Presentation Of Gothic Characters In The Turn Of The Screw By Henry James And In The Woman In Black By Susan Hill

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Supernatural beings exist in Gothic literature to corrupt others and to also highlight the anxieties of society’

In light of this view, compare and contrast the presentation of the gothic characters of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James and the character of the woman in black in ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill.

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In ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill, the main antagonist is seen as an evil gothic supernatural being, existing purely to claim revenge on society based off of her own experiences. In ‘The Turn of the Screw’, there are two supernatural gothic characters who are at the basis of the entire novel and one is also existing to corrupt others whilst the other isn’t. Both novels have a supernatural character that exists at the detriment of others. James and Hill also use these characters as a means of portraying their own personal view on social anxieties and therefore, both texts are heavily influenced by their context.

The character of Peter Quint is represented as a typical creature of the supernatural and could be a projection of a social anxiety, social mobility. In the novel, Peter Quint is displayed as a typical evil sinister gothic spirit, his main intent and purpose being to corrupt the young Miles. The governess speaks of Quint and says ‘I’m afraid of him’ which shows the influence he already has on her and it makes us question the reliability of the governess as the narrator because the speed at which he overcame her was rapid. This also creates a sense of foreboding as the governess is meant to be the individual who protects the children but as she is the first one to become overwhelmed by the spirit, it is highly likely the two children will be left to fend for themselves. He has a ‘white face of damnation’ which also emphasises his role as an evil spirit existing to corrupt the innocent. In the novel, whilst alive, Quint was terrifying to the rest of the occupiers of the house of Bly for his almost obscene amount of greed for power and control.

It could be argued that James is using Quint to display his inner criticisms of the strict structure of society. James could be using him to show his disapproval of the social hierarchy and warning against the possible dangers of subverting tradition in society. In the 19th century, society followed a strict protocol due to the nature of society and the importance of social class in each individual’s identity. Most citizens would have accepted this. However, there would have been a minority with the ambition to have more than was handed to them through their parent’s social position. Only these certain individuals with overpowering ambition and desire would be considered dangerous to society and a threat to the very structure of society itself which also links to the French Revolution. The French Revolution took place in the late 18th century and it was when the working-class overthrew the higher classes and ’laid down strong foundations for a democracy’. This created a real fear in England and much social anxiety in terms of a possible rebellion against the higher classes. In James’s novel the theme of increasing one’s social position through transgression is prevalent through the gothic character of Peter Quint. Quint is a physical manifestation of what an unhealthy amount of ambition and greed turns a human being into and the consequences of such ambition. Quint was just a mere servant at Bly but desired more and when the children’s uncle left, through an overwhelming amount of power given to him, Quint began a tyrannical rule. This was terrifying for the inhabitants of the house as he was not socially given this position, he stole it. Quint transgressed from the bottom of the social hierarchy to perching directly on top. If anything similar happened in reality, it would have been considered as risking breaking the roots of society itself. James could have been using the idea of the gothic male supernatural character again in an attempt to show the reality of what may happen if an ordinary lower-class citizen decided to rebel against the deep rooted societal norms. Also, if a lower-class individual decided to move through the layers of society, they would have received a huge amount of public backlash. They would have been referred to as the devil and evil and with much other atrocious and abusive language, similar to the type of language used by James to refer to Quint. He is also referred to as a ‘sentinel before a prison’ which also suggests that he is the guardian of Bly which is the prison and how he prevented the children from escaping and ultimately, the only way out is death. He is also referred to as a ‘demon’ which reinforces how his aim is to corrupt and steal the souls of the children. They would have also been isolated from the rest of the individuals of society and this isolation would have been their punishment for straying away from social norms and values. There would have been no physical punishment and they would have become an outsider. Supernatural beings are generally considered as an outsider, somebody who no other individual understands. Peter Quint is the perfect stereotypical gothic character used to project the James’s view on the structure of society.

A critical perspective in which ‘The Turn of the Screw’ can be interpreted is through Marxism. This perspective focuses on the social classes and the issues between both and in this particular text, social class is heavily focused on. The novel focuses on how significant the distinctions are and what the reverberations are of subverting tradition and attempting to move up in the social hierarchy. Peter Quint is the main character through which this is portrayed. Quint subverts this tradition as he is a working-class individual but yearned for more and seized control when possible and as a result, he becomes isolated, an outsider from the rest of society. Similarly, in ‘The Woman in Black’, Jennet Humfrye goes against the norms and values which taught that you couldn’t have a child out of wedlock however, she did not follow this and then further attempted to get her child back. Both supernatural beings went against the accepted norms and values of their time and both were rejected from society as a result. That is why after death, they return to corrupt and seek revenge on others.

In ‘The Woman in Black’, the woman in black is the main antagonist in the novel, living on after death to seek revenge. Whilst alive, she was known as Jennet Humfrye and had an illegitimate child whom she had to hand over to her sister Alice Drablow. However, the child died tragically and Humfrye ended up taking her own life as a result. She then returned to strike fear into the entire village and get revenge as every time she was sighted, a child died. From the protagonist’s point of view, she is described as ‘no expression on her face and yet I felt all over again the renewed power emanating from her, the malevolence and hatred and passionate bitterness. It pierced me through’. Here Hill has provided us with a typical gothic description of the antagonist of the novel. The word ‘renewed’ reiterates her villainous nature and how she gains power and thrill from the suffering of others. The juxtaposition of the words ‘passionate bitterness’ reflects the nature of the gothic character and how the character was not always of this temperament but the tragic events in her life shaped her into the hateful creature she is now.

Susan Hill could have also been using this character of the woman in black as a visual representation of oppression of women and the expectations of motherhood which were attached and forced onto them. However, what could have also shaped her into what she becomes are the social expectations attached to her, being a female. In the late 19th /early 20th century was when the novel was set and there were many expectations and oppression of women. Conceiving a child out of wedlock would have been deeply disapproved of and would have been viewed as a breach of morals and values that would have been associated with those who were middle-class. Jennet Humfrye had her child whilst being unmarried and due to the expectations of society, she had no choice but to hand over her child to her sister who then only allowed Humfrye to see her son as long as she does not reveal her true identity to him. Gothic feminists would say that this ‘suggests that, even though we are in the twentieth century, women still have difficulties in expressing themselves freely’. Diane Hoeveler speaks of a typical gothic heroine and says ‘The typical female gothic novel who presents a blameless heroine triumphing through a variety of passive-aggressive strategies over a male-created system of oppression and corruption’. Humfrye could be considered as this typical gothic heroine as ‘she refuses to submit to Victorian patriarchal values by attempting to reclaim her illegitimate child’. This reflects the individual’s strong nature and how she fought against society’s repression but her attempt was futile as it ended in her and her child’s death. One could argue that the woman in black seeking revenge from the rest of society is not simply due to her child’s death but also due to societal and patriarchal oppression that ensued as a result of the birth of her son as the male who got her pregnant also refused to wed her. As a result, she ends up inflicting pain on innocent people and she is never at peace. This contradicts how many readers view women as innocent and how it ‘suggests that mothers under extreme pressure have the potential, like any other members of the family, for cruelty to children’.

In Susan Hill’s ‘The Women in Black’, the supernatural character of the woman in black is also presented in a very similar way to James’s representation of Peter Quint. James presented Quint as a malicious devil-like apparition, who corrupts and ends up stealing the life of poor young Miles. The woman in black is also an evil apparition who exists to take revenge from society and ends up killing children as a result. In ‘The Turn of the Screw’, James also presents Peter Quint as a similar evil devil-like spirit whose main purpose is to corrupt the innocent. However, it is interesting how a female supernatural being is presented as equal to a male supernatural being when most female characters are presented as kind, loving and harmless.

In ‘The Turn of the Screw’, the second supernatural being is Miss Jessel who was the previous governess at the house of Bly is not given as much focus as Peter Quint which makes her are more mysterious and alluring character. However, unlike Peter Quint, she is not a character there to corrupt others. She is not an evil spirit and similarly to ‘The Woman in Black’, she is constantly seen as being in mourning as she constantly dressed in black, the traditional colour of mourning and death. Even though Peter Quint is described as a typical gothic being whose main purpose is corruption however on the contrary, she is an apparition, a physical manifestation of another social issue, sexual repression. She exists to show this social anxiety however, she is not there to corrupt. Instead, the roles are reversed and she is the corrupted and signifies loss of innocence in the novel. It is told in the novel that Peter Quint had enticed Miss Jessel and they had been in a relationship. Considering the book was set in the 19th century, their relationship would have been very harshly disapproved of due to their social class differences. Quint had a huge amount of lust and desire and it resulted in the corruption and loss of innocence of the previous governess. This projects the idea of sexual repression onto the reader and how it was a constant in that particular time period. She is sexually repressed as she is not allowed to follow her true desires due to it being seen as going against society’s norms and values. She is described as a ‘figure of quite as unmistakeable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful – with such an air also, and such a face!’. This is a typical gothic description of a supernatural being however, her main role in the novel is not to corrupt. This horror that the governess is describing, may be due to the governess’s fear of losing the souls of the children to the spirits which also makes the reader question the narrator’s reliability. The fact that she is seen wearing black again signifies that she could not be mourning not only her death, but also her mourning the fact that she lost her innocence and dignity. This could also be foreshadowing the upcoming sudden death of Miles who signifies more loss of an innocent life. Similar to ‘The Woman in Black’, she could have also been seen as mourning her loss of status due to her dishonourable relationship with Quint. Therefore, both social anxieties, sexual repression and social class are visible through the character of Miss Jessel although her purpose is not corruption.

In ‘The Turn of the Screw’ , James presents Miss Jessel as sexually oppressed as she is not allowed to pursue her heart’s desire but is left broken as Quint corrupted her and then left. In ‘The Woman in Black’, Jennet Humfrye is also presented as sexually oppressed as she is not allowed to pursue physical satisfaction and was restricted in that sense. However, when she did risk it, she got pregnant and was then abandoned by the male and also lost her child. Both supernatural beings, when dead, chose to corrupt children. In ‘The Turn of the Screw’, Peter Quint chose to corrupt Miles and in ‘The Woman in Black’, the woman in black chose to take revenge on the rest of society by killing innocent children. Both felt by acting in such a manner, they had satisfaction as they had control over others. However, both resulted in the death of innocent children. As children die as a result of sexual oppression in both novels, one could say that children were the reason of women’s oppression. If they had no children, they would have had more freedom. However, this loss of innocence evokes feelings of fear and hatred for the supernatural characters which makes them even more isolated in the eyes of the reader.

To conclude, social anxieties are projected from the author to the reader onto the reader through the different supernatural beings across both novels. The characters in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ represent the social issues and taboo surrounding social mobility and sexual repression. In ‘The Woman in Black’, the characters represent the fear and issues surrounding motherhood before marriage and again, sexual repression. Sexual repression seems to be the most important link between the two texts which ultimately leads to the death of children and the loss of innocence. Both writers use the characters to now only highlight the issues that were prevalent in that particular time but also warn against the possible dangers of going against society’s norms. Despite there being three supernatural manifestations in across both novels, only two exists to corrupt whilst the other, she herself is the corrupted. This shows that in gothic literature, most supernatural characters that are created live beyond the grave to corrupt whilst in some situations, the roles are reversed and the supposed corruptors become the corrupted. Either way, authors use these characters as a means of highlighting important social anxieties.


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