Manu Mangattu, St George’s College Aruvithura
Childhood denotes that stage in human life when, innocence, by common consent, is taken for granted. Childhood and innocence often go hand in hand and are considered almost synonymous. The delightful coexistence of these two blissful states of life is assumed to offer at least a momentary glimpse of the beautiful and the eternal amidst the transient and the fleeting. Enquiries into the innocence of childhood have informed and inspired many a literature. The innocent child has been and still continues to be a literary figure, used throughout the centuries and cultures by authors eager to explore the subtleties and paradoxes of children and their behaviour. This article makes a brief survey of the notion of childhood innocence in literary history before analyzing the salient aspects of childhood innocence as depicted by Henry James in The Turn of the Screw (1898).
John S. Whitley points out that in literature an interest in children grew up with the Romantic Movement, especially in the writings of Rousseau and Wordsworth (Whitley 18). For them, the child represented a pre-Industrial Revolution innocence, an integrity of being based on a limitless capacity for wonder, curiosity, creativity and fancy. Jeanette Sky relates it to the most elemental of myths— Man’s Fall from Eden. She says:
Placing the child in an Edenic state of innocence, the Romantics and later the Victorians created a powerful, but also problematic myth of childhood. Transforming earlier religious myths and ideologies, the Romantics created a new myth of original innocence in contrast to the myth of original sin. The child became the sacrosanct image of innocence opposed to the fallen adult. (Sky 363)
John Locke argued that the newborn infant comes into the world with no inherited predispositions, but rather with a mind as a tabula rasa or a blank slate that is gradually filled with ideas, concepts, and knowledge from experiences in the world. Jean Jacques Rousseau claimed that children at birth are innately good, not evil, and that their natural propensities should be protected against the corrupting influences of society. According to Rousseau there could be no original sin in the human heart, because, as is made clear already at the beginning of Emile, “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” (5). The sympathetic, romantic attitude towards children inspired by Rousseau had an important influence on society. And hence, more than any other, Rousseau is often heralded as the one who created the climate in which Blake, Wordsworth, Lamb and Coleridge wrote on innocence. William Blake, in his Songs of Innocence, relates the activities of children, in their spontaneity, to the activities of nature (Whitley 18). The work, which came out in 1789, was a passionate commemoration of children having access to a kind of visionary simplicity denied to adults.
Nine years later came Lyrical Ballads to which Wordsworth contributed several poems describing not only the child’s view of the world, but also the child’s superior knowledge. A person of the Enlightenment would probably be at a loss as to what exactly Wordsworth claimed to be learning from the child. But this was only the beginning of a new sanctification of the child as being closer to paradise and thus possessing a secret knowledge. The child was surrounded with strong notions of a religious and mythic kind. The child was seen as closer to Nature than the adult and was believed to have intuitive perceptions of eternal truth which adults can rarely even have a glimpse of. The prelapsarian view is exemplified in a charming passage quoted by George Boas from John Earle’s Microcosmographie (1628): “[The Child] is the best copy of Adam before he tasted of Eve or the apple; . . . his Soul is yet a white paper unscribbled with observations of the world, wherewith, at length, it becomes a blurred notebook. He is purely happy, because he knows no evil, nor hath made means by sin to be acquainted with misery. . .” (42).
Wordsworth gives a clear example, of the Romantics’ idealisation of childhood, in his “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” which is prefaced with the famous words, “the child is father of the man”. The epigraph connects man’s childhood to his adulthood. Here he makes use of the Platonic Philosophy that man is born into this world from a pre-existent state of superior perfection and happiness and that his adulthood has its head and source in his childhood and is spiritually linked each to the other in spite of the corruptive influences of the world as perceived through the senses. Clothed in religious metaphors, childhood becomes graspable as a metonym of paradise. Children are perceived as being in a higher spiritual state than adults, because of their nearness to their birth and so to a pre-existence in Heaven. The gap between the adult and the child is overcome through a language that is highly religious; the child represents man before the Fall in the Garden of Eden. In these terms growing up becomes synonymous with the loss of Paradise. The child and the world of the child become symbols representing an ideal world, the world of the Real from where everything else emanates.
What the Romantics bequeathed to the later nineteenth century was an image of the child as innocence incarnated. The Victorians viewed the family as a minuscule facsimile of a virtuous society under the stern but loving auspices of God. Instead of being regarded primarily as sub-adults with limited functional value, children were to be cherished, even pampered. The idea of childhood innocence became attractive to families who had reached or were striving for middle-class success and respectability. Fathers and mothers had to meet obligations and cope with stress and loss in the real world, while it was considered that children should be spared all of that. It was believed that children cannot yet understand the temptations and perils of sex or the concept of mortality, and loving parents should see to it that their children live in a world of innocence as long as possible.
People often desire to recapture the golden moments of childhood and relive those nostalgic times in the present. One would even dream of regaining the lost childhood. It is quite natural then that one might try to visualize what the world would be like if people remained children forever. Would all the issues that torment the world vanish into thin air? Or would people still be fighting all these wars? The Romantic and the Victorian attitudes to childhood suggest that a world peopled only by children should be heavenly. This paper tries to put in perspective the concept of innocence focusing on the various symbolic and archetypal motifs and images used in one of the most celebrated works in English literature, Henry James’s pre- Freudian novel/novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). This scrutiny focuses solely on the early stages of the novel which present children as innocent.
Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is a classic phantom narrative in Gothic literature, known for its psychologically and sexually charged themes and content. Originally published in 1898, it has lent itself to different layers of interpretation, often mutually exclusive, including those of a Freudian nature. The novel seems destined, like Hamlet, to supply us with an inexhaustible source of critical controversy.
The novel relays the story of a young governess, sent to the secluded, mysterious estate of Bly to supervise two young children, Miles and Flora. As she approaches the house, she is plagued by doubts and unease. But once she reaches the house she realizes that her fears are unfounded. The house and its ambience create a “pleasant impression” (James 230) upon the governess. She is greeted at the door by Mrs. Grose and Flora. The little girl Flora, the governess immediately decides, is the most beautiful and charming child she has ever seen – “The little girl who accompanied Mrs. Grose affected me on the spot as a creature too charming not to make it a great fortune to have to do with her…. there could be no uneasiness in a connection with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl” (231). Time and again, she calls her beautiful, describes her blond curls and blue eyes, and compares her sweet serenity to “indeed one of Raphael’s holy infants” (232). In part, this emphasis on Flora’s seeming angelic nature makes her later corruption, when she is likened to “an old, old woman” (311) even more disturbing.
The governess comes to understand that Miles, her elder brother, is even more remarkable. Mrs. Grose tells her that she “will be carried away by the little gentleman” (232). Ten years old, Miles is presently away at school. Later, when he arrives, the governess meets him at the coach stop and instantly perceives him to be innocent and beautiful, unlike all other children she has known, seeming to have known “nothing in the world but love”. She finds “something divine” in little Miles and deems it “impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence”. She is so carried away by the innocence and sweetness of the child that she dismisses the charges against him as “grotesque” (239). She finds herself excusing him for any potential mishap because he is too beautiful to misbehave. Yet she also senses a disturbing emptiness in Miles, an impersonality and lack of history, as though he is less than real.
The children give her little trouble, and though she speculates on the pain the future could bring them, she can only imagine their lives to be like fairy tales – “the only form that in my fancy the after-years could take for them was that of a romantic, a really royal extension of the garden and the park” (240). Later, when the governess begins having her supernatural encounters, it is in the innocence of the children that she seeks refuge – “The attraction of my small charges was a constant joy, leading me to wonder afresh at the vanity of my original fears” (245). Her faith in the unalloyed virtue of childhood innocence continues to grow. As regards the charges made against Miles by his headmaster, the inference of the governess is clearly in his favour:
Perhaps even it would be nearer the truth to say that – without a word – he himself had cleared it up. He had 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. I reflected acutely that the sense of such individual differences, such superiorities of quality, always, on the part of the majority – which could include even stupid sordid headmasters – turns infallibly to the vindictive. (246)
The governess’s continued comparisons of the children to angels and her observance of their gentleness play into the allegory of a contest between good and evil. As always, every good thing must come to an end at some point of time, and here too the innocent phase saunters to an end as the children’s alleged allegiance to the ghosts becomes obvious.
Children, by common consent, are innocent and beautiful. For some reason, people tend to associate beauty with innocence and vice-versa. The beautiful are usually considered innocent unless proved to the contrary. Hence the crooked and the cunning among the beautiful can manipulate their good-looks to achieve their ends. The beautiful have a definite advantage over the others especially when it comes to creating ‘first impressions’. Of course, as the saying goes, first impression is the best impression, but it need not always be the right impression. The clichéd conflict between reality and appearance is very much the case here. Traditionally, external beauty was assumed to be the manifestation of internal beauty. Conversely, ugliness was often connected to moral turpitude. During the turn of the twentieth century, there was instead a fascination with the evil that beauty could conceal. 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 can also be dangerous.
Henry James seizes upon this fascination begotten by the innocence-beauty kinship to cast the innocent phase in his novel. In the novel, Henry James shows us how misleading physical beauty can be. In fact, the entire novel can be seen as a warning against the deceptive nature of physical charms. From the moment the governess lands at Bly, she is captivated by the stunning good-looks of the children. On seeing Flora she marvels, “The little girl who accompanied Mrs. Grose affected me on the spot as a creature too charming not to make it a great fortune to have to do with her. She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen”. She feels that there cannot be even the slightest trace of evil in connection with anything so beatific as the radiant image of the little girl (James 231). Interestingly, the governess’s observations of and assumptions about Flora are all based upon physical appearance. She is so captivated and enchanted by the beauty of the girl that she dares to compare her to an angel, “indeed one of Raphael’s holy infants” (232). This emphasis on Flora’s seeming angelic nature demonstrates the fallibility of the governess’s judgment, all of which is based upon appearance.
The governess meets Miles at the coach stop and instantly perceives him to be innocent and beautiful, unlike all other children she has known, seeming to have known “nothing in the world but love”. She finds herself excusing him for any potential mishap because he is too beautiful to misbehave. She is more than ready to agree with the housekeeper that the charges against the child are ridiculous. She firmly believes that it is “impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence” (239). Though she refuses to ask Miles about his school, she becomes increasingly convinced, based solely on the “real rose-flush of his innocence”, that the headmaster was vindictive and wrong (246). However, it is obvious that although Miles looks like an angel, he apparently has done something so bad that the headmaster does not think disciplining him would be sufficient, possibly because he poses some kind of danger to the other students.
The governess describes Miles and Flora as beautiful little cherubs whose only fault is their gentleness. Their tenderness towards each other is remarkable. They give her little trouble, and though she speculates on the pain the future could bring them, she can only imagine their lives to be like fairy tales (240). Both the governess and Mrs. Grose assume that Miles and Flora must be good and pure because they are beautiful. When the letter from the school indicates all is not right with Miles, they try to equate his physical charms with goodness. Mrs. Grose tells the governess 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!” (236) she insists. When the governess decides Miles must be good, her evidence is the same as Mrs. Grose’s: “look at him!” (239). Such words clearly pronounce their deep-rooted belief in the assumption that beautiful children simply cannot be bad. Time and again, they speak of the children’s beauty and the goodness it reflects. Their judgement, based solely on physical charms, will later be proved wrong as the children’s corruption becomes explicit.
The immorality of certain characters is hinted at through their ugly appearance. Peter Quint is described thus:
He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are somehow darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange… small and very fixed. His mouth’s wide, and his lips are thin, and except for his little whiskers he’s quite clean-shaven. (252)
According to the pseudo-science of physiognomy, the man’s “straight good features” and handsome appearance suggest he is a cad. More importantly, red hair, especially curly red hair, has existed as a sign of evil all the way back to the Bible, to depictions of a red-haired Satan in human form, and to the belief that Judas was a redhead. Red hair was also associated in the nineteenth century with lechery. The sharp, small eyes illustrate the man’s sexuality and wickedness, and his arched eyebrows show him to be proud. The shape of his mouth shows him to be cruel. Again, when the governess sights the ghost of the former governess, Miss Jessel, across the lake, she tells Mrs. Grose it was “a figure of quite as unmistakeable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful-with such an air also, and such a face” (261).
The description of natural beauty within the novel goes hand in hand with that of the physical charms of the children. The governess arrives at Bly on a “lovely day” as “the summer sweetness” serves her a “friendly welcome”. The very ambience of the place creates “a thoroughly pleasant impression” on the governess. This is crucial as it serves to allay all her fears and apprehensions. The “bright flowers” and “the golden sky” still etch in her memory. The splendor of the house and its inhabitants make the governess believe her employer to be even more of a gentleman for underplaying his description of the place when hiring her (230). All these give her the impression that she would be able to lead a “happy and useful life” at Bly (232). Thus the governess is fully entranced, both by the heavenly charm of the children and by the exquisite beauty of the place, into believing that she has landed into an earthly paradise.
This discussion leads us to an important facet of the innocent phase as worked out in the novel: the nostalgic backdrop of the story of Eden. It has long been a theme for the secular literature of the West, and it is not surprising that the modes of the novel should be bound up with fictions of innocence and its corruption. It stems from the realization that what is lost can never be retrieved. The Garden of Eden has been beyond the reach of man since the Original Sin. Nevertheless, the innocence of “before” is not completely erased by the worldly knowledge of “after”; it remains as a trace, as a nostalgic backdrop, as a faded mark against which both the present and the future are measured, perhaps with a sigh. Hence the quest continues.
In The Turn of the Screw, the irresistible vision of beauty, radiance and innocence offered by the novel parallels the image of Eden. Let us recall the governess’s description of Miles and Flora as beautiful little cherubs whose only fault is their gentleness (James 246). She is dazzled by the “vision of their angelic beauty” (231). Bly is depicted as a kind of paradise. The weeks of happiness that she spends in the divine innocence of the children represent a sort of prelapserian Eden, whose inhabitants have known “nothing in the world but love” (239). The vision of the man on the tower represents the introduction of Evil into this world. The governess, who is the daughter of a curate, might well recognize the sexual implications of the snake in the story of Adam and Eve. Hence it is certainly plausible that she sees the threat to her own Paradise as particularly sexual in nature. The appearance of Peter Quint, vividly described as standing “very erect” (243) on a rather phallic tower, supports a psychoanalytic reading of the novel, but it doesn’t come within the scope of this study.
The governess’s continued comparisons of the children to angels and her observance of their gentleness plays into the allegory of a contest between good and evil. The governess clearly believes the children are good and innocent and already, she sees it as her duty to protect them from evil. If the children represent Adam and Eve and Bly represents Eden, the governess therefore has assumed the role of God – suggesting her role will not only be to protect the children but also to punish them in case of transgression.
Whether or not the fatal transgression occurs which could result in their being thrown out of this Edenic setting is the question that looms large even as the innocent phase gives way to its most likely successor – that of the loss of innocence.
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Manu Mangattu is an Assistant Professor of English at St George’s College Aruvithura. He completed his post graduation in English Language and Literature in 2009, securing second rank from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. He delivers lectures on topics ranging from literary theory and Sanskrit poetics to critical appreciation and creativity. His areas of interest include Western and Eastern aesthetics, celebrity studies, diaspora literature and musicology. His latest published works include articles on inclusive education, gendering of genius, phenomenology and eco-aesthetics. He calls himself a brooding romanticist in poetry, a disinterested debutant in fiction and a morbid classicist in criticism. He writes poetry both in English and Malayalam. Currently he is working on Mute Melodies, an English poetry collection. He runs a website www.mutemelodist.com that caters to the creative aspirations of budding writers. He can be contacted at email@example.com.