Literary Form and Madness in The Turn of The Screw by Henry James

Literary Form and Madness in The Turn of The Screw by Henry James

Analysis by Emmanuel Paige

Literary theory allows for the analysis and review of works through different lenses that take into account aspects of structure, form, culture, race, sex, gender, ethnicity, and language used to convey the human condition in literature. Criticism of literature has been around since ancient times and philosophers like Aristotle have provided insight into the methodology of interpreting thought and meaning in the written word. In this paper the literary theories of Structuralism and Psychoanalytical literary theory will be applied to The Turn of the Screw, a novella by Henry James, written in 1898 in the tradition of Gothic fiction. Structuralism is mostly concerned with structure and form, “A theoretical and methodological approach in linguistics and other human (including social) sciences that attempts to gain insights into its subject matter by assuming that everything to do with human beings is built of more or less autonomous systems as relations of oppositions” (Götzsche). On the other hand, “Psychoanalysis is derived from Freudian revolutionary psychology in which he developed the notion of the unconscious and others like displacement, fixation, condensation and manifest latent dream content” (Nyangesa). These two theories will show how The Turn of the Screw contains the structure and literary elements of Gothic fiction as well as the Freudian methods of psychoanalysis adapted to literary criticism. The first method will show a type of cooky cutter style for a Gothic novel and many similarities shared in the genre, while the second method will show the psychology of fear involved in the ghost story.

The Turn of the Screw, is a ghost story written in the Gothic fiction tradition, now considered a classic, and has been performed in plays on radio and stage, made into movies for film and TV, and inspired operas from such popularity. During the following analysis, the lens of Structuralism will reveal how the elements of Gothic fiction and ghost stories are present in The Turn of the Screw, and how they all share common structure in plot, character, mood, theme, dialogue, language, tone, and setting.

The tradition of the term “Gothic” stems from Goth culture in the Middle Ages and carried on through history as a style or tradition in architecture, literature, and art. Gothic fiction is a distinct form of literature stemming from the Goth influence, and as a genre it has a tradition of stereotypes and tropes: castles, barons, tyrants, maidens, damsels, moats, moors, ghosts, hauntings, and murders. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and Dracula by Bram Stoker are three classic novels that are written in the Gothic style and share common elements. There is usually a handsome hero, a damsel in distress, a tyrant or villain, in conflict with an adventurous plot that is set in a dismal and dark castle. “Gothic novelists and artists had relied on the symbolic potential of setting to heighten suspense. James’s Screw remained faithful to this tradition: the first chapter is almost entirely devoted to describing Bly’s country estate, from the ‘broad, clear front’ and ‘cloistered tree-tops’ on the outside, to the dull corridors and crooked staircases inside” (Chowrimootoo). The plot often follows a typical pattern of dramatic action by characters in conflict, a sense of foreboding and anxiety, with rising action building to a climactic moment followed by the denouement.

The first line of The Turn of the Screw sets the mood and establish a link to the Gothic tale: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be” (James). The narrative is told in a frame story by a nameless narrator during a gathering around the fireplace. There is a journal obtained from a Governess by a man named Douglas that is read aloud, and this provides the framing mechanism for the narrative within. When the narrative begins, we are introduced to the Governess who has been appointed to watch two young orphans, a boy named Miles and a girl named Flora, at a country estate. The governess discovers ghosts soon after arriving, in the form of a man and a woman, who she discovers were the earlier caretaker and governess. In fear, she begins to grow anxious and feels she must protect the children from the specters.

The plot builds slowly and steadily to the climax and includes a generous number of frightening scenes with the ghosts. There is an element of paranoia and the human experience is one of sheer terror upon seeing the ghosts and discovering that the children can see them too and that they are in danger of being morally corrupted by the evil ghosts. Near the end the daughter is sent away and the son is kept and made to admit what he knows, but before this can happen he dies in the arms of the Governess and we are lead to believe it may have been an intentional death.

The Turn of the Screw shares many of the characteristics of Gothic fiction and has been classified as such, along with the label of “horror” and “ghost story” which all share similar structure and form in literary elements and literature. Henry James, much like his predecessors working before him in the genre, capture all of the essence of the genre and form and are effective tales of terror meant to frighten the audience. Linguistics and patterns are similar across Gothic literature—known as “purple prose”—that calls attention to itself with flowery language. Numerous comma splices and dashes are used to disrupt the sentences for effect with abundant usage of adjectives and adverbs in complex structures. The human experience shared in Gothic novels is one of terror, dread, darkness, a spirit of revenge, and outright horror. Humans have been attracted to telling scary stories for millennia and the Gothic novel is an artifact that culminated as a result of interest in ghost stories that peaked during the Romantic Movement beginning near the end of the 18th-century.

The lens of Poststructuralism and Psychoanalytic Theory will reveal not only how the elements of The Turn of the Screw, a novella written in 1898 by Henry James, is a Gothic ghost story meant to frighten, but also an example of an unreliable narrator who is delusional, paranoid, and slowly descends into madness. The literary theory of “Poststructuralism is subversive” and it intends to “deconstruct” and dismantle opposition while exposing the “hidden hierarchies and relations of power” (Berten). The Psychoanalytic approach within this theory closely follows the “work of the founding father of psychoanalysis—Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)—which it both continues and revises” (Berten). Freud maintained that humans act primarily on instinct and are driven by sexuality and desire as a result of the Oedipus complex. In Psychoanalytic literary theory, Freud’s ideas can be utilized to focus “on such ‘cracks’ in the text’s façade and seeks to bring to light the unconscious desires of either the author or the characters that the text presents” (Berten).

The overall effect of The Turn of the Screw is one of fear. This story is a psychological thriller that shows ghosts appearing out of nowhere like a jack-in-the-box that pop out at seemingly random intervals and scare the bee Jesus out of the Governess appointed to be in charge of two orphans, a boy and a girl, named Miles and Flora. They live on a country estate that turns out to be haunted, or so governess discovers soon after arriving in the mansion. The ghosts appear as a man and a woman; they are the previous caretaker and governess. As a result of seeing the ghosts, the governess grows anxious and paranoid, and she is compelled to safeguard the children from the ghosts. Eventually, the governess comes to believe that the children know the ghosts are there and that they speak to them in secret, however, the children never admit to seeing them. The Governess is traumatized and begins to lose her sanity. She slowly descends into madness and believes that the children are in danger of moral corruption by the evil specters that haunt the estate. Eventually, the daughter, Flora, is sent away as she is singled out as a troublemaker and the Governess is obviously afraid of her. The son, Miles, stays behind and says he will tell everything he knows, but not yet . . . but by then it is too late, because the Governess hugs Miles so tightly to her breast in a sexual manner suggesting the Oedipus complex, when the ghost appears again, and she smothers him to death. It is implied that she meant to kill him. She has gone mad at last as she tightly cradles the lifeless body of the boy in her arms.

“The Turn of the Screw is not, in fact, a ghost story but a madness story, a study of a case of neurosis: the ghosts, accordingly, do not really exist; they are but figments of the governess’s sick imagination, mere hallucinations and projections symptomatic of the frustration of her repressed sexual desires” (Felman). The governess admits to madness, saying, “I began to watch them in a stifled suspense, a disguised excitement that might well, had it continued too long, have turned to something like madness. What saved me, as I now see, was that it turned to something else altogether. It didn’t last as suspense—it was superseded by horrible proofs. Proofs, I say, yes—” (James). The fact that she has “proofs” (of the ghosts) is, ironically, even more telling of her descent into insanity than her disclaimer that she had been “saved” after all. There is no return from where these delusions will take her and Freud might have diagnosed her as a paranoid schizophrenic at this point in the story. Additionally, there is the question of child abuse and pedophilia, which makes this “more than a ghost story, The Turn of the Screw is an enthusiastic romance of children and sex. The implication that Miles, the young ward of an impressionable governess, is sexually aware, sexually experienced, and sexually hungry has its draw. Titillating in its inappropriateness, the novel suggests through metaphor and silences what was, and still is, unmentionable” (McCollum).

In the end, Henry James has authored a story in The Turn of the Screw that is filled with enough psychoanalytical material to fill a textbook. There are ghosts, madness, and pedophilia in this story and Freud’s methods of analysis can easily pinpoint the hidden meanings and imagery within this tale that leads toward these conclusions. The ghosts are not real, they are imagined, and the children are merely victims of a paranoid and delusional woman who allows her imagination to go wild and acts on instincts to commit betrayal and murder upon the children who have been entrusted to her care.

The interpretations of the theories of Structuralism and Psychoanalytic criticism in review of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James reveals that it fits the definition of Gothic fiction, is a ghost story, and is meant to frighten the audience. The unreliable narrator suffers from madness and this leads to her demise. A skeptic can safely read this story and walk away unscathed knowing that the ghosts existed only in the head of the governess. What changed the most after applying these theories to the story is the reinforcement of the idea that genre imposes limitations, it has structures and form that require the author to adhere to certain rules upon composition, much like being confined in one of the dank dungeons beneath the castles in these Gothic tales of romance and tyranny.

Literary theory provides a method to interpretate literature by applying unique, cultural lenses to a work of art, poetry, or literature. The outcome is a precise set of parameters, or conditions, which perform as a filter or limitation to exclude, include, or combine components to form a conclusion. A work may be considered withing these limits and permit an emphasis on the underlying concerns and meanings in the literature in form and structure, language, and culture. It is possible to see social and cultural issues under a distinctive viewpoint through literary theory. It supplies an exceptional method of interpretation of literature by giving an awareness of the many layers of significance and meaning in a work. Literary theory is extremely important because it makes available a way to interpret a work through different lenses for the reviewer, critic, and casual reader. Literary theory is a form of criticism, and as such, “Literary critics in universities use philosophical ideas to analyze novels and plays to bolster knowledge of literature. Literary writers, particularly, novelists and playwrights base their works on philosophical canons that crown them great literatures” (Nyongesa). The point of analyzing literature is to learn to read, to learn to write, to learn about culture and art, to embrace the human condition, to celebrate being alive, to contribute, share, and be a part of literature and humanity overall.

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics., 2014.

Chowrimootoo, C. (2018). The Turn of the Screw, or: The Gothic Melodrama of Modernism. In Middlebrow Modernism: Britten’s Operas and the Great Divide (pp. 88-116). Oakland, California: University of California Press. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from

Davison, C. (2009). Gothic Enlightenment/Enlightenment Gothic. In History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1764-1824 (pp. 22-54). University of Wales Press. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from

Felman, Shoshana. “Turning the Screw of Interpretation.” Yale French Studies, no. 55/56, 1977, pp. 94–207. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Dec. 2020.

Götzsche, Hans. “STRUCTURALISM.” Key Ideas in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language, edited by Siobhan Chapman and Christopher Routledge, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2009, pp. 219–225. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Dec. 2020.

James, Henry (2008). The Turn of the Screw. The Project Gutenberg. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from

McCollum, Jenn. “The Romance of Henry James’s Female Pedophile.” MP: An Online Feminist Journal Summer 2010: Vol. 3, Issue 1

Nyongesa, Andrew. Tintinnabulation of Literary Theory: Traversing Genres to Contemporary Experience. Mwanaka Media and Publishing, 2018. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Dec. 2020.

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