The identification of sexual repression and female hysteria as the motive force behind the governesss apparent encounter with the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel dates back to Edmund Wilsons 1934 orthodox Freudian critique, “The Ambiguity of Henry James”, and since then the tale has been the centre of numerous debates based around both Freudian and anti-Freudian interpretations (Renner, 176, fn. 2).
As with Wilsons landmark account, Stanley Renners identification of female sexual hysteria to explain both the supernatural aspect to the story and the governesss subsequent behaviour (176) would appear to bear out Peter Barrys claim in Beginning Theory that psychoanalytic critics privilege “the individual psycho-drama above the social drama of class conflict” (105).
Certainly, Renner makes no reference to class conflict in this essay. Much less does he see it as a mere “ghost story”; rather, it is to him very much a projection of internal fears and anxieties – its “dramatization of a womans psychosexual problem and the damage it does to the children in her charge” is, he confidently states, “the true – and clearly the richer – story [...] (175).
Nevertheless, the supernatural aspects of the story cannot be dismissed out of hand, as Renner notes – indeed, his particular reading of the story arises in response to one of the strongest arguments against a purely naturalistic interpretation: how did the governess manage to give a detailed description of a man she had never seen, unless she had genuinely seen a ghost? (175)
Renners analysis of the governesss spectral visions centres on two propositions: first, that she is a casebook sexual hysteric, and second, that her uncannily detailed description is based not on a personal encounter with a ghost as she believes, but is instead the imaginary product of what he