Henry James’s short stories The Turn of the Screw and Washington Square are quite comparative in nature, yet quite contrastive as well. In both stories, the central characters are similar to nannies or babysitters. In addition, they are both women who harbor hidden sexual desires. However, each one’s situation varies, especially how she deals with her particular dilemma. Although the governess in “The Turn of the Screw” and Mrs. Penniman in “Washington Square” are both, essentially, manifestations of secret human fears and desires, their portrayals both relate and differ.
First of all, they both assume the duty of raising children. The governess is hired to care for an uncle’s niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, respectively. Mrs. Penniman is commissioned to take care of her brother’s child, her niece, Catherine. They both see it as their responsibility to see to their charges’ education and general upbringing. Concerning Mrs. Penniman’s account: “…she had remained to take charge of her niece’s education.” (111) The governess, similarly, is concerned with her children’s education. “To watch, teach, “form” little Flora would too evidently be the making of a happy and useful life.” (11)
Both women are in charge of seemingly gentle children. The governess’s little ones are portrayed as angelic dears whom she cannot imagine ever being anything but perfect dolls. In response to receiving the school’s dismissal letter in regards to Miles, the governess muses: “It would have been impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence…” (17) Likewise, Mrs. Penniman’s niece is described as “the softest creature in the world.” (115)
The governess and Mrs. Penniman are both grown, single women. Moreover, they both harbor repressed desire for somebody. In the governess’s case, she secretly lusts for her employer and is extremely loyal to him in her services to his charges, pleasured at the thought that she is in some way helping him. Also, Mrs. Penniman entertains fantasies of her niece, Catherine’s intended, Morris Townsend. Throughout “Washington Square,” there are reoccurring, subtle hints that indicate Mrs. Penniman’s true feelings toward Mr. Townsend, such as her unwarranted pleasure or pain in response to his words or actions.
One way in that the two ladies differ, though, is that the governess cares for children who are of absolutely no relation to her, whereas Mrs. Penniman cares for her niece. Moreover, their type of care is different as well. Perhaps because the governess finds herself in charge of younger children, her care is a more protective type of care. She tries to shield the children from corruption from Peter Quint and Miss Jessell, their previous caretakers. In contrast, Mrs. Penniman is more of the meddling, advisory aunt. She concerns herself with trying to influence Catherine’s life and romance. She tries to solve Catherine’s problems for her by becoming involved in her personal affairs.
A second way that they differ is that the governess’s children are lovely and beautiful, whereas Mrs. Penniman’s niece is plain and dull. Upon the governess’s first sight of Miles she thinks “He was incredibly beautiful…” (17) Conversely, Catherine is described as possessing a “plain, dull, gentle countenance.” (113) The difference between the physical appearances of the governess’s charges and Mrs. Penniman’s charge, consequently, sets a different tone for each of the stories.
As has been mentioned before, both the governess and Mrs. Penniman entertain private fantasies. However, the governess harbors such emotions for her master, whereas Mrs. Penniman harbors them for her niece’s fiancée. This fact may cause one to speculate on the honorability and morality of Mrs. Penniman. It seems rather atrocious that she would long for her own niece’s beau and makes one wonder on what level her consideration for Catherine really lies.
The governess and Mrs. Penniman are two characters very liken to one another. They both care for children other than their own who are gentle little creatures. They are also both single women who have repressed sexual desires for a certain someone. Yet, on the other hand, they exhibit vast differences as well. The governess is of no relation whatsoever to Flora or Miles, who are both lovely, whereas Mrs. Penniman is the aunt of Catherine, who is quite plain. Moreover, the governess covets her employer, whereas Mrs. Penniman covets her niece’s intended, Morris Townsend. Overall, though, they proved to be quite effective characters. Although they are similar, they have their differences as well. Despite their differences, their similarities truly illuminate the inner workings of the human mind and conscious.