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Coming to grips with Henry James'
The Turn of the Screw
— A critical essay


I. Evolution of The Turn of the Screw

Henry James was himself a respected literary critic. In a comment on our author's efforts in this field, the biographer Leon Edel, writing in his book entitled Henry James, says James believed ". . . that the artist is to be discovered in his work; but that the work must be created as an 'invulnerable granite' to the seeker" (EDEL p.38). It is with this natural guardedness in mind that one is inclined to view with some scepticism James's apparent willingness to disclose the inspirational source of The Turn of the Screw.

The author would have us believe that the basic elements of the plot had been adapted from a ghost story related to him by Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, who had entertained him on the evening of January 10, 1895. Acknowledgement of the strange tale and its source first appears in the form of a notebook entry supposedly written just two days later (The Notebooks of Henry James were first published in 1947, and the entry in question was reproduced on pages 106–107 of the 1966 Norton Critical Edition of The Turn of the Screw, henceforth referred to as TSNC).


Henry James and the Archbishop of Canterbury


If the date is genuine, the memorandum provides some three whole years in advance a fairly reasonable outline of the queer testimony James expected us to believe. As soon as serialization of the story had begun in the spring of 1898, James wrote to his friend and fellow writer Arthur Benson (see TSNC pp.107–108) to personally inform him of his indebtedness to the man's father, the now late archbishop. In this letter, also cited in a 1941 essay by Robert Lee Wolff entitled "The Genesis of 'The Turn of the Screw'" (see TSNC pp.127–128), James refers to his old notebook entry as being "of a most scrappy kind". As I have already indicated, this is hardly the case at all, but it does serve to illustrate how the author was prepared to exaggerate.

Further doubt about his true intentions is aroused by the fact that, in letters to certain other literary friends, he seemingly went out of his way to belittle the story's value. He told W.D. Howells, the editor who had asked him for a ghost story,  that it was a "down-on-all-fours pot-boiler" (EDEL p.29). To H.G. Wells he wrote: " . . . the thing is essentially a pot-boiler and a jeu d'esprit" (TSNC p.111); and to the poet F.W.H. Myers he declared: "The T. of the S. is a very mechanical matter, I honestly think — an inferior, a merely pictorial subject and rather a shameless pot-boiler" (TSNC p.112).

That James should wish to attribute such a horrifying tale to the Primate of all England is unquestionably somewhat bizarre, and it is to be lamented that Archbishop Benson himself never had the chance to verify James's assertion, for not a single member of his family, otherwise well versed in the old boy's repertoire, had any recollection of his ever having related anything of the kind (Wolff, TSNC pp.128–129). The possibility that James purposely selected this conveniently unverifiable source, and that the notebook entry was used as a piece of "invulnerable granite" to protect the nucleus of his story cannot be altogether ruled out.

I think we may safely assume that, given his considerable status and wide circle of celebrated literary friends, he calculated that at least part of his vast production of private notes and letters would one day end up in the hands of his critics. Indeed, this very theme of prying critics and the invasion of privacy in the modern age had already been explored by the author in The Aspern Papers, published in 1888. As Edel points out, "between the lines of The Aspern Papers James is saying that an artist's life should be preserved from prying hands, that he should be read in his work alone" (EDEL p.27). Bearing in mind that he had been through a rather disappointing decade prior to the publication of The Turn of the Screw, one of continual self-renewal and enforced experimentation, James would in all likelihood have had good reason to try and outwit his harshest critics at this particular point in time.

If we do in fact decide that the role of the archbishop in the evolution of this story has been exaggerated, a number of possible alternative inspirational sources are worthy of our consideration. Let us begin with the Lamb House, Ryesetting, an old house. It so happens that in September 1897, just as he was embarking upon his story, the author decided to withdraw from London and take on the twenty-one year lease of an old Georgian mansion called Lamb House in the idyllic little Sussex town of Rye. As Tony Tanner notes in his book Henry James: II, this must have been quite a challenge to him, perhaps even disturbing, for he had never before lived in a house of his own (TANN p. 47). It is understandable that he should wish to put the governess, the main character in his new story, in rather similar circumstances. Quite apart from their moving into old houses, however, James and his governess were further united in the sense that both were victims of an indifferent world; James yearned for the recognition of his readership and theatre audiences (EDEL p. 28), and the governess for the romantic recognition of her employer.

Wolff suggests that another impulse for the setting of the story could have come from a drawing entitled "The Haunted House" by T. Griffiths:

". . . it depicts two children, a boy and a girl, looking in terror across a lake at a house with a tower. From one window of the house there shines a ghostly light, which is reflected in the water; the children are standing under a great tree, and the shrubbery around the lake is very thick" (TSNC p.130).

The picture was included in the 1891 Christmas issue of a London weekly called Black and White. Since this particular issue of the magazine also contains a first publication of Henry James's story Sir Edmund Orme, Wolff concludes that the author could not have failed to see the illustration. As further evidence in support of his theory, Wolff then proceeds to quote from James's letter to F.W.H. Myers (cited at the beginning of this essay) in which The Turn of the Screw is referred to as ". . . an inferior, a merely pictorial subject . . ." (TSNC p.131).

Moving away from the setting of the story, several noteworthy theories have also been expounded on where James could have gained the idea for the plot without the help of the archbishop. Edel mentions the fact that "his father spoke of him as a 'devourer of libraries' . . . " (EDEL p.10). The idea that The Turn of the Screw might have been adapted from an already existing work of literature is subscribed to by Miriam Allot in an essay from 1961. She claims to have found some striking parallels between James's spine­chiller and an 1852 Christmas tale by Mrs Gaskell entitled The Old Nurse's Story. Of even greater interest here is the circumstance that back in 1850 Charlotte Brontë had presented this Mrs Gaskell with a copy of her late sister Emily's novel Wuthering Heights, a book which contains a number of the basic ingredients employed by James; there is the child element, the concept of a struggle between good and evil, and more especially, in chapter three of the novel, the ghostly window scene. In Mrs Gaskell's story, the "old nurse" Hester tries to protect the little orphan-girl Rosamund from evil spirits in a haunted old house in Cumberland. There is the ghostly window scene which James in his turn was to adopt for Quint's second appearance, and in the final showdown Hester has to struggle with the demon to save little Rosamund, just as James forty-five years later appears to make his governess fight for Miles. Allot also observes that "Rosamund calls Hester 'wicked' for detaining her, as Miles calls his governess 'you devil' for her power over him and Quint" (TSNC pp.142–145).

Perhaps James was not so much interested in being entirely original as in finding a suitable dressing for a subtle psychological study. If this was the case, then there is little doubt that he received ample food for thought from publications of the Society for Psychical Research, of which F.W.H. Myers had been one of the founders and his own brother, William, was president from 1894 until 1896. This aspect has been explored by Francis X. Roellinger in his 1949 essay "Psychical Research and The Turn of the Screw" (TSNC pp.134–135). The James brothers' interest in these matters might well have been stimulated by the fact that their sister Alice had had a long history of mental illness. In his long essay "The Turn of the Screw and Alice James" published in 1963, Oscar Cargill develops the hypothesis that Henry James was actually trying to convey something of this personal tragedy in the safe obscurity of a ghost story (TSNC pp.145–165).

Whatever the true "embryo" of The Turn of the Screw, and however long time had elapsed since its conception, James was apparently too ill at the "birth" of his story to put his own words down on paper. According to William Lyon Phelps, referring to a conversation he had had with the author in an essay entitled "Henry James" from 1916, the author enlisted the services of a Scottish stenographer, not only to take down the story but also to provide him with some sample reader-reaction. On this latter score it seems as if James was disappointed:

"Judge of my dismay when from first to last page this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling! I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry and whenever I paused to see him collapse, he would enquire in a dry voice, 'What next?'" (TSNC p.178)
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II. One story — four different readings

When the unsuspecting reader picks up this scary yuletide tale for the first time, he braces himself for a few hours of spine-chilling entertainment, something not to be taken too seriously; after all, a ghost story is a ghost story. Right from the start the atmosphere is right: the silhouetted figure of the late Douglas is standing before a blazing fire in an old house on Christmas Eve, long before the days of television, holding the rest of the gathering spellbound with the promise of a ghost story still more horrifying than the last. The tension is heightened still further when Douglas, upon being asked if the experience had been his own, promptly replies: "Oh, thank God, no!" (TSNC p.2). The tale to be told has been locked away for years and has to be sent for from town — the postmen apparently working as usual over the Christmas holiday! It is the beautifully written testimony of a governess Douglas' sister once had, a woman whom he had known and liked "extremely" for some twenty years before she died two decades ago. We learn that "she was a most charming person . . . the most agreeable woman . . . worthy of any whatever" (TSNC p.2).

Deeply impressed by this excellent character reference, the reader has little or no reason to doubt the story which she has gone to the trouble of putting down on paper for posterity, the very act of which seems to free her from any suspicion and wins her our sympathy. As if this were not enough, she is the daughter of a Hampshire vicar and has been brought up in the Christian faith. So in the first few pages of The Turn of the Screw James succeeds in putting us completely off our guard; we have been brilliantly programmed to receive the tale to come as a ghost story pure and simple.

At the age of twenty our "heroine" takes on her ill-fated assignment. She is to act as governess to the niece and nephew of a handsome and wealthy young gentleman at his old family home in the wilds of Essex called Bly (since the days of Captain Bligh and the mutiny on the Bounty that name has connoted harshness). Because she is bowled over by the man and envisages a closer relationship with him at some future date, she is even willing to accept his utterly unreasonable terms of employment: He, the children's legal guardian, is not to be disturbed on any account whatsoever. When she meets them she is equally impressed by the two children: Flora, aged eight, and Miles, aged ten. In fact, as Robert Heilman displays in his 1948 essay "'The Turn of the Screw' as Poem", she sees in them absolute paragons of beauty and innocence (TSNC pp.217). It is when ghosts start appearing to her while she is in their presence that she begins to see them in a different light. The housekeeper, Mrs Grose, seems to be able to identify the apparitions the governess describes as the master's former servant, Peter Quint, and his former governess, Miss Jessel. Both have died in obscure circumstances, and during their period of service they are understood to have had an illicit love affair together and a generally corrupting influence on the children. The governess has the firm conviction that their spirits have now returned to lure the little ones away from her, and that she must prevent this from happening at all costs.

A prolonged struggle between what the governess sees as the forces of good and evil culminates in Mrs Grose taking Flora away to her uncle, whether he likes it or not. The housekeeper and the little girl are in a state of utter despair, which the governess attributes to the ghosts. She herself stays behind with Miles, who she hopes is about to finally confess his and Flora's courtship with the evil spirits. Quint appears at the window and Miles cries: "Peter Quint — you devil!". Thinking that the boy has at last capitulated, the governess remarks: "There are in my ears still, his supreme surrender of the name and his tribute to my devotion." This is supposedly the moment of dispossession, but little Miles fails to survive it: "We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped" (TSNC p.88).

Heilman reads The Turn of the Screw not merely as a ghost story but also as a poem, in which he attempts to establish the existence of a wealth of religious symbolism:

"These dramatic circumstances have a symbolic import . . . the ghosts are evil, evil which comes subtly conquering before it is wholly seen; the governess, Cassandra-like in the intuitions which are inaccessible to others, is the guardian whose function it is to detect and attempt to ward off evil; Mrs. Grose . . . is the commonplace mortal, well intentioned, but perceiving only the obvious; the children are the victims of evil, victims who, ironically, practice concealment — who doubtless must conceal when not to conceal is essential to salvation." (TSNC p.215)

He goes on to compare the grounds of Bly with the Garden of Eden, while Miles and Flora, if not quite Adam and Eve, are seen as "the childhood of the race". Indeed, in James's choice of names, which is seldom left to chance, he identifies: "Miles — the soldier, the archetypal male; Flora — the flower, the essential female". On the basis of his appearance, Quint is seen as the serpent, and Heilman quotes from the book: " 'His eyes are sharp, strange — awfully; . . . rather small and very fixed. His mouth's wide, and his lips are thin, . . .' ."  Appropriately, Quint's influence on Miles is described by the governess as "poison",  for example when she says: ". . . whatever I might call the poison of an influence that I dared but half-phrase . . .", and in the final scene, " . . . it now . . . filled the room like the taste of poison,  the wide overwhelming presence" (TSNC pp.63, 33, & 218–221).

This intriguing essay draws our attention to several other circumstances of religious significance. The story itself is being read out during the Christmas season. The second encounter with Quint takes place on a Sunday before church. The governess acts out the role of a priest, full of "pastoral love", but seeking a confession. Her language is often highly biblical (cf. Cargill, TSNC p.165), although this is what one might expect to hear from someone who has grown up in a vicarage (p.226). Finally, Heilman feels we should take note of the slow transition from the summer month of June, so full of life, light and warmth, at the beginning of the story, to the cold, dead dull month of November at its bitter end: " . . . the spring of gay, bright human innocence has given way to the dark autumn — or rather, as we might pun, to the dark fall" (p.219).

Perhaps the most unorthodox interpretation of James's story is the one presented by Eric Solomon in his 1964 essay "The Return of the Screw". Solomon is convinced that the evil in the story does not come from the ghosts, if they exist, but from the housekeeper Mrs Grose (the person whom he believes Sherlock Holmes would immediately identify as "the least obvious suspect"), who is deliberately playing on the governess' imagination. Mrs Grose is accused of the murder of both Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, for which, according to Solomon, love and personal ambition would have been adequate motives. Well rid of the master's former valet and the old governess, she had for a time regained full control of Flora. The arrival of the new governess poses another threat to her prospects of rising above her present station:

"Whether the ghosts exist or not is unimportant. If they don't exist Mrs Grose is using the illusion to destroy the governess; if they do exist, they have come to see Mrs Grose, but that hard case is still capable of handling them, in death as in life, and in using them for her own supreme purpose — to retain little Flora" (TSNC p.242).

Groping after more circumstantial evidence, Solomon continues: "That Mrs Grose is the villain should be obvious from her very omnipresence, an element of the case rarely noticed" (p. 242).  This, I cannot help feeling, is an exaggeration; Mrs Grose is not always there, and in any case a certain mobility is only to be expected of a housekeeper.

At the end of his essay, Solomon is unfortunately guilty of a particularly striking inaccuracy in reference to the fact that, in a final effort to deter Mrs Grose from leaving with Flora,  the governess says: "My letter, giving the alarm, will have reached town before you." Mrs Grose replies: "Your letter won't have got there. Your letter never went" (TSNC pp.78 & 244). Solomon calls this retort a "desperate lie", forgetting entirely that Miles owns up to having stolen the letter during his final interrogation: "Yes — I took it" (p.85).

Strangely enough, the hypothesis that there are no ghosts, that they are merely figments of the governess' imagination, was not put forward in essay form until the early twenties, and yet it represents what is surely the most straightforward and down-to-earth interpretation of all. In her article "Henry James to the Ruminant Reader: The Turn of the Screw", published in 1924, Edna Kenton points out that all traditional thinking on The Turn of the Screw was thus far based solely on the assumption that the governess was absolutely reliable:

"The children hounded by the prowling ghosts — this is . . . the traditional and accepted interpretation of the story as it has come down through a quarter of a century of readers' reactions . . . As a tiny matter of literal fact, no reader has more to go on than the young governess' word for this rather momentous and sidetracking allegation" (TSNC p.210).

Little known to Edna Kenton, a professor of English by the name of Harold C. Goddard had written a much more detailed essay along similar lines a year or two before her, a work which was only published posthumously in 1957. "To Professor Goddard must now go the credit of being the first to expound, if not to publish, a hallucination theory of the story," writes Leon Edel in a prefatory note to the lengthy essay (TSNC p.182). As far as Goddard is concerned, the book speaks for itself: "If on your first reading of The Turn of the Screw the hypothesis did not occur to you that the governess is insane, run through the story again . . . " (p.202).

There would appear to be one major obstacle to this fourth, purely rationalistic interpretation: the governess has allegedly been able to provide Mrs Grose with an accurate enough description of the ghosts for the housekeeper to recognize them.

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III. Drawing the right conclusions

In this third and final section I shall endeavour to establish beyond any reasonable doubt which of the four readings presented finds most credence.

When The Turn of the Screw first appeared in book form in 1898, it was as the first story in a duplex volume entitled The Two Magics (TANN p.47). It would seem that by marketing the work as a tale of the supernatural, and by actively playing down its wider significance, James succeeded in delaying any more penetrating appraisal of the "down-on-all-fours pot-boiler" until after his death. One wonders if that is what he really wanted when he decided to tease his critics in the first place. In his Preface to the New York Edition of his works, published in 1908, a certain impatience can be discerned. He starts off by breezily reassuring us that "the exhibition involved is . . . a fairy-tale pure and simple" (TSNC p.119), but then, as if restlessly wishing to give his readership a slight prod, he goes on to disclose that ". . . it is a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the "fun" of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small), the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious" (TSNC p.120). Now we know how the author viewed a lot of his critics! In a further comment on the task of his reader in general, James says: "Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications" (TSNC p.123). By now the author thought he must have got the message across: The Turn of the Screw is more than just a ghost story.

The second of our four interpretations, Robert Heilman's vision of the story as an attempt by James to rewrite the Book of Genesis, and his presentation of the governess as a saviour, must, however, be met with some considerable scepticism. There is simply no evidence of James having been a profoundly religious man and as I am shortly to demonstrate, the governess is in no way the angel she is made out to be.

Mrs Grose, being unable to read or write, must have had little or no difficulty in reconciling herself with the fact that she did not have the makings of a governess. The very idea that this rather stupid and superstitious, but at the same time quite inoffensive woman, could go around exterminating fellow employees with impunity, is so utterly preposterous that I feel we can also dismiss Eric Solomon's reading of the story.

This means that we are left with the hallucination theory, which, after all due consideration, is the one best supported by the text and even by Henry James himself. In a letter to F.W.H. Myers in December 1898, the author explained:

"The thing that, as I recall it, I most wanted not to fail of doing, under penalty of extreme platitude, was to give the impression of the communication to the children of the most infernal imaginable evil and danger —the condition, on their part, of being as exposed as we can humanly conceive children to be" (TSNC p.112).

His horrifying aim is achieved by committing two perfectly happy, healthy and innocent children to the custody of an immature woman of unsound mind and for an indefinite period. Such a state of affairs is only conceivable in exceptional, almost unheard of circumstances and James is quick to provide them.

Having already praised the governess to high heaven (TSNC p.2), Douglas proceeds to do the same with the mysterious man who is legal guardian to the children: "He was handsome and bold and pleasant, off-hand and gay and kind" (p.4). And on the next page we are told:

". . . he immensely pitied the poor chicks and had done all he could; had in particular sent them down to his other house, the proper place for them being of course the country, and kept them there from the first with the best people he could find to look after them, parting even with his own servants to wait on them and going down himself, whenever he might, to see how they were doing" (p.5).

It is difficult to grasp the fact that this is the same man who is reduced to an unfeeling, invisible hand in the story itself. For some inexplicable reason he is suddenly prepared to shed all responsibility for these previously so cherished cherubs, and not to a relative or close friend but to an inexperienced girl, just out of her teens, about whom he knows next to nothing. "She was young, untried, nervous. . . ," but because "the salary offered much exceeded her modest measure. . .she engaged" (p.6). What she wants more than anything, however, is to win the stranger's admiration and affection: ". . . when, for a moment, disburdened, delighted, he held her hand, thanking her for the sacrifice, she already felt rewarded" (p.6).

By now it will have become abundantly clear that the behaviour of these two characters has been skilfully tailored to suit James' need of exceptional circumstances. To make up the formula for the realization of his disastrous story, the author simply added the gross stupidity of Mrs Grose. Of paramount importance, nonetheless, is the state of the governess' mental health. As Cargill points out, instant infatuation can be regarded as a clear sign of abnormality when seen in a Jamesian context, and as if to underline the fact that the governess is sick, her interviews take place in Harley Street, an area of London which is as much associated with doctors and ill health as Fleet Street once was with newspapers (TSNC 158–159).

Although many things might strike them as curious, the first-time reader of The Turn of the Screw has difficulty in detecting all its hidden subtleties. Indeed, a ghost story is probably the last place they would expect to find them. We can see just how well James goes about creating his "invulnerable granite". Right from the start he baffles and befogs; he wants us to put in a lot of work of our own if we are to keep up with him. A case in point is his complicated time-scale:

At time of the events at Bly, the governess is 20 and Douglas is only 10. 10 years pass 20-year-old Douglas meets the governess, now 30. 20 years pass Douglas receives the manuscript from the governess before she dies. 20 years pass Douglas reads out the story to the first narrator ?? years pass Douglas is dead and the manuscript is with the first narrator, who puts down the whole tale and its revelation in book form.


Let us now re-examine the conduct of the governess in some key parts of the story. By making the world about her seem so sinister, James cleverly diverts our attention away from what she herself is up to; we overlook the fact that she is the victim of her own fantasies. The very first thing called into doubt is the character of Mrs Grose, who supposedly makes an effort to hide her pleasure at seeing the governess (TSNC p.7). We are now prepared to watch the housekeeper's every move and it does not take long for her to make her next slip: She drifts into the past tense, supposedly in reference to the living master of Bly (p.12). Subconsciously, the governess realizes that Mrs Grose has inadvertently alluded to a former male servant who liked his women "young and pretty". In this one short scene, almost unnoticed by the reader, the governess has been provided with all the details she needs to create the phantoms in her mind. In the very next chapter they can begin to put in an appearance.

The passing on to her of the unopened letter from Miles' school signifies the master's total indifference towards her. Feeling that the only way to gain the kind of recognition she yearns for would be through some great deed of heroism, she sets the stage for her psychological struggle with the evil spirits: ". . . I was in these days literally able to find a joy in the extraordinary flight of heroism the occasion demanded of me" (p. 28). According to the late Professor Goddard, Miles' dismissal from school for no specified reason (another evil omen for the reader) is what triggers it all off:

"It is just the touch of objectivity needed to set off the subconsciousness of the governess into an orgy of myth-making. Another woman of a more practical and common sense turn would have made inquiries . . . But it is precisely complication and not explanation that this woman wants — though of course she does not know it" (p.187).

How true! During her employment interviews it has already emerged that Miles is a little under-age for his school and that he was only sent there for a term, presumably in the absence of a governess (p.5). Seeing Peter Quint at the window she could have opened it and shaken hands with him instead of dashing off to take his place. She could certainly have reported the intruder to the police. And at the end of Chapter X, when she sees little Miles staring up from the garden in the middle of the night and concludes: "There was clearly [emphasis mine] another person above me — there was a person on the tower. . . ," the normal reaction would be to pop up and investigate. The governess stays put!

Quite apart from her being incapable of logical thinking, James' "heroine" lies like a trooper. First of all she tells Mrs Grose that Flora has seen Miss Jessel by the lake (p.30). Then she goes on to report that she herself has had a conversation with Miss Jessel (p. 60). But the most significant falsehood of all, decisive for this rationalistic approach to the story, is when she tells the reader she was able to give Mrs Grose an accurate description of each of the persons appearing to her, ". . . a picture disclosing, to the last detail, their special marks a portrait on the exhibition of which she had instantly recognized and named them" (p.34). As Goddard points out, in the case of Miss Jessel "it is the governess herself and not Mrs Grose at all who does the identifying" (pp.31 & 190). In the case of Quint, Mrs Grose ". . . identified him because the suggestion for the identification, just as in the case of Miss Jessel, though much more subtly, comes from the governess herself" (p.190).  The most striking feature in the description of Quint is his supposedly red hair, yet it is as if Mrs Grose is not really listening. Goddard poses the pertinent question:

"Why . . . does her identification rest not at all on the red whiskers or the thin mouth, but, of all things, on the two facts that the stranger wore no hat and that his clothes looked as if they belonged to someone else? As if good ghosts always wore hats and bad ones carried their terrestrial pilferings into eternity!" (p.192).

The Housekeeper is an anxious and superstitious woman who strongly disapproved of the former servants for their loose ways, but her exaggerated respect for those of rank has always prevented her from taking any decisive action. So, as Goddard puts it, ". . . the governess' fears and repressed desires and the housekeeper's memories and anxieties unconsciously collaborate" (p.192) — a state of affairs which persists until Mrs Grose, alarmed at seeing Flora so upset, is finally convinced that the governess is insane.

Having removed the one objection we had to the hallucination theory, let us consider its frightful implications for our understanding of the final scene in the story. Through the late intervention of Mrs Grose, Flora has been taken to safety, but before their departure, in spite of the governess' efforts to prevent an encounter between the two children, Flora has had a chance to inform Miles that their weird governess is now claiming to have seen the ghost of her predecessor. Neither of them has had any knowledge of the hallucinations before. Now the whole household knows: "What had happened naturally caused them all to stare . . . The maids and the men looked blank . . ." (p.79). It is important to realize that Miles has heard about the ghosts if we are to take the words he utters during his final interrogation in their right context.

In that last chapter of The Turn of the Screw, James is more ambiguous than ever (which is a blessing considering that Christmas is supposed to be a time of fun and joy for little children), but the awful truth of the tragic end is that the mad governess in an attack of total delirium, actually takes the life of an innocent ten-year-old. The violent scene begins with her being reduced " . . . to the mere blind movement of getting hold of him, drawing him close . . . ," while she ". . . just fell for support against the nearest piece of furniture . ." (pp.84–85). Already Miles must have been badly shaken up: ". . . I could feel in the sudden fever of his little body the tremendous pulse of his little heart . . . . I kissed his forehead; it was drenched" (pp.85–86). Then she goes on: " . . . yet my hands. . . shook him. . . . He looked in vague pain all round the top of the room and drew his breath, two or three times over, as if with difficulty." Before easing her grip on him she likens the boy to one drowning: "He might have been standing at the bottom of the sea. . . I let him go a little, so that, with a deep-drawn sigh, he turned away from me again . . ." (pp. 86–87).

Then the governess prepares for her final onslaught: "My sternness made him avert himself again — and that movement made me, with a single bound and an irrepressible cry, spring straight upon him" (p.87). The now desperate little boy, calling her a devil, correctly assumes that it is the ghost of Peter Quint she is seeing in the middle of her frenzied attack, since she has just told him it is not the one of Miss Jessel (which Flora had told him about at breakfast). The governess replies: "What does he matter now, my own? — what will he ever matter? I have you. . ." Whereupon she either strangles or frightens poor Miles to death: ". . . I launched at the beast [she thinks she is striking out at Quint] . . . 'There, there! '" Now the governess tells us: ". . . he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day . . . he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss . . ." This cry was arrested by the strangle-hold which she kept up for long enough to suffocate him: ". . . at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held" (p.88). Alas, it was the body of the little boy and not the "beast" in her insane mind.

Coming to grips with The Turn of the Screw is no straightforward matter. Henry James put up quite a smoke-screen, left many a false trail and covered his own tracks well, so that even today his story is a cause of controversy. Although we may have succeeded in cracking open part of James's "invulnerable granite", several questions remain to be answered. Above all, how could the governess possibly have got away with it?

Works cited

Primary source

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Robert Kimbrough.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966.

Secondary sources

Edel, Leon. Henry James. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1960.

Tanner, Tony. Henry James II: 1882-1898. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1979.


Abbreviations used

TSNC = Norton Critical Edition of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

EDEL = Henry James by Leon Edel

TANN = Henry James II: 1882-1898 by Tony Tanner