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 wrote.
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 first job.
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 appear.
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 ( Wilson 212-213).
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.