Theme of Beauty in The Turn of The Screw

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Wilde’s exceptional example of gothic horror that led to its initial rejection from the ‘morally- rigid’ society that it was introduced to, carries many comparisons to the image-centered society we find ourselves in today. Dorian Gray becomes an embodiment of the consequence of vanity, which in a Christian society would be considered an example of one of the seven deadly sins: pride. The start of novel itself begins with a sensual description of the studio, a materialistic and externally focused view. It begins to show the shallowness of the obsession with appearances and the ‘burden of beauty that began with the ‘young man of extraordinary personal beauty. Lord Henry’s referral to Gray as ‘Narcissus’ can be seen to be a tool for foreshadowing the outcome of his obsession with his youth. The word narcissistic is used to describe the egotistical admiration of one’s idealized attributes and originates from the greek mythology of a hunter, who fell in love with himself and committed suicide, despite the fact it may be viewed as an insignificant tale told for mere entertainment purposes, it became the basis of the identification of pathological self-absorption, as a personality disorder. A pathing way for the interpretation that Dorian Gray may have fallen prey to this, as it is categorized by an arrogant, self-absorbed mindset that leads to the lack of empathy for others. Thus whilst at the start, it is evident he is unaware of his beauty that ‘is such that Art cannot express, Lord Henry’s influence elevates the importance of outward beauty in Dorian Gray’s life. This newfound unnaturally intense passion eventually led to his demise, destroying him physically and mentally, distorting his ability to feel empathy, the development of this obsession with youth also resulted in his role in the deaths of Sybil and James Vane and the murder of Basil Howards.

Throughout the novel, the theme of beauty plays an invaluable role in understanding its deceptive nature and the obsession that stems from it. James explores the incitement of beauty from a slightly varying perspective, in which the governess's obsessive infatuation with the beauty of Miles and Flora, leads to her irrational judgment of their characters simply based upon their external appearances, even excusing otherwise unacceptable behavior based on the presumption that they are too beautiful to misbehave. Their physical beauty becomes a distraction for her, making the governess ‘restless’ literally averting her attention from sleeping to focusing on the ‘radiating image’ of Flora. The defending of their behavior relates to the psychological concept of the ‘halo effect’ which is our preconceived idea that physically attractive people are likely to have better personalities and traits, resulting in a disproportionate judgment on people. This is first evident in Mrs. Grose who ‘suddenly flamed up at the subject of miles being an ‘injury’ to others expressing a ‘flood of good faith in the ‘little gentleman. To Mrs. Grose, the accusations are ‘too dreadful’ and ‘cruel’ to say to a ‘scare ten-year-old, with children representing innocence and purity, readers in 1898, would have also held the view that they are incapable of doing wrong. James, on the other hand, seems to hint at the idea that children aren’t exempt from their actions or in a cable of wrong on the basis of them being children, the same view held by more modern readers, where the age of criminality (criminal responsibility) is ten years old, ironically the same age as Miles, alluding the idea that children are more than capable of committing offenses, be it minor or serious ones, and also taking responsibility for them. Mrs. Grose is the first to express an obsession with their appearances as she exclaims all she does is look at them which influences her faith in his innocence, telling the governess ‘see him, miss, first. THEN believe it, almost implying that their ‘angelic’ appearances directly correlate to their levels of morality. The obsessive pleasure they both gain from simply looking at them leads to them dismissing and disregarding their actions on the premise that they are far too beautiful, which would in turn have grave consequences as they are living on the surface, not acknowledging that there may be more to the situation than what is directly visible to them, including the possible corruption of the children.

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To build on the concept of corruption, a theme explored by James on a number of levels, ranging from the corruption of the children and the adults in the novel to the corruption of the reader. The novel's obsession with children instills a sense of fear within the readers, as the ambiguity of the governess’ belief of what Peter Quint and Miss Jessel did to the children forces the mind of the reader to wander to our darkest fears in regard to children being exposed to adults. Francis Gilbert believes children to be almost innocently corrupt, one's childhood should be a sacrosanct place, a time for them to be youthful and loved, however, children tend to grow up too quickly, becoming entranced by the adult world, that profoundly misunderstands them and essentially leads them to corruption. This belief is evident in Miles and Flora who from their ways of communication and mannerisms portray them to appear far older than they are. Their surprising levels of maturity is that of which would not be typically associated with children, however, we develop a sense of sympathy towards them for being involuntarily made to grow up before their time, as a fruitful childhood is one everyone should have the privilege of experiencing, which due to the abandonment they faced from all parental figures it became a privilege they were stripped off. In addition to this, the belief that the children are victims of the adult world is intensified by the fact James anatomizes the thoughts and feelings of the governess, thus because it is written from her point of view, we become gripped by her ever-changing thoughts and feelings, therefore her ambiguous belief of what the roles of Quint and Miss Jessel were in the corrupting of the children, flood through us including the vagueness of what Miles did to be expelled from school. Despite the fact that what he actually did remains open to interpretation, there is a strong suspicion that he did something to ‘contaminate’ or ‘corrupt’ the other children, which hints at a possible sexual reference, possibly demonstrating something of which he himself had previously experienced, likely from the likes of Peter Quint. The term ‘corrupt’ being a euphemism provides leeway from the governess to remain unclear about what she actually means or in this instance fears. The corruption between adults is witnessed where the governess believes that Quint and Miss Jessel were sexually corrupt, accused of conducting an illicit affair but also wrenching the children into their sexual licentiousness.

The obsession with sexual intrigue in the novel was adapted by Benjamin Britten who wrote an opera scaffolded primarily by the theme of corruption, narrowing in on the sense of the possible sexual exploitation of Miles by Peter Quint ‘it was Quint's own fancy. To play with him, I mean - to spoil him.’ ‘Quint was much too free, both which elucidate the impression that Quint ‘spoilt’ his innocence. The opera also highlights the governess's unnatural obsession with the children, into which she also drew Mrs. Grose - corrupting her into providing information that she would manipulate and ‘use to prop up her own extreme notions’. Although it is reasonable to assume that she began her job with the honest intent of caring for and educating the children, the obsession with looking after them and keeping them safe from harm is what drove her to eventually kill Miles, the use of children being the centre, of what is essentially a horror story, is what makes the novel even more resonant for us, as the uncertainty behind what happened to the children and the sanity of the unreliable narrator instills out minds with the same paranoia as the governess. Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey a novel also based of an obsessed heroine was written as a parody for The Turn of the Screw as it mocked the genre of gothic literature arguing it to be far too sensational, encouraging poisonous hysterical thoughts, fostering diseased minds by encouraging wilful and wild speculation induced paranoia and suspicion, which to some degree is a justified view as the ambiguity that is sewn throughout the novel leaves us profoundly disturbed and in contemplation of what the facts actually are. The obsession with children, be it with pure or impure intention, is what ultimately led to their corruption but for Miles, it contributed to the ending of his life.

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Theme of Beauty in The Turn of The Screw. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 14, 2024, from
“Theme of Beauty in The Turn of The Screw.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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