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  • Hysteria, Rhetoric, and the Politics of Reversal in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw
  • Albaraq Mahbobah

The Politics of Oppositional Reversal

Recently, a number of Henry James’s feminist critics have tried to rescue the heroine of The Turn of the Screw from various psychoanalytic readings which share a common gender bias in their understanding of her hysteria. While the feminist intervention into the field of psychoanalysis is necessary to correct its misrepresentations of female subjectivity, some of the new readings of James’s novella mainly reverse the application of the theory, without actually moving beyond its discriminatory terms. Granted, many of the critics who utilize the methods of psychoanalysis read the governess’s hysteria mainly in terms of stereotypes associated with female sexuality, and the authors of the classic Freudian readings of the novella in particular have used various labels to pathologize James’s heroine, making of her story a case history which validates what psychoanalysis says about women. 1 However, the readers who justify James’s heroine’s violence towards the two children, Miles and Flora, might be accused of committing an inequity similar to the one which they protest. Paula Cohen, for instance, argues that the governess’s abuse of the two children connotes her rejection of the traditional role assigned to governesses in the Victorian social order:

The governess, the presumed source of domestic order, wreaks havoc in the domestic space and ends up driving one child from the house and destroying the other. This paradox forces us to reevaluate the female role to which the governess exaggeratedly conforms and see it as the [End Page 149] potential breeding ground for a “pathological imagination,” an imagination which arises in order to fulfill the expectations created by the role, and to fulfill needs which the role denies.


Cohen here represents the violence of hysteria as a form of political protest and thus justifies it. As she indicates, James’s heroine’s role as a female subject in a male dominated culture determines and prompts her pathology. Yet, her hysteria also allows the governess to fulfill “needs which the role denies,” particularly the need to protest gender inequity by “driving one child from the house and destroying the other.” Cohen then views the governess’s victimization of the children as merely another sign of her rebelliousness against an oppressive social code. More disconcerting are the new readings which blame Miles and Flora for what the governess does to them: for John Pearson, the young Miles will eventually become another abusive male: at the age of ten, he is already “the secret vessel of male degeneracy” because of his “aristocratic breeding”; the governess therefore “must sever him from the patriarchal form he would repeat in order to insure her own authority, her own individual presence” (278).

Idealistic terms like “authority,” “presence,” and “individuality,” which are used to justify the violent acts of the governess, appear in some of the feminist assessments of hysteria as well, assessments which influence the recent discussions of James’s novella. Because of various factors, such as the repression which causes it and the distorted expression of the repressed through body language in hysteria, critics associate the hysteric often with the individual in her struggle against an oppressive social order, and hence with all that is good, and regardless of what she does. This idealism reveals a nostalgia for a subjectivity which does not actually exist, certainly not among the mentally ill. 2 In the following passage, Hélène Cixous states that women’s desires have been repressed for too long and that their return in hysteria challenges and will ultimately alter the codes of a male dominated society and of capitalism:

They have furiously inhabited these sumptuous bodies: Hysterics who made Freud succumb to many voluptuous moments impossible to confess, bombarding his Mosaic statue with their carnal and passionate body words, haunting him with their inaudible and thundering denunciations, dazzling, more than naked underneath the seven veils of modesty. Those who, with a single word of the body, have inscribed the vertiginous immensity of a history which is sprung like an arrow from the biblico-capitalistic society are the women...

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pp. 149-161
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