Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw” is an intriguing ghost story wrapped in a psychological study.
Initially considered a simple “potboiler” by James himself, the story has since captured the attention of literary critics for its deep exploration of the narrator’s mind.
Prologue: The tale begins intriguingly with a character named Douglas presenting a manuscript at a gathering. This manuscript, a narrative by a deceased governess, sets the stage for the haunting events to unfold.
The Story Begins
The governess’s account, told in the first person, starts with her arrival at Bly, an English country estate. At 20, it’s her first job, caring for two orphaned children, Miles and Flora.
Their guardian, a charming uncle from London, imposes full responsibility for the children on her and forbids any further contact with him. Despite initial anxieties, her worries are calmed by the warm welcome from Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, and the apparent innocence of Miles and Flora.
However, serenity is short-lived. A letter from Miles’s school arrives, stating he’s been expelled, but offers no explanation.
This baffling news, along with sightings of a mysterious man on the estate, believed to be Peter Quint, the deceased valet, and a woman in black, presumably the late Miss Jessel, former governess, begins to disturb the peace.
These apparitions and their implied corrupt influence on the children lead the governess to a harrowing conclusion: the children are in secret communication with these spirits.
The Battle Against Evil
Convinced that Quint and Jessel are back from the dead to corrupt Miles and Flora, the governess embarks on a mission to save their souls. Mrs. Grose stands by her in this fight against the supernatural.
The Climactic Turn
The summer unfolds with rare ghostly appearances but noticeable changes in the children’s behavior.
After a series of intense events – discovering Miles outside at night, a confrontation at the pond, and Flora’s chilling silence in acknowledging the apparition – the story culminates in a dramatic scene.
The governess, alone with Miles, confronts him about his past misdeeds. As Quint’s ghost appears again, Miles confesses to minor transgressions.
The governess, believing she has saved him from Quint’s clutches, is shocked to find Miles lifeless in her arms.
- The Unnamed Narrator: The story begins with this character, who attends a Christmas Eve party in England where friends gather to share ghost stories.
- Douglas: A guest at the party who introduces the main story. He possesses the written account of the governess’s experiences and reads it to the other guests.
- The Governess: The central character of the story, she is hired to take care of two children at a country estate called Bly. She is initially anxious about her job but becomes fond of the children and the estate. As the story progresses, she becomes convinced that the estate is haunted and that the children are in danger.
- Flora: The young girl under the governess’s care. She is described as beautiful and well-mannered. The governess grows fond of her but becomes suspicious of her behavior later in the story.
- Mrs. Grose: The housekeeper at Bly, who becomes a confidante and ally to the governess. She provides background information about the estate and its previous inhabitants.
- Miles: The young boy for whom the governess is responsible. His expulsion from school is a mystery that deeply concerns the governess. She finds him well-behaved but becomes increasingly worried about his interactions with the supernatural entities.
- Peter Quint: The deceased former valet of the estate. He is one of the ghosts the governess believes she sees, and his past relationship with Miles is a central concern for her.
- Miss Jessel: The previous governess at Bly, who is also deceased. The current governess sees her ghost and believes she poses a threat to Flora. Her past relationship with Peter Quint and her possible influence on the children are key elements of the story.
1. The Ambiguity of Reality versus Illusion
James masterfully blurs the lines between the real and the surreal.
The governess’s sightings of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel raise questions about the existence of ghosts versus the possibility of psychological projections.
This ambiguity extends to the reader’s interpretation of the story: are the ghosts real manifestations, or are they figments of the governess’s imagination, possibly stemming from her isolation, inexperience, or unspoken desires?
This theme challenges the reader to consider the reliability of perception and the ease with which reality can be misconstrued or influenced by personal biases and mental states.
2. Innocence and Corruption
The novella constantly juxtaposes the innocence of children (Miles and Flora) with the potential for corruption.
The governess perceives the children as initially pure and unblemished, but gradually suspects that they are being corrupted by the malevolent spirits of Quint and Jessel. This theme is a commentary on the Victorian era’s attitudes towards childhood innocence and the underlying fears of moral corruption.
The story probes the depth of innocence and its vulnerability, especially in the face of unseen, possibly malevolent influences.
It also reflects on the notion of inherent evil within innocence, questioning whether corruption comes from external forces or is a part of human nature.
3. Psychological Complexity
The governess, as the central character and narrator, represents a deep well of psychological complexity. Her mental state, motivations, and perceptions are central to the unfolding of the plot.
Her overprotective and obsessive behavior towards the children, combined with her isolated environment and lack of external support, raise questions about her mental stability.
Is she a protector, a victim of her own mind, or an unreliable narrator?
This theme delves into the psychological aspects of the character, exploring themes of paranoia, obsession, and the impact of isolation on mental health.
It underscores the impact of psychological factors on one’s perception of reality and the actions that stem from these perceptions.
“The Turn of the Screw” is a masterfully crafted novella that blends the supernatural with psychological drama. Henry James creates a haunting narrative that remains open to interpretation, engaging us in a deep exploration of themes like reality versus imagination, innocence, and the nature of evil.
The novella’s enduring appeal lies in its ability to weave an intricate and ambiguous tale that continues to fascinate and puzzle readers, prompting them to question the boundaries between the seen and the unseen or to be specifically put, the known and the unknown.