In 1908, ten years after the first publication of The Turn of the Screw as a serial in Collier’s Weekly, Henry James wrote that he considered the story “least apt to be baited by earnest criticism.” His prediction has been shown to be remarkably inaccurate, however, as the decades-long critical debate surrounding The Turn of the Screw has proven more vigorous and controversial than that surrounding any of James’s other works. It seems that any critic who wishes to do so may find compelling textual evidence that the work is a chilling, straightforward ghost story made all the more horrific by the youthful age of its menaced characters; or that it is a case study of a psychologically disturbed young woman in the grip of a sexually induced hallucinatory neurosis; or that it is an engrossing, powerful moral fable that allegorizes the intertwining of innocence and evil in the human heart; or that it is some combination of all these, despite the fact that the various interpretations are at odds with one another. If nothing else, then, The Turn of the Screw is, as James himself called it, “a piece of ingenuity . . . [and] of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught.”
The wealth of contradictory critical evaluations of the work testifies to its complexity and its artistry; the ambiguous overtones of the story readily seem to catch “those not easily caught.” For the first several years after the book’s publication, most readers seemed to agree with James’s appraisal of The Turn of the Screw as “a fairy-tale pure and simple,” at least in its intent. One early critic for The New York Times described the work in 1898 as “a deliberate, powerful, and horribly successful study of the magic of evil,” in which the characters of the two children, Miles and Flora, are “accursed, or all but damned, and are shown to have daily, almost hourly, communication with lost souls that formerly inhabited the bodies of a vicious governess and her paramour.”
James also described the book as a “trap for the unwary,” and the discussion surrounding The Turn of the Screw heated considerably with the publication of noted critic Edmund Wilson’s essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James” in 1934. Wilson maintains that in the novel “almost everything from beginning to end can be read equally in either of two senses.” He considers the governess an unreliable narrator, one whose perception of the events surrounding her stay at Bly is colored and distorted by her own neuroses. He writes, “The governess who is made to tell the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and . . . the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governess.” In taking this position, Wilson is aided by the statement made by James himself, who said that the governess has kept “crystalline” her record of “so many intense anomalies and obscurities—by which I don’t of course mean her explanation of them, a different matter.”
Proponents of this Freudian reading of The Turn of the Screw point to elements of the story that may be read as laden with sexual significance. For example, the governess herself is curiously obsessed with her employer, a handsome young man who does not appear to reciprocate the infatuation. The first appearances of the two evil ghosts, Mr. Quint and Miss Jessel, occur on a tower and beside a lake, respectively, locations that could signify male and female sexuality. At the time of Miss Jessel’s appearance, Flora, who is being watched by the governess, is engaged in a game involving joining together two pieces of wood, an activity that could also have sexual overtones to the governess. In this interpretation of the novella as a record of sexual repression, “there is never any reason for supposing that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts,” according to Wilson. “She believes that the children see them, but there is never any proof that they do.”
Many critics consider this position to be overly rationalistic and materialist, owing more to the philosophical and social climate at the time of the essay’s publication (1934) than to elements within the novella itself. Moreover, the Freudian reading, aside from being anachronistic (The Turn of the Screw antedates nearly all of Sigmund Freud’s publications), does not convincingly explain the governess’s detailed description of Quint, a man she has never seen, to Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, nor does it explain the numerous references made by James himself to The Turn of the Screw as a rather conventional ghost story, even to the point of calling it “a shameless pot-boiler” and “grossly apparitional.”
One of James’s perennial moral themes is the relationship between innocence and experience; he often examines the ideas that innocence itself may involve the provocation of evil elsewhere and that the two are inextricably intertwined within the dual nature, both divine and demonic, of humanity. Along this line, The Turn of the Screw may also be interpreted as a subtle but powerful moral allegory, in which Bly becomes a type of the garden of Eden: Evil has entered this Eden with the express purpose of entrapping the souls of Miles and Flora, the archetypal male and female innocents. The governess seeks to “save” the two, and the final words of the novella (“his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped”) indicate her dubious victory as the heart of Miles is freed from its “possession” by the evil Quint.
Whatever James’s intentions might have been in The Turn of the Screw, his public statements regarding it and the textual evidence within the novella itself seem to support both sides of the argument. The modern reader must first consider the novella as a work of immense artistic skill designed to produce horror. Regardless of whether this horror originates in the supernatural or the psychological realm is of little account in assessing its final effect. In the end, all of the book’s possible multiple meanings must be taken as parts of a work of art that succeeds or fails on its own terms. This remains true even though readers may not be able to make a final and definitive critical pronouncement regarding its interpretation.