Advances intechnology and science are arguably what the nineteenth century is commonlyremember for, however whilst the theories of Charles Darwin and the explorationof resources such as steel and petroleum resulted in a second industrialrevolution, people from all backgrounds became evermore interested in thesupernatural.
Despite advances in some aspects of society, rigid views remainedregarding the unyielding gender roles women were placed in. The idealsrespectable women were expected to possess manifested a double standard thatcan be seen in many laws such as the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. Theseideas allow the interesting male- female relationships in Henry James’ Turn ofthe Screw and Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover to be examined in severalways whilst also making a statement about the society and time period they werewritten in.
The themesof power, love and sin are explored in both texts, sharing both similaritiesand differences. Interestingly the subject of sexuality is one that displaysboth similarities and differences in The Turn of the Screw and Porphyria’sLover. Arguably a closer reader of The Turn of the Screw is required to discussthe theme of sexuality whereas Porphyria’s Lover is evidently sexual. It caneasily be seen that The Turn of the Screw is governed by women who mirror theideals of a Victorian society, despite the text largely following the governessThe Turn of the Screw shows how a working and self-sufficient woman of thenineteenth century was largely dominated by men and even a male child.
Thus,theme of gender is shown to play an important role in the development of themale-female relationships in James’ text, it is possible that sexuality isnever openly discussed as James wanted the reader to form their owninterpretation of the distorted network of relationships. Many critics havevoiced a Freudian reading of the text, Edmund Wilson was one of the firstcritics to produce a Freudian reading of The Turn of The Screw, he suggestedseveral phallic symbols that potentially uncover the governess’ confinedthoughts. For example, “Flora’s toy boat, which she makes by pushing a stickinto a small flat piece of wood” for a Victorian reader Wilsons interpretationof this section would have been deeply troubling he suggested that here Florasactions “sexually arouses the lonely governess” her unexpressed sexual desiresmean that her “imagination is stimulated by the stick that Flora is playingwith” Wilson believes that Floras actions “somehow causes her to imagine theghosts”. Although a Freudian reading can be supported by evidence and critic itis arguably the most basic interpretation, it is important to consider whatidea James himself had upon sexuality, Ingelbien stated that “For James, theconstruction of sexuality was more than a man’s carnal knowledge of a woman”.Most importantly Ingelbien expressed that “repression, sublimation, and lack ofsatisfaction are as constitutive of the Freudian definition of sexuality as aredesire and fulfilment” this largely applies to James’ Turn of the Screw as thethemes mentioned in Ingelbeins statement are incorporated into the text, thegoverness has always repressed her sexual thoughts because of this she oftenloses her train of thought and replaces her overwhelming feelings with gentlephrases that give only partial answer Bersanicalls this “the sickness of uncompleted narratives” , thus showing how a closerreading of the text can produce a different interpretation.Sexualityis presented entirely different in Porphyria’s lover, however similarly to TheTurn of the Screw is allows the reader to explore male and female relationshipsof the time through the themes of love power and sin. The deception of femalesexuality is particularly evident throughout the poem, this depiction suddenlychanges when the narrator murders porphyria with her own hair. Unlike thegoverness porphyria defies expectations for women at the time, this may be thefirst indication that Browning own views on female sexuality were verydifferent to the traditional ones of the society he lived in.
Antos and Rileysuggested one reason as to why Browning uses Porphyria’s character to subvertthe idea of a traditional and passive Victorian woman they state that Browning’had a special aversion for domestic tyrants’ as his wife was mistreated by herfather, perhaps suggesting that the character of Porphyria and the outrage heractions caused, was Browning’s way of belittling the society he lived in. Thefact that The Turn of the Screw predates Porphyria’s lover highlights theshocking and blatant depiction of female sexuality in Porphyria’s lover.Browning uses the theme of power the challenge the idea of gender roles,Porphyria enters the narrators house during a storm, by using the theme ofnature Browning personifies the storm, the use of the word ‘sullen'(line 2) suggests that Porphyria is accompanied bystrength and power another interpretation may suggest that by depicting thestorm as powerful Porphyria’s ability to glide in and “shut the cold out andthe storm” immediately introduces her as the driving pace of the story, herindependence is shown as the glided into the narrators house “When glided inPorphyria” this imagery used by browning portrays Porphyria as almost ghostlyor spiritual, her raised position depicts her as unattainable, and ideal thatwould seem bizarre to Victorina men.
It is commonly known that the Victorianidea of female sexuality was simply that it should not exist, Porphyria’s oversexual behaviour is arguably what leads to her murder. However, anotherinterpretation may suggest that the narrator only murders Porphyria when sheconfesses her love for him, displaying how nineteenth century ideals would meanthat by confessing Porphyria essentially surrenders her self to a social deathbecause of her affair. As previously mentioned, this highlights the doublestandard presented to women at the time, whilst Porphyria is expected to hideher emotions , the narrator cannot do this his insane passion and desireultimately leads to Porphyria’s murder,he become almost possessed by a dark desire which the reader is unsure if hecan control or not, his behaviour may also be a metaphor for the superiority ofmen and their desires fundamentally showing that despite her dominance it wouldhave been out of the question for Porphyria to carry on her actions, she had tobe killed as she did not fit within the rigid views of society.
EssentiallyBrowning pairs together, the themes of been unable to control emotion withInsanity, Porphyria releases emotions that during the nineteenth century wereunacceptable, in doing so she become s the victim of her lover’s mental illness.Therefore, meaning that the narrator of Porphyria’s lover is representative ofthe society and rigid views of the nineteenth century.Sin is atheme that is featured in both poems, it highlights a link between female sexualityand haunting phenomena as it displays the social and moral beliefs of theVictorian society both James and Browning were writing in, yet it also exhibitsthe nineteenth century fascination with the supernatural, particularly in TheTurn of the Screw. Sin is not evidently present in Porphyria’s lovers, howevermany theorists have indicated that her sexually promiscuous behaviour alone wouldhave condemned her in society’s eyes, Elizabeth D Manson concluded that “it wassinful” for a woman to act on her own sexual desires, Richard Von Krafft-Ebing went as far to saythat only women who are mentally unstable would perform such a sinful act likemasturbation “Woman ..
. if physically and mentally normal, and properlyeducated, has but little sensual desire”. The protagonist governess in The Turnof the Screw is sickened by sexuality alone, as suggested before it may be hermadness of the unknow sexual world that drivers her into seeing the Ghosts,however some scholars have suggested other reasons. Degler believed that thecharacters of The Turn of the Screw were representative of the Victoriansociety they lived in in his article “What Ought To Be and What Was: Women’sSexuality in the Nineteenth Century. “he suggested that in men sexual desireswere to be ‘properly channelled’ where in women it was “not only scandalous…butit would have been contrary to all observation”.In conclusion,there is evidently a relationship between female sexuality and hauntingphenomena in both texts. Although the female protagonists are received differently,they both highlight the problems within the Victorian era, porphyria pays theultimate price because of her actions, her spiritual presence and death furtheremphasise the interest and fascination with the supernatural that Browning’s audiencedeveloped. whereas the governess manages to repress her disturbed thoughts,never truly admitting her own sexual desires, arguably this leads to her intrusivethoughts and visions.
James similarity to Browning displays the problems withthe society he was writing in through Turn of the Screw and again highlight thenineteenth century fascination with the paranormal, in a great time of change perhapssuperstition was a way for people to hold onto the past.