The Turn of the Screw: Is the Governess Schizophrenic?

By Arpita Khosla

The mental state of an individual can rule their actions and thoughts. It can lead them to act rational or erratically. If someone has a harmful mental state it can lead to not only harm to oneself but those they are close to. In the novella, The Turn of the Screw, the readers often find themselves questioning the mental state of the protagonist whose role as the governess is to care for two orphaned children, Miles and Flora. She begins to discover spirits within the house and becomes obsessed with protecting the child. However, never once in the novel does anyone else see the spirits, so are they even real? Could they just be images of the protagonist’s fears of corruption of the children? She appears to be stable at first; however, as the novella progresses, she almost becomes reflective of people who suffer from paranoid schizophrenia. The governess being roughly in her twenties and already stated to be going through personal problems could potentially be in prime stages of schizophrenia.

The early symptoms of schizophrenia, “include subjective experiences of thought, language, perception …, impaired tolerance to stress; disorders of emotion, thought, energy, concentration and memory; and, disturbances in social functioning” (Larson). The governess begins to show signs of unusual social behavior and thoughts, and never seen describes the children as human but rather as divine creatures. Even when Miles is expelled from school she refuses to believe that the children have the capacity to be bad. Her thoughts and actions are an early sign of schizophrenia which causes her to see the spirits. The governess has an unusual attachment to the children. She is so attached that she is willing to confront the ghosts for the sake of protecting the children. She believes herself to be sacrificing for the sake of the children just like many schizophrenics often find themselves believing. They become attached to something or someone and becomes obsessed with protecting them from an imagined danger.

The governess’ accounts of the ghosts within the house are odd in themselves. When describing the first ghost who is believed to be Peter Quint, the dead valet, she states, “[He was dressed] in somebody’s clothes.” It is almost impossible to know if someone is wearing another’s clothes upon their first meeting. The delusions of a schizophrenic could be based on things in their personal life, such as things that could have left a memorable toll on him or her. While walking the grounds at Bly, she wishes to cross paths with a man like in a romance. But when she sees a stranger, supposedly Peter Quint, she feels as if there is something terribly wrong. Perhaps, it was her disappointment that it was not the children’s charming uncle who persuaded her to accept the position in the first place. When it comes to the second ghost, Miss Jessel, the governess does not go into as much details, but immediately assumes that she saw her dead predecessor, Miss Jessel. She does not question it in the slightest which is a sign of the schizophrenia progressing.

The governess begins to see her role not only as the caretaker of the children but also their protector. Many schizophrenics begin to believe that they or another individual that they are close to is under threat and it is their job to do everything in their means to protect them. For the governess, that means to keep constant watch on the child. As she does this, she becomes more paranoid as she believes the children to be aware of the ghosts. In every scene where the two siblings are talking to one another, she assumes them to be speaking of the ghosts and ways to hide their existence from the governess. According to Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, children are in their concrete operational stages where they are beginning to develop logical notions (Giddens.) They are able to comprehend things around them, such as the fact that a poodle is a dog and a dog is an animal. But this particular stage of life is structured based on egocentrism; children in this stage are unable to comprehend things abstractly or in the perspective of others. They will believe things if it holds logical sense. A child at this stage will be able to understand that when people are dead they will not return. However, if you attempt to introduce the idea of ghosts the child would be unable to properly process it. This is why children are so fearful of ghosts or the unknown as they lack understanding of it. However, the governess is unable to comprehend that. This is what leads her to the critical stages of her potential illness.

The governess begins to be even more paranoid as she begins to believe that the children are already corrupted and being possessed by the ghosts of Bly’s former employees. She thinks that Miles is especially corrupted because he distracted her by the playing the piano so Flora could meet Miss Jessel. This leads to her actions becoming irrational leading to the children to either being fearful of her or losing their life. In the case of Flora, the governess begins to yell at her aggressively, demanding to know if she could see Miss Jessel, too. As a child who can barely comprehend the thought of a dead person still roaming the Earth, Flora becomes frightened to the point that she exclaims her hatred for the governess. The child becomes so mentally damaged that she is described to be extremely ill. However, the governess takes this as Flora being possessed by Miss Jessel’s spirit. On the other hand, Miles receives the crueler end of the stick. The governess believes that Miles is under the complete possession of Quint and is lost. She believes that she is sacrificing her safety to be alone with the possessed Miles as she tries to “save” him. But rather than saving him, she unwittingly causes his death. Although the author leaves the last scene ambiguous, it could be assumed that the governess herself killed Miles. Miles dies suddenly in the governess’ arms, but could it be that she held him so tightly in hopes to save him from Quint’s spirit that she smothered him. Perhaps her illness has progressed so much, that she is unable to realize the harm she is inflicting on the children.

Although the novella invites the readers to interpret it in several ways, there is evidence that suggests the governess suffers from mental illness. However, it could be that everything the governess saw was in fact true and not her own delusions. Yet, her actions and thoughts are too often unusual. Based on careful analysis, it appears that the governess is motivated by her personal fears regarding the children. She does not want them to lose their innocence.  However, Henry James shows that at some point a child may become “corrupted,” even against the will of the adults; and in a bid to save the innocence of that child, the adults may become corrupted themselves.



Work Cited

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1966.

Larson, Molly K, et al. “Early Signs, Diagnosis and Therapeutics of the Prodromal Phase of Schizophrenia and Related Psychotic Disorders.” Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2010,

Jones, Mark “The Turn of the Screw: Is child protection the issue” The Journal of Forensic

Psychiatry. Vol 10. No 1. April 1999. p. 1-4.

Giddens, Anthony et al. Essentials of Sociology. 6th edition, 2017, W.W. Norton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s