The Turn of the Screw

What a Dash can Do

The em-dash, often formed in print by two hyphens lacking separation, is a piece of punctuation “stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses” (Strunk and White 9). Traditionally a dash indicates an abrupt change of thought, informal in nature, and often acts as a parenthetical device to provide emphasis. Myriad in function and application, this particular element of punctuation often appears within the works of literary realists and naturalists. The dash is utilized to highlight mental infirmities, to accurately represent disjointed or faltering thought and speech, and to reveal the emotional condition of characters.

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw features a staggering number of dashes that, as the story wends its way through intricate ambiguities and veiled horrors, serve to underline and accentuate the mental instability of the young governess. James’s use of the dash acts not only as a device to enhance the clipped and hasty atmosphere, but also to create a scene of miscommunication, faulty judgment, and overzealous suspicion. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short work “The Yellow Wallpaper” echoes James’s method of using the dash as a tool to unveil mental instability -- in Gilman’s...

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