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The Turn of the Screw.

Type of work: Novella

Author: Henry James (1843-1916)

Type of plot: Moral allegory

Time of plot: Mid-nineteenth century

Locale: England

First published: 1898

More than a horrific ghost story, The Turn of the Screw is an enigmatic and disturbing psychological novel that probes the sources of terror in neurosis and moral degradation.

Principal Characters

The Governess, from whose point of view the story is told. Employed to look after his orphaned niece and nephew by a man who makes it clear that he does not wish to be bothered about them, she finds herself engaged in a struggle against evil apparitions for the souls of the children. There has been a good deal of the "Is-Hamletmad?" sort of inconclusive speculation as to whether The Turn of the Screw is a real ghost story or a study of a neurotic and frustrated woman. Probably both interpretations are true: the apparitions are real; the children are indeed possessed by evil; and the governess is probably neurotic.

Miles, a little boy, one of the governess' charges. At first he seems to be a remarkably good child, but gradually she learns that he has been mysteriously corrupted by his former governess and his uncle's former valet, whose ghosts now appear to maintain their evil control. Miles dies in the governess' arms during her final struggle to save him from some mysterious evil.

Flora, Miles's sister and feminine counterpart. The governess finally sends her away to her uncle.

Miss Jessel, the former governess, now dead. She appears frequently to the governess and to the children, who refuse to admit the appearances.

Peter Quint, the uncle's former valet, now dead. Drunken and vicious, he was also Miss Jessel's lover. The governess sees his apparition repeatedly.

Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper of the country estate where the story is set. Good-hearted and talkative, she is the source of what little concrete information the governess and the reader get as to the identities and past histories of the evil apparitions. Allied with the governess against the influence of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, she takes charge of Flora when the child is sent to her uncle.

The Story

It was a pleasant afternoon in June when the governess first arrived at the country estate at Bly, where she was to take charge of Miles, age ten, and Flora, eight. She faced her new position with some trepidation because of the unusual circumstances of her situation. The two children were to be under her complete care, and the uncle who had engaged her had been explicit in the fact that he did not wish to be bothered with his orphaned niece and nephew. Her uneasiness disappeared, however, when she saw her charges, for Flora and Miles seemed incapable of giving the slightest trouble.

The weeks of June passed uneventfully. Then, one evening, while she was walking in the garden at twilight, the governess was startled to see a young man at a distance. The man looked at her challengingly and disappeared. The incident angered and distressed the young woman, but she decided the man was a trespasser.

On the following Sunday evening, the young woman was startled to see the same stranger looking in at her through a window. Once again he stared piercingly at her for a few seconds and then disappeared. This time the governess realized that the man was looking for someone in particular and that perhaps he boded evil for the children in her care. A few minutes later, the governess told the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, of the incident and described the appearance. of the man. Mrs. Grose told her that it was a perfect description of Peter Quint, the valet to the governess' employer but that Mr. Quint was dead.

One afternoon shortly afterward, a second apparition appeared. This time the ghost of Miss Jessel, the former governess, appeared in the garden to both the governess and the little girl, Flora. The strange part of the situation was that the little girl refused to let the governess know that she had seen the figure and knew who it was, though it was obvious that she had understood the appearance fully.

The governess learned from the housekeeper that the two apparitions had been lovers while alive, though the girl had been of a very fine family and the man had been guilty of drunkenness and worse vices. For what evil purpose these two spirits wished to influence the seemingly innocent children, neither the housekeeper nor the governess could guess. The secrecy of the children about seeing the ghosts was maddening to the two women.

They both felt that the boy was continuing to see the two ghosts in private and concealed that fact, just as he had known of the illicit affair between the valet and the former governess in life and had helped them to conceal it. Yet, when in the presence of the children, the governess sometimes felt that it would be impossible for the two children to be influenced into evil.

The third time, the ghost of Quint appeared to the governess inside the house. Unable to sleep, she had sat reading late at night. Hearing someone on the stairs, she went to investigate and saw the ghost, which disappeared when faced by her unflinching gaze. Each night after that, she stairs, but she never again saw the ghost of the man. Once she glimpsed the apparition of Miss Jessel as it sat dejectedly on the lowest stair. Worse than the appearance of the ghosts was the discovery that the children had left their beds at night to wander on the lawn in communication with the spirits who were leading them to unknown evil. It became apparent to the governess that the children were not good within themselves. In their imaginations, they were living in a world populated by the evil dead restored.

In such an atmosphere, the summer wore away into autumn. In all that time, the children had given no sign of awareness of the apparitions. Knowing that her influence with the children was as tenuous as a thread which would break at the least provocation, the governess did not allude to the ghosts. She herself had seen no more manifestations, but she had often felt by the children's attitude that the apparitions were close at hand. What was worse for the distressed woman was the thought that what Miles and Flora saw were things still more terrible than she imagined, visions that sprang from their association with the evil figures in the past.

One day, Miles went to her and announced his desire to go away to school. The governess realized it was only proper that he be sent to school, but she feared the results of ghostly influences once he was beyond her care. Later, opening the door of the schoolroom, she again saw the ghost of her predecessor, Miss Jessel. As the apparition faded, the governess realized that her duty was to stay with the children and combat the spirits and their deadly influence. She decided to write immediately to the children's uncle, contrary to his injunction against being bothered on their behalf. That night before she wrote, she went into Miles's room and asked the boy to let her help him in his secret troubles. Suddenly a rush of cold air filled the room, as if the window had been blown open. When the governess relighted the candle blown out by the draft, the window was still closed, and the drawn curtain had not been disturbed.

The following day, Flora disappeared. Mrs. Grose and the governess found her beside the garden pond. The governess, knowing she had gone there to see the ghost, asked her where Miss Jessel was. The child replied that she only wanted to be left alone. The governess could see the apparition of Miss Jessel standing on the opposite side of the pond.

The governess, afraid that the evil influence had already dominated the little girl, asked the housekeeper to take the child to London and to request the uncle's aid. In place of the lovable angelic Flora there had suddenly appeared a little child with a filthy mind and filthy speech, which she used in denouncing the governess to the housekeeper. The same afternoon, Mrs. Grose left with the child as the governess had requested.

That evening, immediately after dinner, the governess asked Miles to tell her what was on his mind before he left the dining room. When he refused, she asked him if he had stolen the letter she had written to his uncle. As she asked the question, she realized that standing outside the window, staring into the room, was the ghost of Peter Quint. She pulled the boy close to her, shielding him from any view of the ghost at the window, while he told her that he had taken the letter. He also informed her that he had already been expelled from one school because of his lewd speech and actions. Noting how close the governess was holding him, he suddenly asked if Miss Jessel were near. The governess, angry and distraught, shrieked at him that it was the ghost of Peter Quint, just outside the window. When Miles turned around, the apparition was gone. With a scream, he fell into the governess' arms. At first, she did not realize that she had lost him forever--that Miles was dead.

Critical Evaluation

One of the world's most famous ghost stories, The Turn of the Screw was first published serially in Colliers' Weekly from January 27, 1898, to April 16, 1898, and in book form, along with a second story, Covering End, late in 1898. In 1908, Henry James discussed at some length the origin and nature of the tale in the preface to volume 12 of The Novels and Tales of Henry James. Considerable critical discussion and controversy have been devoted to the story, especially since Edmund Wilson's 1934 essay on "The Ambiguity of Henry James," in which Wilson argues that "the governess who is made to tell the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and that the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governess." Since many critics have taken issue with Wilson and since Wilson later modified his interpretation, it is important to note briefly what James himself says about his story, his characters, and his theme in the preface. He calls The Turn of the Screw "a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught...the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious." He terms the governess' account "her record of so many anomalies and obscurities." He comments that he purposely limited his revelation of the governess' character: "We have surely as much of her nature as we can swallow in watching it reflect her anxieties and inductions." He says he presented the ghosts as "real" ones, and he describes them as

my hovering prowling blighting presences, my pair of abnormal agents...[who] would be agents in fact; there would be laid on them the dire duty of causing the situation to reek with the air of Evil. Their desire and their ability to do so, visibly measuring meanwhile their effect, together with their observed and described success--this was exactly my central idea.

Concluding his discussions of "my fable," James explains that he purposely did not specify the evils in which the ghosts either attempt to or actually involve Miles and Flora: "Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself...and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars."

Thus, readers see that James conceived of the tale as one in which the governess, a young woman with limited experience and education but high moral principles, attempts to protect two seemingly innocent children from corruption by the malign ghosts of two former servants who in life were evil persons. His capitalizing of "Evil" and his use of the term "fable" to describe the story suggest a moral as well as an aesthetic intent in writing it. To interpret The Turn of the Screw in terms of Freudian psychology, as Wilson and some other critics have done, is to go beyond James and to find what he did not put there--consciously anyway. Admittedly, some of the "anomalies and obscurities" which puzzle and trouble the governess do lead the reader in the direction of a Freudian interpretation. The account is the governess' alone, and there is no proof that anyone else actually saw the ghosts though she believes that the children saw them and lied to her or tried otherwise to hide the truth from her. Before his reading of the governess' journal, Douglas admits that she was in love with her employer, the children's handsome uncle who showed no personal interest in her. Within the account itself, the reader who hunts may find apparent Freudian symbolism. For example, the male ghost, Peter Quint, first appears standing on a tower when the governess has been deeply longing for her employer to appear and approve her care of the children. The female ghost, Miss Jessel, first appears by a lake and watches as little Flora, also watched absorbedly by the governess, plays a childish game:

She had picked up a small flat piece of wood, Which happened to have in it a little hole that had evidently suggested to her the idea of sticking in another fragment that might figure as a mast and make the thing a boat. This second morsel...she was very markedly and intently attempting to tighten in its place.

Tenear-old Miles's repeated use of the word "dear" in speaking to the governess may suggest a precocious boy's sexual interest in his pretty governess.

One can go on, but it is important to remember that James's story was published in 1898 and that Freud's first significant work explaining psychoanalytic theory did not appe until 1905. Perhaps it is best to regard such details in the story as those cited as no more than coincidental, though they may seem suggestive to the post-Freudian reader of The Turn of the Screw.

Among the most difficult facts to explain away in developing the theory that the ghosts are mere hallucinations of a sexually frustrated young woman, is the governess' detailed description of a man she has never seen or heard of:

He has no hat....He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight, good features and little, rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are, somehow, darker; they look particularly arched....His eyes are sharp--awfully....His mouth's wide, and his lips are are thin, and except for his whiskers he's quite clean-shaven.

Mrs. Grose easily identifies him as the dead Peter Quint. She just as easily identifies Miss Jessel when the governess describes the person she later saw: "A figure of quite an unmistakable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful--with such an air also, and such a face!--on the other side of the lake." It is difficult to argue convincingly that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not "real" ghosts.

The Turn of the Screw will continue to fascinate and to intrigue because James's "cold artistic calculation" has so filled it with suggestiveness and intentional ambiguity that it may be read at different levels and with new revelations at each successive reading. As Leon Edel has said, "The reader's mind is forced to hold to two levels of awareness: the story as told, and the story to be deduced."
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
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Date:Jan 1, 1989
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