Both Toni Morrison and Henry James seem to utilize the supernatural

Both Toni Morrison and Henry James seem to utilize the supernatural in order to exhibit the dominance it has amongst their protagonists, resulting in the manifestation of latent desires and repressed emotions. It could be argued that although The Turn Of A Screw (1889) and Beloved (1987) are separated by a century, they are both united as the writers of these publications ultimately assert the horrors and terror experienced within society. As they had experienced the deprivation of literary liberty from society, both authors are able to deploy the Gothic genre in order to challenge the societal taboos such as latent desires, repressed emotions and the supernatural.

Within Victorian patriarchal society, James challenges the typical portrayal of female protagonists as selfless, virtuous and impotent in the eyes of society. This is most clear through the Governess as he gives her a position of authority, threatening the social order of gender roles. Whereas Beloved, Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, was set during the reconstruction era in 1873.

Sethe’s intractable experiences would have deprived her from liberty due to the rigid social structures as it is certain that her role within a racially prejudice society was limited. Morrison’s postmodern perspective on a past which still haunts America allows her to explore the impact of oppression and guilt. It is easy to see how the severities of the characters’ actions are built on the psychological repression of their pasts. Ultimately both texts manipulate Gothic tropes to reveal the truth within characters, or the hidden desires of the author themselves.

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Therefore within Gothic literature the supernatural makes manifest latent desires and repressed emotions caused by oppressive societies.

As Beloved was set during the reconstruction era in 1873, slavery had adverse effects on the sufferers at both the physical as well as psychological levels. Morrison initially generates a form of liberation from Sethe’s acceptance of her distressing past. The Gothic as a means of exploiting what is psychologically buried in individuals allowed Morrison to paint a dark and powerful portrait of the dehumanizing effects of slavery. Through the use of vivid imagery, Sethe’s scar is presented as an emblem or a reminder of the physical retribution from the slave master and the cruelty of slavery. “The sculpture on her back had become a decorative work of a blacksmith too passionate for display”(1987). As Beloved centres on the power of memory and history, ultimately the significance of the previous quote corroborates the idea that through the physical and psychological blemish, the protagonist is incapable of ever obliterating the haunting past, as well as constantly struggling with repressing her emotions as they are forever visible on her skin. This aligns with Martin Gray’s idea that, “Beloved charts the exorcism of this ‘yesterday’ in order to facilitate a future for its protagonists.” Indeed for the former slaves in the novel, the past is a burden that they desperately try to obliterate. Yet for Sethe, the protagonist of the novel, memories of her past seem to be inexorable; they haunt her through the spirit of her deceased daughter. Although Morrison tries to manipulate the austerity endured within Sethe’s past to mould her character, it still implements itself into the deterioration of her sanity. Whereas for the Governess, who is bound in a partially liberal society, her predicaments are not as harrowing as Sethe’s. James’ ability to utilise the 19th century convention of aligning women with their social boundaries ensures that the Governess as a character has not experienced the levels of violent oppression that Sethe has and therefore her psychological battle comes from repressed desire.

Indeed female characters are oppressed at the hands of patriarchal society, women are the figures who are most fearfully trapped between societal pressures and impulses therefore presenting women in a particular light can often have a profound effect upon a text, completely altering a reader’s interpretation. Both texts illuminate the result of the repressing nature of society on women and in Gothic situations they are often caught in a labyrinth of darkness, leading to the manifestation of their desires as well as their guilt. Through Turn of a Screw(1889), the Governess’ oppression is prevalent through her chosen occupation, choosing a maternal role which doesn’t require her to support herself as an independent woman. However her role subverts Victorian pathways for women in its rejection of marriage and husband.This dedication to social ambition is shown in the Governess’ interview. While towards the beginning of the interview the Governess had doubts about accepting the position, when she realized that “the salary offered much exceeded her modest measure”(1889) she took the job. This choice shows the Governess’ drive as a “working woman” due to the fact that it was the salary that influenced her decision. Perhaps the consequent haunting and chaos within Bly house is used by James to demonstrate the consequence of the Governess indulging this repressed desire for power.

In contrast Sethe’s experience within a highly racially prejudice society, as well as a patriarchal society as a previous slave, seem to often deprive her from having autonomy as she is deemed to be racially inferior. Withstanding the unacceptance from normal society, Morrison represents the character of Sethe as dominating and strong since she is faced with the reality of her position in society of being a slave. However her morality and guilt are challenged through the manifestation of baby Beloved and the repercussions of killing her child as symbolised through the haunting. “The baby ghost…it’s anger thrilling her now where it used to wear her out”(1987). Morrison portrays Sethe as having conflicting emotions of “anger”(1987) and enjoyment as the ghost is at once the darkness of her past which she wants to forget but also a punishment which she feels she deserves. The contrasting and corresponding societies perpetuate the idea of females feeling oppressed by the expectations they subconsciously hold within society. However in contrast to this Sethe and the Governess differentiate in experience as Sethe’s position within society has had her act out of desperation and survival. The expectations of Sethe to carry the burden of the death of her child as well as carrying her entire family as a single black female, allows her to withstand the rejection from society as she’s capable of independently handling herself. However the Governess seems to conform to ideals of a female Gothic character, many may interpret her character as hysterical or hyperbolic, she has heroic tendencies as she desires to control each situation within the novel. Although both female protagonists are simultaneously faced with oppression, they differentiate with experience and the harbouring past seems to structure the manifestations of their hidden secrets. Some may say that the Governess’ experience was much easier than that of Sethe as she seems to experience the detriments of society as a black female, whilst facing the culpability of her inimical decisions.

Furthermore in regards to female oppression within society it has said to be the catalyst for the manifestation of latent desire as Sigmund Freud mentions the impact of repression on the subconscious as well as the conscious. With James’ ambiguity we are left to wonder whether the ghosts were real or whether the Governess was experiencing the consequences of such mass repression. Freud, an expert in psychological repression, wrote that “each individual who makes a fresh entry into human society sacrifices their desires in order to benefit the whole community”. Freud corroborates the idea that such prominent repression allows room for manifestation in the things that we’ve been hiding for so long; a lack of control within oneself results in the primitive desires overpowering the character causing a rebellion against societal moral expectations. James subverts socitial female expectations whilst conforming to the normality of Gothic literature by using ghosts to expose the underlying truths behind the sexual repressions of the Governess, “Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain, and I had more pains than one.”(1889) This quote verifies how Quint (the ghost) is able to expose the feelings which the Governess has tried to suppress. By James’ use of first person perspective, he is able to expose the overwhelming emotions she endures in order to illuminate the undeniable nature of her desires. For example,“it was an antidote to any pain”(1889), demonstrates that the Governess wanted to evoke those emotions through the imagery of medicine; the ghost of Quint was finally an opportunity to unmask her deep hidden desires, or “pain”. Williamson fortifies this notion as he mentions “Wilson argues that the story is not really about the supernatural; the ghosts are projections of the Governess’ repressed sexuality”.

Whilst James encapsulates hidden desires through utilization of spiritual entities, Morrison unveils Sethe’s psychological dislocation through the consuming nature of the ghost of Beloved. As external forces impact Sethe’s instinctual behaviour, her desperation in an oppressive society leads to the spiritual repercussions of her actions as her consuming guilt makes her feel accountable for the oppressive violence she had experienced beforehand. Morrison utilises the character of Beloved to propose the idea of guilt manifesting into the physical form. For example, the actions of Beloved impact Sethe’s, as she drains all the energy in the house resulting in the weakness and degradation of Sethe: “Denver saw the flesh between her mother’s forefinger and thumb fade. Saw Sethe’s eyes bright but dead”(1987). In alignment with this Beloved begins to get stronger. Morrison uses a motif of eating and consumption to represent the baggage of Sethe’s past and the power that her guilt has over her; it is physically and mentally eating away at her. “The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became… and the older woman yielded it up without a murmur”(1987). Here, Sethe’s acceptance of Beloved draining her life force demonstrates the overwhelming nature of her guilt. Unlike James’ presentation of ghosts, where they represent the latent desires of characters, Morrison uses a supernatural force in her narrative to paint a dark picture of all-consuming guilt. Although both protagonists’ psychological states deteriorate because of this, Sethe’s mental state is affecting her physical body.

In both novels the ghosts seem inextricably linked to the settings in which they exist. In The Turn of The Screw death seems to be inevitable on the house grounds as both ghosts have died and remain within the walls of Bly. Both Morrison and James’ use of ghosts and their affiliation with the house allows the extrication of psychological torment and the manifestation of hidden desires. Traditional Gothic literature uses isolation to create terror, both books conform to this by ensuring that both houses are affiliated with the entities as well as the participation in manifesting latent desires. With the our first initial description of the atmosphere around Bly house, it is very welcoming as the Governess describes, “I remember the lawn and the bright flowers and the crunch of my wheels on the gravel”(1887), initially the introduction of the house leads us to believe that it is not associated with ghostly activities. However with James’ geographical setting of the house it encourages a much more darker, more isolated mood which is typical of the Gothic conventions. Nevertheless James exploits the antiquated house to create ambiguity and suspense, as the second encounter of the ghost is next to the window of the house as the Governess describes “he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window, through the dining-room was on the ground floor, not going down to the Terrance where he stood”(1889). It is clear to understand that the house has a clear affiliation with the ghosts. Moreover it seems the house has been able to create suspense and uncertainty of what to expect from the events which take place on the ground. This argument commensurates with the tower scene, in which James uses the tower to allude to phallic imagery that unveils the Governess’ repressed sexual desires, this is used to demonstrate the manifestation of the characters instinctual desires. This vindicates the view that the house is a significant component of the novel in order to create illusions that cause the Governess to experience internal conflict.

Yet Morrison’s use of setting in the novel, has much more hold over its inhabitants, as an omniscient powerful setting which is not only consumed by the ghost of Beloved but also takes on a life of its own. Through Morrison’s personification of the house in the opening, “Denver approached the house, regarding it as she always did, as a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits”(1987) it is clear to argue that the house has an immense capacity over its inhabitants, perpetrating dominance and fear amongst the house. With the alignment of the house with the past atrocities, Beloved’s vengeful spirit is prominent in Morrison’s repetitive phrasing in the structure of her novel: “124 was spiteful full of her baby’s venom” (1987)frames the whole narrative through idea of a malevolent violent presence. Internal entities are prevalent in nearly all chapters of the novel, “124 was spiteful”(1987), “124 was loud”(1987), “124 was quiet”(1987) Morrison purposely does this in order to reinforce the capacity the house has amongst the characters. With the tormenting behaviour of the house and it’s dominating presence in the novel, it asserts the presence of Beloved, through the progression of the narrative and its changing nature. This allows room for the manifestation of guilt and iteration of the harrowing events that Sethe had desperately tried to extinguish for the sake of her sanity. However the setting will not allow her respite from her past.

Overall through the publication of Morrison’s novel, Beloved, the austerity faced by Sethe initially challenges her psychological state, eventually leading to the decay of her sanity as the guilt continues to consume her. Morrison, writing as a 20th century black novelist, seems concerned with both past and present issues concerning the intersection of race and gender. Significantly she chooses to set her novel during arguably one of the worst periods in history for a black American female; this allows her to explore the guilt that exists within not only the individual but the collective consciousness of American culture. In a similar way to Morrison, James uses ghosts as a reflection of collective consciousness of society but this is a result of oppressive and static Victorian morals surrounding female desire. Therefore not only is the supernatural a tool that the authors use to represent desire and guilt, it can also be seen as a symbol of society’s oppression and boundaries placed on people, particularly women.

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Both Toni Morrison and Henry James seem to utilize the supernatural. (2019, Dec 18). Retrieved from

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