The Unsolved Mystery of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw

turn of the screwI’ve struggled to fully appreciate Henry James in the past but some recent discussions about the merits of his work prompted me to give him another go.  I chose The Turn of the Screw simply because I’ve been long intrigued why a work of less than 100 pages has provoked so much debate and argument over the years.

The story originated apparently from a half-remembered anecdote told to Henry James by the Archbishop of Canterbury. James wrote it while staying at a rambling mansion in Sussex where he was liking his wounds following the poor reception to his play Guy Domville. It wasn’t his first – nor would it be his last – ghost story. He was attracted to the ghost story genre though he didn’t care for the stereotypical approach, preferring instead to create figures that were eerie but could still be associated with reality.

For the first few decades after its publication in 1898 there wasn’t any real debate about the nature of this work. Readers viewed A Turn of the Screw purely as a spooky story about the experience of a young governess and Miles and Flora, children in her care who are tormented by two ghosts at an isolated country manor house.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that critics began to question this traditional view of the story and in particular the reliability of the figure of the governess.  Edmund Wilson was one of the first major proponents of the idea that the ghosts existed entirely in her imagination being the products of a delusional mind. Since then debate has continued between those who see the ghosts as supernatural figures and those who view them as hallucinations.

A Ghostly Tale?

To read Turn of the Screw this way requires us to view the governess as a narrator upon whose account we can rely. If we start from that premise,  we believe that the two human figures she sees at Bly manor are the ghosts of two former (now dead) servants, the valet Peter Quint and governess Miss Jessel. When she sees them she sees them in a tower of the house or peering in through windows they have the solid appearance of humans. It is only later she learns they died some years previously. The governess is clear in her mind that they are evil: “a horror.” and “fiends” intent on possessing the souls of the two children. She doesn’t seem afraid the ghosts will physically harm or kill the children, more that they will corrupt them in some way. In this interpretation what we’ve faced with is a battle between good and evil with the governess fighting single-handedly and courageously to save Miles and Fora.

Can we believe her? 

James cleverly creates uncertainty about this interpretation however because the story is not told directly by the governess but by an anonymous male guest at a house party. The guest doesn’t have any first hand experience of this story but instead reads from a manuscript supposedly written by the governess. She interprets the children’s story rather than letting them speak for themselves. This  “nested structure,” denies us direct access to some of the key participants and sets up the possibility of misinterpretation and ambiguity.

A psychological tale of delusion and insanity?

There are a few issues with the ‘ghost story’ interpretation. The biggest alarm bell for me was that the ‘ghosts’ are visible only to the governess. We have multiple sightings of these ghosts in various locations at the lake, in the garden and at the window but at no time when she reports these sightings to the housekeeper Mrs Grose does the housekeeper confirm her own suspicions. Instead we see the older woman’s scepticism. The one time the governess thinks she will be vindicated, when the ghost of Miss Jessel appears before her and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper does not acknowledge anything untoward, merely responding: “What a dreadful turn, to be sure, Miss! Where on earth do you see anything?”

Another aspect of uncertainty is the governess’ attitude towards Miles. When she first meets the boy, she’s struck by his “fragrance of purity” and his beauty. She changes her mind when she begins to have her supernatural encounters, coming to believe the boy is plotting evil deeds with Quint. Mrs Grose does confirm that Quint was a bad influence on the boy in the past but doesn’t provide any details of the nature of this influence or how it manifested itself. Miles does get up to a bit of mischief (stealing a letter the governess writes to his uncle, her employer) but its hard to see this as ‘evil’ so again we have only the governess’ word for his nature. This is a person who has a talent for fitting events to suit her hypothesis. Once she conceives the idea the apparitions are evil she decides the children are in cohorts with them and using a facade of innocence and beauty as a mask.

James compounds the mystery by giving hints that the governess’ mental state may not be totally stable. It’s clear from the beginning that s has a vivid imagination, proclaiming herself to be inclined to  “write scenarios” and “paint pictures.” On her first tour of Bly house she imagines it as “a castle of romance” and plots a “charming story” of meeting the master as she wanders the grounds. On her arrival at the house she imagines a role for herself as the captain guiding a ship to safety: was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half replaced and half utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!

And then later changes roles to become guardian and protector of the the children:

It was an immense help to me — I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back! — that I saw my service so strongly and so simply. I was there to protect and defend the little creatures.

As a sceptic of all things supernatural I’m more inclined to accept an interpretation of this story as one of psychological complexity, of a figure suffering from delusion bordering on insanity. And I began to wonder whether its not Quint and Jessel who are the disruptive influences in the house – is it really the governess who haunts Bly and the children?

I’m still wrestling with this question. But by reading this I’ve come to appreciate far more how James focused on perception and consciousness in his writing. I might even come to like him.




About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 18, 2015, in American authors, Book Reviews, Classics Club and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. Of the three James books I’ve read, this is the only one I enjoyed. But I really loved it, for all the reasons you outline. So maybe there’s another James novel I would like? I should probably give him another try.

  2. I have downloaded this on my kindle in the hopes of reading it before Halloween, but I had little idea of the controversy. However, it makes perfect sense. So looking forward to reading it myself. Thank you for the review, and all the comments on my blog. xo

  3. Having read none of James, this looks as if it might be a good starting place! Thanks for the review!

  4. We did Washington Square in our American Literature book group a couple of years ago – I would recommend it for a relatively easy and interesting read.

    • I read Washington Square at the beginning of this year and enjoyed it – more than I did Daisy Miller which was bundled in the same edition. Agree with you that it’s rather easier than some of his other work Teresa

  5. Yay! Glad you liked it! I saw it acted as a play a few years ago. It was really well done and since it was at a small theatre with a full house the atmosphere was appropriately claustrophobic and intense. I love the ambiguity of it. To me a good creepy story are the ones with lots of ambiguity. Will you be trying James again soon and if so, any idea what one yet?

  6. By the way, the film is based on a play of the same name that is, in turn, based on ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Interesting fact: 90% of the screenplay was written by Truman Capote.

  7. It’s a very long time since I saw ‘The Innocents’, but I just read the plot description on Wikipedia and was reminded that there are some very strong sexual elements in the story. Quint and Miss Jessel (the previous governess) were having an illicit sexual relationship, which may or may not been consensual. There is a strong suggestion that the spirits of the now-dead Quint and Jessel have taken over the bodies of the children in order to continue their sexual liaison. Furthermore, the boy Miles is expelled from boarding school for being a ‘bad influence’ on other boys – it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what that means. Also, Miles is described as being over-mature and too ‘knowing’ for his young age. So I don’t think my interpretation is either fanciful or particularly novel, although it’s possible that the film brings this out more than the novella does. I don’t have a copy of the book so I can’t check that. Perhaps someone who has read the book more recently could comment on that?

  8. It is one of my favourite books and you totally make me wanna read it again this winter on a cold dark Sunday evening …. 🙂

  9. I get that. If as I did your first reading takes it literally as a pure ghost story, the children are pretty creepy. All that talking together, about what exactly?

    If you then read it as psychological, the talking together seems much less mysterious. Context and genre inform the reading I guess.

    Thanks for the link, and in response to your response to my earlier comment I think you’re right that he’s trying for something different. It’s certainly not a straightforward genre piece.

  10. When I first read this book I found the children quite unbearably creepy. I’ve mostly transferred this fear onto the governess as she’s the one who describes them to us, but the was only a later reading for me. I hope it doesn’t make me a bad person, but Miles and Flora make my skin crawl. No matter how much I intellectualise the horror of the story, they’re the ones I don’t want to be shut up with in an isolated house!

  11. The Innocents is fabulous, a genuinely excellent movie.

    The story itself is also pretty good, though I prefer The Aspern Papers. I don’t think it matters if we ourselves are believers or sceptics, stories have their own internal realities and whether ghosts can inhabit the real world they can definitely inhabit the tales we tell each other. I tend to the ghost interpretation, but only because I find it more fun and because it fits the story more squarely within the tradition of 19th Century ghost stories which it seems to me to belong to. It’s also that I’ve seen so many adaptations of ghost tales which make them psychological as if that’s somehow a new interpretation, when it’s actually the most common one, that I just get a bit tired of the psychological approach.

    The third party narrator is a fairly common technique as I recall of 19th Century ghost fiction. I’m not sure I’d read too much into that. I do think though it’s intentionally somewhat ambiguous, and I think Teresa’s absolutely right about the abuse angle.

    • thanks for your thoughtful reply Max. I’ve not read the Aspern Papers but have made a note to look at this one at some point. Yes I can certainly see how he was using the ghost story tradition but I also got the impression that he was departing from that in some respects, trying something different. In the preface to the 1908 edition he goes into great lengths about the creative challenges he faced including how to deal with he nature of the two ghosts. Here’s the link in case you’re interested (he talks too of the Aspern Papers

  12. Long time since I read Turn of the Screw though I watched the BBC adaptation of it a year or two ago. I really want to read it again now. I didn’t know that there had been such debate. I think I had always seen it as a psychological tale.

  13. I didn’t like The Turn of The Screw when I finally got round to reading it last year. I found it a real slog to read for such a slim book. But having said that, I loved the ambiguity of it.

    • James certainly weaves in lots of unanswered questions. I don’t normally enjoy this kind of book and probably wouldn’t have been interested enough if it was a full novel, but it kept me interested.

  14. I just finished The Haunting of Hill House and ran across a number of reviews/write-ups that say Jackson was heavily influenced by The Turn of the Screw so I added it to my list for the weekend. After your review, I’m really looking forward to picking it up!

  15. After viewing the brilliant, terrifying 1961 psychological horror film ‘The Innocents’, which is based on ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and subsequently reading the story several times, I became convinced that it was actually a story about child sexual abuse – that Miles (and perhaps Flora too) had been sexually abused by the now-dead Quint, with the connivance of the housekeeper, and that in his turn (as frequently happens) Miles was bent on corrupting/abusing his little sister. I was very young (18-19) and quite innocent myself when I first saw the film in 1961, and child sexual abuse was certainly not on the radar at the time, so I don’t know what made me think of it, but think of it I did. I highly recommend a viewing of the film if you haven’t seen it.

  16. I’ve only read A Portrait of a Lady but that was years ago. I remember appreciating his writing style but your post makes me want to return to his works.

    • He’s one of those authors whose craft I can admire but still feel reluctant to read him. It took two readings of Portrait for me to engage with it. I’m sort of warming up to reading The Ambassadors…

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