Henry James: “The Turn of the Screw”


In The Turn of the Screw, an unnamed young governess attempts to defend her young wards, Miles and Flora, from the eerie apparitions of two dead staff members at the family’s lonely estate: first the former employee Mr. Quint, and later the previous governess, Miss Jessel.

The governess feels that the children are aware of Jessel and Quint and desire to commune with them, but that they are conniving about it, and wish to conceal their desires from her. Jessel and Quint had an affair, and may also have abused or corrupted the children. The children often contrive ways to be left alone or apart from the governess together – in her mind, so that they can be drawn in to the ghosts. In one scene, the governess wakes to Flora staring out at Miles on the lawn, whom the governess is convinced must be staring at Quint. In the final scene, the governess finally confronts Miles about his expulsion and all of the other ‘secrets,’ when suddenly Quint appears to her in the window behind the boy. As she embraces him and tells him he is free of Quint (the name alarms Miles), the boy dies in her arms.

The frame is that of an unnamed narrator reporting the tale told to him one evening by Douglas, himself reading the manuscript version of a story told him by the governess, which he claims she committed to print before she died.

It seems vital that Douglas have the manuscript mailed to the party so that he can read it from the governess’ written account – also that we are reading the version the narrator claims to have his own manuscript copy of. One might consider the governess herself not just as the writer of her tale, but as a reader, and our interpretation of her as vacillating between surface and paranoid readings of the text’s possible implications.

• the narrator says that Douglas “read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of the author’s hand” (6).

• The uncle actively halts the governess from writing, leaving her to interpret the events where she is largely in solitude – or at least without an ‘equal’ around. When Miles is expelled, the uncle writes the governess, “Read him but don’t report” (10).

• Miles reads the letter illicitly and uses the excuse of finishing his book to derail the governess. Also, his seeming awareness of his fictional position: “the true knights we love to read about never push an advantage too far” (66).

• Flora, too, “appeared to read and accuse and judge me” (71).

• the governess reads books, sometimes to trick other characters (17, 40, 46, 47, 28) and reads letters (78, 85). She calls reading “an unavowed curiosity of my youth,” particularly “last century fiction… of a distinctly deprecated renown” (40).

• the governess wonders about Jane Eyre and The Mysteries of Udolpho (17), as well as Fielding’s Amelia (40). She is in the position of only knowing what Mrs. Grose tells her about Jessel and Quint, and her analeptic/proleptic pasting-together of clues, her proof, “so I saw him as I see the letters on this page” (17) is double-edged: both totally clear (legible) and wholly imagined (since language is not visual and offers no proof).

• Mrs. Grose, unlike the governess, cannot read, which is “dreadful” (11)

• Much of her reading also involves, of course, her interpretive work, which might verge on a paranoid, exploitative interpretation of her surroundings (worth thinking about how that reflects upon us as readers, too). She even admits her own paranoid reading of the situation at times: “I had restlessly read into the facts before us” (27), “I only sat there on my tomb and read into what our young friend had said to me in the fulness of its meaning.” (57), and “I suppose I now read into our situation a clearness it couldn’t have had” (84).

• the word read appears by itself or within in other words 97 times in the text: in readily, ready, already, thread, bread, etc. Read is used in the past tense each time, making it shine through and rhyme with the other words in which it is embedded. Particularly notable is the repetition of dread and dreadful (26 times), which includes both the words dead and read within it.

Especially interesting is the substance the governess tries to give to the purely visual ghosts, especially by explaining her depth perception of these surface apparitions.

Critical interpretations long focused on the mutually exclusive implications of the story (some even suspecting that the governess remains unnamed because she might be based on Henry’s ‘hysterical’ sister Alice). Edmund Wilson was among the first to suggest that the governess was insane and had imagined the ghosts altogether.

Eric Solomon claims in “The Return of the Screw” that Mrs. Grose is the villain or killer based on the line “Someone had taken a liberty rather gross.”

Mark Spilka, in “Turning the Freudian Screw,” addresses the erotic ambiguities of the tower and the lake, embedded in a tale about the Victorian obsession with asexual, childish innocence (and the implication that one or both of the now-ghosts molested the children, ‘infecting’ them, as critic Craig Raine insists).

John J. Enck (“The Turn of the Century”) praises the craft of James’ prose and places the story’s irony and uncertainty in “the reader’s intelligence” and compares his writing to Nabokov.

Shoshanna Felman


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