The Turn Of The Screw
by Henry James
The novel, "The Turn of the Screw", written by Henry James
, is a very ambiguous ghost story. It involves a governess
who is hired by the Uncle to watch and take care of two
little children. The children's names are Flora and Miles.
When the governess arrived she was greeted by Mrs. Grose, a
servant, and Flora. She described Flora as "the most
beautiful child she has ever seen" (James 6 ) and Miles as
looking extremely innocent.. The first day of her
employment, the governess received a letter from Miles'
school stating that he had been expelled. The governess was
puzzled and she couldn't understand the reason for it. She
states " He was incredibly beautiful", she felt that he had
an " indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the
world but love " ( James 17).
One day while taking a walk the governess sees a man by two
towers. A few days later she sees the same man in the same
place. She describes the ghost as " he has red hair, very
red, close-curling, and a pale face...with straight, good
features, and little, rather queer whiskers...his
eyebrows...look particularly arched...his eyes are sharp,
strange...his mouth's wide, and his lips are thin...and
he's quite clean-shaven. He gives me a sort of sense of
looking like an actor" ( James 24 ). Mrs. Grose, the maid,
claims that the description is that of Peter Quint, a
former worker of an Uncle of the children she added " Mr.
Quint is dead"( James 24 ).
Several days later she sees another ghost across the lake
near where Flora was playing. She again told Mrs. Grose
about the second spirit. The governess described her as "
horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful" (
James 31) and Mrs. Grose claimed it sounded like that of
Miss Jessel, the predecessor of the governess. She added
that she, too, was dead.
A few nights later, the governess saw Peter Quint again but
he disappeared quickly. She went to look in the children's
beds but soon realized that they were outside playing in
the yard. She says " I felt sick as I made it out" ( James
42 )- the figure on the lawn was Miles The next Sunday
after church the governess decided to leave Bly because of
all the ghostly activities. While the governess was
packing, Miss Jessel appeared for the second time. The
governess decided it was time to take control of the
situation. She wrote a letter to the Uncle and left it on
the table to be delivered.
One rainy day, Flora was not to be found in the house. The
governess searched outside for her only to find Flora on
the other side of the lake. The governess questioned the
child as to the whereabouts of Miss Jessel and the young
girl became horrified and screamed " I don't know what you
mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think
you're cruel. I don't like you!"( James 73 ). The governess
returned to the house to learn that Flora was extremely
sick and delusional which made Mrs. Grose conclude that the
ghost really existed. Flora was taken away in order that
Miles would have a chance survive.
At dinner of that night, Miles admitted that he had stolen
the letter that the governess had left for his Uncle. Peter
Quint appeared in the window and the governess covered
Miles' eyes. The boy asked if Miss Jessel was there but
received no reply. The governess attempted to force the boy
to say "Peter Quint" and he said "Peter Quint you devil"
and died in the governess's hands. The governess says " we
were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart,
dispossessed had stopped ( James 88 ).
As one can see, this story can have numerous
interpretations. James states in his preface that the story
is a fiction that involves a ghost who really takes over
the minds of the two little children. Critics in fact
disagree with Jones himself and state that Jones didn't
know exactly what kind of work he wrote, or thought he
The critics' opinion that I will discuss are those of
Edmund Wilson who says the governess is sexually frustrated
and everything that she sees is because of this fact.
Charles G. Hoffman, who says that the ghost really
appeared, is the opinion that I first felt after reading
the novel. The critic Leon Edel says this was all because
the governess had a fear of working since this was her
Upon reading this novel, I thought of the book as fiction
that involved real ghosts. In the story the children are
found to be playing games outside in the middle of the
night. In my opinion, the children were possessed by the
ghosts, therefore they were being forced to play outside in
the middle of the night. The fact that Miles got in so much
trouble in school relates to the ghosts . I think the
governess was able to describe the ghost with such detail
because she in fact saw the ghost with her own eyes. In the
end when Miles dies, it is because the ghost possessed him
and killed him.
Charles G. Hoffman saw the same basic ideas as I did but
imbued more details in his essay. Hoffman's first proof
that this would be a real ghost story is that Jones usually
deals with the problems of social conflict and therefore in
this novel Jones is concerned with the existence of the
devil. Hoffman sees nothing wrong with the governess being
turned on by the Uncle whereas, Edmund Wilson does. Hoffman
says Mrs. Grose plays a major role in the novel. He says
she is a realistic member of the actual world. Mrs. Grose
believes in ghosts but she never actually sees the ghosts.
She is the one who recognizes the first ghost as Peter
Quint. He says that the ghosts really appear and uses Jones
as proof of it.
In Jones' preface, the ghosts of Quint and Jessel aren't
ghost in white sheets and chains but demons. They embody
evil who can cause an atmosphere of evil. Jones
concentrated on the effect of the ghosts on the characters
in the novel. This is Jones' success in the work. Hoffman
then shows that the involvement of the children delineates
the nonsense of the " evil" theme. The children are not
really involved in the story at first.
Through images, beauty and light for innocence, ugliness
and darkness for evil, Jones presents contrasts. Miles is
beautiful and brilliant, totally opposite to the dusk that
surrounds him. But there is some darkness in Miles, for
example in the questions that he raises. The same contrast
exists within Flora. The governess receives a psychological
shock when she sees the transformation from light and
innocence to darkness and evil in Flora after the last
appearance of Miss Jessel. At that point Miss Jessel has
won and Flora has turned to evil ( Hoffman 20-22).
The governess then attempts to save Miles. Miles confesses
in order to be saved. One can see that even though he is
beautiful and innocent there is a little evil in him shown
by the dismissal from school for bad behavior. Flora is
finally lost because the governess forces her evil to be
revealed . In the case of Miles it is his confession that
he stole the letter from his Uncle which causes Quint to
Miles accepts that the ghost exists.. At that point, Miles
confessed and Quint has lost; The governess has succeeded
in saving Miles.. But the recognition of the evil causes
Miles to die ( Hoffman 23 ).
The final problem of whether good and evil exist outside
the person is never answered in the story. It is left
ambiguous. Evil can exist along side good according to the
story ( Hoffman 23 ).
On the other hand, Edward Wilson totally disagrees with
this. Wilson, a famous critic, says that the governess who
is telling the story is suffering from a neurotic case of
sexual repression and that the ghosts do not really exist
but are simply hallucinations she suffers. He follows the
story very carefully from the beginning and points out that
the governess looks for work and becomes completely
infatuated with the Uncle. After she receives a letter from
the Uncle, she is constantly thinking about him. At this
point, when she see Peter Quint, she convinces herself that
he has come to haunt the children ( Wilson 211). Wilson
says that there in no evidence that anyone else saw the
ghosts except for the governess. The children become
hysterical when the governess tries to force them to see
the ghosts. Wilson is positive that there is a Freudian
significance to the governess seeing a ghost while the
little girl Flora is fitting a stick of wood into another
piece of wood with a hole in it. Wilson says that the
governess was able to describe the ghosts so well without
really seeing them, because she spoke to the townspeople.
He says that there is no evidence that he spoke to them.
This is also how she found out how Quint died. Wilson also
states that Miles died because the governess scared the boy
to death by trying to force the child to see the ghost (
Leon Edel also says the same basic ideas as Edmond Wilson.
He says that the governess was hallucinating and the ghosts
really didn't exist. Though Edel says that this was caused
because the governess had a fear of taking on a
responsibility for caring for young children. The
tremendous fear caused the ghost to appear to her. Wilson
reviews the confrontations with the ghosts. He examines in
particular the ending of the story. Wilson concurs with
Edel. They agree that the governess frightened them into
believing that the ghosts were there because she kept that
she saw them. She thought that if she saw them, then
everyone should have been able to ( Edel 425 ).
Wilson says that this is the only way to read the story. If
we look at the governess, who was the daughter of a poor
parson, we can begin to understand her sexual impulses and
the need she had to repress them because of her upbringing.
As one can see there are many different ways of
interpreting this novel. The book was written with such
ambiguity that any one person can interpret the story the
way he/she feels is right. After reading all the various
interpretations it is understandable how all the critics
came to their conclusions.
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