Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has inspired several movie adaptations and a popular Netflix TV series by Mike Flanagan. Here, the author dives into the novella that oscillates between the supernatural and the psychical.
Who doesn’t love a good old ghost story? Tales filled with macabre and sinister elements that let us project our worst fears and secret anxieties onto them, taking us momentarily away from everyday normality to the realm of the paranormal, giving our imaginative faculties a free hand – horror books have remained timeless classics, and fittingly so. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, however, is a Gothic horror novella from 1898 that goes above and beyond the usual routine of chills and thrills and conjures a tale that leaves readers disturbed over much more than just ghostly apparitions. James was a British-American author whose writing has its roots in the preceding tradition of literary realism while also anticipating the modernist movement that was to flourish fully in the 20th century.
Notably, the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges claimed that despite traversing a wide range of literary works in his life, he has known “no stranger work than that of Henry James”. The Turn of the Screw, in particular, has garnered serious attention from readers and literary critics alike and is known to be perhaps the most closely analyzed ghost story written in English. Aside from featuring (and, to some extent, reinventing) the classical tropes from its genre, the book is famous for its use of ambiguity that leaves the reader undecided regarding the reality of the ghosts in the tale. It is this ambiguity – to which James fully commits both at the level of plot structure and prose style – that ultimately proves to be the most haunting aspect of the book and the reason for its enduring popularity.
Plot Synopsis of The Turn of the Screw
The novella is framed as a story-within-a-story with a Prologue where the narrator, Douglas, reads out a manuscript, sitting around a fire with some friends on Christmas Eve. He reveals that the document was penned by a governess (the protagonist of the main story), who had attended to Douglas’ sister. She gave it to Douglas before she died, and it contains an account of her stay at a manor in Bly, Essex, where she worked as a governess for two kids named Miles and Flora. The unnamed governess was hired by the kids’ uncle, to whom responsibility passed after their parents died during a visit to India. The uncle, who lives in London, gives the governess full responsibility over the kids as he himself takes no interest in their upbringing and makes it clear that he isn’t to be bothered about them.
The 20-year-old governess arrives at Bly with a bundle of anxieties regarding what’s going to be her first job but is soon reassured upon meeting the charming housekeeper, Mr Grose, and the 8-year-old Flora. Miles, a 10-year-old boy, is away at a boarding school but soon returns for the summer with a puzzling letter. The letter states that Miles has been expelled from the school, but it contains no explanation as to the reasons for the expulsion. While the governess is disturbed by the letter, wondering what Miles could possibly have done to warrant such strict measures, she is also hesitant to confront Miles about it and lets it slide.
The days at Bly Manor pass without much event until one day when the governess spots a stranger upon one of the estate’s towers, and soon after, she sees his face again from the dining room windows. Describing him to the housekeeper, she learns that the man is Peter Quint, who worked as a valet at the manor prior to the governess’ arrival and is now supposed to be dead. Mrs. Grose also tells her of the previous governess, Miss Jessel (also dead), who had an intimate relationship with Quint. The two of them used to spend a lot of time with the kids, Miles and Flora, and this leads the governess to believe that the kids must also be aware of the presence of these spirits.
The governess and Mrs Grose together conclude that the ghosts of Quint and Jessel must have returned to corrupt the kids’ souls, and the housekeeper pledges to help the governess protect them. Soon, they begin to spot instances of odd behavior from the kids. Even though the kids deny it, the governess suspects them of conspiring with Quint and Jessel and even covering for them. Soon after another incident, Mrs Grose leaves the manor with Flora, while the governess remains with Miles and hopes to save him, perhaps by finally broaching the cause of his expulsion from his school. But the confession doesn’t go as well as she expects, and Quint’s ghost reappears again at the window as the governess tries to shield Miles from its gaze and free him from the ghostly spell.
The Ghosts are Real, The Ghosts are Imaginary
The bulk of the debate surrounding The Turn of the Screw since its release has to do with whether the ghosts of Quint and Jessel were real apparitions witnessed by the governess or if they’re just a figment of her overactive imagination. Early reviewers tended to take their existence for granted, interpreting the book as a brilliantly written (but ultimately straightforward) story about people being haunted by ghosts. Gradually, however, critical attention shifted to the psychological elements scattered across the book, and the consensus was less unified regarding the reality of the apparitions. The English writer Virginia Woolf notably questioned the substantiality of the ghosts in a 1918 essay where she read them as representations of the governess’ sense of growing evil in the world, suggesting how the real horror of James’ tale may well have to do with “the ghosts of the mind”.
This question regarding the reality of the ghosts is absolutely crucial to the ambiguity evoked by James’ writing and holds the key (if any) to the novella’s mystery and its ambitions. It makes the difference between the book being a traditional tale of dissatisfied and evil spirits or something far darker as to what it reveals about the human psyche. Yet James complicates the matter by, so to say, playing both sides and doing his best to convince (and confuse) the reader against neatly settling for either conclusion. This dichotomy can be seen at the outset with the framing story in the Prologue and the governess’ characterisation. Unlike most ghost stories, which tend to be narrated orally, Douglas reads off a letter composed by the governess, and this element of written documentation adds to the veracity of the tale being told. On the other hand, the governess herself is revealed to be an unreliable narrator by her own admission, prone to vivid imaginative fancies and always doubting herself.
Unsurprisingly, later critics following the psychoanalytic tradition have focused almost exclusively on the psychical interpretation, reading the ghosts as manifestations of the governess’ repressed sexual drives and anxieties. For example, the novella contains ample suggestions that the governess might have developed carnal desires for Miles, an unimaginably grave sin in the Victorian era, leading to interpretations where the governess is wracked by guilt over such feelings and the apparitions are merely the externalisation of the same. But the crucial point for James may well have been this precise ambiguity and difficulty when it comes to separating real externalities from imaginary fictions, each dissolving into the other the moment we try to grasp their extent. And this inability to neatly distinguish one from the other may well prove to be a far greater nightmare than being haunted by actual demonic entities.
The Reality of Fiction
We have little trouble accepting the notion that our reality structures our fiction – if our reality doesn’t furnish encounters with ghosts and demons, it makes sense to question their reality in the fiction we read. Henry James, however, seems intent on turning the idea around to emphasize how our fictions also structure our realities, i.e., our thoughts, ideas, and shared beliefs (the building blocks of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves) determine our lived experiences to a great extent. This accords with the historical decline in belief in the supernatural alongside the rise of modern science. Scientific narratives employ terms derived from nature to explain all kinds of phenomena, from thunderstorms and volcanic eruptions to bodily illnesses, letting us assimilate them within the fold of the ‘natural’ and thus normalizing them.
In the absence of such explanatory frameworks (i.e. our symbolic fictions), which allow ‘naturalisation’, our ancestors attributed causality more readily to the supernatural. Put simply, we tend to invoke ghosts and otherworldly apparitions all the more when our existing knowledge of reality fails to account for worldly phenomena. However, while science has done a lot to demystify the world of objects for us, it has been less successful when it comes to psychic phenomena, especially the kind of unconscious drives and desires afflicting the governess in The Turn of the Screw. It isn’t a coincidence, then, that the natural/supernatural pair corresponds to the realms of the known/unknown, which further parallels the conscious/unconscious division in Freudian psychoanalysis. Thus, the contents of our unconscious, which must remain unknown to us by definition, often manifest through psychic phenomena that humans can deem supernatural, owing to their inability to rationally account for the same.
One need only think of people suffering from PTSD who, before the advent of modern psychology, were thought to be under demonic possession and needing exorcism. And yet, our lack of explanatory power notwithstanding, such psychic phenomena do affect subjects with the force of reality, which brings us back to the ghosts in James’ novella. Ghosts – as liminal beings stranded between the world of the living and the world of the dead – become perfect metaphors for psychic phenomena that seem to be both real and imagined. While the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw may well have been figments of the governess’ troubled imagination, this interpretation still maintains that such unconscious troubles still ravaged her life and that of the kids at the manor – as such, questioning their ‘reality’ and deeming them to be beyond the pale of normality, thus denying their entry within rational discourse, would be to disastrously misapprehend their true nature.
Why You Should Read The Turn of the Screw
As must be evident by now, The Turn of the Screw is no mere ghost story that’s content to spook its readers only till they’ve turned the last page. Rather, its structural ambiguities burrow deep into the mind as one tries to disentangle objective fact from subjective experience, only to realise how nightmarishly complicated such knots can be. According to the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín (who has written a book on Henry James’ life), once the story was finished, James was so frightened by his own creation that he “was afraid to go upstairs to bed”. One should read the novella not just to experience a finely-written horror story, but also to explore how far the boundaries of this tried-and-tested genre can be pushed.
Furthermore, readers interested in James’ book can also check out its latest TV adaptation, Mike Flanagan’s brilliant The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), which also incorporates parts from other works by James to make for a stunning re-interpretation of a classic.
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