Essay, Research Paper
The Archetypal Myth in Turn of The Screw
In one surface reading of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, the governess appears to be a victim of circumstance. Some critics however, say that she is not without blame in the turn of events that characterizes the story. They claim that leading to her demise are certain character flaws, such as envy and pride. In categorizing her character as such, this novella resonates several themes found throughout literature. In Northrop Frye’s essay The Archetypes of Literature, Frye suggests that there appears to be a relatively restricted and simple group of formulas in literature. These formulas or converging patterns seem to correlate with the natural cycle. Frye considers criticism that searches for these forms, “a kind of literary anthropology”(Frye,480). In the essay, he identifies the archetype central myth of all literature as the quest-myth. Using his essay on archetypes, The Turn of The Screw, can be read and understood as a quest-myth.
The Turn of The Screw is really two myths in one. The first story would be that of the friends who are gathered on Christmas Eve telling stories. The second story would be the tale of the governess. Frye categorizes myths in phases. The second story can be interpreted in terms of these phases (Frye,483).
Phase one is “the dawn, spring, and birth phase”(Frye,483). In The Turn of the Screw, the story begins with Douglas’s background on the governess. This is the creation of the new story. The governess is young and we learn that she has,“at the age of twenty, on taking service for the first time”,so she is at the beginning of her adult life.(James,25)
Next the story moves on to her narration. She arrives at Bly and is pleasantly surprised to find the house is beautiful and the children are handsome and extremely well mannered. This is phase number two, “the zenith, summer, marriage, triumph phase” (Frye,483). At this point the governess has just entered paradise, she is in a lovely setting, and she has a financially and emotionally rewarding job. She was “carried triumphantly,” through her first day.(James, 28) She is “married” in the sense that she has control of the home and the children; the only missing element is the husband, which would be the uncle.
After her encounters with the ghosts, the myth enters phase three, “the sunset, autumn, and death phase” (Frye,483). Her rosy perception is lost. She begins to have fears. This point occurs around the time the governess sees a female ghost appear across the lake, and she is certain that Flora could see the ghost, but chose to say nothing. The governess questions her “summer” like reality, and wonders if Miles also has been consorting with the ghosts. She realizes, “I don’t save or shield them!…They’re lost!”(James,57) She now begins to probe Mile’s character and his expulsion from school. Eventually she realizes that Miles may be working against her and says, “The trick’s played…they’ve successfully worked their plan.”(James,94) Miles and his sister would fit into Frye’s category of a phase three subordinate character, that of a traitor.
The last part of the story, everything after Flora’s disappearance, appears to fit into stage four, “the darkness, winter, and dissolution phase” (Frye,483). It is at this point where the governess surrounded by chaos and is truly beaten. Frye coins this the “defeat of the hero.” The governess has not accomplished her goal, that of protecting the children.
Frye’s theory is that the hero in the myth “gradually builds up the vision of an omnipotent personal community beyond an indifferent nature” (Frye,485). This omnipotent vision is perhaps what led the governess to the tragic ending. In the story the governess has a mission, or quest, that of caring for and protecting the children without involving the uncle. Her opponents are the ghosts who take on the archetypal roles as agents of evil.
However, she did not succeed in her quest, for the result was that the children were harmed and some critics might argue, based on interpretation, that the children died. Knowing that the quest was not successful, the next question is why. The tragic hero typically has some character flaw.
In the case of the governess, it could be several things. The governess was young and na?ve to think that she was prepared to take on this job of raising the children. She might have been motivated by pride to accept a job so far above her middleclass position. She also may have been seduced by passion for the uncle, or the great salary.
Whatever the case, she makes several decisions, which can be interpreted as reflections of her flaws. The fact that she fails to contact the uncle, even after Mrs. Grose’s suggestion, reflects a stubborn pride. A short time after her arrival at the house, there is a scene where the governess imagines the uncle’s great approval with the work she has done. This suggests she is seeking approval and affirmation.
The second element of Frye’s myth is the vision (486). The vision, either tragic or comic, describes the human, animal, vegetable, mineral, and unformed worlds. The first world, or human world, resonates with several elements in The Turn of The Screw. Frye claims, “In the tragic vision the human world is a tyranny or anarchy (486).” This is quite clear in the story as the governess is in a powerful position, and is overthrown by the children and ghosts.
The next element is the “deserted or betrayed hero (486).” Clearly the governess again fits this role, as she feels betrayed by the children because they have consorted with the ghosts. In some sense the governess is deserted after discovering the children’s involvement with the ghosts. After that her contact with the children and Mrs. Grose lacks communication. Also present in this tragic vision of the human world is a “witch” type character, which could be interpreted as Miss Jessel, for she is female, evil, and conniving.
There are surely countless other archetypes present in this work aside from the myth quest, however it is interesting to note how similar Frye’s description of the myth quest is to the actual story. Frye’s phases seem to directly follow the story line from the new beginning to the fatal end. The governess perfectly fits the role of the hero on a quest. Finally the tragic vision of the human world is apparent throughout the story. The similarities and presence of these seem to confirm Fry’s theory that these archetypes are a collective dream of humanity, and thus they are innately present in literature.
Frye, Northrop. “The Archetypes of Literature.” Criticism Twenty Major Statements. Ed. Charles Kaplan. Bedford/St. Martins. 2000. 476-486.
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