The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Rating 8.5/10
A dark, claustrophobic, and ultimately quite simple ghost story.

The Turn of the Screw is a short ghost story published in 1989, which begins with a gathering of people at a country house at Christmas telling each other ghost stories. One member of the party, rather than making a story up, decides to send for a manuscript he has possession of which is the testimony of a governess, recounting events that had happened to her many years previously.

She takes the job of becoming the governess of two small children at a gentlemen’s country house, whose previous governess had recently died. The gentleman, who is their uncle, however, includes a strange addition to her appointment – that she under no circumstances should ever contact him about anything to do with the children.

With this in mind, she makes her way to the Bly estate in Essex, but finds that both Flora and Miles are exceptionally charming and joyful children, despite the fact that Miles has been excluded from his school under undisclosed circumstances. As their uncle has forbidden her to contact him, and Miles himself is perfect in his attention to lessons and seems eager to please her, the governess decides that he couldn’t possibly have done anything requiring his expulsion and continues to indulge the children over the course of the summer.

Whilst out taking a walk one evening, the governess sees a man at the top of one of the towers, who gives her a terrible searching look before disappearing. She confides in the housekeeper Mrs Grose, but keeps this sighting from the children. Again, she seems the man, this time peering in through a window, seemingly searching for somebody. Mrs Grose claims that from the governesses’ description of him it sounds like the man was a previous employee called Peter Quint, who had had an affair with the previous governess. However, he was dead. Soon after this, the governess also sees another figure, that of Miss Jessle, the former governess. However, this time the current governess is with Flora, who ignores the figure on the far side of the lake.

This sets the governess on a path of suspicion as she closely monitors both of the children’s behaviour. Are they in contact with the ghosts, and what do the ghosts want? The tension increases as Miles and Flora become increasingly deceitful and secretive, and the governess is torn between leaving the house, or facing down the evil presences to save the souls of her young charges.

At first glance The Turn of the Screw can seem like a straightforward ghost story, with strange faces peering in through windows, shadowy figures sat at the bottom of the stairs, and a slightly hysterical governess clutching her pupils to her bosom to protect them from the world. However, there’s a great deal more which makes it quite unusual.

The children, Miles in particular, are very strange, as is the governess’ obsession with them. Flora and Miles sound like they couldn’t put a step wrong, almost too good, they don’t sound like real children. Miles is around ten, but comes across as though having the charm and manipulativeness of a grown adult. The governess is around 20, so young and inexperienced, and is undertaking this job in a rural, enclosed setting, but she develops an extremely strong attachment to both children from the start. This becomes part of the tension later in the book as she tries to discover what’s happening but can’t get a straight answer out of Miles, however this strength of feeling for children that aren’t hers, over a short period of time, is peculiar.

Edmund Wilson, in a critical analysis of The Turn of the Screw from 1934, says that the ghosts are merely figments of the governess’ imagination – indeed nobody else in the book ever claims to see one. This in turn affects whether the narrator, the governess, is reliable at all in her recollection of events. It is mentioned at the beginning that she seemed to have fallen in love with the uncle in London, despite only ever meeting him twice, and Wilson, using Freudian psychoanalysis, claimed that her passion for the uncle caused her to hallucinate. Others dispute this theory, and claim that Henry James meant for his work to remain ambiguous, so you can either believe that these ghosts are real or not.

Another unexplained element is what these ghosts are after. There seems to be some kind of sexual undercurrent behind it, with Quint originally becoming involved with Miss Jessel, but also being ‘too free’ with everybody, according to the housekeeper, including Miles. Were they child molesters? Nothing is ever really explained as to the relationship between Quint, Jessel and the children, but the ghosts seem to want to corrupt the children in some way, who defy the governess in order to see them.

The phrase used in the title, ‘the turn of the screw’, is used at the beginning during the ghost story telling to allude that a ghost story is even more horrible when a child is involved, and this I think works to a certain extent, but more because they’re really quite sinister. Overall, it’s a dark, claustrophobic, and ultimately quite simple ghost story in an old house where characters many believe one thing, but whether you do is another.

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