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The Symbolic Color of Black in The Turn of the Screw

In The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, black clothing worn by the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel foreshadows evil and darkness throughout the novel. Throughout the novel, James creates a character that is “in the dark.” The phrase “in the dark” means to be without knowledge. The character “in the dark,” Mrs. Grose, is the only character throughout the novel that cannot see the evil ghosts; Mrs. Grose s inability to see the ghosts plays a major role in the novel. Black clothes that are worn, in American culture, symbolize death. Two of the six main characters are ghosts; they are always dressed in black.

Mrs. Grose is the housekeeper at Bly, the haunted mansion where the novel is set. Mrs. Grose is a very illiterate woman; she in unable to read and write. Because she is lacking this knowledge, Mrs. Grose cannot see the ghosts; her mind is not able to take her to that higher level of imagination. To develop an imagination, one must read and paint pictures in their mind of descriptions in the reading. Mrs. Grose becomes familiar with the term “ghosts” because it is so often used by the two children and the governess. Although she is familiar with the term “ghosts,” she doesn t have an idea of what the word means.

The children and the governess are able to see Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. They are very intellectual people. The children and the governess are smart because they were very well educated. The fine education they received was a result of the fortune they grew up with. All three were born wealthy children with smart ancestors. Mrs. Grose didn t have all of these fabulous fortunes, and she doesn t have an advanced mind like the children and the governess. Because their minds were so advanced, the governess, Miles, and Flora were able to see the ghosts; Mrs. Grose was not able to see them. In the following lines, the book shows the knowledge of the governess and the lack of knowledge of Mrs. Grose: ” She s there there, there, there, and you see her as well as you see me! What a dreadful turn, to be sure, miss! Where on earth do you see anything? You don t see her exactly as we see? She isn t there, little lady, and nobody s there-and you never see something, my sweet! ” (70-71).

In American culture, the color black symbolizes death and mourning. James describes Miss Jessel s and Peter Quint s clothing throughout the novel. In every appearance in James s novel, the two ghosts are wearing solid black clothing. Their black attire seems to make an evil appearance. In the following line, James gives a description of clothes worn by Miss Jessel when confronted by the governess: “Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough ” (58). This line clearly shows that James s use of color in the black dress gave the governess an evil and dark feeling when she saw Miss Jessel.

In researching criticism for The Turn of the Screw, I found lots of criticism that applies to my thesis. The following line found in the book Modern Critical Interpretations, refers to Mrs. Grose s inability to see the ghosts: “Suddenly confronted, in broad daylight, with the vision of the ghost of Miss Jessel at the writing desk-which reminds us that in this story the primal scene is always one of writing ” (120). This criticism supports my idea that Mrs. Grose s inability to read and write kept her from seeing the ghosts. It is a simple concept that may be looked over if the book is not read carefully.

More criticism that I researched also supported my thesis. Some of the criticism I read and researched agreed that black clothing symbolizes death. Ned Lukacher explains his interpretation of the symbolism of the black dress worn by Miss Jessel in his criticism essay on James s The Turn of the Screw. The following lines show his interpretation of the symbolic black dress: “The old lady [Mrs. Grose] is particularly struck by one detail in the governess account of her first vision of Jessel s ghost. Through his punctuation of the governess s account, James lets us observe her hesitant, piecemeal method of construction: In mourning-rather poor, almost shabby. But-yes-with extraordinary beauty. To which Mrs. Grose responds: The person was in black, you say? Though this is not at all a verification of her observation, the governess, as is her habit, jumps to conclusions and interprets Mrs. Grose s curiosity about Jessel s mourning dress as an indication that she is really on to something here ” (124). Another few lines describing the symbolism of the black clothing are the following: “The apparition at the writing desk is “dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe The entire scene is the very epitome of Gothic melodrama ” (124-125).

Henry James consistently uses a symbolic color, black, throughout one of his famous works, The Turn of the Screw. The ghosts are unable to be seen by Mrs. Grose because she is without knowledge and imagination. The clothes worn by Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are also symbolic because they let the reader know that the characters are dark and evil.


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