What’s in a Dream



Historically, critics have dissected the tale within Henry James’ Turn of the Screw as a psychologically complex web within the female mind. This short analysis will attempt a turn of the norm, by detailing how the story is actually a framework within the dream of the jilted first narrator, the unnamed man. Using Sigmund Freud’s theory of the interpretation of dreams, the story can be seen in a different light, and expose the repressed feelings of a man who has a void in his heart, which manifests itself in the form of an unreliable narrator.

Peter Barry writes that ˝dreams, when read or interpreted as a rebus or puzzle, instead of being taken literally, turn out to be translations into the semi-conscious form of unconscious material (Barry, 397). If this is true, then viewing The Turn of the Screw as the male’s way of burying contempt due to a rejected proposal makes perfect sense. It would explain the neurotic behavior of the governess, as well as the reason for leaving these two characters as unnamed, the first and second narrator. As if placing a name would make the dreamer have to acknowledge his reality.

It would also account for the underlying sexual tension between the governess and Miles seen in passages such as this:

˝He looked at me more directly, and the expression of his face, graver now, struck me as the most beautiful I had ever found in it. “You stay on just for THAT?”

“Certainly. I stay on as your friend and from the tremendous interest I take in you till something can be done for you that may be more worth your while. That needn’t surprise you.” My voice trembled so that I felt it impossible to suppress the shake. “Don’t you remember how I told you, when I came and sat on your bed the night of the storm, that there was nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for you?”

“Yes, yes!” He, on his side, more and more visibly nervous, had a tone to master; but he was so much more successful than I that, laughing out through his gravity, he could pretend we were pleasantly jesting. “Only that, I think, was to get me to do something for YOU!”

“It was partly to get you to do something,” I conceded. “But, you know, you didn’t do it.”

“Oh, yes,” he said with the brightest superficial eagerness, “you wanted me to tell you something.”

“That’s it. Out, straight out. What you have on your mind, you know.”

“Ah, then, is THAT what you’ve stayed over for?”

He spoke with a gaiety through which I could still catch the finest little quiver of resentful passion; but I can’t begin to express the effect upon me of an implication of surrender even so faint. It was as if what I had yearned for had come at last only to astonish me.

“Well, yes—I may as well make a clean breast of it, it was precisely for that.”

He waited so long that I supposed it for the purpose of repudiating the assumption on which my action had been founded; but what he finally said was: “Do you mean now—here?”(James)


If one reads these words without context, then it is very ambiguous, but the reader would more than likely lean toward a proposal of a liaison. In context, it is only about the governess wanting the child to ask to go back outside. The two realities don’t quite fit, and this is because, while asleep, the male projects his desire upon the female and who she has chosen. His passions get entangled into the dream in a way that doesn’t complement the narration.

Of course, this leads one to assume that his love interest denied the proposal request due to the gain of employment. In the dream state, the story of the governess unfolds into a woman who has an unhealthy attachment to a child, and is driven by her desire to please the employer. She is cast into a setting filled with chaos and doubt.

Key moments within the story, which are tell-tale signs of a male dominated thought, first, come not in the actual diary of the governess, but during the Christmas party at the beginning of the journey. When the male narrator sets the mood for the audience, by praising the fact that the unwed women of the group had left before the governess story unfolds. The narration is filled with bias and underlying tension, which could be confused with the general beliefs of men in that era.

But, when more of the initial text is explored, it can be found that this narrator, in fact, scribes his own ‘copy’ of the diary produced by his friend Douglas. 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.

This lends the first narrator as being conflicting in his desire to portray the words of the governess as genuine, and lends even more credibility as a man who subconsciously loathes women in this field of work. The only probable reason is because someone in this profession has caused him harm, and this unresolved issue finds its way out of repression by leaks through his dreams of a demented female employee.


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. 12 April 2015.

Tamuriel L. Dillard

Like to read the story in full http://www.gutenberg.org/files/209/209-h/209-h.htm Enjoy!

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