The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
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Henry James' classic novella The Turn of the Screw must be one of the most analyzed, adapted (perhaps best in the movie The Innocents), ambiguous, disturbing and best known ghost stories of all time. It is the first person account of a young governess engaged to care for two orphans with the express instruction never to bother her employer at any time. She soon becomes haunted by the ghosts of her predecessor and a rogue servant and is convinced they are trying to possess the children. But as she is the only one to see the ghosts, do they really exist at all beyond her imagination?
The Turn of the Screw has lent itself to dozens of different interpretations, often mutually exclusive, including those of a Freudian nature. Many critics have tried to determine what exactly the nature of evil within the story is.
Lamb House, Rye, Sussex, England.
Throughout his career James was attracted to the ghost story genre. However, he was not fond of literature's stereotypical ghosts, the old-fashioned 'screamers' and 'slashers'. Rather, he preferred to create ghosts that were eerie extensions of everyday reality — "the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy," as he put it in the New York Edition preface to his final ghost story, The Jolly Corner.
The Turn of the Screw is no exception to this formula. In fact, some critics have wondered if he didn't intend the "strange and sinister" to be embroidered only on the governess's mind and not on objective reality. The result has been a long-standing critical dispute over the reality of the ghosts and the sanity of the governess.
Beyond the dispute, critics have closely examined James's narrative technique in the story. The framing introduction and subsequent first-person narrative by the governess have been studied by theorists of fiction interested in the power of fictional narratives to convince or even manipulate readers.
The imagery of The Turn of the Screw is reminiscent of the gothic genre. The emphasis on old and mysterious buildings throughout the novella reinforces this motif. James also relates the amount of light present in various scenes to the strength of the supernatural or ghostly forces apparently at work.
The dispute over the reality of the ghosts has had a real effect on some critics, most notably Edmund Wilson, who was one of the first proponents of the insane governess theory. However, he was eventually forced to recant this view under fire from opposing critics who pointed to the governess's point-by-point description of Quint. Then John Silver ("A Note on the Freudian Reading of 'The Turn of the Screw'" American Literature, 1957) pointed out hints in the story that the governess might have gained previous knowledge of Quint's appearance in non-supernatural ways. This induced Wilson to recant his recantation and return to his original view that the governess was unbalanced and that the ghosts existed only in her imagination.
William Veeder sees Miles's eventual death as induced by the governess, but he traces the governess's motive back through two larger strands: English imperialism (based on the oblique reference in the introduction to India, where the parents of Miles and Flora died) and the way patriarchy raises its daughters. Through a complex psychoanalytic reading, Veeder concludes that the governess takes out her repressed rage toward her father and toward the master of Bly on Miles.
Other critics, however, have defended the governess strongly. They point out that James' letters, his New York Edition preface, and his Notebooks contain no definite evidence that The Turn of the Screw was intended as anything other than a straightforward ghost story. James's Notebooks entry indicates that he was originally inspired by a tale he heard from Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This unconventional source, like almost everything else about the story, has generated critical commentary.
As a work of fiction the speculation can never be resolved, it certainly doesn't detract, and most likely adds to the story's enduring fascination. Enjoy...