Metanarrative in Turn of the Screw

8 August 2016

In postmodernism, a metanarrative is an abstract idea that is thought to be a comprehensive explanation of historical experience or knowledge. The prefix meta means “beyond” or “about”, and a narrative is a story. So a metanarrative is a story about a story encompassing and explaining other “little stories” within the total scheme of things. The concept of metanarratives was criticized by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his work The Postmodern Condition: A Report of Knowledge (1979).

Lyotard refers to what he describes as the postmodern condition, which he characterized as increasing skepticism toward the totalizing nature of “metanarratives” (or grand narratives) typically characterized by some form of ‘transcendent and universal truth’. In The Turn of the Screw the story within the story is about power. The novella is a pseudo ghost story that involves two children who are sent to live with their uncle when their parents die. The Uncle in turn leaves the children in the care of the governess, who is also the narrator.

The power plays come in three ways that are woven into the bigger picture. First, the Uncle is the ultimate power within the story. The governess meets him one time and is then and there smitten with him. He leaves the governess ‘in charge’ of the children while he is off doing whatever. He does not inquire about the well-being of the children and he does not care to be bothered by complaints of any sort. Although he is not present at Bly, he seems to know everything that goes on at Bly as if he has an all seeing eye.

The governess is very careful not to even reply when he writes a letter letting her know that the boy child, Miles, cannot return to school – she doesn’t even question why. To say that the Uncle has been left as guardian of the children, he takes very little interest in them. Today that would be called neglect. Second, the governess exerts power over the children and Ms. Grose. She does this in a very subtle way. The governess adores the children almost to the point of worshipping them. But she is always aware of where they are and what they are doing.

And when Quint and Miss Jessel show up she becomes even more ‘present’ than before. She believes that the children see Quint and Miss Jessel as well and that they are exerting some sort of evil power over them. They certainly have power over the governess in a sense because her mind is always on them and she expects to see them at every turn. The governess’ power over Ms. Grose is simply in her telling Ms. Grose about Quint and Miss Jessel and sharing with her the feelings that she has about their evilness. Ms.

Grose of course cannot divulge this bit of information to any of the other servants and thus the governess holds this bit of power over her. Third, the children have a power over the governess that is also very subtle and well utilized by them. They know that the governess thinks them beautiful, adores them and believes they can do no wrong. And they use this to their advantage. On one occasion, Miles slips out of his room in the middle of the night and goes outside. To lure the governess, the girl child, Flora, gets out of her bed, which is in the governess’s room and hides.

Upon searching for her the governess spots the figure outside and goes to investigate. When she finds that it is Miles she questions his motives. He responds that he did it because he could and he knew she would come. The children know that the governess is so overly in love with them that she will do anything to keep them safe. She also is expected to keep them safe by the Uncle and she doesn’t want to disappoint him. Power is one of the most prevalent and dangerous forces in our modern society. Those who have it wield it like a sword and those who want it will give their very souls to get it.

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