I’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:
..it 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.