So I wrote this for a uni application last year, still not sure what I think of it.

Show how ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ explore writer’s the attitudes, values and ideas and comment on what this reveals about Victorian society 

Prevailing attitudes and values can sometimes condemn and ultimately quash controversial ideas, but the cover of fiction often enables writers to share their views with a certain level of protection from critics. Both Henry James and Oscar Wilde were homosexuals writing in Victorian Britain, and due to this both had to conceal their true feelings. I am going to explore how the attitudes of the writers provide us with an interpretation of the time.

Due to the almost unanimous following of Christianity in the Victorian era and the very strict social mores that existed at the time as a reaction to eighteenth century liberalism, the avoidance of ‘sin’ became a big part of Victorian life. This not only covers bad deeds in terms of religion but also actions that go against the laws of society. In James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, his protagonist attends an interview in London to try to gain a job as a governess. Here she meets her employer: an uncle of two young children. By using adjectives to describe both parties, the master as ‘gallant and splendid’, and the governess as ‘anxious’, James suggests a partiality towards the master on the part of the governess. Whilst in modern times such affectionate thoughts would be noticed but not criticised, the attitude in the Victorian era was far different because of the difference in class. The governess is a young woman whom we know to be from the lower middle classes as James describes her as, ‘the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson’, whilst the master is clearly upper class since his town house is full of ‘the spoils of travel.’ The governess’ own views on class difference reflect that of society’s, this is shown when she learns of the relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel. She declares that: ‘Yes – she was a lady,’ whilst Mrs Grose remarks: ‘And he so dreadfully below.’ The adverb, ‘dreadfully’ highlights their outraged view of the situation which a Victorian audience would perceive as sinful. However, the line, ‘Poor woman – she paid for it!’ shows that although the women feel sadness for her death, they don’t think that it was unrelated to her deeds, indeed it suggests that they think that her relations with Quint resulted in her being punished with death, perhaps by a higher power.

The governess’ ‘sins’ seem to progress further than her love for a man of higher class at least in the eyes of ‘society’, as once she arrives at Bly she displays signs of sexual repression. Sex was a taboo subject at the time and women, being perceived as the gentler sex, were never supposed to think about it. Furthermore, her loneliness seems to have escalated her desire for a companion as she cannot make any true friends with those around her because Mrs Grose and the staff are below her in social standing, and the children are technically higher. The first noticeable manifestation of her repression occurs when she first sees Peter Quint as she is daydreaming about the master, ‘It produced in me, this figure, in the clear twilight.’ James cleverly uses the oxymoronic phrase, ‘clear twilight’ to suggest several things. We are forced to question the governess’ wording as visibility tends to be greatly decreased during the twilight hours. It also hints at the governess’ sudden guilt at desiring the master which alludes to the strict religious following of the time; perhaps her subconscious is torturing her with the manifestation of a sinister figure and a nightmare situation. James’ own life as an American alienated in his own society may have inspired such thoughts since his own homosexuality would have been a condemnable sin, leading him to feel guilt and conflict because of his hidden desires.

Though it is ambiguous, it is possible that James used Miles as his voice against the strict social mores. When talking about Miles and Quint’s relationship, Mrs Grose remarks that Quint was ‘too free’ with the boy. Whilst this could be another allusion to Quint forgetting his inferior social status, the governess’ outrage seems to turn it into something far sinister, ‘This gave me … a sudden sickness of disgust. ‘Too free with my boy?’’ Disgust is an emotion set apart from disapproval, and hints at Quint being or doing something unforgivable. This is continued further when Miles tries to explain why he was expelled, ‘Well, I said things’ and later adds, ‘No, only [to] a few. Those I liked.’ If James is attempting to communicate how his own desires have caused him to have to face undesirable consequences, then he has chosen a very striking voice in Miles. As a child, Miles has the innocence and naivety necessary to endear him to the reader, yet James’ allusion to Miles being a homosexual would suggest that not only is he an innocent child who doesn’t deserve to be condemned, but that homosexuality isn’t actually a sin and shouldn’t be treated as such – a shocking view that is made more tolerable because it is suggested by a child.

In Victorian ideology, where there is sin, punishment of some kind will invariably follow, and ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is no exception. It is possible to suggest that the governess’ punishment is to go insane, a trait which she certainly seems to have as James writes that, ‘with a single bound and an irrepressible cry, [she] spring[s] straight upon him [Miles]’. The idea of lunging at a child, even in panic, is hardly one that suggests a stable frame of mind, and the words ‘single bound’ make her actions predatory rather than protective. As we have already suggested that her emotional repression could be allowing guilt-triggered hallucinations to take hold of her, it is possible that it is also driving her insane.

Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is often described as a moral tale; the themes of sin, guilt and punishment seem to be far more prominent, though hardly any less bleak or harrowing, than in ‘The Turn of the Screw’.

Sin forms a large part of the novel and takes many forms. The first instance is the relationship between Basil and Dorian which is revealed to Lord Henry Wooten before Dorian arrives. Basil’s devotion is clear from the outset as ‘a smile of pleasure passed across his face’, though at first it is unclear as to whether this fondness is for his art or his subject. His pride in his work seems endearing, and certainly throughout the novel Basil seems to be the most steadfast, conventional character, and so we can relate to him easily. This is later proven when he declares to Henry that, ‘It is better not to be different from one’s fellows’, but this is ambiguous.  The way in which he phrases his statement, ‘It is better not to be’ as opposed to ‘I prefer not to be’, seems to suggest fear on his part. Perhaps he is hiding something – the statement certainly suggests that there are consequences to be faced if one stands out from the crowd. The idea of Basil’s attraction towards Dorian is highlighted quite significantly in the line, ‘…it is rather the painter who … reveals himself…I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.’ Wilde uses the diction of mystery and hidden feelings with the words, ‘reveals’,‘afraid’ and ‘secret’, which suggest that Basil has attempted to suppress his emotions for Dorian. This would have been common since such emotions would have been damaging in terms of social standing – not to mention dangerous, since homosexual behaviour of any kind was punishable by law. However, it seems that Wilde had intended to be far more frank about Basil’s love for Dorian; in the final published version a line that reads, ‘Wait till you hear what I have to say,’ is something quite different in the 1890 version: ‘It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling that a man usually gives to a friend. Somehow, I have never loved a woman.’ This allows us to learn a lot about Wilde: clearly he was attempting to show the tragedy that has befallen Basil as the separate sentence, ‘Somehow, I have never loved a woman’ suggests his sadness at having to be different from the rest of society, and forced to pretend that all is well. It was clear that his true feelings wouldn’t have been accepted by the majority of society, which would have been a problem that Wilde himself would have experienced and was trying to change by showing Basil to be a victim of social mores and not a sinner.

The idea of guilt is somewhat sparse in Wilde’s tale with regards to Dorian’s character. We are given the impression that Gray never truly acknowledges the whole truth of his situation or his deeds: ‘he would think of the ruin he had brought upon his soul with a pity that was all the more poignant because it was purely selfish.’ Dorian’s version of guilt is to feel bad for his own situation, not for the other people he has ruined, and nor does this sentence suggest that he feels remorse, only ‘pity’, which suggests that he has no intention of changing his actions at all. Wilde’s use of dissonance with the words, ‘pity’, ‘poignant’ and ‘purely’ brings out a harsh, judgemental tone that is reminiscent of the condemnation that any scandalous individual would gain from the society at the time. Dorian’s answer to his guilt seems to be to destroy his past in an attempt to save himself from having to confront his actions. Clearly Dorian feels that Basil is to blame for encouraging his vanity and simply for painting the picture, which is perhaps his way of blaming Basil for his own callous acts, and Wilde’s decision to make Dorian’s emotions seem irrational and erratic show how his guilt is consuming him. Finally, after Basil’s death, we see confirmation that Dorian truly feels no remorse as he is, ‘strangely calm,’. The adverb gives the impression that Dorian knows that he should feel differently, but we see that he is analysing his lack of emotion as a new ‘experience’ in life, not because he feels that he is morally bankrupt.

It is possible to say that Dorian Gray’s desperation to escape his guilt during his last hours is ultimately what causes his death, and so his punishment. He seems to be confused as to how to go about beginning his new sin free life and pursues several different trains of thought, the first being outright denial, ‘It was better not to think of the past. Nothing could alter that’. There is a clear tone of fear associated with this line as he uses the same peculiar syntax as Basil does at the start of the story, (‘It was better not to’), as though there were consequences to suffer from acknowledging his deeds. Similarly he refers to his past as ‘that’, showing that he is trying to dissociate himself from it. He then once again blames Basil Hallward for his fate: ‘Basil had painted the picture that had marred his life’. The effect of a simple sentence is that it gives the impression of certainty, and in this case, blame. Yet just as quickly as he had come to blame Basil, he changes his mind and decides that the picture is to blame and it ‘had been like [a] conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. ’ The first sentence seems like a suggestion; before he murders Basil, Dorian notices how ‘suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred … came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas,’ perhaps the picture is pushing him towards murder. Perhaps like in ‘The Turn of the Screw’, the picture’s influence over Gray has origins in his guilt, which is driving him to madness and self-destruction.

Both Henry James and Oscar Wilde were men attempting to enlighten the society that they were living in and to challenge social conventions. By risking the discovery of their own personal lives and thoughts they have created two novels that would have forced a Victorian audience to consider the possibility that the stringent values that they adhered to, may in fact have been morally wrong.




Henry J. (1994) The Turn of the Screw, 26th edition, Croydon: Penguin Popular Classics

Wilde O. (1992) The Picture of Dorian Gray, 26th edition, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd