It is very difficult to make an argument about most aspects of The Turn of the Screw without first announcing whether one belongs to the group that views the tale as a ghost story or to the group that feels the governess's ghosts are really hallucinations. This essay will take the latter view as a starting point and discuss the reasons behind the governess's hallucinations. It is her master's curiously absent status, coupled with the governess's unrequited love for him, that drives the young woman to her hallucinations.
When the governess applies for the job at Bly, her employer tells her that there is one binding condition that no other woman has been able to meet: "she should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything." Instead, the governess is to be totally in charge and should "meet all the questions herself ... take the whole thing over and let him alone." The governess is unsure at first, especially because she knows the position will entail "really great loneliness."
If she had her way, on the other hand, she would be governess in the house of the master himself, on whom both Douglas and the governess imply she has a crush. As Douglas notes in his introduction to the tale, when the governess first meets the master, she notes that he is "a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage." The governess is drawn to him on their first meeting and gives other clues throughout the story that she is pining for a romantic relationship, preferably with him. This feeling is compounded, first of all, by the fact that Bly is her first assignment: "She was young, untried, nervous."
As Leon Edel notes in his article, "The Point of View": "she has ample reason to be nervous about the duties and responsibilities conferred upon her ... a young girl taking her first job." Even though she is nervous at the thought of the job at Bly, she is also eager to impress her new master, as she notes when she takes her walks alone in the garden: "I was giving pleasure—if he ever thought of it!—to the person to whose pressure I had responded." The governess thinks that she has made her employer happy since she is the only one who has been able to adhere to his guideline of no contact. She starts to congratulate herself immensely: "What I was doing was what he had earnestly hoped ... and that I could, after all, do it proved even a greater joy than I expected." In fact, the governess starts to fancy herself "a remarkable young woman and took comfort in the faith that this would more publicly appear." In other words, she is hoping that her great deed will attract the master's attention.
It is telling that, in this frame of mind, she starts to have a romantic daydream, "a charming story suddenly to meet someone." Who is this someone? The governess's further description identifies this "someone" as a person who "would stand before me and smile and approve. I didn't ask more than that—I only asked that he should know." The governess is having a romantic daydream, imagining that her master will appear so that she can see his approval "in his handsome face." As Harold C. Goddard notes in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, the absence of the master is having a very real effect on the governess's psyche. Says Goddard, when "a young woman, falls in love and circumstances forbid the normal growth and confession of the passion, the emotion, dammed up, overflows in a psychical experience, a daydream."
However, the daydream that appears before the woman on the tower is not the one she expects—"the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed." Her conscious mind is asking for the appearance of the master so that she can show him how good she is being and perhaps be rewarded. But it is the deeper, subconscious mind, freshly affected from all of her thoughts about how she wants to prove herself to the master, that precipitates the "ghostly" vision. In her mind, the governess is creating a challenge for herself, something that is greater than merely following the master's orders and something that will perhaps yield a greater reward, once the master sees how she has been victorious.
The governess does not realize this, of course, and attributes the vision to the dead ghost of Peter Quint, once she has spoken with Mrs. Grose and gotten this idea in her head. However, Mrs. Grose has already planted other ideas in the governess's head, prior even to the time when the governess sees her first...
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Few critical theories about literary works have engendered as much controversy as Edmund Wilson's thesis in "The Ambiguity of Henry James" (1934) that in The Turn of the Screw "the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governess," who "is a neurotic case of sex repression" (Homage . . .). Wilson never abandoned his Freudian hypothesis, in spite of sharp rebuke from many Jamesian scholars. Dorothea Krook, for example, speaks of "his misguided Freudianism" and accuses him of "arriving at conclusions which are no longer even perverse but merely fatuous." And Krishna Vaid contends that he "makes a travesty of the text" and has even "violated ... the larger context more flagrantly and more persistently than any adherent of his theory." Wilson's interpretation is like the proverbial horse that has "been much beaten but never yet ... to death," and more than one critic would like to see it given a "decent burial" (Krook ...). But the Freudians are still active. A Freudian reading alone, however, which shows that Miles is as much a sexually precocious young man as he is a ten-year-old boy, results in ambiguity. This ambiguity can be resolved only if the innocence of the two innocents, Miles and the governess, is recognized. Both are inexperienced characters who blunder at one another throughout the novel, especially in chapter 17.
The theory that the governess is sexually repressed is well founded: she is the daughter of a country clergyman, suggesting limited informal contact with the opposite sex; she is infatuated with her handsome employer, whom she never sees after their single interview; and she states, immediately before her first sighting of Peter Quint, that "it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet some one"—a man, presumably. The Freudian innuendoes, whether intentionally or subliminally inserted, are evident: the figure of Peter Quint on the tower (a phallic symbol), the lake (the female sex organ) in front of Miss Jessel, and the piece of wood that Flora intently maneuvers into the hole of another piece of wood (Homage ...). And as Robert Liddell observes, even the words turn and screw in the title of the work are suggestive.
Many factors contribute to the governess's anxious state of mind, especially the letter dismissing Miles, the presence of Miss Jessel and the children, and the governess's mixed feelings toward the handsome man who employed her and thus gave her the responsibilities of Bly. After a conversation with Miles (chapter 14), during which he insists that "a fellow ... [cannot] be with a lady always," the governess feels that she must learn why the boy has been dismissed from school and, furthermore, must inform his uncle, even if that means her employer must come to Bly. As she collapses on the staircase (chapter 15), the governess becomes aware of the presence of Miss Jessel and calls her predecessor a "terrible miserable woman"; but when she talks with Mrs. Grose afterward (chapter 16), she asserts that Miss Jessel told her that "she suffers the torments ... of the lost. Of the damned" and therefore has come to take Flora "to share them." When the governess and Mrs. Grose speak of the letter from school, the governess blames the children's uncle for all that has happened because he left the two in the care of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. Because Miles is "so clever and beautiful and perfect," the governess believes that he must have been dismissed "for wickedness." Resolving to write to her employer that night but unable to start the letter, she goes to Miles's doorway. She explains that "under [her] endless obsession," she listened "a minute" at Miles's door for "some betrayal of his not being at rest." He, too, has been listening for and hoping to see someone—specifically, the governess—as is suggested by his cordial and seemingly prepared invitation for her to enter, in a voice that conjures up images of "gaiety in the gloom," "gaiety" because of his happiness at hearing just whom he wanted to hear—and see. When she asks him what he was thinking of as he lay awake, Miles says, "What in the world, my dear, but you?” He adds, "Well, I think also, you know, of this queer business of ours." As she "mark[s] the coolness of his firm little hand," she asks what he means. Miles replies, "Why the way you bring me up. And all the rest!" The governess has to hold her breath "fairly ... a minute" as she continues her questioning: "What do you mean by all the rest?" He smiles "up at [her] from his pillow": "Oh you know, you know!" She can "say nothing for a minute ...."
The governess's youthfulness and inexperience are important to note, and the suggestion is that the age difference between her and Miles is no greater than that between her and Douglas. The governess may well be one of James's "thwarted Anglo-Saxon spinster[s]" (Homage ...), but she is also sexually excited by the innuendoes of this exchange, as is Miles. The young boy whose hand she holds is sexually aroused by this attractive young woman. Undoubtedly influenced by Peter Quint and by his uncle, Miles is part boy, part man. He has the sexual urge, but not the confidence which comes with maturity. He can only try to express himself through his enigmatic responses. Despite the governess's momentary inability to answer Miles, she does reveal her thoughts: "I felt as I held his hand and our eyes continued to meet that my silence had all the air of admitting his charge and that nothing in the whole world of reality was perhaps at that moment so fabulous as our actual relation."
At once—compulsively or inadvertently—she returns to a topic that can only add to the excitement of each. She tells Miles that he can return to school, although it must be "another, a better" school. As she reminds him that he has never told her anything about the school or his companions there, her imagination creates an image that is, at least temporarily, emotionally acceptable to her: "His clear listening face, framed in its smooth whiteness, made him for the minute as appealing as some wistful patient in a children's hospital; and I would have given, as the...
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The preoccupation of a generation of critics with the reality status of the ghosts in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw has always seemed to me misplaced. One may grant that the spectral appearances to which the governess in the tale testifies cannot be proven to be supernaturally actual or her illusion, that we are in a condition of uncertainty over the question and that the story merits the title of "fantastic" which Todorov gives it. But is this not a minor source of our interest? The reader's epistemological quandary, his inability to be positive about how to "take" the phenomena reported by the narrator is, of course, rooted in his inability to verify or refute her first-person account; we cannot escape the enclosure...
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