Who doesn’t enjoy a good ghost story? Whether it’s for the adrenaline rush we experience while reading or listening to scary stories or the curiosity to delve into an unknown and less orderly universe from our own, the human mind has always been intrigued by the otherworldly. And there’s something fascinating about this fascination itself with the world of apparitions. While browsing through the bookshelves at home, I came across The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ gothic novella belonging to my daughter who had read it for her high school English class. It’s a sinister and chilling ghost story if you could call it one at all. For some critics have even questioned if it really is a ghost story. You won’t find bloodshed or gore or dismembered limbs but it is still gruesome and a spine-tingling horror of a different kind.
Before you rush to get hold of the book, I have to warn you that the writing style is ornate to the point of being ponderous. I am an avid reader familiar with different styles of writing and have read many classics including books written in old English. I love flowery writing (when each word is a flower and all the words are strung together neatly like a garland- you get the picture…) but when the writing is in a rococo style with run-on sentences as long as paragraphs, it makes for a very frustrating read. With all due respect, the author of The Turn of the Screw could have had a better turn of phrase. The maze-like prose made me feel distanced from the characters and robbed me of the fun of reading as I spent too much time trying to make sense of the sentence structure. Besides, it’s a story embedded within a story within another story. An unnamed narrator is narrating a story someone called Douglas read from a manuscript written by someone else. The mise en abyme technique adds to the complexity. But I persisted in spite of the labyrinthine prose and I am glad I did as this story with its ambiguity and potential for layers of interpretation offers a lot of fodder for psychological analysis.
It’s Christmastide and as per the tradition ghost stories are being recounted around a fire to a rapt audience. Someone has finished narrating a ghost story about a child and a man named Douglas says he can top that story with another turn of the screw by narrating a horrific story involving not just one child but two children. He reads out a letter penned by a young governess who was once his sister’s caretaker and whom he liked immensely and who, he claims, liked him too. The story shifts to the point of view of the governess.
The unnamed governess is hired in a remote country estate in Bly to take care of two recently orphaned children who after the death of their parents are under the guardianship of their uncle. The uncle who lives in London is happy to wash his hands of his nephew and niece and explicitly tells the governess not to contact him under any circumstance. She is smitten by the man and agrees to his strange request. Both Miles and Flora are extremely beautiful, angelic and well -mannered children and the
governess is enamored by them. They are so exceedingly good and gifted that you can sense something uncanny in the perfection. We eventually learn that the boy has been expelled from his boarding school for “wicked behavior” although it’s not clear what the behavior entailed. The governess starts seeing phantoms prowling on the property. Through the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, she learns that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, drowned herself when she became pregnant by the valet, Peter Quint. The governess gradually believes that the ghosts of these two former employees are attempting to claim her charges. She starts sensing their presence everywhere and she even believes they are communicating with the children. She thinks that these ghosts of the depraved servants are out to harm the children and that she needs to protect them. Later she starts imagining that the children are complicit with the ghosts and not as innocent as she believed them to be as they don’t appear to be the least bit terrified of them. She gets increasingly obsessed and paranoid and the story ends on a shocking note.
The rest of the article contains SPOILERS.
Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse
It is through the governess’ perspective that we see everything. Many questions arise in the mind of the reader.
Are the ghosts real? Is she really perturbed by what’s happening to the children? Is she a victim of the ghosts along with the children?
Why is she the only one to see ghosts? Are they figments of her imagination? Is her mind playing tricks with her?
If they are no ghosts, is she hallucinating? Is she becoming insane? Does she suffer, in her isolation and loneliness, from a deep neurosis or sexual hysteria brought on by a desire for her employer? Are Quint and Jesel projections of the repressed aspects of her own psyche that she finds loathsome? ( A Freudian interpretation of the tale was first posited by Edmund Wilson in his 1938 essay, The Ambiguity of Henry James “ a neurotic case of sex repression”).
Why was Miles expelled from school? Was it for homosexual talk or behavior? Is he precocious because he was abused at home by Peter Quint?
Were one or both the children sexually molested by one or both the servants?
Are they sexually abused by the governess?
What role does the housekeeper Mrs. Grose play in the plot? Is she genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the governess or is she manipulating her?
Did the governess commit a crime and get away with it? We know that she subsequently is gainfully employed based on what Douglas tells us in the prelude to the story.
I read the story before reading any of the critical theories put forth (and there are many- Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Feminist, Modernist, Queer, the list could go on) to come to my own conclusions. I am inclined to believe that the story is an indictment of, or at the least, a commentary on the moralistic and sexually repressed Victorian society of the time. I picked up on many insinuations of sexually inappropriate talk or behavior while I read the story. The theory that the governess may be unconsciously projecting her
own undesirable thoughts upon these ghosts could seem a little far-fetched but we can’t deny that she seems to identify with them. One night she sees the ghost of Miss Jesel sitting on the bottom of the staircase with her head hidden in her hands. Later she is startled when she catches herself sitting in the same place and position. You wonder if she is falling in love with a boy much younger than she is. Miles seems to be seducing the governess at times and she is not immune to his charms. She does not want him to return to school or leave Bly. She may even harbor unsavory feelings towards him as suggested by some passages in the story:
We continued silent while the maid was with us-as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. “Well- so we’re alone!”
But since nothing is stated explicitly it is left to the readers to make what they will of the narrative. Moreover the governess is an unreliable narrator and you have to wonder how neutral Douglas himself is in reading out her story when he once was besotted with her.
The beauty of the text lies in the ambiguity. There are a lot of loose ends and Henry James has deliberately left lacunae for the readers to fill. In the preface to the story, he says that the reader’s “own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.” This disquieting story with its understated horror leaves a shudder down the spine as much as or even more than any blood-curdling ghost story as it involves innocent children. Our governess and her intentions have been dissected so much that she herself has become a ghost who continues to haunt the readers through the ages. And if there’s one sobering lesson I have learned from this disturbing story, it is this: NEVER leave children alone with anyone.