Comparison of Women Representation in The Road and The Turn of the Screw

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The role of women in society in The Road and The Turn of the Screw can be seen to subvert the stereotypical social rules. The boy’s mother in McCarthy’s novel is not physically present in the novel and her only reference comes as a retrospective glance back, much as in the same manner as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw – the beginning of the novel reveals that the actual events are as a form of storytelling. The boy’s mother in The Road commits suicide rather than continue on journeying to a hypothetical utopia, leaving him in sole custody of his father, who has to now fulfil both parental roles. “They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves,” she states, “but I dont dream at all”. This lack of emotion is rather atypical in the depiction of women and the unreferenced “they” could perhaps be referring to society and its typical roles. Society has metamorphosed from being a compulsory set of social ‘rules’ that dictate and represent the current political correctness of the time, as highlighted in The Turn of the Screw to, the mad scramble for survival in McCarthy’s novel. In The Turn of the Screw, however, it soon becomes apparent that the Governess ‘narrator’ fulfils much of both parental roles herself – female with male impulsive and powerful urges and an active presence in the narrative. However, perhaps McCarthy is suggesting that women are emotionally weaker than men, as the mother is quick to abandon her family and end her life before she is killed by another outside element. “She would do it with a flake of obsidian”, the boy’s father reminisces as “he taught her himself”. The use of the “flake” denotes a rather unstable, tiny piece – and the fact that she chooses to do it with such a small sliver of obsidian could be yet another sign of her general weakness in that she could not bear to do it with any larger a piece or it could possibly illustrate that she does indeed want to help protect her family as she would not seek to take any more of their precious raw materials to end her life as they would need it more than her. Perhaps this also subverts gender roles more widely as the Father in The Road develops a caring, feminine side in order to comfort the boy.

The boy’s mother asserts to the father shortly before she commits suicide, “They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it.” This literal truth is explored in the novel when the boy and his father scrounge a basement hoping for food and uncover a human farm (“On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.”) full of victims to the various cannibals in the novel. The gruesome, blunt and direct declaratives associated with this extract belies just how far beyond society the few survivors have gone. The consonance and alliteration of the adjectives “blackened and burnt” foregrounds the moment and uses it to shock the reader into reading the truth of the story – the lack of sugar-coating by the narrator breaks several social ‘norms’, the most important of which is to not offend any one outright. The boy’s father reveals the ‘rules’ when he claims that “the smell was hideous”. The reaction intended for the reader is one of initial shock and horror at the harsh extremities such a society, or lack thereof, forces not just on the characters but, through the novel’s course, to the reader as well – perhaps alluding to the reader’s darkest fears, in a world where society has collapsed the standard ‘rules’ they are known to live by. In a society not unlike that of The Turn of the Screw, one would not declaratively insult anyone in that particular manner, as illustrated in Chapter 1 when the governess insists that Bly “was a big, ugly, antique” before quickly switching it around with the coordinating conjunction, “but convenient house”. It suggests that these social rule are so deeply ingrained into the character’s structure that they cannot escape them – even when only conversing about inanimate, concrete objects. However, the reference to cannibalism in The Road could also be a metaphor for society in The Turn of the Screw and how the people who ‘follow’ these rules are also the ones responsible for metaphorically eating people alive. Chapter 24 is an example of this, with the governess “flashing into ice to challenge him”. While this may not be a direct comparison, the overall intention of violence is clear – the common, hyperbolic idiom of ‘being eaten alive’ in social situations appears to come true in McCarthy’s novel.

There is another obvious incident in The Turn of the Screw where strict social taboos are subverted. The alleged ‘antagonist’ of the novella, Peter Quint, is implied to have engaged in pederasty with Miles – two serious legal and social offences and a critic has suggested that “defining themes of pederasty and exoticism[1]” are present in The Turn of the Screw. Mrs Grose on page 39 informs the ‘protagonist’ of the governess that “it was Quint’s own fancy. To play with him, I mean – to spoil him” before adding that “Quint was much too free”.

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The mitigated hedging surrounding the implications does not solidify any suspicions the reader might have, along with the governess, who are all bound by social rules regarding ‘genderlect’ and what a woman’s language should be. The governess later subverts the stereotypes associated with language when, enraged and in shock, interrogatively questions whether Quint was “too free with my boy”? The stressed emphasis on the possessive determiner, “my”, is rather strong and declarative and is ironic in a sense as she has no ties to Miles, the boy in question, due to the fact that she is neither legally nor blood related to him yet she still feels protective over him. In that sense then perhaps the governess is simply performing a much more generalised embodiment of women as a whole, almost personifying their stereotypes, as the female is more likely to protect and defend her young. This wild, animalistic urge to protect also serves as a depersonalising tool as well, even suggesting that she is obsessed with the boy to a feral degree. The eventual ‘killing’ of the child at the end of the novella could illustrate the transition of the governess’ mental stability – although, the fact that it does end by addressing another strict social taboo of society (a ‘mother’ killing a child) does highlight how James has aimed to address these taboos and perhaps is also informing the reader that society is there for a reason. The ambiguous nature of the ending, accompanied in several notable other experiences within the time span of the novella, could merely be there to disguise James’ message using a supernatural and gothic genre as a distraction.

In The Turn of the Screw, the governess is a ‘heroic’ protagonist who is willing to do anything to protect the children, as society would probably expect a woman to act. The text is full of declaratives like “I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him”. The connotations with the verbs “challenge” and “flashed” might typically be expected of a male protagonist as women were not expected to be active let alone fighting another man. This blatant subversion of gender roles could allow the modern reader to apply a feminist reading view. The governess’ aggression toward Miles may be considered heroic and justified as Miles is able to rid himself of his demon through his death, however, Miles’ exclamative “Peter Quint-the devil!” in Chapter 24 could also be referring to the governess with her being the ‘devil’. If she accuses Miles because of her own insanity then she will never believe what he says in defence as reason cannot fend off insanity. The ambiguity is a result of James’ “deliberate obscurity – the ways in which he powerfully withholds and suggests information without ever actually telling”[2]. This idea is similar to The Road in that the mother could be considered unusual and atypical in her apathy toward her family – and the rather cool and quick explanation as to her disappearance between the boy and father could also back up an underlying insanity theme in the novel: “he said She’s gone isn’t she? And he said: Yes, she is.” The fact that the gendered pronoun “she” is unreferenced shows how, even without asking for clarification, they boy’s father assumes who the boy is talking about yet this ungendered assumption could come to symbolise women in general as simply ‘leaving’ when it gets too much – even in real, ordinary life as the reader might associate – so subverting social assumptions of women as primary care-givers above all else. Another significant moment in Chapter Nine of The Turn of the Screw belies the governess’ “third encounter” with the supposed ghost, Peter Quint.

The importance of the tricolon in this particular section, especially with regards to the “some enemy, some adventurer, some criminal” repetition, highlights a rather unsettling undertone associated with these three concrete nouns. The successive pattern could represent the linear structure of certain personalities – if you are an “enemy” then you first must be an “adventurer” before finally ending up as a “criminal”. Yet, is the governess not an “adventurer” herself for daring to meet Quint a “third” time? Perhaps James is subconsciously projecting her as the true antagonist to, not only the readers of the text but, the unnamed narrator of the beginning of the novella with the manuscript as her confession. Equally, however, Quint could simply be a manifestation of her emotions at the time, much as in the same manner as she manipulates the reader’s perception of Bly. The fact that Bly is regarded as a place wherein social rules do not appear to apply in the same manner as they would in city life could link to James’ own interpretation of Britain as Bly where the American social life is different than he anticipated. James was fascinated with Britain as a country and published books that were set in Britain so perhaps James is almost inserting his own emotional involvement with the governess’ situation into her reactions of Bly, particularly the initial ones which detail the first few pages of his novella. In contrast to this, McCarthy’s The Road appears almost factual in its delivery, as though it is devoid of all subjectivity. The lack of ‘standard’ grammatical structure in this particular extract from a purely ‘prescriptionist’ standpoint, combined with the dystopian America of which The Road belongs to, reveals the lack of time in regards to society and instead it devotes all resources to survival. Linking to that extract, the retrospective narration it is delivered in, alongside the possibility that is exemplified with the repeated “if”. It must have been an important “third” encounter with Quint to garner such internal debate (“which I saw the figure disappear, in which I definitely saw it turn”). The “definitely” = persuading herself?

Above all else, The Road creates an objective and ‘closed’ impression of the narrator, which much unreferenced detail including the “he”. Tim Clist suggests that the third person narrator “strictly limits that narrator's ability to intrude into private thoughts” which is “an unusual technique that makes the characters more like real people encountered in everyday life”[3]. The unreferenced narrator, despite his aloof relationship with the reader, does have an omniscience that invites both the reader and “the child” to trust him: “There’d be no surviving another winter here” is the underlying warning directly understood at the beginning of the novel. The use of the dynamic verb “surviving”, along with the declarative statements, delivered without a hint of mitigation or disguised directive, allows this blunt and raw setting and voice to characterise the narrator. This finality sobers the reader, aware that they must also ‘journey’ with the narrator and this “child” if they want to “survive” through to the end of the novel. The narrator also assumes a shared knowledge between the reader with specific jargon (“glaucoma”, “tarpaulin” and “flues”) in the opening of the novel which, like in many dystopian texts, the reader may not necessarily know without having to research it. The factual and objective manner in which the novel is written is stereotypically perceived as a masculine quality, with the patterns of declaratives and imperatives in the text, but the narrative gaps also set up an unsettling conflict with this, making a rather unsettling read.

By contrast James’ narrator in The Turn of the Screw is very much involved with the reader, as depicted with the first person inclusive pronouns “us” and “we”. The language in the opening mimics real speech with mitigated hedging (“I may mention”, “not particularly effective” and “’I quite agree’”) which could demonstrate a reserved politeness ingrained in the narrator – as opposed to McCarthy’s narrator who simply declares statements with no regard to how others might view them. The meaning behind the supposed politeness in James’ narrator could be due to social standing, as class was an important factor in the early twentieth century. However, the fact that the manuscript was written by a woman could also be an indicator of feminine unreliability. The famously obscure ‘Jamesian’ prose as well as the numerous misdirections and missed details likewise created a troubling narrative in which gender representation is just one of many ‘problems’ for the reader.

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