The Turn of the Screw: Importance of Motif

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Since the publication of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, readers have scrutinized the novella because of their inability to untangle its ambiguity. One area that has drawn critical attention is the topic as to whether or not the governess’s narrative is accurate; however, per the author’s use of suspense, such postulate has yet to be proven. Recognizing Henry James’ use of different literary elements is the cornerstone of textual analysis and the first step to unraveling this madness, but for the purposes of this response paper, only one element will be analyzed: motif, a recurring salient thematic element. With this said, in The Turn of the Screw, the recurring motif of sight illuminates the text as it introduces the idea of how deceptive and misleading one’s vision can be.

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In the novella, the references to vision and eyes accentuate the assertion that sight is unreliable. In her first encounter with Peter Quint, the governess notes that she experienced “distinct gaps of emotion” and how it then “came to [her] thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that [she] can hope to give” (James 39-40). The extremely ambiguous and open-ended phrasing of what she just saw suggests that the governess may have fabricated the entire event according to her imagination. The inclusion of her lively and emotional reaction to Peter Quint combined with the direct follow-up mentioning of her perplexed visions all the more support the idea that the governess is unreliable. The motif, like a jack-in-the-box, pops up and implies that there is another dimension about the governess’s nature beyond what the eye can see. The common saying, “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” in this context, is true to some degree in that when applied to the governess, her eyes are windows to her internal fragmentation. This is evidenced again when the motif appears in the governess’s internal monologue regarding the children: “To gaze into the depths of blue of the child’s eyes and pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning was to be guilty of a cynicism in preference to which I naturally preferred to abjure my judgment and, so far as might be, my agitation” (James 60).

In this context, the motif is used as a means of judging whether the children are capable of deception by looking at their eyes; however, as analyzed above through the first quote, the reader does not know if it may be the governess’s own eyes that deceive her. This realization ties back to the initial claim as to how unreliable one’s vision can be. The motif adds complexity to the plot and contributes to the ambiguity while simultaneously conjuring suspense for the reader. This literary device pronounces a thematic element that has multiple meanings and such, illuminates the text by creating multiple lenses of analysis. By purposely convoluting those elements that should direct and one-dimensional, Henry James utilizes the motif of sight to add twists and turns to every conclusion.

In the novella, The Turn of the Screw, author Henry James employs the motif of sight to allow the reader’s thought process to have full sway over the plot. By taking one of the five senses that unify all readers, Henry James transforms the readers’ ability to see into a tool for misdirection. What is seen through the human eye is not always reflective of one’s intentions in the heart and soul, thereby forcing the reader to linger on each plot element and question the legitimacy of what is written. The motif, all in all, is a strategy used by the author to illuminate the concept of mistrust.

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