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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Throughout The Turn of the Screw, references
to eyes and vision emphasize the idea that sight is unreliable. Vision
and the language used to describe it are particularly important
in each of the governess’s encounters with Quint and Miss Jessel.
She deems her first meeting with Quint a “bewilderment of vision,”
an ambiguous phrase that suggests she imagined what she saw. Characters
lock eyes with each other several times in the novella. The governess
shares intense gazes with both Quint and Miss Jessel and believes
she can determine the ghosts’ intentions by looking into their eyes.
Although she and Miss Jessel do not actually talk, the governess
claims Miss Jessel’s gaze appears “to say” she has a right to be
there. At times, the governess regards the clarity of the children’s
eyes as proof that the children are innocent. In these cases, she
determines whether the children are capable of deception by looking
at their eyes, when it may be her own eyes that deceive her.
Early on in the novella, the governess imagines herself
at the helm of a “great drifting ship,” and the metaphor of Bly
as a ship lost at sea soon proves to be appropriate. When the governess
goes out to look for the vanished Quint, she describes Bly as “empty
with a great emptiness,” as though it is a vast, unlimited sea.
After her first ghostly encounters, she decides she will save the
children but later cries that they are hopelessly “lost.” Her navigation
skills have failed her, and she envisions the children drowning.
However, she perseveres, and when she speaks with Miles near the
end of the novel, she feels she is “just nearly reaching port.”
The ship imagery extends further when, soon thereafter, she imagines
Miles “at the bottom of the sea,” a disturbing image that foreshadows
Miles’s fate. Ultimately, the governess is the character who is
most lost. She cannot find a direction or destination for her theories
and suspicions, and her perceptions are constantly changing.
Sound acts as a signal of life and nature in The
Turn of the Screw, and its absence is a predictor of the
governess’s supernatural visions. Prior to the governess’s ghostly
encounters, she experiences a hush in the world around her. When
she first sees Quint in the tower, the sound of birds stops and
the rustling of leaves quiets. The governess takes the scene to
be “stricken with death.” Nothing else changes, however, and the
visual aspects of the world around her are unaffected. The governess’s
sense of a hush is more marked when she meets Quint on the staircase.
She interprets the “dead silence” of the incident as proof that
the encounter is unnatural. In fact, she remarks that the silence
is the specific thing that marks the event as unnatural and that otherwise
she would have assumed Quint to be a living being. Quint’s subsequent
disappearance into silence suggests that the dead dwell in a realm
without sound, making silence a mark of the unnatural and unliving.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Turn of the Screw!