Manipulation, in its simplest form, is made up of power and deception. Whether power is given to children or adults, it can almost always be assumed that it will be abused to some degree. In The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, manipulation dominates the storyline. The main character of the novel is a governess to two young children who appear to be the most angelic companions she could wish for. However, as the story unfolds, the children’s’ facade is unveiled and their manipulation of the governess is shown.
In the story, the children possess power and misuse it by manipulating the governess and making it appear as if she is subject to hysteria. In the beginning of the novel, the governess yields to the notion that the children are innocent and almost saintly. This, however, is a charade on the children’s part in order to hide their malicious intent. When the governess first meets Miles, the older of the two children, she is entranced by his polite manner.
Even after finding out he was expelled from school, the governess articulates her thought that “…he was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it” (43).
When faced with the idea that Miles may not be the perfect boy he seems to be, the governess inclines to defend him with what little she knows of him. This incident reveals the power of charm Miles possesses. This illusion appears throughout the story and does not cease to exist until the governess witnesses the children’s true malevolence.
After some time passes and the governess grows closer to the children, she comes face to face with a distressing situation and, consequently, the children’s foul intentions. The source of the governess’s troubles appears in the form of two ghosts. After she encounters a ghost with Flora, the younger of the two children, the governess suspects the children of being aware of the apparitions themselves. She desires to discuss the matter with them out of curiosity and concern, however the law prohibits her from doing so. The governess articulates that she would not “…go unhung, if… [she were the first to introduce into their perfect intercourse an element so dire…” (74). While she wants to talk with the children about the ghosts, she must refrain from doing so unless the children speak of it first. If she is the first one to talk to them about the supernatural, she will likely face the punishment of death. In this way, the children possess the power of the first word under the law. The children, fully aware of this, abuse their power and use it to control the governess. After multiple occasions of encountering the apparitions, the governess breaks under the pressure and is the first to initiate conversation about the phantoms. After Flora goes missing, the governess and her friend venture outside to look for her. One of the ghosts appears the instant the governess talks directly to Flora about the matter.
Flora denies seeing the apparition and, clinging to the governess’s friend, says “I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you!”” (103). In this way, the child acts as the victim and makes the governess appear insane. Flora possesses the power of innocence, although it is feigned. She knows full well that the consequence for the governess’s speech is death and uses her power to derail the governess. Although power can be a good source of structure in society, there are always those who misuse it. The children in James’ novel are a direct reflection of those who abuse the power they are given. This is why, when making any set of rules, one must consider both the positive and negative consequences of power that is given. To be fully aware of this is the best way to prevent wrongdoings in civilization as a whole.