The Turn of the Screw: Theme Analysis

Beauty versus evil
Throughout The Turn of the Screw, there are many references to the connection between physical appearance and morality. Traditionally, external beauty was assumed to be connected to internal beauty, and literary representations of physical perfection as representing moral perfection abound. Conversely, ugliness was often connected to moral turpitude. However, during the turn of the twentieth century, there was instead a fascination with the evil that beauty could hide. People were even tantalized by the prospect that the seemingly pure could be evil underneath, as there is a thrill that comes from finding out that someone who is physically lovely is also dangerous. James plays on the traditional expectation that the beautiful are also good and contrasts it with the thrill that the governess gets when she discovers her charges are not so good after all.
Both the governess and Mrs. Grose assume that Miles and Flora must be good and pure because they are beautiful. From the very start, when the letter from the school indicates all is not right with Miles, they try to equate their physical charms with goodness. Mrs. Grose tells her friend that she must see Miles first, and then she will realize he could not be bad any more than Flora could be. “Look at her!” she insists (17). When the governess decides Miles must be good, her evidence is the same as Mrs. Groses: “look at him!” (20) Beautiful children simply cannot be bad because it would somehow show on their faces. Time and again, they speak of the childrens beauty and the goodness it reflects.
When they finally do decide that the children are evil, there is something thrilling about thinking that such beauty could be paired with such evil. While always protesting that she would prefer if they were not evil, the governess continually contrasts their physical beauty with the evil she now thinks has touched them. For example, she speaks of looking at Flora after first seeing Miss Jessel. “To gaze into the depths of blue of the childs 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” (46). Despite her professed lack of desire to see the evil, she goes on to say, at some lengths, how she forces herself to think about how Flora really saw the ghost. This is one of many moments in which the governess claims to not want to know about the childrens evil, yet seems to enjoy dwelling on the way their beauty hides their evil.
Throughout, the charm and beauty of the children is contrasted with the evil their governess ascribes to them. She always claims not to want to think about how evil they could be because they are so lovely, yet she continually spends a good deal of time thinking about that evil. She seems to enjoy dwelling on the contrast between their physical and moral appearance.
While The Turn of the Screw is ostensibly a ghost story, one of the major themes is the impact that class has on the interaction between people. There are numerous references to class throughout the governesss tale, but even the characters in the prologue are concerned with class. Douglas is careful to explain part of what happened in Harley Street to make her take the position. She was “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson” and her prospective employer “proved a gentleman . . . such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage” (7). His superior station in life is at least as much a part of the seduction as any personal attractiveness.
Once at Bly, the governess is acutely aware of class. Mrs. Grose is below her in station, the children are above her. This is complicated by the fact that Mrs. Grose is older and has more experience at the house, while the children are younger and under her authority. Yet, both the governess and Mrs. Grose are very much concerned with the propriety of the classes mixing. The very first indication that the ghost is Quint is that the governess knows he is lower class but he is wearing a gentlemans clothes. The very fact that he would do this marks him as an evil person with no respect for propriety. When Mrs. Grose finally speaks of the affair between Quint and Miss Jessel, both women lament that the dead governess was involved with a man of lower class (44). Their objection to Miless association with Quint is that he “was only a base menial” (48). They are distressed to see people of different classes interacting.
Yet, throughout the text, people of different classes are quite intimate with each other. Even though they are of different stations, Mrs. Grose and the governess are close. Even though Miles and Flora are superior to her, the governess considers herself close to them. She also fantasizes about the master. At the same time that she is appalled by people of different classes mixing, she herself is guilty of attempting to mix with other classes. She is both attracted to and repelled by the idea of mixing with people of different stations.