The Turn of the Screw * Henry James

After watching The Haunting Of Bly Manor (Netflix, 2020), I decided to finally read the Turn of the Screw on which the “splendid” show was based on.

Written in 1898, the story follows a governess as she moves to an old mansion to care for two children and becomes convinced the place is haunted.

There was an alien object in view—a figure whose right of presence I instantly, passionately questioned. I recollect counting over perfectly the possibilities, reminding myself that nothing was more natural, for instance, then the appearance of one of the men about the place, or even of a messenger, a postman, or a tradesman’s boy, from the village. That reminder had as little effect on my practical certitude as I was conscious—still even without looking—of its having upon the character and attitude of our visitor. Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things that they absolutely were not.

I loved the horror tension building up as well as the sexual undercurrent between the young nanny and her employer. In 1934, literary critic Edmund Wilson thought that the ghosts were hallucinations of the governess, who he suggested was sexually repressed.

[…] evidence—of our employer’s late clever, good-looking “own” man; impudent, assured, spoiled, depraved. “The fellow was a hound.”

“I’ve never seen one like him. He did what he wished.”

“With HER?”

“With them all.”

A book-length close reading of the text was produced in 1965 using Wilson’s Freudian analysis as a foundation; it characterised the governess as increasingly mad and hysterical. Leon Edel, James’ most influential biographer, wrote that it is not the ghosts who haunt the children, but the governess herself.

The Story

I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong. After rising, in town, to meet his appeal, I had at all events a couple of very bad days—found myself doubtful again, felt indeed sure I had made a mistake.

An anonymous narrator recalls a Christmas Eve gathering at an old house, where guests listen to one another’s ghost stories. A guest named Douglas introduces a story that involves two children—Flora and Miles—and his sister’s governess, with whom he was in love. After procuring the governess’s written record of events from his home, he provides a few introductory details. A handsome bachelor persuaded the governess to take a position as governess for his niece and nephew in an isolated country home after the previous governess died. Douglas begins to read from the written record, and the story shifts to the governess’s point of view as she narrates her strange experience.

The governess begins her story with her first day at Bly, the country home, where she meets Flora and a maid named Mrs. Grose. As she tours the house guided by the young girl, we get a glimpse at the Gothic setting and the atmosphere sets in.

Young as she was, I was struck, throughout our little tour, with her confidence and courage with the way, in empty chambers and dull corridors, on crooked staircases that made me pause and even on the summit of an old machicolated square tower that made me dizzy, her morning music, her disposition to tell me so many more things than she asked, rang out and led me on. I have not seen Bly since the day I left it, and I daresay that to my older and more informed eyes it would now appear sufficiently contracted. But as my little conductress, with her hair of gold and her frock of blue, danced before me round corners and pattered down passages, I had the view of a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all color out of storybooks and fairytales. Wasn’t it just a storybook over which I had fallen adoze and adream? No; 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!

The governess is nervous but feels relieved by Flora’s beauty and charm. The next day she receives a letter from her employer, which contains a letter from Miles’s headmaster saying that Miles cannot return to school. The letter does not specify what Miles has done to deserve expulsion, and, alarmed, the governess questions Mrs. Grose about it. Mrs. Grose admits that Miles has on occasion been bad, but only in the ways boys ought to be. The governess is reassured as she drives to meet Miles.

One evening, as the governess strolls around the grounds, she sees a strange man in a tower of the house and exchanges an intense stare with him.

Was there a “secret” at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement? I can’t say how long I turned it over, or how long, in a confusion of curiosity and dread, I remained where I had had my collision; I only recall that when I re-entered the house darkness had quite closed in.

She says nothing to Mrs. Grose. Later, she catches the same man glaring into the dining-room window, and she rushes outside to investigate. The man is gone, and the governess looks into the window from outside. Her image in the window frightens Mrs. Grose, who has just walked into the room. The governess discusses her two experiences with Mrs. Grose, who identifies the strange man as Peter Quint, a former valet who is now dead.

Convinced that the ghost seeks Miles, the governess becomes rigid in her supervision of the children. One day, when the governess is at the lake with Flora, she sees a woman dressed in black and senses that the woman is Miss Jessel, her dead predecessor. The governess is certain Flora was aware of the ghost’s presence but intentionally kept quiet. The governess again questions Mrs. Grose about Miles’s misbehavior. Mrs. Grose reveals that Quint had been “too free” with Miles, and Miss Jessel with Flora. The governess is on her guard, but the days pass without incident, and Miles and Flora express increased affection for the governess.

The lull is broken one evening when something startles the governess from her reading. She rises to investigate, moving to the landing above the staircase. There, a gust of wind extinguishes her candle, and she sees Quint halfway up the stairs. She refuses to back down, exchanging another intense stare with Quint until he vanishes. Back in her room, the governess finds Flora’s bed curtains pulled forward, but Flora herself is missing. Noticing movement under the window blind, the governess watches as Flora emerges from behind it. The governess questions Flora about what she’s been doing, but Flora’s explanation is unrevealing.

The governess does not sleep well during the next few nights. One night, she sees the ghost of Miss Jessel sitting on the bottom stair, her head in her hands. Later, when the governess finally allows herself to go to sleep at her regular hour, she is awoken after midnight to find her candle extinguished and Flora by the window. Careful not to disturb Flora, the governess leaves the room to find a window downstairs that overlooks the same view. Looking out, she sees the faraway figure of Miles on the lawn.

What it was most impossible to get rid of was the cruel idea that, whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw MORE—things terrible and unguessable and that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past. Such things naturally left on the surface, for the time, a chill which we vociferously denied that we felt; and we had, all three, with repetition, got into such splendid training that we went, each time, almost automatically, to mark the close of the incident, through the very same movements. It was striking of the children, at all events, to kiss me inveterately with a kind of wild irrelevance and never to fail—one or the other—of the precious question that had helped us through many a peril.

Later, the governess discusses with Mrs. Grose her conversation with Miles, who claimed that he wanted to show the governess that he could be “bad.” The governess concludes that Flora and Miles frequently meet with Miss Jessel and Quint.

Miss Jessel stood before us on the opposite bank exactly as she had stood the other time, and I remember, strangely, as the first feeling now produced in me, my thrill of joy at having brought on a proof. She was there, and I was justified; she was there, and I was neither cruel nor mad. She was there for poor scared Mrs. Grose, but she was there most for Flora; and no moment of my monstrous time was perhaps so extraordinary as that in which I consciously threw out to her—with the sense that, pale and ravenous demon as she was, she would catch and understand it—an inarticulate message of gratitude.

At this, Mrs. Grose urges the governess to appeal to her employer, but the governess refuses, reminding her colleague that the children’s uncle does not want to be bothered. She threatens to leave if Mrs. Grose writes to him. On the walk to church one Sunday, Miles broaches the topic of school to the governess. He says he wants to go back and declares he will make his uncle come to Bly. The governess, shaken, does not go into church. Instead, she returns to the house and plots her departure. She sits on the bottom stair but springs up when she remembers seeing Miss Jessel there. She enters the schoolroom and finds Miss Jessel sitting at the table. She screams at the ghost, and the ghost vanishes. The governess decides she will stay at Bly. Mrs. Grose and the children return, saying nothing about the governess’s absence at church. The governess agrees to write to her employer.

That evening, the governess listens outside Miles’s door. He invites her in, and she questions him. She embraces him impulsively. The candle goes out, and Miles shrieks. The next day Miles plays the piano for the governess. She suddenly realizes she doesn’t know where Flora is. She and Mrs. Grose find Flora by the lake. There, the governess sees an apparition of Miss Jessel. She points it out to Flora and Mrs. Grose, but both claim not to see it. Flora says that the governess is cruel and that she wants to get away from her, and the governess collapses on the ground in hysterics. The next day, Mrs. Grose informs the governess that Flora is sick. They decide Mrs. Grose will take Flora to the children’s uncle while the governess stays at Bly with Miles. Mrs. Grose informs the governess that Luke didn’t send the letter she wrote to her employer, because he couldn’t find it.

With Flora and Mrs. Grose gone, Miles and the governess talk after dinner. The governess asks if he took her letter. He confesses, and the governess sees Quint outside. She watches Quint in horror, then points him out to Miles, who asks if it is Peter Quint and looks out the window in vain. He cries out, then falls into the governess’s arms, dead.

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him.
“Whom do you mean by ‘he’?”
“Peter Quint—you devil!”

This quotation appears in Chapter XXIV as the governess points out her vision of Quint to Miles and gives the narrative one final, infuriating layer of ambiguity. The governess is determined to wrench a confession from Miles, convinced that doing so will rid him of the demon Quint, and she turns to terrifying “ice” to get it out of him. Whether she succeeds is never clear, and Miles’s response remains open to interpretation. If Miles is referring to Peter Quint as the devil, then Miles’s subsequent death may imply that he is being dispossessed by the evil demon. If Miles is referring to the governess as the devil, then his subsequent death may be a result of the governess’s terrifying insanity. Miles seems to be indicating the novella’s true villain—but exactly whom he points out is ambiguous.

The governess’s determination to challenge Miles turns her into a frightening, aggressive woman. Her aggression may be justified, since she may have a possessed, cunning little boy on her hands. If this is the case, her methods can be deemed heroic and in a certain sense successful, since although Miles dies, he is rid of his demon. However, if the governess accuses Miles because of her own irrational logic, her challenging him is all the more frightening because he cannot make an acceptable defense. Reason cannot fend off insanity. The governess’s description of herself as determined, frigid, and cold suggests she realizes in retrospect that she may have misjudged the situation, but again, the situation is unclear. Two paragraphs later, the story abruptly ends.

One of the most challenging features of The Turn of the Screw is how frequently characters make indirect hints or use vague language rather than communicate directly and clearly. The headmaster expels Miles from school and refuses to specify why. The governess has several guesses about what he might have done, but she just says he might be “corrupting” the others, which is almost as uninformative as the original letter. The governess fears that the children understand the nature of Quint and Jessel’s relationship, but the nature of that relationship is never stated explicitly. The governess suspects that the ghosts are influencing the children in ways having to do with their relationship in the past, but she isn’t explicit about how exactly they are being influenced. This excessive reticence on the part of the characters could reflect James’s own reticence (which was marked), or it could be interpreted as a satiric reflection on Victorian reticence about sex. More straightforwardly, it could be a technique for engaging the imagination to produce a more terrifying effect.

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