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  • Naya Clark

Beloved and Turn of The Screw – Manifestations of Women's Trauma

TW: This posts discusses subjects of sexual assault, child abuse, slavery, and

Beloved, by Toni Morrison, and Turn of The Screw, by Henry James are two novels rarely compared side by side. Despite their dissimilar settings, they’re both novels that can be read, at face value, as ghost stories, or a complex analysis of trauma in the form of ghosts. For the Governess in Turn of the Screw, trauma took form from her struggles with sexuality. For Sethe, in Beloved, her trauma manifested from the murder of her baby girl, by her own hands. In both novels Toni Morrison and Henry James manage to write about the haunting thoughts of women's' minds being powerful enough to take form in real life, and haunt the reader's imaginations as to how and why.

A bodiless while dress form holds a crying woman, kneeling on a bed
Illustration credit Joe Morse

Take for instance Turn of the Screw, in which a governess is hired to homeschool two children, a boy and a girl who are being pursued by the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. In its initial reading, Turn of the Screw is so vague, it has been theorized in a variety of ways. On one hand, it can be read as a literal haunting of the Bly Estate, witnessed by the Governess, or it can be read as a complex analysis of the “corrupting” introduction of sex, trauma, and loss of innocence. James adds covert sexual circumstances from the beginning of the novel. From an in-between-the-lines standpoint, it can be theorized that the Governess was sexually assaulted at her interview for her position. This experience leads her to compete with her inner demons, taking both male and female form and haunting Bly. In discussion with Ms. Grose, the maid, the Governess mentioned an attraction and being “carried away’ The Governess says, “Well, that, I think, is what I came for – to be carried away. I'm afraid, however... I remember feeling the impulse to add, ‘I'm rather easily carried away. I was carried away in London!’Ms.Grose consoles her by saying, "Well, miss, you're not the first – and you won't be the last." Ms. Grose’s response highlights another element of sexual assault. Like, many sexual assault cases, The Governess isn’t the first, or the last. Another factor to consider is that The Governess also had an impulse to add that the occurrence may have been partially her fault for being carried away so easily. This reaction is common amongst sexual abuse victims.

The Governess’ coping takes form, not only in self-blame, but in a series of hysterics while seeing the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel around the estate. Her paranoia of them possessing Miles and Flora, drives her to act irrationally, sometimes flaring, and acting skeptical of the children for doubting the ghouls’ presence. Taking into consideration that the ghosts are a symbol of resurfacing, and sometimes unaddressed emotions and experiences, it can be said that the Governess is trying to prevent the children from experiencing the corruption of sex and the knowledge of it, as almost all children must know, or at least attempt to ponder and discover in order to develop past childhood. Although the maintenance of innocence, and protection from both ghosts is what The Governess is trying to achieve for both children, the focus is on Miles, specifically from Peter Quint.

Sethe, the main character in Beloved, on the other hand, lived a whole life in the trauma that is slavery, as most everyone she’s ever known. Living on Sweet Home Plantation exhausted everything of Sethe. Morrison writes, “Slave life has busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb, and tongue.” This not only applies to Sethe, but Baby Suggs, a mother figure and grounding force for Sethe and Denver. Morrison writes: “Men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved who hadn’t run off, been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized.”

One of the most traumatic experiences for Sethe was getting her breast milk stolen, making statements like “Then they know what it’s like to send your children off when your breasts are full”, referring to experiencing pain. Her trauma doesn’t stop there. Sethe, pregnant, escapes from slavery and has a baby girl along the way. One other thing haunted Sethe even more. After settling into a new town, she is tracked down by Schoolteacher, the benefactor of Sweet Home Plantation. The agony of slavery caused her to fear the same fate for her children, causing her to kill her newborn, and attempt to kill the others, before Schoolteacher and his posse could get to them. This experience literally haunts her, Denver, Baby Suggs, and Sethe’s two sons, Howard and Burglar, as the infant’s ghost terrorizes the home with “spite”. After, Paul D, and old friend of Sethe from the plantation they slaved at, Sweet Home, chases the ghost from the home, Beloved is manifested as a physical person. Her traits and vague background story make her manifestation unknown to the characters within the story, but apparent to the astute reader.

A cool blue painting depicts a frantic woman being strangles

When Beloved is manifested in human form, she is waiting outside of the house she haunted for so long. The way she speaks along lacks the quality of a young adult, but often has the naivete of a baby. Asking curious questions, and explaining things in an abstract way as a baby might if they could articulate their experiences. She also dotes on Sethe like a baby does its mother. Beloved toward the end of the novel sucks the life force of Sethe, and demands all of her attention. Possessing her in a way more than metaphysical, but possessing her love, attention, and physical energy.

Similarly, in Turn of the Screw manifestations of ghosts need to be read with a keen eye. The first notice of the ghosts happened as the Governess started settling into the estate. She notices the ghost of Peter Quint grimacing at her at the top of the tower, and makes her feel uncomfortable. The tension between the "unknown man" and the Governess is obvious, despite him being on top of a building, away from her, and not posing an immediate threat. This relative importance sheds light on the dynamic between men and women, that implies the threat of violence at any time. In this analytical case, sexual violence.

In Beloved, the trauma of slavery is dealt differently by each character. Paul D is described as shaking in some parts of the story and had guarded himself from loving anything, or anywhere too much. He even projects the habit by telling Sethe that her love is too thick. Baby Suggs has selective memory about the occurrences in her own life. “That’s all you let yourself remember”. Baby Suggs even recalls lynchings, typically haunting and atrocious scenes, as “Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world.” Morrison writes, “It shamed her, remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys...she could not forgive her memory for that.” After the incident of Sethe killing the baby, Baby Suggs, a self-proclaimed and loved preacher stops giving sacred-like sermons to the former slaves in town, and takes to bed to die and solely think about color. Although Sethe expresses the fear for letting her past drive her crazy, she is the only person whose past manifest in actual form.

Illustration of a women peering across a lake at a ghost, while two children stand behind a tree, unaware.
Scene in Turn of the Screw in which The Governess catches a glimse of a ghost

Innocence is also a theme in both books. In Beloved, innocence moreso pertains to the murder of Beloved by Sethe, and is a struggle for the reader to decide within themselves whether she is justified for killing her baby for the sake of avoiding all of the pain she’s been through. Although she did kill her daughter and went to jail for it, she was let go, as her case was a case against slavery by abolitionists. Sethe never feels outright innocent for what she’s done, but internally, as made apparent by the ghost’s symbolic presence in the home. After Beloved has restored from her withered state at her arrival, Sethe takes her in as a daughter, and constantly, guiltily re-explains herself for what she had done to Beloved.

Whereas in James's novel, the high regards and physical attributes of innocence is established early in the novel, when the Governess speaks of the children. From the Governess’ perspective innocence is often associated with the children's appearances. “Both the children had a gentleness...almost impersonal and certainly quite unpunishable. They were like those cherubs of the anecdote who had – morally at any rate – nothing to whack!”

At the beginning of the story, it is discovered that Miles is sent home from school for an unknown reason. Both the Governess and Ms.Grose do not believe the charges simply because of Miles’ stainless behavior and angelic features. The Governess says: “[Miles] made the whole charge absurd. My conclusion bloomed there with the real rose-flush of his innocence: he was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it.” Later, she continues with her romanticized form of compliments towards his appearance and manner, saying “...He stood wistfully looking out for me before the door of the inn at which the coach had put him down, that I had seen him, on the instant, without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had, from the first moment, seen his little sister. He was incredibly beautiful, and Mrs. Grose had put her finger on it: everything but a sort of passion of tenderness for him was swept away by his presence. What I then and there took him to my heart for was something divine that I have never found to the same degree in any child – his indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love. It would have been impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence, and by the time I had got back to Bly with him I remained merely bewildered – so far, that is, as I was not outraged – by the sense of the horrible letter locked up in my room, in a drawer.” The simple appearance of Miles allowed her to doubt whatever the reason he was sent home from school. These traits even moreso drove her to protect him.

Throughout the novel The Governess is putting in a lot of effort to save the children from the ghosts. It is almost as if she’s saving these children with her life, despite them not being her own. She mentions “It's only a matter of time” referring to being possessed by the ghosts, in a way that suggests an ultimate fate of danger, despite her exhaustive attempts. In Turn of the Screw, the knowledge of sex is parallel with the loss of innocence and death. It could be a reflective tactic of her subliminal. The Governess ponders, “What it was most impossible to get rid of was the cruel idea that, whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw more – things terrible and unguessable and that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past.” The Governess's fear that the children have been corrupted by their communication with the ghosts can make the reader wonder what her state of innocence is. Having seen some of what they've seen, it can be put into question whether she, herself, has also been corrupted somehow.

Illustration of a women in shock at a ghost outside of a window
Illustration of The Governess shocked at a ghostly figure outside of a window. illustration by Bill Sanders

Miles and Flora, both initially pretend not to see the ghosts. Miles then confesses to seeing them, after pressure from the Governess. Flora, continues to act as if she does not, and gets flustered with the Governess when she presses on about it. Miles on the other hand, enjoys playing mind games with The Governess about the topic in an almost flirtatious manner. At the end of Turn of the Screw it is theorized by many sources that the Governess literally molested Miles when he finally begins to admit seeing Peter Quint. This action is symbolized by him collapsing into her arms, while she is trying to save him from Peter Quint. Bringing into question whether Miles’ death as a symbol of his innocence evading at the hands of The Governess. If this is the case, the question persists if The Governess has taken Miles’ innocence as a way to regain her own sexual power following the sexual assault.

Symbolism regarding sex is even shown within the novel’s characters. Ms.Grose’s name is a play on the word “gross”, meaning “blatant”. Peter Quint’s name is a play on the word “Peter” a innuendo for penis, and “Quint”, another term for vagina. Making it fitting that he is a representative of the haunting nature of sex as inevitable. He is the symbol of the corruptor. Miss Jessel, in the other hand, is a symbol for the female attribute of sexual discovery, possibly a symbol of lesbianism or bisexuality as The Governess expresses an attraction to her, which was surprising even to herself. Miles and Flora can be seen as symbols of the introduction of sex in both genders, as they respond differently to the accusations of recognizing the ghosts at Bly, as men and women are generally expected to by most societies, especially in the setting James wrote Turn of the Screw.

Similarly, Beloved is the main symbol in Toni Morrison's novel. Representing the guilt of her mother. As a ghost in the house Beloved solely bothered the residents. Materialized as an actual person, she has the power to make Paul D leave and make Denver seek independence in order to avoid intruding her and Sethe's relationship. The power that Beloved has to haunt lives outside of Sethe’s show the potential one person’s past and trauma has on the lives outside of who it directly affects.

Mind you, this isn't to perpetuate the crazed woman trope. Although, both Morrison and James were able to articulate trauma possessing the power to personify and affect the actions of those it haunts. The ghosts in both stories act as the manifestations of the subconscious. Although ghosts are a commonplace in literature and storytelling, these particular accounts allow us to think analytically about how others, even ourselves, cope with life's torture.

Works Cited:

DeGruy, Joy. “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” Dr. Joy DeGruy,

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 1987. Print.

Noe, Denise. “The Turn of the Screw.” The Hatchet A Journal of Lizzie Borden Victorian America, The Hatchet: A Journal of Lizzie Borden and Victorian Studies, 14 July 2018,

Scofield, Martin. “Implied Stories: Implication, Moral Panic and the Turn of the Screw.” Implied Stories: Implication, Moral Panic and the Turn of the Screw, Presses Universitaires D'Angers, 13 June 2008,

Squires, Sally. “Why People See Ghosts.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Oct. 1985,

Tull, Matthew. “Hallucinations and Delusions Can Affect People With PTSD.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 15 Aug. 2019,

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