Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

the turn of the screw book cover The Turn of the Screw [1898] – ★★★★

<<This review will contain spoilers>>  

Wasn’t it just a story-book over which I had fallen a-doze and a-dream?” [James, Ed. 2004: 33].  

This is a horror novella penned by James in 1898 at the invitation of Robert J. Collier for his magazine. First published as a series, it tells of a hired governess who comes to Bly, a country estate in Essex, to supervise two children, Miles and Flora. The children are orphans under the responsibility of their uncle who, in turn, does not have much time to spend with them and resides in London. The young governess willingly assumes her responsibilities, being totally delighted to be in charge of two beautiful, lovely and well-behaved children in such grand estate. However, Bly soon opens its horrors to the governess and she becomes aware that there are at least two ghosts in the house that haunt the children. The Turn of the Screw is now infamous for its multiple story interpretations and all kinds of meanings that can be read into the text. Nevertheless, whether one reads the story as a straightforward ghost tale or as a more complex psychological study of one nanny losing her mind, it is still a scary and intriguing read, which leaves much to think about and discuss upon finishing. 

The Turn of the Screw is different from others novels of James in that there is an implication of danger of a horrid kind. The story is told through a first person narrative, and our narrator is “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson” [Ed. 2004: 26]. We follow her thoughts and encounters as she becomes a governess to two children at Bly. She is not alone in the house as housekeeper Mrs Grose accompanies her, and very soon, our heroine is convinced that the house is haunted by the ghosts of a previous governess Miss Jessel and a valet Peter Quint. More than haunted, the narrator is convinced that the two ghosts are after the children – Miles and Flora. There are two ways to read The Turn of the Screw. It can be read as a morbid tale of creepiness whereby ghosts haunt the country estate and take strange “possession” of the children, or it can be read as a story of our heroine’s emotional or mental breakdown whereby she either imagines or hallucinates spiritual elements. The novella is clever enough to give each theory enough evidence. As soon as readers may think they deal with ghosts, there is immediately something in the narrative which somewhat contradicts that, perhaps pointing to active imagination or mistaken perception. This ambiguity is what makes the story so fascinating, with only subtle hints left behind as to the real danger.

If the narrator is to be believed (how else would she know detailed physical descriptions of previous dead servants?), the story is rather scary, and there are chilling passages where she details her ghostly encounters. The beauty and innocence of the children are contrasted with the dark and disturbing behaviour of the ghosts visiting them. The children’s own behaviour becomes strange, and they are as though under the spell of monstrous and evil intentions of the two ghosts who “corrupt”. But, even here there is this lack of clarity. Who really desires to corrupt? The ghosts – the children; the governess – the children; or maybe even the children try to corrupt the governess? The novella can really be read as evil coming from different directions.

There are many clues in the story that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator, who is impressionable and easily excitable. We have to take the narrator’s word at face value, but her account is highly emotive, and she herself admits to her confusion. Thus, there is also a theory that the ghostly encounters in the story are part of the governess’s active imagination or that she hallucinates them. The governess’s mental breakdown as a theory was proposed as early as 1919 [Ed. 2004: 192], and there are passages in the novella such as “I’m rather easily carried away” [Ed. 2004: 31] and “she was…untried, nervous”, and that before her were “serious duties and little company…really great loneliness” [Ed. 2004: 28]. Sometimes the narrator doubts herself, even that she was “in life”. Clearly, that could be some proof of her losing her grip on reality.

The governess of Miles and Flora also becomes completely infatuated with them. She tells us how [Flora] “was the most beautiful child I had ever seen” and the children are described as being “remarkable”, “incredibly beautiful” and “radiant” [Ed. 2004: 30, 37]. The governess senses in them a “positive fragrance of purity” and is “dazed by their loveliness” [Ed. 2004: 30, 37, 44]. Even though the housekeeper is also enchanted by the duo, and we have little reason to doubt the narrator’s description of children, her expressions regarding the children are often emotional and it is telling that neither Miles’s school headmaster nor his uncle (both males) want the boy near them, also suggesting that, probably, the governess’s and Mrs Grose’s good impression of children may be exaggerated. Miles was expelled from his school and spent a lot of time with his uncle’s valet Quint, who was not a gentleman. It is also telling and slightly ironic that, although both Mrs Grose and the governess narrator refuse to believe the hard fact that Miles was expelled from school, they do succumb to a paranormal belief that there are spirits in the house.

The governess is so obsessed with, and enraptured by, the children and everything they do that she may have imbued them with some divine characteristics, abilities and secrets. She also may want to be part of their secrets and pact. Thus, she may see ghosts because of her desire to be part of the mysterious games the children apparently play, rather than other way around. The governess seems to rejoice in the fact that there is this unusual connection shared between her, and Flora and Miles. Thus, she tells us “the element of the unnamed and untouched became, between us, greater than any other” [Ed. 2004: 78]. She also tells us that the children are aware of the ghosts, but if we read the book closely, we discover that there is little evidence to support that (apart from the narrator’s perceptions). The narrative is so persuasive that we begin to believe this theory, even in spite of the fact that the narrator admits herself later that there is little proof that Miles and Flora can see ghosts, and that it would distress her if she ever loses her power to see ghosts [Ed. 2004: 80]. In the same vein, the governess’s desire to feel useful and needed, as well as become a protector of children may have meant the imagining of a situation whereby she has to protect the children against evil ghosts. She later says “we had been, collectively, subject to an intrusion”, “…cut off…together…[and] united in danger” [Ed. 2004: 42]. This will provide the necessary drama and diversion in her monotone life on the estate, some situation where she may feel “a sudden vibration of duty and courage [Ed. 2004: 45].

Even the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint can be seen as the heroine’s inverted mind projections of herself (“tragic”) and the master of the house (“deep”). The affair between Quint and Miss Jessel was doomed, and our narrator may hint in this way on her own doomed and unstarted affair with the master of the house. If there is a talk of the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Quint trying to “destroy” the children, the narrator may also subconsciously think that their uncle would also harm them by being absent, and she could destroy them with her smothering love, and badly-educated and uncultured ways. Her own loss of what is real may be due to her sexual repression. When the “handsome” master of the house held her hand after her interview, “she felt already rewarded” [Ed. 2004: 29], and it is telling that the ghosts she meets give her “bold, hard stare[s]”. The most revealing passage in support of this theory is that when the governess is walking alone, she has the desire that her employer meets her on her way and sees how well she is doing. The heroine refers to the gentleman when she says: “it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet some one. Some one would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve” [Ed. 2004: 39].

The later account in the novella of the governess’s thoughts and actions also fits more accurately with the theory of her slowly losing her sense of reality, rather there being a straightforward ghost story. If before the heroine tells us how Bly was like “a fairy tale…place” [Ed. 2004: 38] and enjoys the place almost like a proprietor, later in the story she may be realising that Bly will never be hers, the master of the estate will never return her feelings, and the children will also never be hers. The governess also feels her inadequacy to cater for such intelligent children. She feels she has nothing to teach Miles, saying to us that Miles “was too clever for a bad governess, for a parson’s daughter, to spoil” [Ed. 2004: 65]. When her dear Miles then tells her that he wants “to get away…to new field”, to be with his “own lot” and to “see more life” [Ed. 2004: 85], the governess may have become disturbed and hurt by that statement. She previously thought Miles was happy with her at Bly since he never mentioned his old school. Similarly, Flora may have been sensing something strange in her governess and attempted to run away (probably, even afraid of her). Even other servants started to perceive the governess differently, while the governess starts to feel that any future will hurt her darlings [Ed. 2004: 110, 84].

What can be the result of such feeling of alienation and hurt on the governess’s part? Then comes the climax of the story. The secrets here are out and the game is up. Following the governess’s narration, Flora turns “ugly”, apparently when she is no longer her secretive Flora who sees ghosts, and moves away [Ed. 2004: 103]. Our “heroine”’s only hope becomes Miles, whom she immediately whimsically compares to her husband on their wedding day [Ed. 2004: 113]. The separation between her and the boy becomes the reality, and, perhaps, to maintain her grip on the house and on Miles, the nanny resorts to the only action she thinks available to her – unimaginable horror. There is a line in the book to that effect where the narrator refers to “a perverse horror of what I was doing”, and to “an act of violence” [Ed. 2004: 115]. All this is related in a rather obscure form with another ghostly encounter, and the whole situation may be read in other ways. Henry James indirectly implies and leaves the readers to draw their own conclusions.

Because of the language used, long and complex sentences, and the indeterminate conclusion, The Turn of the Screw is not as instantly satisfying as may be desired, and its reading may be rather daunting. However, those who delight in reading between the lines will find the novella engrossing and atmospheric. It could challenge with its ambiguity, and Henry James must be given credit for the subtle way he deals with evil and true horror in his book. By not pinpointing or describing the meaning of horror, he makes the story take an even darker turn, and the line between the mind and the body, between the inside and the outside, between the spiritual and the earthy, and between the imagined and real, becomes blurred.

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