The Turn of the Screw has many qualities in common with Henry James ’s other novels, but it is also unusual in having numerous Gothic elements. James was born and raised in a well-to-do, socially prominent family. His family’s wealth gave the boy many advantages and opportunities, including travel and...
The Turn of the Screw has many qualities in common with Henry James’s other novels, but it is also unusual in having numerous Gothic elements. James was born and raised in a well-to-do, socially prominent family. His family’s wealth gave the boy many advantages and opportunities, including travel and periods of residence in Europe. James also developed a sharply critical attitude toward the pressure of social forces toward conformity and against individualism. While he criticized the materialism of Americans, he also pointed out the hypocrisy of Europeans in having attitudes of superiority toward Americans while sometimes exploiting their financial resources.
Through emotional awakenings or suffering financial losses, his characters realize that they have been operating in a world of illusion. Because the blows they suffer are severe, it is often while they are recovering from a severe setback that they undergo an epiphany.
In this novel, the governess is a woman of limited means, who has to work for a living. James often presents female characters who must work, often because their parents did not provide for them and/or they did not marry. The governess soon realizes that she has entered a difficult situation at Bly with the two children, Miles and Flora, but she has limited options to extricate herself. The estate itself seems to have properties that have tainted the children, and the governess struggles to maintain a rational attitude even as she becomes convinced that Bly is haunted.
The novel draws the reader in because James stops short of providing definite answers to the many questions that arise. We do not know if the governess suffered from mental health issues before she arrived and is projecting her own visions or fantasies onto the children. It might be that the boy, Miles, is mentally ill and has psychologically abused his sister. If the governess has brought her psychological problems with her to the new job, then the turning point at which she might have changed her future course was behind her when she arrived. She struggles to be a force for good, however. Although she is too late to save Miles, who seems to have been thoroughly corrupted, she manages to rescue young Flora, probably saving her life by sending her away with Mrs. Grose.