is higher both socially andeconomically and feels a sense of superiority over her. This power imbalancecan also be seen when Mrs. Grose learns of the ghosts and tries to inform themaster immediately. The obvious solution to ending the hauntings would havebeen to remove the children from the house and escort them somewhere safe, butthe governess’s inferior status prevents her from reaching out the master. Itwas requested by the master that the governess “should never trouble him – but never, never: neither appealnor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receiveall 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 timeits ruling intellectual force’ (Marx, p.733), which shows that the master hassuch significant influence over the governess and their relationship resembles abusiness partnership. The governess’s refusal to inform the master of theghosts also infer that the governess is aware the ghosts could just be adelusion of her twisted imagination, which is further supported by Marx whodescribes the possibility of ‘phantoms formed in the human brain’ that are’bound to material premises’ (Marx, p.733). Marx believes ‘life is notdetermined by consciousness’ (Marx, p.
733) and that ideology comes from’historical-life processes’.The significanceof Marx’s class structure and superstructure when evaluating ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is immenselyimportant. The master holds a higher status than the other characters in James’book, both socially and economically, even though he is hardly present in thestory. It appears that even though his character may be absent for most of theinitial plot, he plays an imperative role in the development of the socialstructure of the novella.
However, Miles and Flora are left in the care of thegoverness for the entire story, showing a change in the social structure: “theuncle’s refusal to assume any direct responsibility for the care and educationof the children makes it easy for critics to trivialize his power as that of deus absconditus who leaves the fieldopen to the governess” (Orr, p.61). From a Marxist perspective, the governessis in fact the bourgeois figure along with the master, as her role of raisingthe children and taking charge of their education and wellbeing is crucial. Apopular argument amongst critics revolves around whether the governess reallysaw the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, or if her repressed role in thesocial superstructure caused her to go insane. The apparitionist view is thatthe ghosts are in fact real, whereas the contrasting view claims the governesswas purely overcome by madness, the latter being the more Marxist approach. AsMarx himself claims, the ‘materialistic interests of the dominant social classdetermine how people see human existence’ (Selden, p.69), inferring thegoverness was so overcome with frustration at the unrequited love she had forthe master, it drove her to insanity and the ghosts were merely a physicalrepresentation of this sorrow.
Bly, the house at which the governess lives withthe 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 thebeginning of the story, but it could be argued that this is ‘nothing butideology in a certain artistic form’ (Eagleton, p.16). The charming descriptionof Bly is overshadowed when the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel arepresent, turning the house with its ‘grey sky and withered garlands, its bared spacesand scattered dead leaves’ (James, p.74) into something closer to a nightmarethan the fairy-tale the governess once thought it to be. From a Marxist pointof view, James has used this setting to isolate the governess, suggesting shesees what she wants to see as opposed to the reality.The influence of theghosts in the story is important to analyse for Marxist ideologies.
Therelationship between Miles and Quint is intriguing and shows a defiance towardsthe social class structure in the novella. It is stated by the governess that “fora period of several months Quint and the boy had been perpetually together”(James, p.51), which suggests that Miles has a disregard for the socialboundaries and believes he can befriend whoever he wishes, despite the status differencesbetween the proletariat representative ghosts and the more upper-class statushe holds himself.
It seems Miles puts himself above the structure of the socialclasses and chooses to befriend the ghost, showing “It is not the consciousnessof men that determines their existence, but their social existence thatdetermines their consciousness” (Marx, 1859). In addition to this, the death ofMiss Jessel, which James leaves unknown to the reader, could be interpreted interms of Marxism. It is explained by Mrs. Grose that Jessel had been in lovewith Peter Quint who was far below her in social class standing. Quint had beengiven too much power when the master had left Bly and this represents thebreakdown of the social hierarchy in the novella. One could interpret that thedeath of Miss Jessel is a representation of the consequences of mixing andassociating with other social classes, and the importance of everyoneunderstanding their place on the social ladder.
Overall, it isclear that James has transformed the fashionable gothic mansion ghost storyinto a perplexing tale of psychological horror and defiance of social perimeters.Though the story is mainly populated by members of lower social classes, theconflict that revolves around the acceptance of the boundaries set in place atthe time of publication ignites a thrill in the reader and allows the novellato be interpreted through a Marxist lens. Marx’s ideas and beliefs on thesuperstructure of society and the supernatural ‘phantoms formed in the humanbrain’ (Marx, p.733) are undoubtedly present in the plot of the story. The psychoanalyticalthemes in the story as well as the unique alienated position of the governessprovoke Marxist readings and it is beyond question that James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ “timelesslytranscends its historical conditions” (Eagleton, p.3).