The Turn Of The Screw: The Impact Of Social Norm Of Repression On Human Psyche

Society has long dictated people’s beliefs, views, appearance, and even thoughts. What poses a problem is that, unintentionally or not, these norms dictate everyone’s actions, or lack thereof, and can sometimes lead to the repression of one’s feelings, which has a detrimental effect on mental health. If one, in viewing Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, concludes that the ghostly apparitions are not real, it is not difficult to determine that the governess must have been mentally ill in some way. The importance of this story, however, is not exclusive to the question of the existence of the ghosts; the importance instead lies in what they are a product of. The manifestations of ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are the horrifying result of repressing feelings that were considered forbidden in the Victorian era and the failure to obtain what was then considered socially acceptable for women.

There are two primary ways in which the governess was affected by social norms, the first being sexuality. As stated by Degler (1974), there were two opposing views on female sexuality in the nineteenth century. Some in the medical field believed that women could not feel sexual desire, while others deducted that they were not only able to feel these emotions, but “[t]hat the repression of them caused illness.” The society in this century viewed sex as something not to be discussed, especially when in relation to women. It was only to be associated with the male gender and women were expected to be pure, otherwise they were looked down upon and shunned. 

The governess’ view on sexuality is evident in her response to Miles making advances at other pupils at the school, thinking his intention was “To corrupt.” She clearly had sexual feelings for the children’s uncle, as evident in this section “[…] I was giving pleasure – if he ever thought of it! – to the person to whose pressure I had responded.” and possibly projected some of them onto ten year old Miles. She was expected to repress her sexuality in order to be viewed as a good woman and not as an outcast.

The second way in which she was affected related to the limited choices women had at the time. The following quote explains the position of women in the nineteenth century:

The cult of domesticity assigned to women both a separate sphere and a distinct set of roles. […] The ideal woman was willing to be dependent on men and submissive to them, and she would have a preference for a life restricted to the confines of home. She would be innocent, pure, gentle and self-sacrificing. Possessing no ambitious strivings, she would be free of any trace of anger or hostility. 

This need to submiss to a man is mirrored in the governess’ sudden infatuation with the uncle of the children and her incessant desire for the approval of a man. She herself describes her upbringing as “small” and “smothered” (James 2017, 165), which hints at the possibility that her interaction with her soon-to-be employer was her first interaction with a man outside her family. The governess, upon meeting her employer, describes herself as a “fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage.” and as she proceeds to daydream about him and after admitting to being easily seduced by saying “Well, that, I think, is what I came for – to be carried away. […] I’m rather easily carried away. I was carried away in London!” (James 2017, 158), it becomes evident that her view on the situation is romanticized. However, the object of her desire was never to be seen again, leading her to project her desires elsewhere, since she could not act on them. She was only a servant and knew that the master would not risk his status for her. Nonetheless, she continues to seek his approval, daydreaming that “some one would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before [her] and smile and approve.” She is later, to some extent, pleased with the evil plaguing Bly, so that she might get the chance to prove herself.

According to Goddard (1957), it is common for such behavior to manifest itself in a young woman; picturing herself as the heroine that impresses her love interest. She is expected to repress not only her sexual feelings, but also her romantic feelings that were a product of the norms that originated from a social construct designed to keep women secondary to men and as stated by Gross and Levenson, “Emotion regulation and dysregulation figure prominently in mental health and illness.”

The governess also expresses her fondness of the hour she had to herself before going to bed, the time she mostly spent daydreaming. When we combine the daydreaming at these times with the fact that the sightings of ghosts occur either in the transition from night to day or from day to night, we notice a pattern. The governess is haunted at times she uses for self-reflection, which proves there is a personal significance the hauntings bare for her.

All of this suggests that the governess was pushed to her breaking point by the ambiguous expectations of the society she lived in, thus leading to her creating ghostly figures to cope with the feelings she was taught were taboo. As she put it once, she “[f]elt overflow in a deluge”. However, it is not to say that the governess was created as a typical or negative representation of a woman in the Victorian era or that her sexuality drove her mad simply because she was too fragile or too weak to control it. Rather, the parallels drawn should be viewed as a critique of the ideals of the times that were merely mirrored in the governess’s ambiguous look on life and the way she dealt with her emotion as a result of the general view on sexuality and the role of women at the time.

The delusions and tragic events at Bly are a result of norms that were expected to be followed. Throughout the novel it is evident that the governess is suppressing both her sexual and her romantic feelings and realizing them through means of fantasizing. Later on, this kind of behavior results in her projecting her desires, of which she believed were corrupt, onto fictional ghosts of her imagination. As previously stated, this was all dictated by the society she was part of. The expectation to marry and to repress her emotions lead to not only her delusions but also the demise of those closest to her. This further proves that the norms people collectively decide to live by have a deeper and more severe impact on people than evident in our day-to-day lives.


  • Degler, Carl N. 1974. 'What Ought to Be and What Was: Women's Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century.' The American Historical Review 79, no. 5: 1467-490. https://doi:10.2307/1851777.
  • Goddard, Harold C. 1957. 'A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw.' Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12, no. 1: 1-36. https://doi:10.2307/3044415.
  • Gorham, Deborah. 2012. The Victorian Girl and the Feminine. London: Imprint Routledge.
  • Halttunen, Karen. 1988. “'Through the Cracked and Fragmented Self': William James and The Turn of the Screw.”: American Quarterly 40, No. 4: 472-490.
  • James, Henry. 2017. “The Turn of the Screw.” In The Turn of the Screw and Other Ghost Stories, edited by Susie Boyt, 148–258. London: Penguin Classics.
  • Nardin, Jane. 1978. ''The Turn of the Screw': The Victorian Background.' A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 12, no. 1: 131-42.
16 August 2021
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