From Theory to Literature: The Unreliable Narration within The Turn of the Screw



Upon digesting the focalization theory of Gerard Genette, it becomes clear how the tale of the governess in The Turn of the Screw leads to continuous debate and analysis on the grounds a skewed viewpoint. The most notable attribute to this theory within the story, is the reoccurrence of the unreliable narration. According to definition , an unreliable narrator is one whose credibility is compromised due to inconsistencies within the storyline of what the narrator is stating due to “bias, ignorance, or self interest”(Unreliable Narrator).

On the surface, because the tale chronicles a time in the governess’ life through diary, it is fallible to label the unnamed governess as the only unreliable narrator. But, if one looks deeper into the text, the narration begins its faultiness with the primary narration of the person at the Christmas party from which Douglas, another character, brings out the diary of the governess, therefore, starting the tale that would be the turn of the screw. This narrator is also nameless, and the narration is told externally, “outside the character depicted, so that we are told only things which are external or observable.”(Barry,224)

Although the sex of the narrator is never disclosed, it becomes evident with bias narration such as “ on the third of these days and that, on the same spot, with immense effect, he began to read to our hushed little circle on the night of the fourth. The departing ladies who had said they would stay didn’t, of course, thank heaven, stay: they departed… But that only made his little final auditory more compact and select…”(James) that this is a male narrator. He becomes the preliminary eyes for the audience, and his preference for this “common thrill” sets up the mood for a male oriented view of the world, especially during the time, which was: women need men.

Upon further scrutiny of the text, it is discovered that this narrator, in fact, scribed his own ‘copy’ of the diary produced by Douglas, after Douglas gave the ‘diary’ to him before dying.  One must question the reason behind reformulating a personal diary, and should wonder if in fact these are the true words of the governess, or an attempt to show forth why a woman must not be trusted with ownership of land or duties that are usually given to a man. This lends the first narrator as being conflicting in his desire to portray the words of the governess as genuine.

This first hiccup in narration corresponds perfectly with the viewpoint that the audience gets from reading the story of the governess. She, an unwed and determined female, is made out to seem unstable, unfit, and a terror in her mind. This goes along with the hysterics theory of women that was prominent during the time that the book was written, as well as the general belief of men regarding women. It was prevalent to believe that a woman’s mind was delicate and not able to handle much, especially a job and decision making.

The governess story is told internally, and her feelings and thoughts are displayed throughout the text, which is understandable in journal format, but, can be a negative tool in the hands of a biased man. If in fact her actions and behavior did cause the death of a child, then why was she able to get employment elsewhere, being the governess of Douglas sister. And the fact that she was a love interest of Douglas implies that his ‘initial’ diary was legit, and potentially didn’t have the mental instability that the latter works did. He wouldn’t have spoken of her so fondly if she had been a ‘nut job’, especially after taking care of his sibling. This again leads to speculation of the unreliability of the primary narrator.

But, in defense of the overall narration, if all things are equal, then the governess story could be just as compromised with her intentions of employment. Even without the bias of a chauvinistic male, if the facts of the story are taken at face value, the governess was questionable in her neglect of securing education for Miles as well as the sexual undertone of her actions toward him. Her main employment was to the little girl Flora, with only minute interaction with Miles during school break.

To suggest that he does not need school, which would place him beneath others of his ranking in society, and jeopardize his establishment as a true gentleman, leads the audience to wonder of her self-interest towards him. If in fact she had dealt with that situation up front then her employment would have been secured, because she would have had no need to contact her employer, and all her attention would have been on Flora.

The importance of her job, as her thoughts and statements put forth within the text: “She didn’t know—no one knew—how proud I had been to serve him and to stick to our terms; yet she nonetheless took the measure, I think, of the warning I now gave her. “If you should so lose your head as to appeal to him for me….”(James), where she threatens Ms. Grose with resignation, seems to be undermined with her actions, therefore, leading her into the direction of an unreliable narrator as well.




Works Cited:

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Project Gutenberg EBook, 2012. Web. 14 March 2015.

“Unreliable Narrator”. Fiction Writing., 2015.Web. 14 March 2015.   

Tamuriel L. Dillard

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