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The Turn of the Screw Henry James

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American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, biographer, autobiographer, and playwright. The following entry presents criticism on James's novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). See also Daisy Miller Criticism.

One of the most controversial works in literature, The Turn of the Screw has inspired a variety of critical interpretations since its publication in 1898. The novella was generally regarded as a conventional ghost story until 1934 when Edmund Wilson challenged this view with the contention that The Turn of the Screw is a psychological case study of the narrator, an emotionally unstable young woman whose visions of phantasms are merely hallucinations. Wilson's essay initiated a lengthy critical debate—which has continued for more than fifty years—concerning the correct interpretation of the novella. Most scholars now agree that James intended his work to remain ambiguous and allow several contradictory interpretations, although the purposes for and effects of such ambiguity, as well as the various possible interpretations that the text will support, are still widely debated.

Plot and Major Characters

The Turn of the Screw was written during James's transitional period. This refers to the years immediately following his return to fiction after an unsuccessful attempt at writing for the theater and immediately preceding his composition of the complex and imposing novels that would mark his major phase. During this period, James incorporated in his fiction such dramatic technical devices as the presentation of action in scenic vignettes and the suppression of all information by an intrusive authorial voice. This lack of objective information is the primary source of difficulty in the critical interpretation of The Turn of the Screw. The story focuses on a young, naive governess who is confronted by a pair of ghosts that she suspects is corrupting the two young children in her charge. The apparitions are those of Peter Quint, a man formerly employed in the household, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. As her suspicions deepen, the new governess confronts each of the children concerning their collusion with the ghosts; during each confrontation, one of the specters appears to the governess, bringing the action to a crisis. The girl, Flora, denies having seen the wraiths and, apparently hysterical, is sent to her uncle in London. The boy, Miles, dies in the governess's arms during the culmination of a psychic battle between the governess and the ghost of Peter Quint.

Major Themes

Speculation concerning the subjective believability and objective truth of the events in The Turn of the Screw depends upon the reader's acceptance or rejection of the governess's reliability as a narrator. It is this question which, until the early 1960s, divided critical interpretation of the novella. Deriving from this critical polarity, the debate concerning the novella has focused on three main issues: the reality of the ghosts, the sanity of the governess, and the corruption of the children. According to the apparitionist reading, the ghosts are real, the governess is a rational and plausible narrator, and the children, according to the majority of apparitionist critics, are to some degree corrupted by the ghosts. The consensus among critics for twenty five years after the publication of The Turn of the Screw was to accept the novella as either a literal ghost story or an account of demonic possession of the children.

The hallucinationist, or Freudian, interpretation opposes the apparitionist position in every significant detail: the ghosts are seen as hallucinations of the governess; the governess is viewed as an unreliable narrator, either neurotic or actually insane; and the children are considered either uncorrupted or corrupted by the treatment of the governess herself. Edna Kenton considered the narrative to be a complete hoax, with both the ghosts and the children imagined by the governess's diseased consciousness. Edmund Wilson expounded on this hypothesis and explicated the story with the aid of Freudian psychoanalytical principles. According to Wilson, the governess is a neurotic spinster whose repressed passion for her employer, the children's bachelor uncle, causes her to hallucinate. The hallucinationists introduced several important thematic possibilities in their readings of The Turn of the Screw, most notably a discussion of the illicit sexuality that is suggested in the novella.

In 1962 Dorothea Krook proposed a solution to the debate between the divergent readings of James's text by maintaining that James intended his narrative to remain ambiguous; therefore, the full meaning of the tale is not to be found by proving either interpretation exclusively correct, but rather by examining the tension produced by two mutually exclusive readings, both of which are supported by the text. The majority of recent critics accept this thesis, although many still implicitly incline toward one of the two interpretations.

Critical Reception

The Turn of the Screw is one of the most critically discussed works in twentieth-century American literature. Due to its relative accessibility and popularity compared to much of James's other work, the novella is often read as an introduction to James. In addition, this tale of mystery—a term James invested with new meaning—is among the classics of Victorian Gothic fiction and has inspired notable adaptations in other media, including opera and film. Considered among James's greatest achievements, The Turn of the Screw continues to be admired as one of the most artistic and enigmatic works in literature.

Principal Works

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A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales 1875

Daisy Miller: A Study 1878

An International Episode 1879

The Madonna of the Future and Other Tales 2 vols. 1879

The Diary of a Man of Fifty and A Bundle of Letters 1880

The Siege of London, The Pension Beaurepas, and The Point of View 1883

Tales of Three Cities 1884

Stories Revived 3 vols. 1885

The Aspern Papers, Louisa Pallant, The Modern Warning 2 vols. 1888

A London Life, The Patagonia, The Liar, Mrs. Temperley 2 vols. 1889

The Lesson of the Master, The Marriages, The Pupil, Brooksmith, The Solution, Sir Edmund Orme 1892

The Private Life, The Wheel of Time, Lord Beaupré, The Visits, Collaboration, Owen Wingrave 1892

The Real Thing and Other Tales 1893

Terminations, Vol. 1: The Death of the Lion, The Coxon Fund, The Middle Years; Vol. 2: The Altar of the Dead 1895

Embarrassments: The Figure in the Carpet, Glasses, The Next Time, The Way It Came 1896

In the Cage 1898

The Two Magics: The Turn of the Screw, Covering End 1898

The Soft Side 1900

The Better Sort 1903

The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw, The Liar, The Two Faces 1908

Julia Bride 1909

The Finer Grain 1910

Gabrielle De Bergerac 1918

A Landscape Painter 1919

Travelling Companions 1919

Master Eustace 1920

Lady Barberina and Other Tales 1922

The Diary of a Man of Fifty, A New England Winter, The Path of Duty and Other Tales 1923

The Last of the Valerii, Master Eustace, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes and Other Tales 1923

Lord Beaupre, The Visits, The Wheel of Time and Other Tales 1923

Maud-Evelyn, The Special Type, The Papers and Other Tales 1923

Representative Selections 1941

Stories of Writers and Artists 1944

The Short Stories 1945

Fourteen Stories 1946

The Ghostly Tales of Henry James 1948

Ten Short Stories 1948

The Aspern Papers and The Europeans 1950

Eight Uncollected Tales 1950

Selected Short Stories 1950

In the Cage and Other Tales 1958

Fifteen Short Stories 1961

Henry James: Seven Stories and Studies 1961

The Marriages and Other Stories 1961

The Complete Tales of Henry James 12 vols. 1962–1965

The Tales of Henry James 1973

Henry James: Selected Works [contains Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, The Aspern Papers, and The Turn of the Screw] 1994

The Turn of the Screw [expanded edition] 1995

The Real Thing 1996

Transatlantic Sketches (travel) 1875

Roderick Hudson (novel) 1876

The American (novel) 1877

The Europeans (novel) 1878

French Poets and Novelists (criticism) 1878

Watch and Ward (novel) 1878

Hawthorne (criticism) 1879

Confidence (novel) 1880

The Portrait of a Lady (novel) 1881

Washington Square (novel) 1881

Daisy Miller: A Comedy in Three Acts (drama) 1883

Portraits of Places (travel) 1883

The Art of Fiction (criticism) 1885

A Little Tour in France (travel) 1885

The Bostonians (novel) 1886

The Princess Casamassima (novel) 1886

The Tragic Muse (novel) 1890

The American: A Comedy in Four Acts (drama) 1891

Guy Domville (drama) 1895

The Spoils of Poynton (novel) 1897

What Maisie Knew (novel) 1897

The Awkward Age (novel) 1899

The Sacred Fount (novel) 1901

The Wings of a Dove (novel) 1902

The Ambassadors (novel) 1903

The Golden Bowl (novel) 1904

The American Scene (travel) 1907

Italian Hours (travel) 1909

A Small Boy and Others (autobiography) 1913

Notes of a Son and Brother (autobiography) 1914

Notes on Novelists with Some Other Notes (criticism) 1914

The Letters of Henry James 2 vols. (letters) 1920

The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces (criticism) 1934

The Innocents [based on The Turn of the Screw] (drama) 1951

The American Essays (criticism) 1956

The Art of Criticism (criticism) 1986

New York Revisited (travel) 1994

Traveling in Italy with Henry James: Essays (travel) 1994

Henry James: Essays on Art and Drama (criticism) 1996

Edmund Wilson (essay date 1934)

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SOURCE: “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” in The Question of Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by F. W. Dupee, Henry Holt and Co., 1945, pp. 160–90.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1934, Wilson presents a psychoanalytical interpretation of The Turn of the Screw in which he regards the ghosts of the story as illusions seen only by the governess.]

A discussion of Henry James's ambiguity may appropriately begin with The Turn of the Screw. This story, which seems to have proved more fascinating to the general reading public than anything else of James's except Daisy Miller, apparently conceals another horror behind the ostensible one. I do not know who first propounded the theory; but Miss Edna Kenton, whose insight into James is profound, has been one of its principal exponents, and the late Charles Demuth did a set of illustrations for the story based on this interpretation.

According to this theory, the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the hallucinations of the governess.

Let us go through the story from the beginning. It opens with an introduction. The man who is presenting the governess's manuscript tells us first who she is. She is the youngest daughter of a poor country parson, but “the most agreeable woman I've ever known in her position,” who would have been “worthy of any whatever.” She had come up to London and answered an advertisement and found a man who wanted a governess for his orphaned nephew and niece. “This prospective patron proved 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.” It is made clear that the young woman has become thoroughly infatuated with her employer. He is charming to her and lets her have the job on condition that she will never bother him about the children; and she goes down to the house in the country where they have been left with a housekeeper and some other servants.

The boy, she finds, has been sent home from school for reasons into which she does not inquire but which she colors, on no evidence at all, with a significance somehow sinister. She learns that the former governess left, and that she has since died, under circumstances which are not explained but which are made in the same way to seem ominous. She is alone with the illiterate housekeeper, a good and simple soul, and the children, who seem innocent and charming. As she wanders about the estate, she thinks often how delightful it would be to come suddenly round the corner and find that the master had arrived: there he would stand, smiling, approving, and handsome.

She is never to meet her employer again, but what she does meet are the apparitions. One day when his face has been vividly in her mind, she comes out in sight of the house and sees the figure of a man on the tower, a figure which is not the master's. Not long afterward, the figure appears again, toward the end of a rainy Sunday. She sees him at closer range and more clearly: he is wearing smart clothes but is not a gentleman. The housekeeper, meeting the governess immediately afterward, behaves as if the governess herself were a ghost: “I wondered why she should be scared.” The governess tells her about the apparition and learns that it answers the description of one of the master's valets who had stayed down there and used to wear his clothes. The valet had been a bad character, who used “to play with the boy … to spoil him”; he had been found dead, having slipped on the ice coming out of a public house: it is impossible to say that he wasn't murdered. The governess believes that he has come back to haunt the children.

Not long afterward, she and the little girl are out on the shore of a lake, the little girl playing, the governess sewing. The latter becomes aware of a third person on the opposite side of the lake. But she looks first at the little girl, who is turning her back in that direction and who, she notes, has “picked up a small flat piece of wood, which happened to have in it a little hole that had evidently suggested to her the idea of sticking in another fragment that might figure as a mast and make the thing a boat. This second morsel, as I watched her, she was very markedly and intently attempting to tighten in its place.” This somehow “sustains” the governess so that she is able to raise her eyes: she sees a woman “in black, pale and dreadful.” She concludes that it is the former governess. The housekeeper tells her that her predecessor, though a lady, had had an affair with the valet. The boy used to go off with the valet and then lie about it afterwards. The governess concludes that the boy must have known about the valet and the woman—the boy and girl have been corrupted by them.

Observe that there is never any real reason for supposing that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts. She believes that the children see them, but there is never any proof that they do. The housekeeper insists that she does not see them; it is apparently the governess who frightens her. The children, too, become hysterical; but this is evidently the governess's doing, too. Observe, also, from the Freudian point of view, the significance of the governess's interest in the little girl's pieces of wood and of the fact that the male apparition first appears on a tower and the female apparition on a lake. There seems here to be only a single circumstance which does not fit into the hypothesis that the ghosts are hallucinations of the governess: the fact that the governess's description of the first ghost at a time when she has never heard of the valet should be identifiable as the valet by the housekeeper. And when we look back, we see that even this has been left open to a double interpretation. The governess has never heard of the valet, but it has been suggested to her in a conversation with the housekeeper that there has been some other male somewhere about who “liked everyone young and pretty,” and the idea of this other person has been ambiguously confused with the master and with the master's possible interest in her, the present governess. And has she not, in her subconscious imagination, taking her cue from this, identified herself with her predecessor and conjured up an image who wears the master's clothes but who (the Freudian “censor” coming into play) looks debased, “like an actor,” she says (would he not have to stop to love her!)? The apparition had “straight, good features” and his appearance is described in detail. When we look back, we find that the master's appearance has never been described at all: we have merely been told that he was “handsome.” It is impossible for us to know how much the ghost resembles the master—certainly the governess would never tell us.

The apparitions now begin to appear at night, and the governess becomes convinced that the children get up to meet them, though they are able to give plausible explanations of their behavior. The housekeeper tells the governess that she ought to report these phenomena to the master, if she is so seriously worried about them. The governess, who has promised not to bother him, is afraid he would think her insane; and she imagines “his derision, his amusement, his contempt for the breakdown of my resignation at being left alone and for the fine machinery I had set in motion to attract his attention to my slighted charms.” The housekeeper threatens to send for the master herself; the governess threatens to leave if she does. After this, for a considerable period, the visions no longer appear.

The children become uneasy: they begin to wonder when their uncle is coming down; they want to write to him—but the governess suppresses their letters. The boy finally asks her frankly when she is going to send him to school, intimates that if he had not been so fond of her he would have written to his uncle long ago about her failure to do so, threatens to write him at once.

This upsets her; she thinks for a moment of leaving, but decides that this would be deserting them. She is apparently now in love with the boy. The ghost of the other governess immediately appears again, looking “dishonored and tragic,” full of “unutterable woe.” The new governess feels now—the morbid half of her split personality is getting the upper hand of the other—that it is she who is intruding upon the spirit instead of the spirit who is intruding upon her: “You terrible miserable woman!” she cries. The apparition disappears. She tells the housekeeper, who looks at her oddly, that the soul of the former governess is damned and wants the little girl to share her damnation. She finally agrees to write to the master, but no sooner has she sat down to the paper than she gets up and goes to the boy's bedroom, where she finds him lying awake. When he demands to go back to school, she embraces him and begs him to tell her why he was sent away; appealing to him with what seems to her desperate tenderness but what must seem queer and disquieting to the child, she insists that all she wants is to save him. There is the sudden gust of wind—it is a windy night outside—the casement rattles, the boy shrieks. She has been kneeling beside the bed: when she gets up, she finds the candle extinguished. “It was I who blew it, dear!” says the boy. For her, it has been the evil spirit disputing her domination. It does not occur to her that the boy may really have blown the candle out in order not to have to tell her with the light on about his disgrace at school. (Here, however, occurs the only detail which is not readily susceptible of double explanation: the governess has felt a “gust of frozen air” and yet sees that the window is “tight.” Are we to suppose she merely fancied that she felt it?)

The next day, the little girl disappears. They find her beside the lake. The young woman now for the first time speaks openly to one of the children about the ghosts. “Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?” she demands—and immediately answers herself. “She's there, she's there!” she cries, pointing across the lake. The housekeeper looks with a “dazed blink” and asks where she sees anything; the little girl turns upon the governess “an expression of hard, still gravity, an expression absolutely new and unprecedented and that appeared to read and accuse and judge me.” The governess feels her “situation horribly crumble.” The little girl breaks down, becomes feverish, begs to be taken away from the governess; the housekeeper sides with the child, and hints that the governess had better go. But the young woman forces her, instead, to take the little girl away; and she tries to make it impossible, before their departure, for the children to see each other.

She is now left alone with the boy. A strange and dreadful scene ensues. “We continued silent while the maid was with us—as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding-journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter.” When the maid has gone, and she presses him to tell her why he was expelled from school, the boy seems suddenly afraid of her. He finally confesses that he “said things”—to “a few,” to “those he liked.” It all sounds very harmless: there comes to her out of her “very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?” The valet appears at the window—it is “the white face of damnation.” (But is the governess condemning the spirits to damnation or is she succumbing to damnation herself?) She is aware that the boy does not see it. “No more, no more, no more!” she shrieks to the apparition. “Is she here?” demands the boy in panic. (He has, in spite of the governess's efforts, succeeded in seeing his sister and has heard from her of the incident at the lake.) No, she says, it is not the woman; “But it's at the window—straight before us. It's there!”…“It's he?” then. Whom does he mean by “he”? “‘Peter Quint—you devil!’ His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication. ‘Where?’” “What does he matter now, my own?” she cries. “What will he ever matter? I have you, but he has lost you forever!” Then she shows him that the figure has vanished: “There, there!” she says, pointing toward the window. He looks and gives a cry; she feels that he is dead in her arms. From her point of view, the disappearance of the spirit has proved too terrible a shock for him and “his little heart, dispossessed, has stopped”; but if we study the dialogue from the other point of view, we see that he must have taken her “There, there!” as an answer to his own “Where?” Instead of persuading him that there is nothing to be frightened of, she has, on the contrary, finally convinced him either that he has actually seen or that he is on the point of seeing something. He gives “the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss.” She has literally frightened him to death.

When one has once been given this clue to The Turn of the Screw, one wonders how one could ever have missed it. There is a very good reason, however, in the fact that nowhere does James unequivocally give the thing away: almost everything from beginning to end can be read equally in either of two senses. In the preface to the collected edition, however, as Miss Kenton has pointed out, James does seem to want to put himself on record. He asserts here that The Turn of the Screw is “a fairy-tale pure and simple”—but adds that the apparitions are of the order of those involved in witchcraft cases rather than of those in cases of psychic research. And he goes on to tell of his reply to one of his readers, who had complained that he had not characterized the governess sufficiently. At this criticism, he says, “One's artistic, one's ironic heart shook for the instant almost to breaking”; and he answered: “It was ‘déjà très-joli’… please believe, the general proposition of our young woman's keeping 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. … She has ‘authority,’ which is a good deal to have given her. …” The italics above are mine: these words seem impossible to explain except on the hypothesis of hallucination. And note, too, in the collected edition that James has not included The Turn of the Screw in the volume with his other ghost stories but in a volume of stories of another kind, between The Aspern Papers and The Liar—this last the story of a pathological liar; whose wife protects his lies against the world, acting with very much the same sort of deceptive “authority” as the governess in The Turn of the Screw.

When we look back in the light of these hints, we become convinced that the whole story has been primarily intended as a characterization of the governess: her visions and the way she behaves about them, as soon as we look at them from the obverse side, present a solid and unmistakable picture of the poor country parson's daughter, with her English middle-class class consciousness, her inability to admit to herself her sexual impulses and the relentless English “authority” which enables her to put over on inferiors even purposes which are totally deluded and not at all to the other people's best interests. Add to this the peculiar psychology of governesses, who, by reason of their isolated position between the family and the servants, are likely to become ingrown and morbid. The writer knows of an actual case of a governess who used to frighten the servants by opening doors and smashing mirrors and who tortured the parents by mythical stories of kidnapers. The poltergeist, once a figure of demonology, is now a recognized neurotic type.

When we examine The Turn of the Screw in this light, we understand for the first time its significance in connection with Henry James's other fiction—(the story, on any other hypothesis, would be, so far as I remember, the only thing James ever wrote which did not have some more or less serious point). We see now that it is simply a variation on one of James's familiar themes: the frustrated Anglo-Saxon spinster; and we remember that he has presented other cases of women who deceive themselves and others about the sources and character of their emotions. The most obvious example is that remarkable and too-little-read novel, The Bostonians. The subject of The Bostonians is the struggle for the attractive daughter of a poor evangelist between a young man from the South who wants to marry her and a well-to-do Boston lady with a Lesbian passion for her. The strong-minded and strong-willed spinster is herself apparently quite in the dark as to the real reason for her interest in the girl; she is convinced that her desire to dominate her, to make her live with her, to teach her to make speeches on women's rights, to prevent the eligible young Southerner from marrying her, is all ardor for the feminist cause. But James does not leave the reader in doubt—and he presents Olive Chancellor in a setting of other self-deluded New England idealists.

There is a theme of the same kind in the short story called “The Marriages,” which amused Robert Louis Stevenson so hugely. But here the treatment is comic. A young English girl, described by one of the characters as of the unmarriageable type, much attached to an attractive father and obsessed by the memory of a dead mother, breaks up her father's projected second marriage. She goes to his fiancée and tells her that her father is an impossible character who had made her late mother miserable. When her brother calls her a raving maniac, she remains serene in the conviction that, by ruining the happiness of her father, she has been loyal to her duty to her mother.

James's world is full of these women. They are not always emotionally perverted. Sometimes they are emotionally apathetic—like the amusing Francie Dosson of The Reverberator, who, though men are always falling madly in love with her, seems never really to understand what courtship and marriage mean and is apparently quite content to go on all her life eating marrons glacés with her father and sister in their suite in a Paris hotel. Sometimes they are emotionally starved—like the pathetic Milly Theale of The Wings of the Dove, who wastes away in Venice and whose doctor recommends a lover.


James's men are not precisely neurotic; but they are the masculine counterparts of his women. They have a way of missing out on emotional experience, either through timidity or caution or through heroic renunciation.

The extreme and fantastic example is the hero of The Beast in the Jungle, who is finally crushed by the realization that his fate is to be the man in the whole world to whom nothing at all is to happen. Some of these characters are presented ironically: Mr. Acton of The Europeans, so smug and secure in his neat little house, deciding not to marry the baroness who has proved such an upsetting element in the community, is a perfect comic portrait of a certain kind of careful Bostonian. Others are made sympathetic: the starved and weary Lambert Strether of The Ambassadors, who comes to Paris too late in life.

Sometimes, however, the effect is ambiguous. Though the element of irony in Henry James is often underestimated by his readers, there are stories which leave us in doubt as to whether or not the author knew how his heroes would strike his readers. Is the fishy Bernard Longueville of the early novel Confidence really intended for a sensitive and interesting young man or is he a prig in the manner of Jane Austen? And some of James's later heroes are just as unsympathetic. The very late short story “Flickerbridge,” in which a young American painter decides not to marry a young newspaper woman (the men are always deciding not to marry the women in Henry James) because he is afraid she will spoil by publicizing it a delightful old English house, the property of her own family, in which he has greatly enjoyed living without her, affects us in the same unpleasant way.

But “Flickerbridge” seems merely a miscue: evidently James intends it to be taken seriously. How is The Sacred Fount to be taken? This short novel, surely one of the curiosities of literature, which inspired the earliest parody—by Owen Seaman—I ever remember to have seen of James and which apparently marked his passing over some borderline into a region where he was to become for the public unassimilably exasperating and ridiculous, was written not long after The Turn of the Screw and is a sort of companion piece to it. There is the same setting of an English country house, the same passages of a sad and strange beauty, the same furtive and disturbing goings on in an atmosphere of clarity and brightness, the same dubious central figure, the same almost inscrutable ambiguity. As in the case of The Turn of the Screw, the fundamental question presents itself and never seems to get definitely answered: what is the reader to think of the protagonist?—who is here a man instead of a woman.

It would be tedious to analyze The Sacred Fount as I have done with The Turn of the Screw—and it would be a somewhat more difficult undertaking. The Sacred Fount is mystifying, even maddening. But I believe that if anyone really got to the bottom of it, he would throw a good deal of light on Henry James. Rebecca West has given a burlesque account of this novel as the story of how “a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows.” A gentleman, who tells the story, goes to a week-end party in the country; there he observes that certain of his friends appear to have taken a new lease on life whereas others seem to have been depleted. He evolves a theory about them: the theory is that the married couples have been forming new combinations and that the younger individuals have been feeding the older individuals from the sacred fount of their youth at the price of getting used up themselves.

This theory seems obviously academic: older people feed younger people with their vitality quite as often as younger people feed older ones—and does James really mean us to accept it? Are not the speculations of the narrator intended to characterize the narrator as the apparitions characterize the governess? As this detached and rather eerie individual proceeds to spy on and cross-examine his friends in order to find out whether the facts fit his theory, we decide, as we do in The Turn of the Screw, that there are two separate things to be kept straight: a false hypothesis which the narrator is putting forward and a reality which we are supposed to guess from what he tells us about what actually happens. We remember the narrator of The Aspern Papers, another inquisitive and annoying fellow, who is finally foiled and put to rout by the old lady whose private papers he is trying to get hold of. In the case of The Aspern Papers, there is no uncertainty about James's attitude toward the narrator: James lets us know that the papers were none of the journalist's business and that the rebuff served him right. And the amateur detective of The Sacred Fount is foiled and rebuffed in precisely the same manner by one of his recalcitrant victims. “My poor dear, you are crazy, and I bid you good-night!” she says to him at the end of the story. “Such a last word,” the narrator remarks, “the word that put me altogether nowhere—was too inacceptable not to prescribe afresh that prompt test of escape to other air for which I had earlier in the evening seen so much reason. I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.” But why did he lack her tone?—why would he never again hang together? What are we supposed to conclude about his whole exploit?

Mr. Wilson Follett, the only writer on James who has given The Sacred Fount special attention (in “Henry James's Portrait of Henry James,” New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1936), believes that the book is a parable—even a conscious parody—of James's own role as an artist. The narrator may or may not have been right as to the actual facts of the case. The point is that, in elaborating his theory, he has constructed a work of art, and that it is a mistake to make the validity of works of art depend on a correspondence with actuality. Art has only its own kind of validity, and a collision with actuality would destroy it and put an end to the activities of the artist.

Certainly James has put himself into The Sacred Fount, and certainly he has intended some sort of fable about the imaginative mind and the material with which it works. But it seems to me that Mr. Follett's theory assumes on James's part a conception of artistic truth which would hardly be worthy of him. After all, the novelist must know what people are actually up to, however much he may rearrange actuality; and it is not clear in The Sacred Fount whether the narrator really knew what he was talking about. If The Sacred Fount is a parody, what is the point of the parody? Why should James have represented the artist as defeated by the breaking in of life?

The truth is, I believe, that Henry James was not clear about the book in his own mind. Already, with The Turn of the Screw, he has carried his ambiguous procedure to a point where it seems almost as if he did not want the reader to get through to the hidden meaning. See his curious replies in his letters to correspondents who write him about the story: to what seem to have been leading questions, he seems to have given evasive answers, dismissing the tale as a mere “pot-boiler,” a mere “jeu d'esprit.” Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians, though tragic perhaps, is horrid, and she is vanquished by Basil Ransom. But he was willing to leave his readers in doubt as to whether the governess was horrid or nice. And now in The Sacred Fount, we do not know whether the week-end guest, though he was unquestionably obnoxious to the other guests, is intended to be taken as one of the élite, a fastidious, highly civilized sensibility, or merely as a little bit cracked and a bore. The man who wanted to get the Aspern papers was fanatically inquisitive and a nuisance; but many of James's inquisitive observers who never take part in the action are presented as most superior people. James confessed to being this sort of person himself. Ambiguity was certainly growing on James. It was to pass all bounds in those scenes in his later novels (of which the talks in The Turn of the Screw between the housekeeper and the governess are only comparatively mild examples) in which the characters are able to carry on long conversations with each consistently mistaking the other's meaning and neither ever yielding to the impulse to say any of the obvious things which would clear the situation up.

What if the hidden theme of The Sacred Fount is simply sex again? What if the real sacred fount, from which the people observed by the narrator have been drawing their new vitality, is love instead of youth? They have something which he has not had, know something which he does not know; and, lacking the clue of love, he can only pedantically misunderstand them. And they, since they have the forces of life on their side, are able to frighten him away.

This theory may be dubious, also; but there is certainly involved in The Sacred Fount the conception of a man shut out from love and doomed to barren speculation on human relations, who will be shocked by direct contact with reality.

Hitherto, it has usually been quite plain what James wanted us to think of his characters; but now there appears in his work a morbid element which is not always handled objectively but has invaded the storyteller himself. He seems to be dramatizing the frustrations of his own life without quite being willing to confess it, without always fully admitting it to himself.

But before we pursue this line of inquiry, let us look at him in a different connection.


Who are these characters of Henry James's about whom we come to be less and less certain as to precisely what he means us to think?

The type is the cultivated American bourgeois, like Henry James himself, who lives on an income derived from some form (usually left extremely vague) of American business activity but who has taken no part in the achievements which made the income possible. These men turn their backs on business; they attempt to enrich their experience through the society and art of Europe. But they bring to it the bourgeois qualities of timidity, prudence, primness, the habits of mind of a narrow morality which, even when they wish to be open-minded, cause them to be easily shocked. They wince alike at the brutalities of the aristocracy and at the vulgarities of the working class; they shrink most of all from the “commonness” of the less cultivated bourgeoisie, who, having acquired their incomes more recently, are not so far advanced in self-improvement. The women have the corresponding qualities: they are innocent, conventional, and rather cold—sometimes they suffer from Freudian complexes or a kind of arrested development, sometimes they are neglected or cruelly cheated by the men to whom they have given their hearts. And even when James's heroes and heroines are English, they assimilate themselves to these types.

It is illuminating in this connection to compare James's attitude to Flaubert's. The hero of L'Education sentimentale is a perfect Henry James character: he is sensitive, cautious, afraid of life, he lives on a little income and considers himself superior to the common run. But Flaubert's attitude toward Frédéric Moreau is devastatingly ironic. Frédéric has his aspects of pathos, his occasional flashes of spirit: but Flaubert is quite emphatic in his final judgment of Frédéric. He considers Frédéric a worm.

Now James has his own kind of irony, but it is not Flaubert's kind. Frédéric Moreau is really the hero of most of James's novels, and you can see very plainly how James's estimate of him usually differs from Flaubert's if you compare certain kinds of scenes which tend to recur in Henry James with scenes in L'Education sentimentale from which James has evidently imitated them: those situations of a sensitive young man immersed in some kind of gathering or having a succession of meetings with various characters without being able in his innocence precisely to figure out what they are up to. The reader is able to guess that they are more worldly and unscrupulous persons than the hero and that they are talking over his head, acting behind his back. You have this pattern, as I say, both in Flaubert and in James; but the difference is that, whereas in James the young man is made wondering and wistful and is likely to turn out a pitiful victim, in Flaubert he is made to look like a fool and is as ready to double-cross these other people who seem to him so inferior to himself as they are to double-cross him.

In this difference between Flaubert's attitude toward Frédéric and James's attitude toward, say, Hyacinth Robinson of The Princess Casamassima is to be discovered, I believe, the real reason for James's peculiar resentment of Flaubert. Flaubert interested James deeply: they had in common that they were both trying to give dignity to the novel of modern life by bringing it to intense aesthetic form. And James returned to Flaubert again and again, wrote three essays on him at different periods. But though he obviously cannot help admiring Flaubert, he usually manages in the long run to belittle him—and is especially invidious on the subject of L'Education sentimentale. His great complaint is that Flaubert's characters are so ignoble that they do not deserve to have so much art expended on them and that there must have been something basically wrong with Flaubert ever to have supposed that they did. James never seems to understand that Flaubert intends all his characters to be “middling” and that the greatness of his work arises from the fact that it constitutes a criticism of something bigger than they are. James praises the portrait of Madame Arnoux: Thank God, at least, he exclaims, that here Flaubert was able to muster the good taste to deal delicately with a pure and fine-grained woman! He seems completely unaware that Madame Arnoux is treated as ironically as any of the other characters—that the virtuous bourgeois wife with her inhibitions and superstitions is pathetic only as a part of the bigger thing of which Flaubert is showing the failure. Henry James mistakes Madame Arnoux for a refined portrait of an American lady and he is worried because Frédéric isn't a quietly vibrating young American. Yet at the same time he must have his uneasy suspicion that young Americans of that kind are being made fun of. I believe that James's antagonism to Flaubert may be primarily due to the fact that Flaubert's criticism of the pusillanimity of the bourgeois has really touched James himself. James's later heroes are always regretting having lived and loved too meagerly; and James distills from these sensitive nonparticipants all the sad, self-effacing nobility, all the fine and thin beauty, he can get out of them. Whereas Flaubert extracts something quite different and bitter: when Frédéric recalls in middle age his first clumsy and frightened visit to a brothel as the best that life has had to offer him, it is a damnation of a whole society.

But there was another kind of modern society which Flaubert did not know and which Henry James did know. Henry James was that new anomalous thing, an American. He is an American who has spent much of his childhood and youth in Europe, and he is imbued to a considerable extent with the European point of view. The monuments of feudal and ancient Europe, the duchesses and princesses and princes who seem to carry on the feudal tradition, are still capable of making modern life look to him dull, undistinguished, and tame. But the past for him does not completely dwarf the present, as the vigil of Saint Anthony and the impacts of pagan armies dwarf Flaubert's Frédéric Moreau. The American in Henry James insistently asserts himself against Europe. After all, Frédéric Moreau and Madame Arnoux are the best people of Albany and Boston!—but they are not characters in Flaubert there. There their scruples and their renunciations possess a real value—for Frédéric Moreau at home possesses a real integrity; and when they visit Europe, they judge the whole thing in a new way. Henry James speaks somewhere of his indignation at an Englishwoman's saying to him in connection with something: “That is true of the aristocracy, but in one's own class it is quite different.” As an American, it had never occurred to him that he could be described as a middle-class person. When Edith Wharton accused him in his later years of no longer appreciating Flaubert and demanded of him why Emma Bovary was not as good a subject for a novel as Anna Karenina, he replied: “Ah, but one paints the fierce passions of a luxurious aristocracy; the other deals with the petty miseries of a little bourgeoise in a provincial town!” But if Emma Bovary is small potatoes, what about Daisy Miller? Why, Daisy Miller is an American girl! Emma Bovary has her debts and adulteries, but she is otherwise a conventional person, she remains in her place in the social scheme, even when she dreams of rising out of it: when she goes to visit the château, the sugar seems to her whiter and finer than elsewhere. Whereas Daisy Miller represents something which has walked quite out of the frame of Europe. When it comes back to Europe again, it disregards the social system. Europe is too much for Daisy Miller: she catches cold in the Coliseum, where according to European conventions she oughtn't to have been at that hour. But the great popularity of her story was certainly due to her creator's having somehow conveyed the impression that her spirit went marching on.

In Henry James's mind, there disputed all his life the European and the American points of view; and their debate, I believe, is closely connected with his inability sometimes to be clear as to what he thinks of a certain sort of person. It is quite mistaken to talk as if James had uprooted himself from America in order to live in England. He had traveled so much from his earliest years that he never had any real roots anywhere. His father had himself been a wandering intellectual, oscillating back and forth between the United States and Europe. And even in America, the Jameses oscillated back and forth between Boston and New York. They were not New Englanders but New Yorkers, and they had none of the tight local ties of New Englanders—they always came to Boston from a larger outside world and their attitude toward it was critical and objective.

To James's critical attitude toward Boston was probably partly due the failure in America of The Bostonians; and to this failure is possibly due his discouragement with his original ambition of becoming the American Balzac. At any rate, it marks the moment of his taking up his residence in England and of his turning from the Americans to the English.

He was in London, and he found he liked living in London better than living in Boston or New York. His parents in the States had just died, and his sister came over to join him.


And this brings us to what seems to have been the principal crisis in Henry James's life and work. We know so little about his personal life that it is impossible to give any account of it save as it reflects itself in his writings.

Up to the period of his playwriting his fiction has been pretty plain sailing. He has aimed to be a social historian, and, in a rather limited field, he has succeeded. His three long novels of the later eighties—The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, and The Tragic Muse—are, indeed, as social history, his most ambitious undertakings and, up to a point, his most brilliant. The first hundred pages of The Bostonians, with the arrival of the Mississippian in Boston and the crowded picture of the meeting of reformers is, in its way, one of the most masterly things that Henry James ever did. The Princess Casamassima, with its prison and its revolutionary exiles in London, deals with issues and social contrasts of a kind that James had never before attempted. The familiar criticism of Henry James—the criticism made by H. G. Wells—does not, in fact, hold true of these books. Here his people do have larger interests and functions aside from their personal relations: they have professions, missions, practical aims; and they also engage in more drastic action than in his novels of any other period. Basil Ransom pursues Verena Tarrant and rescues her from the terrible Olive Chancellor; Hyacinth Robinson pledges himself to carry out a political assassination, then kills himself instead; Miriam Rooth makes her career as a great actress. Here there is a genuine will to do rather than a mere disposition to observe. Up to a point these three books are quite triumphant.

But there is a point—usually about halfway through—at which every one of these novels begins strangely to run into the sands; the excitement seems to lapse at the same time that the color fades from the picture; and the ends are never up to the beginnings. This is most obvious, and even startling, in The Tragic Muse, the first volume of which, when we read it, makes us think that it must be James's best novel, so solid and alive does it seem. There are in it a number of things which he has never given us before: a wonderful portrait of a retired parliamentarian with an implied criticism of British Liberal politics, a real scene—what one might have thought he could never do—between a man and a woman (Nick Dormer and Julia Dallow) instead of the polite conversations to which he has accustomed us; and Miriam Rooth, the Muse herself, comes nearer to carrying Henry James out of the enclosure of Puritan scruples and prim prejudices onto the larger stage of human creative effort than any other character he has drawn. Here at last we seem to find ourselves with real people, who have the same appetites and ambitions as other people—in comparison, the characters of his earlier works are real only in a certain convention. Then suddenly the story stops short: after the arrival of Miriam in London, The Tragic Muse is an almost total blank. Of the two young men who have been preoccupied with Miriam, one renounces her because she will not leave the stage and the other apparently doesn't fall in love with her. Miriam, to be sure, makes a great success as an actress, but we are never taken into her life, we know nothing at first hand about her emotions. And with nothing but these negative decisions in sight, the author himself seems to lose interest.

The first half of The Tragic Muse is the high point of the first part of James's career, after which something snaps. He announces that he will write no more long novels, but only fiction of shorter length. He may have been aware that a long novel demands a mounting up to a point of intensity and revelation of a kind which he was unable to give it, whereas a short story need not go so deep. At any rate, he set himself to write plays, and for five years he produced little else.

Why did he do this? He complained at this time that he had difficulty in selling his fiction, and he confessed that his plays were written in the hope of a popular success, that they were intended merely to entertain and were not to be taken too seriously. Yet this is surely an inadequate explanation of the phenomenon of a novelist of the first order giving up the art in which he has perfected himself to write plays which do not even aim to be serious.

That there was something incomplete and unexplained about James's emotional life seems to appear unmistakably from his novels. I believe it may be said that up to this point there are no consummated love affairs in his fiction—that is, none among the principal actors and during the action of the story; and this fact must certainly have contributed to his increasing loss of hold on his readers. It is not merely that he gave in The Bostonians an unpleasant picture of Boston, and in The Tragic Muse an equally unpleasant picture of the English; it is not merely that The Princess Casamassima treated a social-revolutionary subject from a point of view which gave neither side best. It was not merely that he was thus at this period rather lost between America and England. It was also that you cannot long hold an audience with stories about men wooing women in which the parties either never get together or are never seen as really functioning as lovers. And you will particularly discourage your readers with a story about two men and a girl in which neither man ever gets her and in which she marries a third person, totally uninteresting. There is, as I have said, in The Tragic Muse, a much more convincing man-and-woman relationship. Julia Dallow is really female and she really behaves like a woman with Nick Dormer; but here her political ambitions get between Nick and her, so that this, too, never comes to anything: here the man, again, must renounce. (In James's later novels, these healthily female women are always invested with a value frankly sinister and usually animated by evil designs: Kate Croy and Charlotte Stant.) Years later, Henry James explained in his preface to The Tragic Muse that he had been prevented from allowing Miriam Rooth to have a genuine love affair with anybody by the prudery of the American magazines; and certainly the skittishness of a reading public which was scandalized by Jude the Obscure is not to be underestimated. But, after all, Hardy and Meredith did write about Jude and Lord Ormont and his Aminta and let the public howl; and it would certainly have enhanced rather than diminished Henry James's reputation—as to which his ambitions seem by no means to have been modest—if he had done the same thing himself. Problems of passion in conflict with convention and law were coming to be subjects of burning interest; but James could not deal with that kind of passion and was much too honest to try to fake it.

One feels about the episode of his playwriting that it was an effort to put himself over, an effort to make himself felt, as he had never succeeded in doing before. His brother William James wrote home in the summer of 1889, at the beginning of Henry's playwriting period, that Henry, beneath the “rich sea-weeds and rigid barnacles and things” of “strange heavy alien manners and customs” with which he had covered himself like a “marine crustacean,” remained the “same dear old, good, innocent and at bottom very powerless-feeling Harry.” He had injured his back in an accident in his boyhood, and it was still necessary for him to lie down for regular rests. And it is as if he were putting his back into playwriting as he had never been able to put it into a passion. His heroine Miriam Rooth in the novel has turned away from the Philistine English world, which rejects her, and taken into the theater the will of the artist, which will enable her to conquer that world; and her creator is now to imitate her.

But his plays were not produced or did not go. At the first night of Guy Domville, he ran foul of a hissing and booing British audience (the play contained another of his confounded renunciations); and these five years put him under a severe strain. When he recovers from his disappointment, he is seen to have passed through a kind of crisis.

Now he enters upon a new phase, of which the most obvious feature is a subsidence back into himself. And now sex does appear in his work—in a queer and left-handed way. We have The Turn of the Screw and The Sacred Fount—and What Maisie Knew and In the Cage. There are plenty of love affairs now and plenty of irregular relations, but there are always barriers between them and us; they are the chief object of interest, but they are seen from a distance.

For the Jamesian central observer, through whose intelligence the story is usually relayed to us, has undergone a strange diminution. This observer is no longer a complete and interesting person more or less actively involved in the events, but a small child, a telegraph operator who lives vicariously through the senders of telegrams, a week-end guest who seems not to exist in any other capacity except that of a week-end guest and who lives vicariously through his fellow visitors. The people who surround this observer tend to take on the diabolic value of the specters of The Turn of the Screw, and this diabolic value is almost invariably connected with their concealed and only guessed at sexual relations. The innocent Nanda Brookenham of The Awkward Age, a work of the same period and group, has a whole host of creepy creatures around her. James is ceasing to sustain the objectivity which has kept the outlines of his stories pretty definite up through his middle novels: he has relapsed into a dreamy, inner world, where values are often uncertain and where it is not even possible for him any longer to judge the effect of his stories on his audience—that audience which, as a matter of fact, has almost ceased to exist. One is dismayed in reading his comments on The Awkward Age, which he seems to have considered highly successful, to realize that he is unaware of the elements in the book which, in spite of the technical virtuosity displayed in it, make it unpleasant and irritating. The central figure of The Sacred Fount may perhaps have been presented ironically; but James could never have known how we should feel about the gibbering, disemboweled crew who hover about one another with sordid, shadowy designs in The Awkward Age.

This is accompanied by a kind of expansion of the gas of the psychological atmosphere—an atmosphere which has now a special odor. With What Maisie Knew, as F. M. Ford says, the style first becomes a little gamey; and then, dropping off its old formality and what sometimes amounted to a mechanical hardness, it becomes progressively, in the conventional sense, more poetic.

With all this, his experience of playwriting has done him no good in his fiction. He had set himself to emulate the most stultifying models of the mechanically well-made play. He turned certain of these pieces into novels—Covering End and The Other House—and dreadful novels they made; and in The Awkward Age and other works of this period, an artificial dramatic technique persists. It is one of the elements that make some of them so exasperating. They combine a lifeless trickery of logic with the ambiguous subjectivity of a nightmare.

In this period certainly originates that tendency on James's part to exploit the mysteries of technique for the purpose of diverting attention from his shortcomings which has imposed on some of his critics and which must of course have imposed on himself. One can see from his comments of various periods how a method like that of Tolstoy in War and Peace became more and more distasteful to him. Tolstoy, he insisted, was all over the shop, entering the minds of far too many of his characters and failing to exercise the principle of selection. He speaks in the preface to The Tragic Muse of his own difficulty in handling a complex subject—though here it is a question of going into the minds of only two of the characters. But, obviously, the question of whether the novelist enters into a variety of points of view has nothing to do with his technical proficiency or even with his effect of concentration. One trouble with The Tragic Muse is that James does not show us the inside of Miriam Rooth; and if he fails to do so, it is because, here as elsewhere, he does not know, as Tolstoy did, what the insides of such people are like. So, in The Wings of the Dove, the “messengering,” as the drama courses say, of Kate Croy's final scene with Merton Densher is evidently due to James's increasing incapacity for dealing directly with scenes of emotion rather than to the esoteric motives he alleges. And so his curious, constant complaint that he is unable to do certain things because there is no longer space within the prescribed limits of the story is certainly only another hollow excuse: he never seems to be aware of the amount of space he is wasting through the roundabout locutions or quite gratuitous verbiage with which he habitually pads out his sentences—and which is itself a form of staving off his main problems. His censure of Tolstoy for his failure to select is a defensive reflex action on Henry James's part for his own failure to fill in his picture.


What happens after this, however, is interesting. In The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl the psychological atmosphere thickens, fills up the stories with the Jamesian gas instead of with detail and background. The characters (though usually apprehended as convincing personal entities) are seen dimly through a phantasmagoria of dreamlike metaphors and similes, which seem sometimes, as Rebecca West has said, more vivid and solid than the settings.

But a positive element reappears. The novels of The Awkward Age period were written not merely from James's international limbo between the United States and Europe but under the oppression of defeat and self-doubt. But in these queer and neurotic stories—(some of them, of course—The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew—among James's masterpieces)—moral values begin to assert themselves again. They sprout first in the infantile form of Maisie and Nanda Brookenham, whose innocence is the test of the other characters. Then in the longer novels that follow, in figures of a more mature innocence, they completely take the field; and these figures are now invariably Americans. We are back to the pattern of his earlier novels, where the typical conflict was between glamorous people who were also worldly and likely to be wicked, and people of superior scruples who were likely to be more or less homely, and where the former usually represented Europe and the latter the United States. In these novels, it was sometimes the Americans—as in The Portrait of a Lady—who were left with the moral advantage; sometimes—as in The Europeans—the Europeans. But in these late novels it is always the Americans who have the better of it from the moral point of view—scoring heavily off a fascinating Italian prince, an equally fascinating French lady and a formidable group of middle-class English people. Yes: there was a beauty and there was also a power in the goodness of these naïve and open people, which had not existed for Flaubert and his group. It is something different and new which does not fit into the formulas of Europe. What if Lambert Strether had missed in Woollett, Massachusetts, many things that he would have enjoyed in Paris: he had brought to Paris something it did not have. And the burden of the book, William Wetmore Story and His Friends, which was also written during this time—rather different from that of his early book on Hawthorne—is that American artists might much better stay at home.

And now—in 1904—Henry James revisits America, writes The American Scene, returns to it in a novel, The Ivory Tower, left unfinished at his death.

In his other unfinished novel, the fantasia called The Sense of the Past, he makes a young contemporary American go back into eighteenth-century England. Here the Jamesian ambiguity serves an admirable artistic purpose. Is it the English of the past who are the ghosts or is it the American himself who is a dream?—will the moment come when they will vanish or will he himself cease to exist? And, as before, there is a question of James's own asking at the bottom of the ambiguity: Which is real—America or Europe? It was, however, in the novel, the American who was to remain real. (It is curious to compare The Sense of the Past with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, with which it really has a good deal in common.)

Yes: in spite of the popular assumption founded on his expatriation, it is America which gets the better of it in Henry James. His warmest tributes to American genius come out of these later years. Though he could not, in Notes of a Son and Brother, resist the impulse to remove references to Lincoln as “old Abe” from William James's early letters of the wartime, it contains pages on Lincoln's death of a touching appreciation and pride. “It was vain to say,” he writes of Andrew Johnson, of whom he says that the American people felt him unworthy to represent them, “that we had deliberately invoked the ‘common’ in authority and must drink the wine we had drawn. No countenance, no salience of aspect nor composed symbol, could superficially have referred itself less than Lincoln's mold-smashing mask to any mere matter-of-course type of propriety; but his admirable unrelated head had itself revealed a type—as if by the very fact that what made in it for roughness of kind looked out only less than what made in it for splendid final stamp; in other words for commanding Style.” And of the day when the news reached Boston: “I was fairly to go in shame of its being my birthday. These would have been the hours of the streets if none others had been—when the huge general gasp filled them like a great earth-shudder and people's eyes met people's eyes without the vulgarity of speech. Even this was, all so strangely, part of the lift and the swell, as tragedy has but to be of a pure enough strain and a high enough connection to sow with its dark hand the seed of greater life. The collective sense of what had occurred was of a sadness too noble not somehow to inspire, and it was truly in the air that, whatever we had as a nation produced or failed to produce, we could at least gather round this perfection of classic woe.” In The American Scene, he writes of Concord: “We may smile a little as we ‘drag in’ Weimar, but I confess myself, for my part, much more satisfied than not by our happy equivalent, ‘in American money,’ for Goethe and Schiller. The money is a potful in the second case as in the first, and if Goethe, in the one, represents the gold and Schiller the silver, I find (and quite putting aside any bimetallic prejudice) the same good relation in the other between Emerson and Thoreau. I open Emerson for the same benefit for which I open Goethe, the sense of moving in large intellectual space, and that of the gush, here and there, out of the rock, of the crystalline cupful, in wisdom and poetry, in Wahrheit and Dichtung; and whatever I open Thoreau for (I needn't take space here for the good reasons) I open him oftener than I open Schiller.” Edith Wharton says that he used to read Walt Whitman aloud “in a mood of subdued ecstasy” and with tremendous effect on his hearers.

Henry James's career had been affected by the shift in the national point of view which occurred after the Civil War. It is being shown by Mr. Van Wyck Brooks in his cultural history of New England how the Bostonian of the first part of the century was inspired—as, in our time, the Russians have been—to present the world with a humanity, set free from the caste barriers and poverties of Europe, which should return to the mother country only to plunder her for elements of culture which might contribute to the movement at home; and how, with the triumph of the industrial system, the persons who were occupied with art and thought became gradually ashamed of the United States and tended to take refuge in Europe. Henry James belonged to this second phase, but he had a good deal of the idealism of the first one. It appears in the name of the hero of The American, Newman, and in his phrase about Lincoln's “mold-smashing mask”; and, after a period of partial abeyance, when he had been writing largely about Europeans, it cropped up again, as I have shown, and took the field.

But Henry James is a reporter, not a prophet. With less political philosophy even than Flaubert, he can only chronicle the world as it passes, and in his picture the elements are mixed. In the Americans of Henry James's later novels—the Milly Theales, the Lambert Strethers, the Maggie Ververs—he shows us all that was magnanimous, reviving, and human in the Americans at the beginning of the new century along with all that was frustrated, sterile, excessively refined, depressing—all that they had in common with the Frédéric Moreaus and with the daughters of poor English parsons. There they are with their ideals and their blights. Milly Theale, for example—quite real at the core of the cloudy integument with which James has swathed her about—is one of the best portraits of a rich New Yorker in fiction. It is the great period of the heyday of Sargent; but compare these figures of Henry James's with Sargent's and see with what profounder insight as well as with what superior delicacy James has caught the rich Americans of this race.


And between the first and the second blooming something tragic has happened to these Americans. What has become of Christopher Newman? He is Lambert Strether now: he has been worn down by the factories of Woollett. And these Americans of the later novels—who still bring Europe the American sincerity—what has happened to them to make them so wan? Well, for one thing, they have become very rich, and being rich is a terrible burden: in the process of getting rich, they have starved themselves spiritually at home; and now that they are trying to get something for their money, they find that they have put themselves at the mercy of all the schemers and adventurers of Europe. It seems to me foolish to reproach Henry James for having neglected the industrial background. Like sex, we never get very close to it, but its effects are a part of his picture. James's tone is more often old-maidish than his sense of reality is feeble; and the whole development of American society during his absence is implied in these later books.

Now when he returns—late in the day though it is for him—he reacts strongly and reports vividly what he finds.

The returning New Yorker of “The Jolly Corner” encounters the apparition of himself as he would have been if he had stayed in America: “Rigid and conscious, spectral yet human, a man of his own substance and stature waited there to measure himself with his power to dismay.” At first the apparition covers its face with its hands; then it advances upon the returned native “as for aggression, and he knew himself give ground. Then harder pressed still, sick with the force of his shock, and falling back as under the hot breath and sensed passion of a life larger than his own, a rage of personality before which his own collapsed, he felt the whole vision turn to darkness,” and he fainted.

But at contact with the harsh new America, the old Balzac in James revives. I do not know why more has not been made by James's critics—especially by the critics of the Left, who are so certain that there is nothing in him—of his unfinished novel, The Ivory Tower. The work of his all but final period has been “poetic” rather than “realistic”; but now he passes into still a further phase, in which the poetic treatment is applied to what is for James a new kind of realism. The fiction of his latest period is preoccupied in a curious way with the ugly, the poor, and the old, even with—what is unprecedented for James—the grotesque. It is perhaps the reflection of his own old age, his own lack of worldly success, the strange creature that he himself has become. This new vein begins, I think, with The Papers, with its fantastically amusing picture of the sordid lives of journalists in London. Fordham Castle, in which he said he had attempted to do some justice to the parents of the Daisy Millers, whose children had left them behind, is an excursion into the America of Sinclair Lewis. The Bench of Desolation—one of the most beautifully written and wonderfully developed pieces in the whole range of Henry James's work, and, I believe, the last piece of fiction he published—is a sort of poem of loneliness and poverty among the nondescript small shopkeepers and former governesses of an English seaside resort.

And now the revelation of Newport, as it presented itself in the nineteen hundreds—so different from the Newport which he had described years ago in An International Episode—stimulates him to something quite new: a kind of nightmare of the American new rich. Here his gusto for the varied forms of life, his interest in social phenomena for their own sake, seems suddenly to wake up from its reveries. The actual appearances of things become suddenly vivid again. In the novels which preceded The Ivory Tower, the carefully selected and charming old-world settings had been steadily fading out; but now, to our amazement, there starts into relief the America of the millionaires, at its crudest, corruptest, and phoniest: the immense summer mansions full of equipment which no one ever seems to have selected or used, the old men of the Rockefeller-Frick generation, landed, with no tastes and no interests, amidst an unlimited magnificence which dwarfs them, the silly or clumsy young people of the second generation with their off-color relationships, their enormous, meaningless parties, their touching longings and resolute strivings for an elegance and cultivation they cannot manage. The apparition in “The Jolly Corner” came upon the Europeanized American “quite as one of those expanding fantastic images projected by the magic lantern of childhood”; and in the same way, for the reader of James, with the opening of The Ivory Tower, there emerges the picture of old Abner Gaw sitting and rocking his foot and looking out on the sparkling Atlantic while he waits for his partner to die.

The Ivory Tower is immensely comic, deeply human, and brilliantly observed—and it is poetic in the highest sense, like all these later novels: in the sense that its characters and images, individualized though they are, shine out with the incandescence which shows them as symbols of phases through which the human soul has passed.

The moral of the book—which seems quite plain from the scenario left by James—is also of particular interest. The ivory tower itself, a fine piece of Chinese carving, figures the spiritual isolation, the cultivation of sensations, and the literary activity which are to be made possible for the young American, returned from Europe, who has inherited his uncle's fortune; but it contains, also, the fatal letter in which the vindictive Mr. Gaw has revealed all the swindles and perfidies by which the fortune has been created. So that the young man (he has always had a little money) is to come finally to be glad enough to give up the ivory tower with the fortune.

James dropped The Ivory Tower when the war broke out in 1914, because it seemed to him too remote from the present. The war seems to have presented itself to him as simply a struggle between, on the one hand, French and English civilization and, on the other, German barbarism. He had believed in, and had been writing rather vaguely about, the possible salutary effect on human affairs of a sort of international élite such as he tended to depict in his novels; and now he spoke of the past as “the age of the mistake,” the time when people had thought that things would be all right. He now became violently nationalistic, or at least violently pro-Ally, and took out citizen's papers in England, because America had not yet gone into the war. It never seems to have occurred to him that in The Ivory Tower he had been much closer to contemporary realities than in becoming an English citizen, that the partnership of Betterman and Gaw was a European phenomenon, too—any more than it ever occurred to him that the class antagonisms of The Princess Casamassima—his response to the depression of the eighties—must inevitably appear again. But as Hyacinth Robinson died of the class struggle, so Henry James died of the war.

Before he died, the English gave him the Order of Merit. But I do not think that anybody has yet done justice to the genius that, overriding personal deficiencies of a peculiarly disabling kind, finding its bearings in a social situation almost as bewildering as the astronomical one with which the mathematics of relativity deals, surviving the ridicule and indifference of the two peoples whose critic he had made himself, was able to recreate itself to the end and actually to break fresh ground at seventy.

For Henry James is a great artist, in spite of everything. His deficiencies are obvious enough. He was certainly rather short on invention; and he tended to hold life at arm's length. Yet when a novelist with a real inventive gift—say Compton Mackenzie—can invent till the cows come home without his inventions' making any lasting impression on us, the things that James does invent have so perfect an appropriateness and beauty, even floating though they sometimes are in rather a gray sea of abstract exposition, that they remain in our minds as luminous symbols; and the objects and beings at the end of James's arm, or rather, at the end of his antennae, are grasped with an astonishing firmness, gauged with a marvelous intelligence. His work is incomplete as his experience was; but it is in no respect second-rate, and he can be judged only in the company of the greatest. My argument has not given me an occasion to call attention to the classical equanimity, the classical combination of realism with harmony—I have tried to describe them in writing about Pushkin—which have been so rare in American and in English literature alike and of which James is one of the only examples.

Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1947)

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SOURCE: “The Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw,” in MLN: Modern Language Notes, Vol. 62, No. 7, November, 1947, pp. 433–45.

[In the following essay, Heilman disputes the Freudian interpretation of The Turn of the Screw and instead perceives the story as a Christian allegory.]

The Freudian reading of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, which has had some currency in recent decades, does violence not only to the story but also to the Preface, which, like the story, demands scrupulous attention. The Freudian reading was first given public expression by Edna Kenton in 1924; her view is that the ghosts and the attendant horrors are imagined by the neurotic governess, “trying to harmonize her own disharmonies by creating discords outside herself.”1 Miss Kenton, however, adduces almost no evidence to sustain her interpretation, but simply enjoys a gracefully gleeful revel in the conviction that James, by permitting the ghosts to seem real, has utterly fooled all the other readers of the story. She is sure that this is so because of James's prefatory remark upon his intention “to catch those not easily caught”;2 but all James is doing in the passage quoted from is relishing—and deservedly, we may say—the success, with adult audiences, of what he modestly calls a “fairy-tale pure and simple”;3 he is talking about nothing more—as if this is not enough—than his having evoked the willing suspension of disbelief in those who by situation and experience might be supposed to be more than ordinarily skeptical. His tone is simply not that of one who has proudly hoaxed the credulous; it is that of one meditating upon an aesthetic problem. He points out, shrewdly, that the way to create belief in “portentous evil” is to present an undefined evil to the reader's imagination.4 Miss Kenton, most oddly, considers this choice of method a validation of her own definition of the evil.5 The dispassionate judge must conclude: non sequitur.

A decade or so later Edmund Wilson sets out to provide what we might call the scholarly foundation for the airy castle of Miss Kenton's intuitions: in an essay entitled “The Ambiguity of Henry James” he sets forth an astonishingly unambiguous exegesis of The Turn of the Screw.6 Wilson also misreads the preface—most conspicuously in the explanation, essential to his own case, that James, when he says he has given the governess “authority,” means “the relentless English ‘authority’ which enables her to put over on inferiors even purposes which are totally deluded. …”7 It must be said unequivocally: James means nothing of the kind. In the context8 he is talking merely about technical problems of composition, and what he is saying is, to use the trite terms of the rhetoric book, that he is telling the story entirely from the governess's point of view. What is involved, too, is his general theory that the raw materials of the ghost story, to be effective, must be presented through a recording and interpreting consciousness; prodigies “keep all their character, … by looming through some other history—the indispensable history of somebody's normal [the italics are James's] relation to something.”9 Once again, then, the word authority has brought about, in an unwary liberal, an emotional spasm which has resulted in a kind of hysterical blindness. James explains his inability to characterize the governess fully: it was enough of an aesthetic task to present the “young woman's keeping 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; …”10 In the last clause James is merely, as a part of the statement of the technical problem, distinguishing two phases of the material presented through the governess—the phenomena she had observed, and her commentary upon them. Yet Wilson supposes that James is here giving it away that the governess has hallucinations!11 Wilson then continues with a general conclusion about the story that runs counter to a major statement of the preface—a statement which Wilson simply ignores. He insists that the story is “primarily intended as a characterization of the governess: …”12 James says flatly, “… I saw no way, … to exhibit her in relations other than those; one of which, precisely, would have been her relation to her own nature.”13 Besides, James makes this statement even more unequivocally in a letter to H. G. Wells in 1898:

Of course I had, about my young woman, to take a very sharp line. The grotesque business I had to make her picture and the childish psychology I had to make her trace and present, were for me at least, a very difficult job, in which absolute lucidity and logic, a singleness of effect, were imperative. Therefore I had to rule out subjective complications of her own—play of tone etc.; and keep her impersonal save for the most obvious and indispensable little note of neatness, firmness and courage—without which she wouldn't have had her data.14

Here James not only explicitly states that the governess is not his subject but also gives his word for it that the phenomena to which she plays the part of recording consciousness are objective.

Wilson says he knew an actual case of a governess who frightened parents and children because of her psychological difficulties.15 But James writes, in both Preface and letter, of a story he heard about the ghosts of “bad” servants which appeared in an effort to “get hold of” young children.16 We must decide whether James is writing about what he heard about or what Wilson heard about. Indeed, the sly Freudian readers of the Preface—who ignore the letters entirely—seem to miss its whole tone and import: James speaks continually of the ghosts as if they are objective manifestations, and there is no sign whatever of a knowing wink to the rationalists.17 He is concerned almost entirely with defining his technical problems and with observing, almost gaily, how satisfactorily they have been met.

The Freudians misread the internal evidence almost as valiantly as they do the external. In the story, of course, there are passages that it is possible to read ambivalently; but the determining unambiguous passages from which the critic might work are so plentiful that it seems hardly good critical strategy to use the ambiguous ones as points of departure, to treat them as if they were unambiguous, and to roughride over the immitigable difficulties that then arise. We cannot examine all the passages to which Wilson does violence, but a consideration of several of them will show how wobbly his case is.

Wilson supposes the governess to be seeing ghosts because she is in a psychopathic state originating in a repressed passion for the master.18 In view of the terrible outcome of the story, we should at best have to suspect the fallacy of insufficient cause. But the cause does not exist at all: the governess's feelings for the master are never repressed: they are wholly in the open and are joyously talked about: even in the opening section19 which precedes Chapter 1, we are told that she is in love with him. There is no faint trace of the initial situation necessary to produce the distortion of personality upon which Wilson's analysis depends. But Wilson does compel us to consider one point: why does James emphasize the governess's fascinated devotion to the master? For an important technical reason: it is the only way of motivating—although it is probably not quite successful—the governess's stubborn refusal to take the logical step of over-riding the master's irresponsible wish not to be bothered and of calling him in.20 The master's presence would change the situation and the focus and thus the whole story which James had planned. His absence is a datum: James wrote to Dr. Louis Waldstein in 1898, “But ah, the exposure indeed, the helpless plasticity of childhood that isn't dear or sacred to somebody. That was my little tragedy—…”21 It is possible to argue that James's strategy is faulty; indeed, that he himself sensed the weakness of the governess's not calling the master is suggested by the retrospective irony with which he makes her comment upon her rash assumption of adequacy to the situation.22 But a technical procedure should not be mistaken for a psychopathological clue.

When the governess describes the ghost to Mrs. Grose, Mrs. Grose identifies it with Quint, the dead valet, whom the governess had never so much as heard of; and Mrs. Grose gives him—and later Miss Jessel—a character which is entirely consistent with what the governess has already inferred about the moral quality and intentions of the ghost.23 There can be no firmer dramatic evidence of the objectivity of the apparition, and Wilson acknowledges the difficulty: but in order to sustain his contention that the hallucination grows out of the repressed passion for the uncle, he advances the incredible hypothesis that the governess has got master and man confused—which is inconsistent with her obviously having a sharp eye for distinctions—and that Quint and the uncle may look alike.24 Even at his most unsubtle, James would hardly be found thus trafficking in coincidence. But if he were, it can hardly be supposed that Mrs. Grose, who in such matters is very observant, would not at some time comment upon the strange resemblance of master and man.

Like Miss Kenton, Wilson infers the unreality of the ghosts from the fact that only the governess acknowledges seeing them; he does not stop to consider that this fact may be wholly explicable in aesthetic terms. Of course Mrs. Grose does not see the ghosts: she is the good but slow-witted woman who sees only the obvious in life—for instance, the sexual irregularity of Quint and Miss Jessel—but does not unassisted detect the subtler manifestations of evil. She is the plain domestic type who is the foil for the sensitive, acute governess—Cassandra-like in the insight which outspeeds the perceptions of those about her—whose ideal function is to penetrate and shape the soul. James's fondness for allegorical names is commonplace knowledge: Mrs. Grose is not called Mrs. Grose for nothing25 (just as the governess is not the governess for nothing: the narrator exhibits the ideal function of the tutorial type). But as, little by little, the tangible evidence, such as that of Flora's language, corroborates the racing intuitions of the governess, Mrs. Grose comes to grasp the main points of the issue as it is seen totally by the governess and to share her understanding of the moral atmosphere. The acceptance by Mrs. Grose is unimpeachable substantiation. We ought to observe here, also, how carefully the governess records all the initial doubts felt by Mrs. Grose in each new crisis—doubts which at times shake her belief in her own mental soundness.26 This is one of James's ways of establishing the reliability of the governess.

As for the children's appearing not to see the apparitions: this is one of the author's finest artistic strokes. James says that he wants to evoke a sense of evil: one of his basic ways of doing it is the suggestion, by means of the symbolic refusal to acknowledge the ghosts, of a sinisterly mature concealment of evil. But almost as if to guard against the mistaking of the denial of the ghosts for the non-existence of the ghosts, James takes care to buttress our sense of the reality of evil from another direction: he gives us the objective fact of the dismissal of Miles from school—a dismissal which is unexplained and which is absolutely final.27 This dismissal Wilson, in plain defiance of the text, must attempt to put aside as of no consequence; of such a situation he says, indeed frivolously, that the governess “colors [it], on no evidence at all, with a significance somehow sinister.”28 James invests the letter from the school with further significance by the fact that, despite her real shock, which is elaborated later, Mrs. Grose finds a private meaning in the dismissal—“She gave me a look that I remarked at the moment; then, visibly, with a quick blankness, seemed to try to take it back”;29 so, unless we are to repudiate the governess's testimony entirely, the letter gains dramatic value through what it intimates to Mrs. Grose. Further, Wilson cannot deal with the fact that at the end of the final scene Miles, without hearing them spoken by anyone else, speaks the names of Miss Jessel and Quint and indicates his belief that they may be present. Again in plain defiance of the text Wilson says that Miles has managed to see Flora before her departure and thus to find out what the governess is thinking about.30 Wilson says they met; James clearly indicates that they did not. But even if they had met, their meeting would not help Wilson especially. From Flora Miles might have learned the name “Miss Jessel”; but his spontaneous bursting forth with “Peter Quint” would still have to be explained.

Wilson admits that one point is inexplicable: the “gust of frozen air” felt by the governess when, at Miles's bedside, her effort to break down his moral resistance to her is interrupted by his shriek, a shaking of the room, and sudden darkness.31 Despite her feeling a strong blast, no window is open. Wilson takes literally Miles's statement that he turned out the light and suggests that the motive is shame at having to tell about his disgrace at school. But, for one thing, Miles does not tell about his disgrace, and, more important, his turning out the light of his own accord is absolutely incompatible with the theory that the governess is unbalanced. If she is unbalanced we must assume, at this stage of the story, that the children sense her disorder and are humoring her and treating her very carefully, not engaging in violent pranks that might be expected to be dangerously aggravating.

There are still other parts of the story that, on the Freudian hypothesis, are wholly inexplicable. First, as we have seen, is the fact that Mrs. Grose always comes into agreement with the governess—an agreement that is especially forceful because it usually follows upon doubt and hesitation.32 Further—and this is a very large point—the Freudian hypothesis fails completely to deal with the conduct of the children. In the first place, their night-time escapades33 are, for an eight- and a ten-year-old, virtually beyond the bounds of physical possibility. Wilson says blandly that the children “are able to give plausible explanations of their behavior”;34 but the fact is that children of that age simply are not wide awake, imaginatively alert, and capable of strategic maneuvering in the middle of the night. The fact that they are earnestly and imperturbably plotting in the middle of the night, and that they are sophisticatedly evasive in their gay response to questioning, is one of James's subtlest ways of suggesting moral disorder. What Wilson takes to be their “plausibility” is an index of their corruption. Second, the children's daytime conduct makes sense only in the light of the ostensible meaning of the story—the entertainment of the governess by one of them while the other escapes, Flora's difficult solitary trip on the final Sunday afternoon, her crossing the pond in a boat and hiding the boat apparently unaided (“All alone—that child?” exclaims Mrs. Grose),35 her majestically noncommittal manner when she is found strangely alone at a considerable distance from the house.36 Wilson simply ignores all these matters—ignores them as facts, and of course as the brilliant dramatic symbols they are of something unchildlike and inexplicably wrong. Third, there is the vulgarity of Flora's language after the governess has openly asked her about Miss Jessel—important evidence which can be intended only to show a temporarily concealed deterioration of character coming at last to the surface. Notably, too, it is Mrs. Grose who tells about this language and who, what is more, initiates the subject: “horrors,” she calls what she has heard, showing no sign of suggestive pressure from the governess.37 Further, the whole manner of the children is incompatible with their being terrified and perverted by the “authority” of the governess. What is inescapable in them, despite the admirable subtlety with which all this is conveyed, is precisely their freedom, their skill in spending their time as they wish without open challenges, their marvelously disciplined catering to the governess—or appearing to do so—while doing exactly what they please. After Flora's departure what the governess especially feels is the slenderness of her personal, and the disappearance of her official, hold upon the boy.38 At no time do the children show any sign of unwillingness, compulsion, or fright—except in the final scene, in which Miles's fright, it seems logical to suppose, proceeds from the causes which the story says it does. In fact, James emphasizes strongly the falseness of Flora's apparent fear of the governess at the end by giving her a “grand manner about it” and having her ask “every three minutes” whether the governess is coming in and express a desire “never again to so much as look at you.”39 These are signs of artifice, not fright; they indicate self-conscious acting, righteous indignation strategically adopted, the truculence of the guilty person who still seeks loopholes.

Such evidence suggests that a great deal of unnecessary mystery has been made of the apparent ambiguity of the story. Actually, most of it is a by-product of James's method: his indirection; his refusal, in his fear of anti-climax, to define the evil; his rigid adherence to point of view; his refusal—amused, perhaps?—to break that point of view for a reassuring comment on those uncomfortable characters, the apparitions. This theory seems to come very close to James's own view of the ambiguity, upon which, it conveniently happens, he commented in the year of the story's appearance.40 The disturbing ghosts, of course, are to be taken as symbolic,41 a fact which the modern critic might easily grasp if he did not have to wrestle with another problem peculiarly uncongenial to modernity—the drama of salvation. The retreat into abnormal psychology is virtually predictable.

There is a final irony, however: if he does not break the chosen point of view, James at least does not adopt it until his main story is under way. At the start, then, we see behind the curtain and find important objective evidence for use in interpreting the governess's narrative. Now Miss Kenton, with considerable amusement at less observant readers, has discovered what she calls “the submerged and disregarded foreword,”42 and what she has got from it is that the governess is in love with the master. Hence her whole interpretation. But had Miss Kenton herself read the foreword more observantly, she would have found the evidence that makes her interpretation untenable. For this initial section tells us what the governess was like some years later.

The governess, Wilson assures us,43 “has literally frightened him [Miles] to death”: the neurotic approaches criminal insanity. For such an individual, only the gravest kind of prognosis could be made. We might expect progressive deterioration, perhaps pathetic, perhaps horrible. We might barely conceive of a “cure,” but we could hardly expect that it would obliterate all traces of the earlier disastrous tensions. What, then, does happen to the governess who at twenty is supposedly in so terrible a neurotic state? The prologue tells us explicitly: at the age of thirty or so she is still a spinster, still a governess, and therefore still heir, we may assume, to all psychic ills which Wilson imputes to her at the earlier stage. But at this age she seems, to a Cambridge undergraduate whom, ten years her junior, we may expect to be thoroughly critical, a fine, gracious woman who can elicit liking and respect. She charms him so thoroughly that many years later he in no way repudiates, qualifies, or smiles at his youthful feeling. Many years later, in fact he can still say of her,

She was a most charming person. … She was the most agreeable person I've ever known in her position; she would have been worthy of any whatever … she struck me as awfully clever and nice. … I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me too.44

To challenge this characterization of her one would have to challenge the testimony of a poised and graceful middle-aged gentleman; and, in addition to that, the testimony of the perceptive first-person narrator in the prologue, who is completely en rapport with the middle-aged gentleman. James's unqualified initial picture of the governess, then, is wholly irreconcilable with the Freudian interpretation of her. The conclusion is obvious: at twenty the governess was, aside from her unusual sensitiveness and charm, a perfectly normal person.45

The Turn of the Screw may seem a somewhat slight work to call forth all the debate. But there is something to be said for the debate. For one thing, it may point the danger of a facile, doctrinaire application of formulae where they have no business and hence compel either an ignoring of, or a gross distortion of, the materials. But more immediately: The Turn of the Screw is worth saving. Wilson turns the story into a commonplace clinical record, at the same time feeling—in one of the loveliest ironies of contemporary criticism—that he is giving it stature. He complacently announces that “the story, on any other hypothesis, would be, … the only thing James ever wrote which did not have some more or less serious point.”46 But his interpretation is, in the words of Philip Rahv, a “fallacy of rationalism”;47 for the story has a very serious point indeed. The Turn, F. O. Matthiessen says, illustrates James's “extraordinary command of his own kind of darkness, … the darkness of moral evil.”48 The darkness is not obvious: Miss Kenton has fittingly laughed some of the simpler didacticisms out of court. How it is to be defined is another problem, at least part of the answer to which may be found in James's extrordinarily suggestive use of language.

In a subsequent obiter dictum on The Turn of the Screw Wilson seems to hedge somewhat and to modify the rigor of his earlier pronouncement.49 Thus he suggests the flexibility which makes him, at his best, a very good critic. But his capacity for doctrinaire inflexibility deserves a word because it tells us something about the intellectual climate in which he works. In that climate there is so strong a suspicion of the kind of elements that are central in The Turn of the Screw—salvation, the supernatural, evil as an absolute—that the critic ripened in the climate runs into a mental block: he is compelled to find a “scientific” way around these irrationalities; and in doing so he is likely to lose sight of the proper imaginative values. We run again into the familiar clash between scientific and imaginative truth. This is not to say that scientific truth may not collaborate with, subserve, and even throw light upon imaginative truth; but it is to say that the scientific prepossession may seriously impede the imaginative insight. Wilson, for instance, is downright embarrassing in his occasional paeans, in The New Yorker, to books about animals, which, he goes out of his way to tell us, with James Harvey Robinson assurance, will really throw light upon the human, i. e., the spiritual, situation. Even in Wilson's formal critical essays the psychologist is likely to defeat the aesthetician. In “Dickens: The Two Scrooges” Wilson's literary judgments tend to tag along behind the operations (and these are often shrewd enough) of the psychoanalyst.50 But some watchful spirit—the opponent, we may assume, of Quint and Miss Jessel—saw to it that Wilson, in sending into the world the volume containing the Dickens essay, took its title from, and gave its final pages to, his essay on the Philoctetes of Sophocles. Of Sophocles we know so little that there is no opening for the psychologist; Wilson sticks to the drama itself; and his explication of it is masterly.51


  1. “Henry James to the Ruminant Reader,” The Arts, vi (1924), 254.

  2. Loc. cit., pp. 248, 251. The passage Miss Kenton quotes appears in The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition (1922), xii, xviii. Subsequent references to preface and story are to this volume.

  3. P. xvi.

  4. Pp. xx-xxii.

  5. Pp. 254–55.

  6. The Triple Thinkers (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938), pp. 122 ff.

  7. P. 131.

  8. Pp. xviii-xix.

  9. The issue is discussed at length in the preface to The Altar of the Dead, Novels and Tales, ed. cit., xvii, xvii ff. The sentence quoted is on p. xix.

  10. P. xix.

  11. P. 130.

  12. P. 131.

  13. P. xix.

  14. Percy Lubbock, ed., The Letters of Henry James (New York: Scribner, 1920), i, 299.

  15. P. 131.

  16. P. xv. In 1898 he wrote Arthur C. Benson an account of the original telling of the story to him by Arthur's father, Archbishop Benson (Letters, i, 278–280).

  17. What happens in the story is exactly described by Graham Greene's shrewd general remark on James: “James believed in the supernatural, but he saw evil as an equal force with good,” in The English Novelists: A Survey of the Novel by Twenty Contemporary Novelists, ed. Derek Verschoyle (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936), p. 245.

  18. P. 122.

  19. Pp. 150 ff. Cf. also the outright admission of Chapter 1 (p. 162); and the clear implications of the phrase “in the right quarter” (p. 199) and of the governess's self-analysis at the end of Chapter 12 (pp. 239–240). She can even be laughingly, not tensely, ironic about the uncle's inattentiveness to her (p. 287).

  20. See Chapters 12 and 13. James's honesty with his reader appears in his presenting so fully the governess's unwillingness to call the uncle. In order to strengthen our impression of the uncle's power to fascinate, James even suggests that Mrs. Grose has felt that power: she too had not informed him of former goings-on at Bly (p. 261). Compare a further comment of hers (p. 162).

  21. Letters, i, 297.

  22. There is a consistent ironic undertone. It is unmistakable in such phrases as “I was wonderful” (p. 172), “I brought the thing out handsomely” (p. 277), “—oh I was grand!—” (p. 297), and “But I was infatuated—I was blind with victory, …” (p. 306). Compare also the open acknowledgments in Chapter 16 (pp. 260–261). The story might have been developed as the tragedy of the teacher-protector, whose flaw is excessive confidence in his own abilities. The tragic quality of the governess, as well as several other points which I have made, is also suggested in The New Invitation to Learning, ed. Mark Van Doren (New York: New Home Library, 1944), pp. 223–35. Although the participants in the discussion—Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate, and Mark Van Doren—condemn the Freudian interpretation, they still believe that the evil is working through the governess. This seems to me to come uncomfortably close to the Freudian version.

  23. Chapters 5, 6, and 7. The breakdown of the Wilson theory at this point has already been discussed by A. J. A. Waldock, “Mr. Edmund Wilson and ‘The Turn of the Screw,”’ MLN, 331–334 (May, 1947).

  24. Pp. 125–26.

  25. “But she was a magnificent monument to the blessing of a want of imagination, …” (p. 230).

  26. Note pp. 168–69, 204, 230–231, 278 (“… so I was neither cruel nor mad”), 280–81, 290–91.

  27. Pp. 165–66.

  28. P. 123.

  29. P. 165.

  30. P. 129.

  31. Pp. 127–28. The scene discussed is at the end of Chapter 17.

  32. The corroborative value of Mrs. Grose's information on the past and of her establishing of connections between past and present cannot be questioned at all in terms of the theory of ambiguity. To dispose of her evidence, the psychological critic must impugn the veracity of the governess from beginning to end. But such a method would completely dissolve the story by leaving us no dependable facts for investigation. Moreover, it would ignore the sense in which James gives the governess “authority.”

  33. Chapter 10.

  34. P. 126.

  35. P. 275.

  36. Chapters 18, 19, and 20.

  37. P. 289.

  38. See especially paragraph two of Chapter 22 (pp. 294–95).

  39. Pp. 286–87.

  40. To F. W. H. Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, James writes that he cannot give “any coherent account of my small inventions ‘after the fact.’… The one thing and another that are questionable and ambiguous in them I mostly take to be conditions of their having got themselves pushed through at all” (Letters, i, 300).

  41. In The Supernatural in the Writings of Henry James (Unpublished Thesis, Louisiana State University, 1939), Benjamin Carroll acutely discusses the use of the symbolic ghost as a general practice of James, and the kind of “authority” which James gives to his narrators—the authority of the observing and recording consciousness which is central in his method.

  42. P. 251.

  43. P. 130.

  44. Pp. 149–50.

  45. Commenting upon the technique of this novel, the able critic R. P. Blackmur remarks quite casually that the evil “had to be represented, … in the consciousness of it of normal persons” (introduction to Henry James, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, New York and London: Scribner, 1937, p. xxi).

  46. P. 131.

  47. The Great Short Novels of Henry James (New York: Dial, 1944), p. 624. Mr. Rahv also makes the excellent point that the Freudian interpretation is so commonplace as to make the story less than interesting, that it “reduces the intention to a minimum.”

  48. Henry James: The Major Phase (New York: Oxford, 1944), p. 94. For a series of similar comments see the already quoted essay by Graham Greene in The English Novelists, pp. 231–46 passim.

  49. The New Yorker, May 27, 1944, p. 69.

  50. The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), pp. 1–104. The same psychological materials, while given due emphasis, are somewhat more firmly disciplined in Dame Una Pope-Hennessy's Charles Dickens (New York: Howell, Soskin, 1946).

  51. Ibid., pp. 272 ff.

Leo B. Levy (essay date 1956)

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SOURCE: “The Turn of the Screw as Retaliation,” in College English, Vol. 17, No. 5, February, 1956, pp. 286–88.

[In the following essay, Levy investigates the relationship between James's play Guy Domville and his novella The Turn of the Screw.]

Though few Jamesian texts have been the subject of a more intense critical examination than The Turn of the Screw, the significance of its closeness to the débacle of Guy Domville, which brought five years of playwriting to an inglorious end, appears not to have been well understood. The editor of James's plays, Mr. Leon Edel, has been alone in perceiving that the sequence of these two works conceals an important psychological transition. For Edel, the world of The Turn of the Screw is one “of childish fear and terror,” of regressive flight into infantile fantasy, provoked by the collapse of James's theatrical visions. “The jeering audience in St. James's had reduced him to the helplessness of an unappreciated child; it had cut at the heart of his creativity,” Mr. Edel believes; the nightmarish horrors of The Turn of the Screw he interprets as prima facie evidence of the disturbing and disordering frustrations in which James's dramatic years terminated.1

By reversing the direction of Mr. Edel's hypothesis, we may see more clearly into the relations between Guy Domville and The Turn of the Screw, and we may also account for some of the controversial qualities of the tale. We may read The Turn of the Screw not as a testament of inner defeat but as a celebration of a self once more in possession of its powers. James's reaction to the failure of Guy Domville appears to have been a healthy one: he was angry and bitter, exasperated and enraged—but scarcely childish. Five days after his play opened, James heard from the Archbishop of Canterbury the story that was to become The Turn of the Screw, and a few days later sketched it in his notebooks. James may well have been struck by the opportunity it presented to take a peculiarly civilized revenge upon the audience which was still responding apathetically to Guy Domville.2 Read in this context, The Turn of the Screw embraces an act of retaliation upon the “vulgar” spectator of Guy Domville. Such an interest does not, of course, exhaust its multiplicity of motives, but it does explain the juxtaposition of two indisputable facts—that James had experienced intense disappointment at the reception of Guy Domville, and that readers, vulgar and otherwise, of The Turn of the Screw have been experiencing frustration in their turn ever since. James felt that in his plays he had made the most strenuous concessions to an audience which demanded maximum simplification and transparency of meaning. In The Turn of the Screw the situation is reversed: James is in supreme control of a range of ambiguities which he evidently quite intentionally refuses to limit. He is no longer subject to what he had regarded as the arbitrary and unpredictable whims of an ignorant audience, but is free himself to invoke the arbitrary and the unpredictable.

Retaliation in The Turn of the Screw takes two forms, the first that of a primitive and symbolic expulsion of the audience which did not respond to the plays. The story opens with the departure of the ladies whose curiosity about the tale promised by the host cannot sustain a short wait for the arrival of the governess's manuscript. Their interest is crude to begin with. “Oh, how delicious!” one of them replies to the solemn intimation of events genuinely sinister. Another lady exclaims, “Oh, I can't wait for the story!” to learn whom it was that the heroine “loved.” When the host admonishes that “the story won't tell … not in any literal, vulgar way,” she protests, “That's the only way I ever understand.” James's pleasure in excluding the unfit from his audience is evident: “The departing ladies who had said they would stay didn't, of course, thank heaven, stay: they departed in consequence of arrangements made, in a rage of curiosity, as they professed, produced by the touches with which he had already worked us up.”

But even the “compact and select” auditory James thought worthy of his tale have found it as much of an exercise in the baffling as in the thrilling—a fact which reflects the extension and refinement of a motive which expelled the vulgar only to leave the rest puzzled. We can match James's assurances that he intended his tale to “mean” nothing—they are several—with those of his remarks which suggest that he had a more serious intention. The foundering rock remains: there is no way of positively determining the point of view from which we are to read. The problem is familiar: is the governess's record the one to which we are to subscribe at face value, or are we to understand that hers is a distorting, neurotic consciousness, shaping the world into an evil conformity? Readers of The Turn of the Screw seem immemorially committed to debating this question—a situation which surely would have delighted James, and one consistent with the claims of the interpretation advanced here.

It has been proposed often enough that James wishes to beguile his reader with a problem in “point of view” that is unresolvable. In such a light, James's tale is a piece of technical virtuosity in which he explores the farthest reaches of equivocal statement, a Coleridgean venture into poetic vagueness. But if this was James's intention, The Turn of the Screw has behind it a motive less innocent than his disclaimers that it was a jeu d'esprit, an amusette, a thing of “gleams and glooms,” would imply. In the largest sense, its motive was to escape the enforced trivialities, the bald stereotypes, and plain statements in which the plays had involved him; more positively, the desire to create a world of values antithetical to that of the plays afforded James an opportunity of satisfying his anger with the audience which had found even the obvious too difficult. The impulse to defeat the reader with the unfathomable was a relatively mature one: James was expressing through it a complex reaction to the banalities which he had deludedly persuaded himself would make him a successful dramatist. To go as far as he did in The Turn of the Screw was to land himself in the thickest part of those Jamesian woods from which he had strayed.

Some of the tensions which had made it impossible for James to put more of himself into his plays work themselves out in the language of The Turn of the Screw. James's insufficient identification with the theatre was based upon the moral reservations which appear in The Tragic Muse (1890), the novel which is so full of his love for the dramatic art and yet so curiously marred by his conviction that the theatre was not “respectable.” Peter Sherringham, an enlightened patron of the drama, engages in a long, ignominious debate with Miriam Rooth, the glamorous and inspired actress he wishes to marry; Sherringham becomes a figure of craven prudishness who exhibits an absolute contempt of her art. He will marry Miriam only if she abandons the theatrical career he had himself encouraged. Though he respects and admires the actress Mlle. Voisin, he informs Miriam that he will not pay her a social visit, because in France players are not accepted in society. “At least it isn't the right sort of thing abroad, and even in England my foreign ideas stick to me,” he says in Chapter 42.

These attitudes enter into The Turn of the Screw, where the note of the disreputable and the lurid, the deceptive and the false, is sustained by images of the theatre. But they appear in a less ambivalent form, newly assimilated to the metaphorical design of James's language, in which they convey very exactly a moral feeling which associates the shady and the theatrical with the positively evil. Much is made, for example, of the histrionic talents of the children. They stage a continuous drama of deception for their governess, who is at first entertained: “They not only popped out at me as tigers, and as Romans, but as Shakespeareans, astronomers, and navigators.” The children are prepared at every turn with graceful and amusing recitation and pantomime of lessons, of people, of attitudes and events. It is only by her gradual penetration of these disguises that the governess “came across traces of little understandings between them by which one of them should keep me occupied while the other slipped away.” Thus Miles holds her enthralled with his piano-playing while Flora vanishes. Bly itself, “with its grey sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theatre after the performance—all strewn with crumpled play-bills.” These are the settings of the unspeakably horrible. The apparition of Peter Quint (“a base menial”) gives the governess “a sort of sense of looking like an actor”—though she confesses that she has never seen one. And he is “tall, active, erect—but never—no, never!—a gentleman.”

In associating the theatrical with the dreadful insinuations of the ghostly, James was, perhaps spitefully, anathematizing the art he had practiced with such painful consequences. Either he intends the constant derogation of the drama as an expression of the deranged imagination of the governess—in which case he has disentangled himself from it altogether—or he is taking the vicarious satisfaction of justifying his earlier feelings of suspicion and hostility by connecting their object with an evil intended to have external validity. Both strategies imply a progression beyond the extremes of ambivalence displayed in The Tragic Muse and in the plays which followed it. As a complex resolution, in literary terms, of the besetting conflicts of the dramatic years, The Turn of the Screw is at once a retaliatory gesture toward the immediate past and the achievement of a creative spirit which had rediscovered itself.


  1. The Complete Plays of Henry James (1949), p. 61. Mr. Edel expresses his views on The Turn of the Screw more fully in his introduction to The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (1948).

  2. Guy Domville opened on 5 January 1895, and ran for four weeks in London. Though James did not complete The Turn of the Screw until 1 December 1897, the finished tale embodies the details of the brief note he made on 12 January 1895.

John Lydenberg (essay date 1957)

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SOURCE: “The Governess Turns the Screws,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 1, June, 1957, pp. 37–58.

[In the following essay, Lydenberg perceives the governess as an ironic savior who causes the breakdown of Flora and the death of Miles.]

The interpretation of The Turn of the Screw made by Edmund Wilson in the thirties is today a dead horse, oft beaten. Every reader of the exegeses of Henry James's most famous ghost story must by now be convinced that James did not intend it as an account of the hallucinations of a frustrated, sex-starved governess.

At present it is the fashion to read the story not as a Freudian analysis but as Christian myth, suggestive of “archetypal” religious experiences. Robert W. Heilman has given the fullest exposition of this symbolic interpretation in “The Turn of the Screw as Poem,”1 an essay as typical of late forties' criticism as the Wilson interpretation, now dubbed “overrationalistic,” was typical of criticism in the thirties. Heilman demonstrates most convincingly how James has laced his story with an intricate network of words and symbols carrying general religious connotations and specifically suggesting the Judeo-Christian myths of Eden, the Fall, and the Redeemer. The drama is played against a backdrop of the gardens of Bly, a summery Eden transformed by the cold, rainy blasts that bring the fall of the year. The children are essentially angelic creatures, bright, fresh, innocent, adorable, divine—and foredoomed. They have already been corrupted by Quint, with his red hair and fixed, snakelike eyes, and by Miss Jessel in her black garb, and they change as Bly changes, the angels becoming fiends, the divine, infernal. With selfless devotion, the governess dedicates herself as sister of charity, confessor, savior to the hopeless task of saving the souls of the blameless innocents from the anti-Christs who have risen that the children may not have life. In his attempt to achieve the purest distillation of horror, James inevitably drew upon our common religious heritage for words and images that would evoke the most intense feeling of evil. The story continues to live and to horrify new generations of readers because it recalls the archetypal religious experiences, and specifically because it suggests, subtly and delicately, our particular religious myth.

James's own comments on The Turn of the Screw, in letters, notebooks, and his Preface to the New York edition, make it reasonably clear that he intended neither a psychological study of the governess nor a religious parable. He was simply writing a story of horror for horror's sake. He refers to it as “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation,” and discusses the devices he used to “give the impression of the communication to the children of the most infernal imaginable evil and danger. …” Most important of these devices was the negative one of refusing to specify the nature of the evil lest specification lessen the horror for any particular reader. “My values,” he says, “are positively all blanks.” Thus he tempts each reader to fill in the blanks with his own notion of the greatest evil. Though we can scarcely claim that “James meant so-and-so,” we are as good as invited to go on beyond his intent and interpret the story in whatever way our ingenuity permits.

Just as James left the evil undefined, so he tried to leave the governess' personality undefined. He claims that his sole interest in her was to make her a credible reporter of Bly's horrors. To do that, he says, “I had to rule out subjective complications of her own—play of tone etc.; and keep her impersonal save for the most obvious and indispensable little note of neatness, firmness and courage. …” Though Edna Kenton and then Wilson in effect denied that James meant what he said about her, many critics have not only granted that he intended the governess to be merely an objective recorder but even insisted that he achieved his intent. Representative of this familiar view is Pelham Edgar's assertion about the governess: “save for courage and devotion she has no discussable characteristics.” But this is nonsense. Whatever James may have intended to do—or not do—he has made the governess a character with eminently discussable characteristics.

She is of course the narrator, and as such she is never seen from the outside (except briefly in the prologue). Neither author nor other characters give us ready-made characterizations of the governess; she alone provides the information from which we can deduce the essential facts about her personality. Here it is certainly true that, as Spinoza said, “What Paul says about Peter tells us more about Paul than about Peter.” The more we examine the governess' account, the more we feel that she is very much, and very tragically, a person with will and passion of her own. The richness—and the confusion and ambiguity of the tale—lie just here: we can know the children and the apparitions only through the governess, and we can know the governess only through her own words: her observations and actions and conclusions. To understand the events we must evaluate the governess' evaluations, and to do this we must evaluate the governess herself.

Heilman is fully aware of this. He sees that the governess is no blank automaton but an actor with characteristics that go beyond mere “firmness and courage.” And he considers her central to the religious interpretation of the story. The words applied to her, he says, “suggest that James is attaching to her the quality of savior, not only in a general sense, but with certain Christian associations.” It is at this point that his otherwise admirable analysis slips a crucial notch. These words are not simply words that James attaches to her; they are words that James has her attach to herself. And the words suggesting that the children are angelic creatures corrupted by infernal agents are her words, words that give us her vision—or version—of the fall of the house of Bly. Heilman is quite right in holding that “the center of horror is not the apparitions themselves … but … the children, and our sense of what is happening to them.” But when he says, “What is happening to them is Quint and Jessel,” he oversimplifies. What is happening to the children is what the governess says is happening, and more than that, what is happening to them is, clearly and terribly, the governess herself.

Our sense of horror is indeed aroused by the plight of the children. But what exactly do we sense their plight to be? We feel an undertone of sexual perversity—but to build an interpretation of the whole story upon that, as in essence Wilson did, is to give an explanation that is too rationalistic, too specific to accord with the full depth of the conveyed horror. We recognize that the children are symbols of the tortured state of mankind, and that the horror of their corruption is heightened by the fact that they are essentially such angelic children. But this Heilman interpretation is, if not too rationalistic, at least too abstract; it provides a symbolic interpretation that we can grasp intellectually but that we do not truly feel.

So it is for me, at least. Heilman's conception makes sense intellectually but not emotionally. I do not truly feel the corruption of the children or the horror of their putative relations with Quint and Jessel. What I feel is the governess ever tightening the screws. I respond—intensely as James wants us to respond—to the plight of two children, potentially angelic but human like all of us, harried to distraction and death by an overprotective governess. The character and outcome of the struggle, as I feel it, is determined not by the infernal ghosts but by the character of the protecting governess: she is anxious, fearful, possessive, domineering, hysterical and compulsive. The children are pawns which she must protect and can use, but for which she has no real concern; she is concerned primarily with herself. After seeing what she does with and to them I would say, paraphrasing Emerson, “If they are the Devil's children, let them live then with the Devil.” Salvation by such as the governess doesn't save. And if it had saved the children for the governess' continued ministrations, that I fear would have been the greater of the two evils.

If then we are to see her as a would-be savior—and I agree with Heilman that we must—we see her as a false savior. And I rather think, though I certainly cannot be sure, that James unconsciously saw her so too. In theological terms, she embodies the sin of pride in daring to take upon herself, unaided, the task of saving the children. In other terms, she is a compulsive neurotic who with her martyr complex and her need to dominate finally drives to destruction the children she wishes to possess. Thus the Christian myth becomes twisted: the religious interpretation gives us a story which is, in some manner at least, antireligious. Or maybe, admitting as I do the essential ambiguity of almost everything in the story, I should more cautiously suggest that any religious significance we find here is necessarily double-edged. To me the governess is central; and although I grant that she puts up a heroic fight for the souls of her charges, I find myself basically suspicious of her, not of her good will and certainly not of her “firmness,” but of her coolness, her judgment, her wisdom, and above all her ability to cope with human beings who as human beings are inevitably a mixture of good and evil.

Let us now listen to the governess in some detail. One particular paragraph merits careful reading.

I scarce know how to put my story into words that shall be a credible picture of my state of mind; but I was in these days literally able to find a joy in the extraordinary flight of heroism the occasion demanded of me. I now saw that I had been asked for a service admirable and difficult; and there would be a greatness in letting it be seen—oh, in the right quarter!—that I could succeed where many another girl might have failed. It was an immense help to me—I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back!—that I saw my service so strongly and so simply. I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep constant ache of one's own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had them. It was, in short, a magnificent chance. This chance presented itself to me in an image richly material. I was a screen—I was to stand before them. The more I saw, the less they would. I began to watch them in stifled suspense, a disguised excitement that might well, had it continued too long, have turned to something like madness. What saved me, as I now see, was that it turned to something else altogether. It didn't last as suspense—it was superseded by horrible proofs. Proofs, I say, yes—from the moment I really took hold.

I would almost be willing to rest my case on this one paragraph alone, which exhibits in concentrated form all the major traits of the governess, traits that go far beyond James's simple qualities of “firmness and courage.” It is her “state of mind” that she, and thus we, are first of all concerned with, and she recognizes that her audience will not easily find it “credible.” She sees herself as “committed” to a “service admirable and difficult” and is determined not to miss this “magnificent chance” to display her dedication so that it will be recognized “in the right quarter”—that of the master. She and the children are isolated, “cut off” and “united”; if she has lost herself in them, she has also found herself by having them, to “protect and defend” and indeed to possess. Thus, for her relations with the children, the servants are at the same time a threat and a necessity. Though she talks of stifling her suspense and disguising her excitement, she can in no wise do so, for she has worked herself into such a state of mind that, as she admits, it is essential to her sanity and salvation for proofs of the rightness of her imaginings to be forthcoming. So she eagerly offers herself as a screen. She will receive the images of the evil past, cut them off from the children—but the images will be there on that screen, and we might suggest that were the screen not there to bring them out, they would never become visible or effective.

Thus she “takes hold,” with a compulsive “joy” in her heroism, a determination that the children shall submit not to the dark apparitions but to her. And she appears as an almost classic case of what Erich Fromm calls the authoritarian character: masochistic in that she delights in receiving the tortures as an “expiatory victim,” a phrase she later applies to herself, and at the same time sadistic in her insistence on dominating the children and Mrs. Grose.

This statement of her compulsive dedication and the need that is almost a desire for the proofs to materialize is made after Quint's first visitation. But even before she had been challenged by ghosts, before she had found any outlet for her nervous tension, she had already revealed something of her character. Her first words, describing her feelings as she drives from London to Bly, present us with a person doubtful of herself, highstrung, swinging from one extreme to another without apparent cause:

I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong. After rising, in town, to meet his appeal, I had at all events a couple of very bad days—found myself doubtful again, felt indeed sure I had made a mistake. In this state of mind I spent the long hours of bumping, swinging coach that carried me to the stopping-place at which I was to be met by a vehicle from the house. This convenience, I was told, had been ordered, and I found, toward the close of the June afternoon, a commodious fly in waiting for me. Driving at that hour, on a lovely day, through a country to which the summer sweetness seemed to offer me a friendly welcome, my fortitude mounted afresh and, as we turned into the avenue, encountered a reprieve that was probably but proof of the point to which it had sunk. I suppose I had expected, or had dreaded, something so melancholy that what greeted me was a good surprise.

Once arrived, she remains “uneasy,” unwilling to take things for what they seem, finding Flora's very charm and beauty cause for wonderment and Mrs. Grose's friendliness cause for suspicion. No wonder she slept restlessly that night. She hears mysterious night noises, but aware of her hypertension puts them down to an overwrought fancy. When we learn later that Bly is really haunted, we know that these sounds were actually there to be heard. But this early in the story we construe them much as the governess does—as the result of her imagination—and they accentuate the impression, left by her first two pages of narration, that we have here a very tense and excitable young lady.

Whatever aspects of the story are ambiguous, there is no doubt that unrelaxed nervous anxiety is an essential trait of the governess. Casual comments after the opening paragraphs add steadily to the impression that this quality is not merely the result of the nerve-racking situation into which she is thrown: it is part of her normal character. She says she was “in receipt in these days of disturbing letters from home, where things were not going well.” She refers to her previous life as “my small, smothered life.” She lacks self-confidence: Miles “was too clever for a bad governess, a parson's daughter to spoil. …” “I'm rather easily carried away,” she says to Mrs. Grose very early in the story; “I was carried away in London!” After the apparitions have started she comments: “I was queer company enough.” Reasonable all right for her to be queer by then; but one feels that she was not exactly relaxing company to begin with, that she would have been queer even without the other, ghostly company to aggravate matters.

Indeed James so effectively sets the mood for the horrible doings, through the governess' initial doubts and worries, that we come to feel the visitations serve her as a blessing in evil disguise. The apparitions satisfy a deep-lying need; they permit her to objectify her fears, to project her uncertainties onto something external; they give her a chance to be applauded for her heroic devotion. Quint's first appearance is preceded by two pages of troubled introspection. She is self-satisfied, almost smug, and at the same time a bundle of tensions straining for release. “I dare say I fancied myself, in short, a remarkable young woman and took comfort in the faith that this would more publicly appear.”

Though it takes her awhile to realize, or decide, that the evil figure on the tower is threatening the children, once decided she moves unflinchingly to save her charges. Her concern, she would insist, is only for them. But to the reader it often seems that her real concern is with herself. She paces the sunny paths and the dark halls of Bly as if always holding a mirror before her, in which to observe with care and admiration her displays of heroism, and in which to catch in the shadowy background the lurking figures visible only to someone with her preternatural acuity. We quite agree with her when she says, “The shock I had suffered must have sharpened all my senses.” Possessed by what she calls her “endless obsession,” and her “dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified” by the apparitions, she stalks her prey; but we are often uncertain whether the prey is Quint and Jessel, as she thinks, or Miles and Flora, as it finally seems, or even, in some perverse fashion, herself.

James meant the ghosts to be real. But what they are we can never quite decide. Sometimes indeed it almost seems as though they are creatures of what she calls her “mere infernal imagination,” as though she makes them or thinks she does. “There were shrubberies and big trees, but I remember the clear assurance I felt that none of them concealed him. He was there or was not there; not there if I didn't see him.” Though that seems reasonable enough at first, on second thought one wonders why the evil one could not secrete himself, why his existence, or at least his presence, should be contingent on the governess' recognition of him? Is her dread of the figures actually a disguised desire to see them? “There was many a corner round which I expected to come upon Quint, and many a situation that, in a merely sinister way, would have favored the appearance of Miss Jessel.” Or—horrible thought!—could it be that they are not evil? Once when she saw Jessel at the desk: “I had the extraordinary chill of a feeling that it was I who was the intruder.” “I” who was the evil intruding on Bly to destroy the children by possessing them?

Just as her words suggest that somehow she calls up the ghosts, and with them the evil, so they suggest that she imposes the meaning upon the events. Her long verbal struggles with Mrs. Grose are ostensibly attempts to make that woman of little understanding appreciate the true horror that surrounds and penetrates the children, but they appear equally as attempts to darken the light of the housekeeper's common sense with the fearful suspicions of the governess. Her supersensitivity to the presence of the apparitions is complemented by her marvelous understanding of their intentions and of the pattern of the future. “It seems to me indeed, in retrospect, that by the time the morrow's sun was high I had restlessly read into the facts before us almost all the meaning they were to receive from subsequent and more cruel occurrences.” All ambivalently, she makes her grisly interpretations and then tries to persuade herself that she has not done so. The “strangest if not the brightest thread in the pensive embroidery I just spoke of was the impression I might have got, if I had dared to work it out. …” “It suited me too, I felt, only too well; by which I mean that it suited exactly the particularly deadly view I was in the very act of forbidding myself to entertain.” Her conscious mind recoils in horror from the horrors that it discovers and that her subconscious wishes to evoke.

Such reluctance to foretell the worst is not usual with her. More often she sees through the deceptions of the children and the dullness of Mrs. Grose to the truth beneath—to her truth, welcomed with exaltation.

“He was looking for little Miles.” A portentous clearness now possessed me. “That's whom he was looking for.”

“But how do you know?”

“I know, I know, I know!” My exaltation grew. “And you know, my dear!”

She didn't deny this, but I required, I felt, not even so much telling as that.

She stalks the halls through the dark night, straining to discern the prowlers—and reasonably enough occasionally seeing them. She listens at doors and stands behind curtains to watch the children whom she suspects of slipping out onto moonlit lawns—and happily catches them at it once or twice. Then she can explain it to the obtuse housekeeper; it was worse than she had dared to expect.

“Lord, you do change!” cried my friend.

“I don't change—I simply make it out. The four, depend upon it, perpetually meet. If on either of these nights you had been with either child, you would clearly have understood.”

“Clearly!” Could any word be more inappropriate as description of the understanding possible to anyone except this omniscient, determined governess? The most dramatic example of her marvelously clear prevision is the long dialogue with Mrs. Grose before the second trip to the lake to find Flora and Miss Jessel. Like a magician beguiling an expectant audience, the governess explains what the children and their tempters are up to and drags the housekeeper to the site at which she expects the new visitation.

By its ghostly nature the relation of the governess to the apparitions is inevitably hard to define. Much clearer, and essentially indisputable, is the iron control she increasingly exercises over the children. She is not the progressive teacher providing them with opportunities to develop according to their needs and to solve their own problems. She is not the firm disciplinarian teaching them to develop according to accepted standards. She is the authoritarian ruler denying any rights to her subjects, the Puritan certain that depravity inheres in everyone and that she alone is elected to fight it. The shock of the first apparition fortunately permits her to translate her diffuse nervousness into a stern dedication. “I have my duty,” she says to Mrs. Grose, shortly thereafter. And from then on the sense of rigorous duty increasingly pervades the story as she constantly tightens the screws, bearing down with a “rigid control” and a “rigid will.” She freely admits that the children, beleagured by the ghosts, are prisoners of hers:

Something or other had brought nearer home to me that I had all but pinned the boy to my shawl and that, in the way our companions were marshalled before me, I might have appeared to provide against some danger of rebellion. I was like a jailer with an eye to possible surprises and escapes.

Never would she leave them alone: “I was careful almost never to be out of” their company. And she says that the final occasion on which Flora escapes to Miss Jessel and the lake “was the very first time I had allowed the little girl out of my sight without some special provision.”

Oppressive as this unrelenting surveillance would have seemed to the children, her love for them must have been an even heavier burden. The governess thinks she is enchanted and charmed by her little charges, imagines herself passionately devoted to them, and well-nigh smothers them in demonstrations of this love.

There were moments when, by an irresistible impulse, I found myself catching them up and pressing them to my heart.

I needed nothing more than this to feel the full force of Mrs. Grose's comparison, and, catching my pupil in my arms, covered her with kisses in which there was a sob of atonement.

These caresses are not expressions of a spontaneous, relaxed affection. With their accompaniment of sobs of atonement and their nervous pressure, they must seem to the children compulsive and indeed frightening.

I was, of course, thoroughly kind and merciful; never, never yet had I placed on his little shoulders hands of such tenderness as those with which, while I rested against the bed, I held him there well under fire.

One of these [ideas of how to interpret the children's actions], for a moment, tempted me with such a singular intensity that, to withstand it, I must have gripped my little girl with a spasm that, wonderfully, she submitted to without a cry or a sign of fright.

We can see the children as little devils who submit to these extravagant blandishments as the price they have to pay for their freedom to consort with their unearthly visitors. But I find myself more inclined to pity them as objects of a hysterical, possessive love that they accept, with remarkable imperturbability, as part of the strange world of strange governesses into which they had been born.

I threw myself upon him and in the tenderness of my pity I embraced him. “Dear little Miles, dear little Miles!”

My face was close to his, and he let me kiss him, simply taking it with indulgent good humor. “Well, old lady?”

The governess comments pridefully on the tenderness they show toward her, little realizing that under the enforced demonstrations of a conventional love smolders a resentment and hatred that will burst out all the more violently because so long suppressed.

Beneath the governess' displays of love and care lies her determination not merely to protect and control but fully to possess her charges. The idea of their having been “familiar” with Quint and Jessel is insupportable. “Too free with my boys?” she exclaims in horror and determination. Sharing is impossible; the children must be either hers or theirs. “They haven't been good—they've only been absent. It has been easy to live with them, because they're simply leading a life of their own. They're not mine—they're not ours. They're his and they're hers!” When Flora is irretrievably lost to her, she is almost happy because it means she will be left alone with Miles; it is Miles for whom her possessive passion is most acute, Miles whom she most fears and whom she most damages. “Won't, if he has any chance turn on me? Yes, I venture still to think it. At all events, I want to try. Get off with his sister as soon as possible and leave me with him alone.” On any level the story is a struggle for the possession of the children, and once we begin to doubt the governess' interpretation of events, once we see her as an agent with positive effects upon the children, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what she is striving for is complete authority, complete dominance, complete possession of the children, whose innocence may have already been besmirched by Quint and Jessel but who at least had a life and existence of their own before the arrival of their governess with her duty and her love.

Her complete possession of the children is contingent upon the continuation of the threat. I have already cited some of the passages that leave us feeling that she actually wants the apparitions to be there, wants the children to succumb, almost, to the pressures of their tempters. Always we see her waiting for new developments, consciously fearing the worst, but unconsciously fearing that the worst might not develop, that the threat might evaporate.

“Surely you don't accuse him—”

“Of carrying on an intercourse that he conceals from me? Ah, remember that, until further evidence, I now accuse nobody.” Then, before shutting her out to go, by another passage, to her own place, “I must just wait,” I wound up.

Note particularly the following sentence, which can be read as merely another example of Jamesian ambiguity or can be construed as clear Jamesian revelation of the governess' ambivalence:

Say that, by the dark prodigy I knew, the imagination of all evil had been opened up to him; all the justice within me ached for the proof that it could ever have flowered into an act.

In actuality, though she may think she is saying something else, she wants the worst to come true. As she worries the strange happenings over and over with Mrs. Grose, proclaiming always that it “was a pity” they had to talk about them and insisting on their “duty of resistance to extravagant fancies,” she makes us feel that her disclaimers are gauze-thin veils for her fears that her fancies were unfounded. As she says, “It would distress me much more to lose my power than to keep it.” For her power to sense presences that no one else senses is her power to coerce the children and to drag Mrs. Grose along with her in her fine perceptions. Power she must continue to exert, and she can do so only if her antagonists continue their aggressions. Without ever sharper pieces of evidence, her case, her power, her sanity will collapse.

Thus the struggles with Mrs. Grose, who cannot safely be allowed to remain an innocent and uncommitted bystander, are as crucial as those with the children. The most puzzling passages in the book, masterpieces of Jamesian ambiguity, are the dialogues between the governess and this good, simple woman, whom we can interpret as representative either of gross insensibility to the forces of evil or of common-sense acceptance of the human mixture of good and bad. Whatever is ambiguous in these dialogues, however, there is no doubt that the governess forces Mrs. Grose into submission, “dragged her at my heels,” as she puts it. She presses and presses—those are her words—probing for additional bits that can be forced into her predetermined pattern, often seeming to tell Mrs. Grose what to say, explaining the true, dark meanings that Mrs. Grose has failed to appreciate, ever fearful lest she lose Mrs. Grose as an ally. The apparent innocence of the children is a continual threat to Mrs. Grose's allegiance.

Flights of fancy gave place, in her mind, to a steady fireside glow, and I had already begun to perceive how, with the development of the conviction that—as time went on without a public accident—our young things could, after all, look out for themselves, she addressed her greatest solicitude to the sad case presented by their instructress.

The case must always be made to concern the “others,” and the governess' imagination must always find ways to redirect Mrs. Grose's suspicions when they threaten to swerve toward the governess instead of the children.

Mrs. Grose watched them [being particularly manageable and angelic on the lawn] with positive placidity; then I caught the suppressed intellectual creak with which she conscientiously turned to take from me a view of the back of the tapestry. I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority—my accomplishments and my function—in her patience under my pain. She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch's broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean sauce pan.

So, hounding and loving the children, pressing ever harder on Mrs. Grose, she controls all her inferiors rigidly, until unable to bend, they break in the climactic scenes: the scene of Jessel's second lake appearance, to which Mrs. Grose is dragged along, passively submitting to the governess' authority until she finally wrenches herself free to comfort the sobbing, broken Flora with the assurance that no one was there after all; and the final scene of Miles gripped tight by the governess as she keeps demanding explanations and confessions and complete submission until finally he collapses dead in her arms—“his little heart, dispossessed” of the demons which kept her from possessing it herself, completely, until now she has it in death.

Along with the governess' determination to make others submit goes a desire on her own part to relax in submission to something else. On her first night at Bly, she says: “I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was strangely, at the helm!” These are her feelings before any apparitions had appeared, even before the first breath of suspicion falls on Miles with the word of his dismissal from school. She is at the helm, she will steer, she will determine the course, and take her passengers where she wills. That she assumes authority and exercises it with implacable firmness we have seen. But the determination, so noticeable as the story progresses, to steer her passengers along her course is not the dominant aspect of this image. She is not only the helmsman; she is one of the passengers, lost with them, drifting.

Here we have the other face of the authoritarian character: the masochism that often accompanies sadism. Lacking any true direction or personality of her own, she tries to find and make her life, partly by bending others to her will, partly by submitting and in effect giving herself over to Quint and Jessel. Quint and Jessel permit her to escape from the freedom she showed herself fearful of in the opening paragraphs. They give her the necessary excuse to dominate the children and the housekeeper, and they give her a way to lose herself in what she disguises, for herself as well as for Mrs. Grose, as dedication to a cause. If she feels herself at the helm, she also feels the ship drifting; and as we have seen in another image, she wishes to serve as a screen, to receive onto herself the evil ministrations of the apparitions, for whom she readily admits, nay insists, that she is searching.

This submissive aspect of the governess' character appears more in the overtones of her narrative than in specific statements and is thus much harder to demonstrate by particular quotations than is her desire to dominate. There are two passages that make her desire for self-immolation reasonably explicit.

I had an absolute certainty that I could see again what I had already seen, but something within me said that by offering myself bravely as the sole subject of such experience, by accepting, by inviting, by surmounting it all, I should serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquility of my companions.

Whether the children really saw or not—since, that is, it was not yet definitely proved—I greatly preferred, as a safeguard, the fulness of my own exposure. I was ready to know the very worst that was to be known.

We have seen that she seems really to want things to happen, wants her worst previsions to come true. Trouble and danger come as a welcome “relief.” They are a relief in part because they allow her to tighten the screws further each time, and also because they take her out of herself, making action automatic, something she does, not as herself but as an instrument. And when action fails, when she is unable to keep control, she responds with hysterical submission herself.

Of what first happened when I was left alone [after the second appearance of Jessel at the lake] I had no subsequent memory. I only knew that at the end of it, I suppose, a quarter of an hour, an odorous dampness and roughness, chilling and piercing my trouble, had made me understand that I must have thrown myself, on my face, on the ground and given way to a wildness of grief. I must have lain there long and cried and sobbed, for when I raised my head the day was almost done.

Beneath her overt firmness and her stern exertion of authority lies a realization that what she is doing is dangerous, even evil. She is caught in a trap of her own making.

[Miles] couldn't play any longer at innocence; so how the deuce would he get out of it? There beat in me indeed, with the passionate throb of this question, an equal dumb appeal as to how the deuce I should.

“By writing to him [the master] that his house is poisoned and his little nephew and niece mad” [she queries in answer to a suggestion of Mrs. Grose]?

“But if they are, Miss?”

“And if I am myself you mean?”

Within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?

Thus she throws herself weeping into Mrs. Grose's sheltering arms or she lies sobbing on the ground, and gains as much satisfaction by such self-abasement as she does by controlling her companions. For she lives in a world of extremes, a world composed only of masters and slaves, and if she fails to demonstrate the objective existence of those she claims have enslaved the children, she is left helplessly dangling, alone in a normal world of normal people, a world in which she cannot operate.

The children, however, cannot live in this hysterical world which she has to create. They want to escape her. But their first indications of this she construes as a desire to leave her kindly surveillance that they may be with the evil others; and even the reader finds that he can go along with her construction.

“I thought you wanted to go on as you are” [she says to Miles]. …

“I don't—I don't. I want to get away.”

But finally it is obvious that it is the hounding rather than the haunting that they must get away from.

“Take me away, take me away—oh, take me away from her!”

“From me?” I panted.

“From you—from you!” she cried.

Flora was so markedly feverish that an illness was perhaps at hand; she had passed a night of extreme unrest, a night agitated above all by fears that had for their subject not in the least her former, but wholly her present governess. It was not against the possible re-entrance of Miss Jessel on the scene that she protested—it was conspicuously and passionately against mine.

The governess cannot fail to admit now that they fear and hate her. But she cannot admit that she is the cause; they hate only because they are completely corrupted, completely enslaved by evil. So when Mrs. Grose reports that she has heard from Flora “horrors” about the governess, the governess engages in one of her most nimble bits of interpretation.

It was in quite another manner that I, for my part, let myself go. “Oh, thank God!” She sprang up again at this, drying her eyes with a groan, ‘Thank God’?”

“It so justifies me!”

“It does that, Miss!”

I couldn't have desired more emphasis, but I just hesitated, “She's so horrible?”

Recall again the last long scene of Miles' death—or murder. She will make him confess, by whatever third-degree methods prove necessary; she will find a way to demonstrate that all actions, all explanations prove his guilt. He will not escape like Flora. She will hold him tight and keep him all for herself, even though she can possess him as she wishes only in death.

In conclusion let me return to the point from which I started. I am convinced that James was not intending to write an allegory, or a story with a moral—James seldom if ever did anything as simple as that. Nor was he writing a nouvelle of his usual sort: “realistic,” in the sense that it was designed to convey the feeling of recognizable experience in all its complex density. He was trying to write a horror story, to communicate by all the mechanisms he could devise a sense of pure evil rather than real life. But his genius was such that he could not create something that, like an inferior Gothic novel or modern whodunit, would give the impression of merely mechanical contrivance. Hence the feeling of life crept in, and critics are properly compelled to attempt explications and definitions of this life, and of the nature of this horror.

The greatest difficulty arises when we try to discuss the “reality” of the ghosts, and here my interpretation is in most danger of coming a cropper. As long as I do not bold that the ghosts are mere hallucinations of the governess, I have to grant them some sort of reality. And if they are real and evil, neither the governess nor I have any right to treat them lightly. Once grant that the evil spirits have really returned to haunt the children and it would be preposterous to ask the governess to remain calm, collected, and normal; instead her heroic self-dedication should be deemed wholly admirable and proper.

But this question of the ghosts' reality is a thorny one. If we conceive of them as real, it is hard to find rational grounds on which to judge how she should have faced such a ghastly and impossible situation. Presumably her realistic reaction to real invaders would have been promptly to wire the master, the police, maybe also a priest, or better a witch doctor. But then there would have been no story. Indeed, such a view of the intruders makes any interpretation superfluous. We could take the story only as sheer horror, mere contrivance, and enjoy it on that level.

The reality we impute to the ghosts must instead be somehow symbolic. Then we have to ask what they symbolize. But we have seen that James denied that they were allegorical figures, insisted that he carefully refrained from assigning them specific symbolic meaning. The meaning we ascribe to them will depend, as James meant it to, upon our own reading of the story and our feeling of its drama, which in turn depends upon our view of human life and its attendant evils.

I do not feel that Quint and Jessel represent pure evil: James does not say so, nor does his presentation of the struggle make me feel it dramatically. The governess may indistinctly consider the ghosts as the essence of evil, and, as Heilman points out, she certainly chooses words which identify them with Satan and herself with the Savior. But our vantage point is different from the governess': we see her as one of the combatants, and as the story progresses we become ever more uncertain who is fighting whom. We have to grant that she really sees Quint on the tower. But from then on the confrontations are increasingly subject to other interpretations; we feel more and more that Quint and Jessel are creatures haunting her, desired by her, almost controlled by her.

This is not to deny that evil is present; it is undoubtedly there somehow. It seems to me that the ghosts symbolize not so much some particular evil attacking the children as a more generalized evil that is part of man, of the governess as well as the children, an evil we must all continually fight. The nature of this evil is not something given; it is developing and malleable. The way it is treated or combated determines the way it actually affects people. And it is the governess who determines and carries out the treatment. Though she neither imagines nor creates the evil, she seems to exacerbate it. She makes active, effective, dominant what might have remained quiescent; she forces issues which—for all we can see in the story—need not have been forced. The story is drama as well as fable,—and more than poem. As drama it presents not so much perverted innocents as a frightened, frightening governess struggling with her wards. We don't really know or feel what Quint and Jessel are doing to Miles and Flora. But we know and feel that the governess is hounding them, pressing them and Mrs. Grose, helping (at the very least) to create such an atmosphere of tension and suspicion that finally they hate and fear her and want only to be left alone. This is not a study of the governess' unstable psyche—it is not a study of anything. It is a story in which a hysterical woman turns a quiet summer into a fall of dark hatred and tragedy.

I have attempted to demonstrate that the governess is an authoritarian character: hysterical, compulsive, sado-masochistic. Some readers may, however, prefer to use the terms she chooses in describing her actions: duty, service, expiatory victim, torment, atonement, savior. They may insist that the actions and attitudes I have characterized as authoritarian are simply those of the true Christian. They may hold that her incessant vigilance, unrelenting pressure, selfless submission, and refusal to compromise in any manner with evil are entirely proper and necessary in the unremitting struggle against the forces of evil. This would be to adopt what we loosely call the Puritan view of Christianity, and to say that the governess is essentially a Puritan. She would indeed have been worthy coadjutor of Paul or Augustine or Luther (though she is too blind to the possibilities of there being sin in her to have been wholly approved by them). If we accept this view of her, the important thing to note is that James pictured her battle as futile and fatal. If he approved her methods, he certainly did not deem them effective; if he approved her self-dedication as savior, he did not think that she could save.

Readers who do not have a predilection for this variant of Christianity will almost certainly see the governess differently, and believe that James saw her differently. Through her insistence on recognizing only the extreme whites of Edenlike innocence and the extreme blacks of Quint and Jessel, and her refusal to accept the shaded grays that are necessary for any true human understanding and sympathy, she alienates the children so completely that they have no alternative but to go to the devil. She looks upon them first as angelic then as infernal, never as something in between. Unable to offer them the positive, sympathetic love which might have helped them develop as humans and accommodate themselves to the evil with which all men must by their nature live, she can only strive to recast them in her rigid authoritarian mold. She turns the screws of Puritan discipline and suspicion until the children fatally crack under the strain. Whatever the multitude of ambiguities in this story, one thing is not ambiguous: once one fills the blanks with Christian values, one must see the story as a covert, if unconscious, attack on one strain of Christianity, a New England strain with which James was most familiar.


  1. Forms of Modern Fiction, ed. William Van O'Connor (Minneapolis, 1948), pp. 211–228. The Edmund Wilson piece appeared in The Triple Thinkers (New York, 1938) as part of “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” pp. 122–164. In a 1948 edition of The Triple Thinkers he added a postscript. In this he concedes that he “tried to force a point”; but he does not change his basic thesis—except to agree that James did not intend his governess to be seen as Wilson sees her (“not merely is the governess self-deceived, but … James is self-deceived about her”). There are, of course, many more discussions of this tale. Since I am not interested here in criticizing the critics, I make no attempt to mention or list them.

Thomas M. Cranfill and Robert L. Clark, Jr. (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4387

SOURCE: “Caste in James's The Turn of the Screw,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. V, No. 2, Summer, 1963, pp. 189–98.

[In the following essay, Cranfill and Clark examine James's portrayal of the social power structure in the late nineteenth century.]

Henry James took a lively interest in the English caste system of which he was both a part and an observer for most of his life. In “The Real Thing,” published six years before The Turn of the Screw (1898), James conveyed some of his chief ideas about art; but the story also tells much about class and its effects on the British. As James, when planning the tale, indicated in his notebooks, it concerns a faded, impoverished major and his wife who are bested at modeling for an artist by “a common, clever, London girl, of the smallest origin” and by a professional Italian smelling of garlic.1 In lieu of the gentry in “The Real Thing” with their well-bred, “everlasting English amateurishness,”2 each reader, drawing from his own favorite story or novel, could doubtless supply his favorite instances of James's patent sensitivity to the social hierarchy.

In his notebooks, to cite one further example, James wrote on October 10, 1895, two years before he dictated The Turn of the Screw:

The idea of the picture, fully satiric, in illustration of the “Moloch-worship” of the social hierarchy in this country—the grades and shelves and stages of relative gentility—the image of some succession or ladder of examples, in which each stage, each “party,” has something or someone below them, down to extreme depths, on which, on whom, the snubbed and despised from above, may wreak resentment by doing, below, as they are done by. They have to take it from Peter, but they give it to Paul. Follow the little, long, close series—the tall column of Peters and Pauls.3

James never wrote this story precisely as outlined, of course. But there are remarkable reflections of it in The Turn of the Screw. It appears to us that James sounds this note again and again at Bly—harps on it, in fact. Yet critics have hitherto virtually turned a deaf ear to it, overlooking a significant theme, vital to a nice appreciation of James's masterpiece.

First for that principal character in the dramatis personae, the governess, whose narrative constitutes the main body of the tale. Only Margaret Marshall seems to have noted that she “is obsessed with class distinctions, and the part this obsession plays in the story is fascinating.”4 As victims of genteel poverty often are, the governess is inordinately aware of the only possession which sets her apart from the ruck and run—her gentility. She and Miles and Flora are the only gentle folk at Bly; and over them and the entire household, she has been assured by her employer, she is to be “in supreme authority.” Much has been written about this authority, by James himself and by both apparitionists and nonapparitionists—that is, by both those who believe that bona fide ghosts infest Bly and those who believe them to be figments of the governess' imagination. In his Preface James says, “She has ‘authority,’ which is a good deal to have given her.” To quote Oliver Evans' apparitionist reaction to this statement, James does not mean authority “where the children are concerned, but where the reader is.”5

Surely her account of the doings at Bly must in a sense be judged uniquely authoritative since it is the only account we have. But unless she does indeed have authority over the children and the servants, how is one to explain the passage in the Prologue in which the chorus character, the trustworthy Douglas, relaying information he has obtained from the governess' own lips, says, “There were plenty of people to help [at Bly], but of course the young lady who should go down as governess would be in supreme authority”? After this pointed definition of the position which the governess accepts, it seems fruitless to insist that she is a governess who is not expected to govern.

Certainly the governess herself is in no doubt about her powers, once she is established at Bly. Enroute to the estate, she confesses she has “rather brooded” over her “relation” with Mrs. Grose, the relation between a twenty-year-old newcomer of gentle birth and no experience who is to be in charge of a corps of servants, and a middle-aged, experienced housekeeper who before the governess' arrival has been “acting for the time as superintendent to the little girl, of whom, without children of her own, she was by good luck extremely fond.” But Mrs. Grose immediately dispels the governess' apprehension by meeting her at the door with Flora and dropping her “as decent a curtsey as if I had been the mistress or a distinguished visitor”; “from the first moment,” then, she feels assured that “I should get on with Mrs. Grose.”

Oh, the governess is in charge, all right, and moreover exceedingly jealous of her authority. When she evokes her first apparition and is ignorant of its identity, she bridles “with the sense of how my office seemed to require that there should be no such ignorance and no such person.” Her office! When she first encounters the female apparition, she sees “an alien object in view—a figure whose right of presence I instantly and passionately questioned.” When Mrs. Grose tells her that Quint was too free with Miles, the governess exclaims, “Too free with my boy?” Authority, you see, breeds possessiveness. The bookish may recall, in this connection, many a lady librarian who eventually comes to regard the volumes she tends as her personal property, not lightly to be lent, or fetched, to every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

Also noteworthy is the patronizing air of many of the governess' references to Mrs. Grose. To the governess, the housekeeper seems “a civil person,” a “stout simple plain clean wholesome woman.” When made “a receptacle of lurid things” by the governess, Mrs. Grose shows “an odd recognition of my superiority—my accomplishments and my function.” But noblesse oblige: the governess feels “that I doubtless needn't press too hard, in such company [Mrs. Grose's], on the place of a servant in the scale.” Nevertheless, at one point, the governess can say to her, “If Quint … was a base menial, one of the things Miles said to you, I find myself guessing, was that you were another.” It is no wonder that after many such ladylike remarks Mrs. Grose's eyes express “plainly” that she knows “too well her place not to be ready to share with me any marked inconvenience.” Even among the Victorians, it seems, there were those who were gratified to find a servant who knew her place. Let us hope that the governess takes some of the edge off her frequently haughty attitude when she embraces and kisses “the good creature,” Mrs. Grose.

Near the end of the tale, when the governess is almost at the end of her tether, it is significant that she reacts to her difficulties by suffering a severe attack of the haughties. To avoid “total wreck” she clutches “the helm,” and “to bear up at all” becomes “very grand and very dry,” while “the aspect of others” shows “a confused reflexion of the crisis.” Their gaping and staring only further exacerbate her already frayed nerves, so that she causes it to be known that, left to herself, she is “quite remarkable firm.” Were she a man, she might thrust her hand into her bosom and become Napoleon in grand, solitary state upon Elba. As it is, she looks, “I have no doubt, as if I were ready for any onset.” And so “with that manner” she wanders “for the next hour or two, all over the place.” She “parades.” Then to “mark, for the house, the high state” which she is cultivating, she “decrees” that her meals with Miles are to be served “downstairs … in the ponderous pomp of the [dining] room.” Here is hauteur indeed. It would not come as a very great shock to hear her cry, over dinner, “Off with their heads!” Too acute an appreciation of one's station in life as a lady and governess in supreme authority can be unsettling, especially when that authority is about to evaporate.

The fanciful might wonder why Mrs. Grose, when besieged by all this grandeur, does not rebel. How can she resist declaring, in her own words, what Viola declares to Olivia, “I see you what you are—you are too proud”? The answer is that it never occurs to the housekeeper to question the validity of the system to which she is bound. Does she not find it right and fitting, subscribe to it as readily, as automatically, as the governess herself? To put it another way, is not Mrs. Grose as big a snob as the governess? Let us review what James would call Mrs. Grose's grade, shelf, stage, or rung of the ladder in the social scale.

In the Prologue her station is defined with some care. The uncle of Miles and Flora “had put them in possession of Bly … and had placed at the head of their little establishment—but belowstairs only—an excellent woman, Mrs. Grose … who had formerly been maid to his mother. She was now housekeeper and was also acting for the time as superintendent to the little girl.” Since the death of Miss Jessel, the governess' predecessor, “Mrs. Grose … in the way of manners and things, had done as she could for Flora.” An excellent woman, formerly a lady's maid, whilom head of the household, childless, temporarily superintendent of Flora, of whom she is extremely fond and whose “manners and things” she oversees—not a poor lot for an unlettered woman.

But not to be missed is the pregnant phrase belowstairs only. It is this part of James's definition of her station that her language and deportment very frequently recall. Apart from the decent curtsey with which she welcomes the governess and the other abundant references in the governess' manuscript to Mrs. Grose's social subservience, notice how scrupulous she is in addressing or referring to the gentry in her little world. To her the governess is always “Miss,” while Miles and Flora are invariably “Miss Flora,” “Master Miles,” “the little lady,” “the young gentleman,” and the like. The fact that she is unable to read or write obviously does not mean that she is incapable of verbally observing a certain etiquette. Exactly what she does for Flora “in the way of manners and things” James never specifies, but one of our first guesses is that in the little girl she inculcates some of these same social niceties to which she seems throughout to be sensitive.

After the governess fancies she sees the apparition of Peter Quint, the late valet, at the dining-room window, she and Mrs. Grose engage in a long, hectic session in the course of which the governess confesses to having seen the same apparition before on the tower. The questions that this confession provokes from Mrs. Grose follow an interesting order. After asking sensibly why the governess had not informed her of the earlier experience, Mrs. Grose inquires whether he had appeared anywhere else and what he was doing on the tower. Then the climactic question: “Was he a gentleman?” And so Mrs. Grose again sounds the note which rings throughout the rest of the scene. Let us examine only those portions of the interchange relevant to our inquiry into Mrs. Grose's picture of the social hierarchy and her own niche in it.

As the climax of the description of the apparition that leads Mrs. Grose to the identification of which the apparitionists make much, that other snob the governess says, “He's tall, active, erect … but never—no, never!—a gentleman.” After this emphatic judgment about his lack of gentility, Mrs. Grose's next words are scathing, Peter Quint “A gentleman? … a gentleman he?” The answer to these rhetorical questions is obviously Certainly Not. Yet last year the master from Harley Street came down to Bly with Quint, “his own man, his valet,” then departed, so that “Quint was alone … Alone with us … In Charge.”

Why did the arrangement fill Mrs. Grose with loathing and fear? Because Quint was no gentleman and therefore was unqualified to rule the roost? Because Quint was evil in addition to lacking gentility? Because her own station at Bly was threatened or rendered equivocal by Quint's presence? Mrs. Grose's attitude could be due to any or all of these. Happily, there is further evidence to explain the antagonistic, bristling posture that mention of Quint invariably prompts Mrs. Grose to adopt.

First the question of who was in charge of what and whom at Bly, in what order. Here the chronology of the authority exercised is confused. According to the Prologue, the uncle confides in the governess, “It had all been a great worry and, on his part doubtless, a series of blunders.” Could one of the blunders have been not delegating power and defining authority with sufficient clarity? He had become the children's guardian two years before his interview with the governess and had sent them to Bly “from the first … parting even with his own servants to wait on them,” including his valet, Quint, and Mrs. Grose, formerly his mother's maid. He had placed the latter at the head of their little establishment, though belowstairs only. But also “at first” there had been Miss Jessel, who “had done for them quite beautifully” as governess; and in addition at one stage of the game Quint was left alone in charge. With Mrs. Grose, Miss Jessel, and Peter Quint—all three of them—on the scene, one begins to suspect that Bly might have been ripe for what labor circles call jurisdictional disputes. Was the master seeking to avoid repeating a blunder when he made it ever so clear that the next “young lady who should go down as governess would be in supreme authority”?

What of the social ladder at Bly during these confusing years? Who belonged, literally and figuratively, above, who below, stairs? Any who are inclined to dismiss such a query as trifling or inapposite might reread The Admirable Crichton or Henry Green's Loving; or they might recollect the intricacies of the British system of domestic economy in the Good Old Days, when there was a variety of maids, beginning with Milady's Own and descending to the Upstairs and Downstairs, separated by Tweenies—and by who knows what social distinctions that they themselves found meaningful. At any rate, that at least one of the dwellers at Bly remained acutely conscious of such distinctions is proved by further testimony from Mrs. Grose.

Grilled repeatedly by the governess, the housekeeper surrenders some interesting information. The following dialogue is divested of the governess' ruminations and interpretations:

The Governess. And you tell me that they [Quint and Miles] were “great friends?”

Mrs. Grose. Oh it wasn't him [Miles]. It was Quint's own fancy. To play with him, I mean—to spoil him. Quint was much too free.

The Governess. Too free with my boy?

Mrs. Grose. Too free with every one!

This brief excerpt raises a semantic problem that revolves about the word free. One of its definitions, according to The New English Dictionary, in part reads, “in bad sense—overfree, forward, ‘familiar,’ ready to ‘take liberties’.” This fits well enough the impression of Quint so far gained from Mrs. Grose. But the NED offers yet another meaning: “Not observing due bounds, ‘loose,’ licentious.” Some readers have not hesitated to seize the latter meaning and to argue that in such dialogue lurk hints of a homosexual relationship between the valet and the boy. That Mrs. Grose has in mind sexual rather than social liberties is exceedingly hard to prove.

On the other hand, it is quite easy to prove that, whatever else she may be thinking of, Mrs. Grose seldom drops the matter of social propriety in general and Quint's social improprieties in particular. Again questioned about Miles and Quint, Mrs. Grose reveals that there had been occasions “When they had been about together quite as if Quint were his tutor—and a very grand one—and Miss Jessel only for the little lady.” So there we have it. Quint did not know his place. A gentleman he? Never! Yet here we find him, not belowstairs with Mrs. Grose, where maybe he belongs, but kiting about like a gentleman-tutor, and a very grand one at that, with the young gentleman in tow. Why, that … that … valet! We can almost see Mrs. Grose bridle and hear her sniff.

She did venture “to criticise the propriety, to hint at the incongruity, of so close an alliance, and even to go so far on the subject as a frank overture to Miss Jessel would take her. Miss Jessel had, with a very high manner about it, requested her to mind her business.” Poor Mrs. Grose, surrounded by the governess' high and the valet's grand manner—neither easy to bear, though at least Miss Jessel, being a lady and a governess, was entitled to make her weight felt, while Quint—

Rebuked by Miss Jessel, Mrs. Grose next “directly approached little Miles. What she had said to him, since I pressed, was that she liked to see young gentlemen not forget their station.” That note again. How can anyone doubt the housekeeper's sensitivity to intercaste propriety (or impropriety), to the socially congruous (or incongruous), to one's station (or forgetting one's station)? The point is worth dwelling on because her sensitivity was likely at the root of her manifestly seething hatred of Peter Quint. With this in mind, examine the dialogue of two more inquisitions that the governess conducts, Mrs. Grose being the examinee, not overlooking the use of words like “difference,” “rank,” “condition,” “lady,” and “dreadfully below.” When the governess asks why Mrs. Grose did not report Quint's doings to the master:

Mrs. Grose. I dare say I was wrong. But really I was afraid.

The Governess. Afraid of what?

Mrs. Grose. Of things that man could do. Quint was so clever—he was so deep.

The Governess. You weren't afraid of anything else? Not of his effect—?

Mrs. Grose. His effect?

The Governess. On innocent little precious lives. They were in your charge.

Mrs. Grose. No, they weren't in mine! The master believed in him and placed him here because he was supposed not to be quite in health and the country air so good for him. So he had everything to say. Yes … even about them.

The Governess. Them—that creature? And you could bear it!

Mrs. Grose. No. I couldn't—and I can't now!

Whereupon Mrs. Grose bursts into tears, such is her loathing of “that man” even in retrospect. But on to the next grilling:

The Governess. I must have it now. … Come, there was something between them.

Mrs. Grose. There was everything.

The Governess. In spite of the difference—?

Mrs. Grose. Oh of their rank, their condition … She was a lady.

The Governess. Yes—she was a lady.

Mrs. Grose. And he so dreadfully below.

The Governess. The fellow was a hound.

Mrs. Grose. (considering “as if it were perhaps a little a case for a sense of shades”). I've never seen one like him. He did what he wished.

The Governess. With her?

Mrs. Grose. With them all.

The Governess. It must have been also what she wished!

Mrs. Grose. Poor woman—she paid for it!

The Governess. Then you do know what she died of?

Mrs. Grose. No—I know nothing. I wanted not to know; I was glad enough I didn't; and I thanked heaven she was well out of this!

The Governess. Yet you had then your idea—

Mrs. Grose. Of her real reason for leaving? Oh yes—as to that. She couldn't have stayed. Fancy it here—for a governess! And afterwards I imagined—and I still imagine. And what I imagine is dreadful.

The Governess. Not so dreadful as what I do.

This dialogue presents the reader with the kind of choice James repeatedly offers in the story. The reader may fasten upon Mrs. Grose's grim, ex-post-facto imaginings and upon the governess' still more dreadful imaginings and supply concrete details of his own, beginning with “There was everything between” Miss Jessel and Quint, who “did what he liked” with the former governess—in fact, “with them all.” Though the governess declares him a hound, one wonders whether she does not envisage him rather as another animal, an imperious stallion lording it over all the inmates of the stable, including the foals. But each theorizer should be left to his own imaginings, as James intended that he should be.

The non-apparitionist had rather explore other possibilities of the dialogue. Mrs. Grose's mind seems to be focused, as usual, upon the matter of caste. Alas, that Quint had been left “in charge,” as she has made abundantly clear earlier, had been much too free (in exercising his authority?), had had everything to say (about how the household should be run?), and had done what he wished (in ordering about everybody at Bly, including Miss Jessel?). All this despite the appalling difference in the ranks and conditions of Quint and Miss Jessel. She was a lady, while he, only a valet, a servant, was so dreadfully below. Even so, Mrs. Grose does not directly confirm the governess' summing up, “The fellow was a hound,” apparently considering this “a little a case for a sense of shades.” Nor does she verbally validate the governess' statement, “It must have been also what she wished,” though according to the governess Mrs. Grose's “face signified that it had been indeed.” How much credence can be paid the governess' interpretations of Mrs. Grose's facial expressions is debatable. Fancy such a state of affairs for a governess at Bly, lacking (though a lady) the authority of the present governess, subject to the dreadfully inferior Quint. She couldn't have stayed; thank heaven she got well out of the predicament.

We can never be sure what Miss Jessel's actual reaction to her life at Bly may have been. From Mrs. Grose's earlier testimony we know only that the former governess left Bly “at the end of the year, to go home, as she said, for a short holiday, to which the time she had put in had certainly given her a right.” We know also that Mrs. Grose was expecting her back at the very moment the report of her death reached Bly. The implication is obviously that she liked her job well enough to return to it after a short, well-earned holiday. If so, what are we not to make of Mrs. Grose's “idea” of Miss Jessel's “real reason for leaving,” namely, “She couldn't have stayed. Fancy it here—for a governess”? If she was, thank heaven, “well out of this,” and shared Mrs. Grose's suffering over the allegedly warped chain of command at Bly, how mystifying to be expecting her momentarily to rejoin the agonizing, subjugated household.

Two more bits of the interchange remain to perplex the reader. Note James's artful use of the indefinite “something,” “everything,” and “it” in the following:

The Governess. Come, there was something between them.

Mrs. Grose. There was everything.

Mrs. Grose. He did what he wished … with them all.

The Governess. It must have been also what she wished!

Mrs. Grose. Poor woman—she paid for it!

We need not expatiate on how the governess would gloss the mysterious words. Let us recall, instead, the expression “There was bad blood between them.” Could there have been differences of opinion, quarrels, bad blood between the valet and the governess? Or does Mrs. Grose simply mean that between them there was a vast distance socially, uncounted degrees in the social scale? Did Miss Jessel comply with the master's arrangement putting Quint in charge and find his regime less heinous than Mrs. Grose did? Did she then pay for her compliance with his orders when Quint became still more free in wielding his authority? Or did she pay for opposing him, suffering his vindictiveness? Deponent saith not. None of the possibilities can be ruled out.

At one time James had in mind “the social hierarchy in this country—the grades and shelves and stages of relative gentility … in which each stage … has something or someone below them … on whom, the snubbed and despised from above, may wreak resentment by doing, below, as they are done by.” The “succession or ladder of examples” in The Turn of the Screw is not obviously or partly delineated, but it does cast its shadow athwart many a character, many a motivation in the tale.

Upon the top rung stands the master, the bachelor of Harley Street, of gentle birth and rich besides. After employing the governess, he pays absolutely no mind to her or to her “slighted charms” (her words). But she is still a lady, God save the mark, and in supreme authority. She allows Mrs. Grose to forget neither fact. The late Miss Jessel was also a lady who once had occasion in a very high manner to request the housekeeper to mind her own business. Poor Mrs. Grose, reeling upon her rung, battered by haughty pressure from aloft. Not to mention the pressures exerted by that man, that creature who in Mrs. Grose's never concealed opinion had clambered from whatever lowly rung was properly his to one much higher, where he assumed the airs of a very grand tutor and stood haughtily dispensing orders to his betters, to everyone!

One wonders whether Mrs. Grose worked off her resentment below in accordance with the treatment she has received from above. Perhaps it is just as well that James did not take time to define her treatment of old Luke and the various maids. His recital might have made Cinderella's fate at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters seem pallid.


  1. The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York, 1947), p. 104.

  2. Ibid., p. 103.

  3. Ibid., p. 220.

  4. “Drama,” The Nation, February 11, 1950, p. 141.

  5. “James's Air of Evil: The Turn of the Screw,Partisan Review, XVI (1949), 180.

C. Knight Aldrich (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4658

SOURCE: “Another Twist to The Turn of the Screw,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Summer, 1967, pp. 167–78.

[In the following essay, Aldrich supports the hallucination theory of James's novella and proposes that Mrs. Grose encourages the governess's visions.]

The question whether The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story or a psychiatric case history will probably never be answered to everyone's satisfaction. There is enough evidence to convince proponents of either side of the controversy, and I suspect that it is not so much the evidence as the predilection of the proponent that determines his choice. The imaginative soul who can rise above the mundane restrictions of everyday experience will find it easier to accept Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as ghosts; the more literal and earthbound will search for an explanation in psychopathology. James never completely committed himself, and so the story continues to satisfy both camps.

In part as a result of my professional orientation, I have never been attracted to supernatural explanations, and I am therefore more comfortable with the Kenton-Wilson-Goddard1 theory that James's governess was hallucinating. Furthermore, I believe that the objections to the usual construction of this theoretical position can be overcome. These objections have been summarized by Alexander E. Jones, who, insisting that the ghosts are real, states that “there is no other way satisfactorily to explain the governess' knowledge of Quint's appearance, Flora's shocking language, or Miles' final ‘surrender of the name’.”2

Another satisfactory way may be found, however, if the customary assumption about the character of Mrs. Grose is questioned. Virtually all critics accept Mrs. Grose as she is described in the story: “stout, simple, plain, clean, wholesome.” Nathan Bryllion Fagin calls her an “illiterate, undiscerning person,”3 and Goddard sees her as the “incarnation of practical household sense and homely affection … utterly devoid of worldly experience and imagination.”4 With the exception of John A. Clair,5 everyone who thus far has written about the story has assumed that she is a paragon of simple-minded virtue, whose every word must be accepted as gospel. Clair considers her a liar, but a liar in a good cause, attempting to protect the children from contact with Miss Jessel and her “keeper.” Thomas Mabry Cranfill and Robert Lanier Clark, Jr. grant that she may resent the governess, but only wonder “whether Mrs. Grose worked off her resentment below in accordance with the treatment she has received from above.”6

But is she so virtuous? A fresh look at Mrs. Grose suggests the possibility that she not only hates the governess but, in an effort to destroy her, supports and encourages her belief in the existence of a sinister component in what was really no more than a casual relationship between the children and two employees. In the following paragraphs I will outline my evidence for this unconventional viewpoint.


In the story, childless Mrs. Grose is introduced as the head, “below stairs only,” of the establishment at Bly. She is “extremely fond” of Flora, of whom she is acting “superintendent,” awaiting the arrival of the governess who will be in “supreme authority.” In one way or another Mrs. Grose has been liberated both from Miss Jessel and from Miss Jessel's successor, who is identified early as the “nursemaid who had stayed on and who was a good girl and clever” but who then unaccountably disappears from the story. The governess understandably expects Mrs. Grose to resent her arrival, and is reassured when no sign of jealousy is evident. She observes, instead, that Mrs. Grose is so glad to see her that she is “on her guard against showing it too much.” The governess wonders “even then a little why she should not wish to show” her joy at being displaced, “and that, with reflection, with suspicion, might of course have made me uneasy.”

The generally accepted interpretation of this passage is that Mrs. Grose is really glad to surrender the children, and conceals her enthusiasm lest the governess suspect either that there is more of a problem at Bly than meets the eye or that she is protesting her friendship too much.

In my view, Mrs. Grose is indeed hostile to the governess but leans over backward to conceal her hostility from her superior. The insecure governess, who wants badly to find love and forgiveness in the woman she has displaced, is easily convinced in her own mind that Mrs. Grose is concealing love rather than hate. With this interpretation, reflection and suspicion would indeed make her “uneasy” if she began to sense the latent hostility beneath Mrs. Grose's mask of acceptance. Mrs. Grose's ambivalence is by no means proven, but neither is it disproven, and in her position it is more to be expected than not.


Flora spends one last night in Mrs. Grose's room before the governess takes over. The governess then proposes to welcome little Miles home with Flora but without Mrs. Grose, whereupon Mrs. Grose “concurred so heartily that I somehow took her manner as a … pledge … that we should on every question be quite as one. Oh, she was glad I was there!”

Could any housekeeper deposed from the role of mother-substitute to two children she adored consent so willingly to her exclusion from the welcoming scene? It is more consistent with the situation to interpret Mrs. Grose's heartiness as a compensatory effort to conceal her resentment at the rapidity with which she has been consigned to the kitchen.


Flora soon demonstrates, in Mrs. Grose's presence, her preference for the governess. After this evidence of Flora's switch of allegiance, it is hardly surprising that the governess begins to fancy that Mrs. Grose “rather sought to avoid me.” The governess, still rejecting in the interest of her own security any theory that suggests that Mrs. Grose resents her, interprets the avoidance not as hostility but as evidence that her friend has information that she hesitates to disclose.


When the governess finally corners Mrs. Grose and confronts her with her suspicion of Miles's corruption, Mrs. Grose “stared, taking my meaning in; but it produced in her an odd laugh. ‘Are you afraid he'll corrupt you?’ She put the question with such a fine bold humour. …”

Why the peculiar question and the ‘odd laugh’? They are not rational responses to an ally, but they make more sense if made to an enemy, particularly an enemy who has given evidence of her psychological vulnerability. Here is Mrs. Grose's first opportunity to play on her enemy's suspicion.


When the governess first reports the ghost, Mrs. Grose believes it is a real person: “‘Then where is he gone?’” She “breathed a vague relief” when she finds he is not from the village, but as the governess identifies him as a “horror,” she stalls for time, abruptly deciding, “It's time we should be at church.” The governess persists and says she fears the ghost; then she perceives in Mrs. Grose “the delayed dawn of an idea I myself had not given her,” which the governess felt “to be connected with the desire she presently showed to know more.”

Although the governess assumes that this idea has to do with the children's experience with the “ghosts,” it could as well represent the emergence of Mrs. Grose's plan to discredit her rival as she realizes that the “ghost” is an hallucination. The governess is almost too sure of Mrs. Grose's sincerity; she believes it is “impossible” for her to be an actor, and so she unquestioningly accepts Mrs. Grose's identification of the ghost as Peter Quint. Her acceptance makes it possible for Mrs. Grose to tailor her description of Quint to fit the governess' description of her hallucination. Jones' first objection to the anti-ghost theory—that “there is no other way satisfactorily to explain the governess' knowledge of Quint's appearance”—depends on Mrs. Grose's veracity, and disappears if it can be argued that Mrs. Grose, in her efforts to frighten or discredit the governess, will identify as “Peter Quint” anyone the governess describes.

Mrs. Grose covers her tracks by discouraging any attempt of the governess to confirm her picture of Quint. “… Miles would remember—Miles would know,” says the governess. “‘Ah, don't try him!’ broke from Mrs. Grose.”


When the governess begins to wonder about Miles's failure to mention his presumably close friend Quint, Mrs. Grose is quick to suggest that Miles was not friendly to Quint, although Quint was overfriendly with Miles. In every way possible she discourages the governess from checking up on her story with anyone who might challenge it—who might say, for example, that Quint was a temporary serving-man, of no interest to anyone. Mrs. Grose's story rests on the significance of Quint's role—“‘The master believed in him … he had everything to say …’”—and she must protect her story, not letting the governess reflect too much on the uncle's failure even to mention him in his earlier conversation with her about the history of Bly. “Clean, wholesome” Mrs. Grose makes sure that she is the only witness to Quint's character; in response to the governess' question, “‘I have it from you then—for it's of great importance—that he was definitely and admittedly bad?’” she replies, “‘Oh, not admittedly. I knew it—but the master didn't.’”


Mrs. Grose “took it as she might have taken a blow in the stomach” when the governess shakes her conviction that the ghost is the governess' hallucination by reporting that Flora saw the ghost. She recovers, however, when she finds that while Flora was present when the governess saw the ghost, the governess merely assumes without further evidence that the little girl saw it.

Mrs. Grose, identifying the second ghost as Miss Jessel, categorizes both ghosts as “infamous.” Once assured that the governess is convinced both of the ghosts' identities and of their infamy, however, Mrs. Grose is content to “sink the whole subject,” recognizing that she has firmly planted the governess' suspicions. She needs to say no more; from now on avoidance of the subject will serve to increase the intensity of the suspicions. She therefore changes her tune, and now appears reluctant to incriminate the children, as she observes that her reluctance strengthens the governess' conviction. The more she protests their innocence, the more convinced is the governess of their guilt. When she believes that the governess is so convinced that she will defy the prohibition against communicating with the uncle, Mrs. Grose encourages the governess to write him.

This move turns out to be a tactical error, as she finds that she has underestimated the importance the governess attaches to keeping her pledge. The governess flatly refuses to write, warning Mrs. Grose not to communicate on her own, and threatening to leave if she does. Mrs. Grose decides not to get rid of her rival in this convenient way, either realizing that this course will end by discrediting her as well, or seeking a more drastic revenge as well as insurance against yet another governess by pushing this one farther into psychosis. She hopes that a psychotic governess following a governess who abruptly left the position and died will encourage the master to leave the children permanently in her care.

When the governess finally decides to write, she insists on enclosing the headmaster's letter in spite of the desperate opposition of Mrs. Grose, who makes it clear that she never wanted the uncle to see the letter. Fearful of exposure, Mrs. Grose impulsively volunteers to write, but is trapped by her presumed illiteracy, and gives in, hoping either that she can intercept the letter or that the uncle will ignore it.


Meanwhile, in the scene at the lake, Mrs. Grose reestablishes her position with Flora and discredits the governess before returning triumphant to move Flora's bed back into her room. She expects to send the governess to the uncle with a story she knows will be interpreted as evidence of madness; as the governess recognizes, Mrs. Grose has “come to me now … to speed me on my way.’” But the governess is not quite ready to capitulate. She counters by proposing that Mrs. Grose should go with Flora, and that she should remain to recruit Miles to her side. Mrs. Grose is reluctant to leave, but, anticipating that the governess will antagonize Miles as well as Flora, consents to go, planning to carry the report of the governess' madness to the uncle.

As she agrees to go, she reinforces her position with a report of Flora's “shocking language.” No one else hears the language; therefore, no one can question the veracity of the report, and no one but Mrs. Grose stands to benefit. Jones's second point—that only the ghost theory can explain Flora's “shocking language”—fails to take into consideration the possibility that her language, as well as Quint's appearance, was Mrs. Grose's invention.


After the governess accuses Miles of a relationship with Quint, she realizes that she must keep the children from communication with each other, and seeks reassurance from Mrs. Grose that there has been no chance for them to meet. Mrs. Grose's reply is ambiguous: “‘If I've been obliged to leave her three or four times, it has been each time with one of the maids, and at present, though she's alone, she's locked in safe. And yet—and yet! … Are you so sure of the little gentleman?’”

Thus she suggests that they may indeed have met and, presumably, discussed the scene at the lake. By the ambiguity of her statement, she encourages the governess to attribute the source of any information Miles reveals about the scene to Flora and not to Mrs. Grose.

If Mrs. Grose wishes to discredit the governess, she would not miss the opportunity to strengthen her case by telling Miles that the governess sees ghosts, ghosts of Miss Jessel and of Peter Quint, adding the injunction that only a “devil”—the governess—would see or raise a ghost. This hypothesis explains Miles's “surrender of the name” and accounts for the third and last of Jones's objections to the hallucination theory.


If James really meant to make Mrs. Grose the villainess, why didn't he make it more clear to the reader? Why did he not include some more tangible evidence of her villainy? There are two possible answers to these concerns. The first possibility is that James himself was deceived, that his unconscious, not his conscious mind, determined the real character of Mrs. Grose. If so, Mrs. Grose may have represented his mother, in reality a destructive woman, but a woman of whom James was so afraid that he had to repress his perception of her evil characteristics and consciously could only see her as good. Leon Edel concludes that James's mother was “a plain unimaginative woman,” “considerably transfigured in the imaginative prose of her novelist son. She provided the practical down-to-earth management required in a household otherwise volatile,” but, although “enveloping and all-encompassing,” was at the same time “irrational and contradictory” and “inconsistent in her firmness.”7 As Edel observes, James's women are “sometimes terrifying creatures who dominate the lives of their progeny” and “can deprive men of their strength and life.”8

Character post mortems are easily undertaken and reasonably safe, since the subjects, or victims, are not available for rebuttal, and this possibility is admittedly speculative and perhaps a little too facile. The second possibility is less dramatic. According to this theory, James simply misjudged his readers. He assumed that he had made Mrs. Grose's villainy clear enough; he waited for someone to pick it up, and when no one did, he sat back to enjoy the experience of having caught “those not easily caught.”9


I probably should limit my case to the assault on Mrs. Grose's character, but I am tempted to speculate about two other aspects of the story: the governess' diagnosis, and the origins of the children. About the governess' diagnosis I agree with Jones10 that Cargill's assumption that James had been influenced by reading Freud's case of Lucy R. is unjustified; even if he had read Freud's report, the symptoms of Lucy R. and the governess are not similar. Cargill's observation that the governess resembles James's psychotic sister is more intriguing.11 This theory depends, however, on a retrospective diagnosis, which is always risky, particularly when the available information is so scanty. The governess is more paranoid than hysterical, and while there is no convincing evidence that Alice James did not suffer from a paranoid component to her depressive illness, there is no evidence at all that she did. In any case Henry James had much more opportunity to be influenced by the symptoms of his sister's illness than by those of Lucy R's.

Among the symptoms most commonly encountered in a paranoid psychosis are hallucinations and delusions. Although the hallucinations in a paranoid psychosis are usually auditory—in the form of voices—they can be visual, like the vision of Quint. The governess' conviction of the evil of the “ghosts” and the children—so strong that she overlooks the realistic evil of Mrs. Grose—can be interpreted as a persecutory delusion. There is even a suggestion of delusions of grandeur, another paranoid symptom: “I now saw that I had been asked for a service admirable and difficult; and there would be a greatness in letting it be seen … I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable … [I watched them with] a disguised excitement that might well, had it continued too long, have turned into something like madness.”

As she sees it, her excitement turned “to something else altogether … horrible proofs.” If the “horrible proofs” are not reality, but delusions, she is demonstrating a transition in the delusional system of her “‘madness” from grandiosity to persecution, a transition by no means uncommon in a paranoid psychosis.

A crucial factor in paranoid psychopathology as outlined by Freud in the Schreber case12 is the projection onto others of a homosexuality unacceptable to the patient. Through insight or, perhaps, through observation, James has caught the thread of the paranoid psychopathology, as the governess, aided by Mrs. Grose, weaves the fabric of her delusional system around the presumed homosexual relationships of the departed servants and the children.


My final speculation concerns the origin of the children. In James's notebook, he speaks of young children left to the care of servants, “through the death, presumably of parents.”13 The rest of this passage supports the ghost theory but, according to Charles G. Hoffman, was written before the novel, and James only started with the ghostly interpretation. Why, though, did James presume and not record unequivocally the death of the parents? The presumption disappears in the story; according to Douglas' preamble, the parents have died in India, but they are not referred to in the main body of the story and Douglas may have simply assumed that they are dead. Since the uncle has completely surrendered his country house to them, and is supporting them in high style in spite of his wish to avoid any personal contacts or even reminders of their existence, are we not entitled to wonder if he has more responsibility for them than meets the eye? Could they even be his own illegitimate children?

If they are his children, who is their mother? What more likely candidate than his mother's maid—lower class, jealous Mrs. Grose, who perhaps had been less plain when she was less stout? The “uncle” feels enough obligation to support the children, to concoct a fiction about a remote brother that will legitimize them, and to permit Mrs. Grose to attend to their physical needs but not to their cultural needs. Mrs. Grose wants more of a role with both children and “uncle,” but has made things so hot for him that he no longer visits or wishes to hear from her. He has retreated to the city and its prettier and younger girls, from which he sends infatuated, but more cultured, governesses to give his children a proper education, and to face the wrath and vengeance of Mrs. Grose, who has lost her figure, her youth, and her beauty, as well as her children.

“He seems to like us young and pretty!” [says the governess, speaking of herself and the last governess in the present tense].

“Oh, he did,” Mrs. Grose assented [in the past tense—James's italics], “it was the way he liked everyone!” She had no sooner spoken indeed than she caught herself up. “I mean that's his way—the master's.”

I was struck. “But of whom did you speak first?”

She looked blank, but she coloured, “Why of him.

“Of the master?”

“Of who else?”

There was so obviously no one else that the next moment I had lost my impression of her having accidently said more than she meant. …

Goddard correctly emphasizes the importance of the unconscious slip, but believes that Mrs. Grose was thinking of some one other than her master, presumably Peter Quint.14 An alternative interpretation is possible, however. When she says “he did” (like us young and pretty), she could be using the past tense because she is speaking of the master and herself.

While the possibility that Mrs. Grose is the children's mother is psychodynamically intriguing, and therefore appealing to a psychiatrist, it may not be sufficient for the literary critic. As James E. Miller, Jr., says, “James would have, I believe, exploited the ironies in such a situation in ways that he does not begin to do in the story as it stands.”15 I can always fall back on the psychiatrist's favorite dodge and claim that James' unconscious set up Mrs. Grose as the mother, perhaps reflecting a childhood fantasy of his own—but I must admit that the case for Mrs. Grose as mother is somewhat weaker than the case for the bachelor uncle as the father. Clair suggests in a footnote that Miss Jessel, alive and real, but demented and under the rather inefficient surveillance of Quint, may be the mother.16 Clair's belief that Miss Jessel is alive is intriguing; he marshals several interesting arguments in its defense, and it is particularly appealing to me since it partially implicates Mrs. Grose. However, it depends on the assumption that the uncle keeps Miss Jessel and the children in the same household and at the same time sets up elaborate precautions against their encountering one another—and that he informs his housekeeper of the circumstances, but conceals them from the housekeeper's superior. The motivation for this behavior is absent, and I do not believe that James would have based his plot on such a contrived set of circumstances.


My speculations concerning the parentage of the children and the model for the governess' psychosis are side issues. My main point is that The Turn of the Screw is not a ghost story, and is more than a psychiatric case history. It is a tragedy about an evil older woman who drove an unstable younger woman completely out of her mind, and whose jealousy was the indirect cause of a little boy's death. It is so skillfully contrived that, if the contrivance was conscious, throughout James's lifetime he had the satisfaction of observing the critics consistently bark up two wrong trees. On the other hand, if James's pen was guided not by design but by his unconscious, the true character of the iniquitous Mrs. Grose may have been as obscure to him as it has been to most readers.


With so much already written on James's intriguing story, it is perhaps to be expected that any new twist to The Turn of the Screw may have been anticipated by another writer. When Dr. Aldrich first submitted his essay to MFS, we suggested that he check all references to Mrs. Grose in the exhaustive, classified bibliography of An Anatomy of The Turn of the Screw (University of Texas Press, 1965), by Thomas Mabry Cranfill and Robert Lanier Clark, Jr. Dr. Aldrich did this and resubmitted his essay with minor revisions and documentation. The manuscript was then accepted for publication with Dr. Aldrich and the editors equally confident that his startling main thesis was indeed a new twist of the screw.

It turns out that we were wrong. Not included in the Cranfill and Clark bibliography is an article by Eric Solomon, “The Return of the Screw,” University Review, XXX (Spring 1964), 205–211, which has been reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of The Turn of the Screw, edited by Robert Kimbrough (1966), pp. 237–245. In this amusing and ingenious essay, written with tongue in cheek, Solomon attributes even more villainy to Mrs. Grose than does Dr. Aldrich. A master-detective like Sherlock Holmes investigating the mystery at Bly would “have asked three questions familiar to all readers of mysteries: ‘Who is the least obvious suspect? What is the motive? What is the nature of the crime, and how did it take place?’” Applying Holmesian methods of detection, Solomon concludes that “the least obvious suspect, and the criminal, is the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose; the motive is greed, the crime is murder, more than one murder!” The governess “never realizes, as the thoughtful reader must, that she, and Miles, and, indeed Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, have all been the victims of that most clever and desperate of Victorian villainesses, the evil Mrs. Grose.”

Rather than ask Dr. Aldrich to revise his article once again in order to take the Solomon essay into account, we have preferred to let it stand in its present form. Because editorial machinery grinds slowly, it is inevitable that there be some overlapping in the interpretation of any complex literary work by researchers working independently. Although there are significant differences in how Aldrich and Solomon interpret the motive and the nature of Mrs. Grose's crime, they agree that she may well be the instigator of the mystery at Bly—and that is indeed a new twist in the unscrewing of James's The Turn of the Screw. Beyond that, we feel that the two essays complement each other in an amusing and unusual way. Without knowing that a case against Mrs. Grose had been made previously, Dr. Aldrich has used the tools of the professional psychiatrist to provide “scientific” evidence that corroborates a thesis so shocking that the professional critic had to present it in the form of a mock-serious spoof.

There is, we think, a lesson here for anyone interested in the vagaries of critical interpretation. Has the screw been stripped once and for all?


  1. Edna Kenton, “Henry James to the Ruminant Reader: The Turn of the Screw,” in Gerald Willen, ed., A Casebook on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (New York: Crowell, 1960), pp. 102–114; Edmund Wilson, “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” in Willen, pp. 115–153; and Harold C. Goddard, “A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw,” in Willen, pp. 244–272.

  2. Alexander E. Jones, “Point of View in The Turn of the Screw,” in Willen, p. 316.

  3. Nathan B. Fagin, “Another Reading of The Turn of the Screw,” in Willen, p. 157.

  4. Goddard, p. 258.

  5. John A. Clair, The Ironic Dimension in the Fiction of Henry James (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1965).

  6. Thomas Mabry Cranfill and Robert Lanier Clark, Jr., An Anatomy of The Turn of the Screw (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), pp. 117, 123, 125.

  7. Leon Edel, “Preface,” The Diary of Alice James (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964), p. 3.

  8. Leon Edel, Henry James: The Untried Years, 1843–1870 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1953), pp. 47–55.

  9. Henry James, “Preface to The Aspern Papers,” in Willen, p. 98.

  10. Jones, pp. 304–305.

  11. Oscar Cargill, “Henry James as Freudian Pioneer,” in Willen, pp. 234–236.

  12. Sigmund Freud, “Psychoanalytic Notes upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia,” in his Collected Papers (London: Hogarth Press, 1924), III, 387–470.

  13. Quoted from James's Notebooks by Charles G. Hoffman, “Innocence and Evil in James's The Turn of the Screw,” in Willen, p. 218.

  14. Goddard, p. 250.

  15. James E. Miller, Jr., personal communication.

  16. Clair, p. 42.

Juliet McMaster (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: “‘The Full Image of a Repetition’ in The Turn of the Screw,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 4, Summer, 1969, pp. 377–82.

[In the following essay, McMaster discusses the significance of James's ironic use of image and perception in his novella.]

When the governess in The Turn of the Screw has just been terrified by seeing the apparition of Peter Quint looking in at her through the dining-room window at Bly, she tells us,

It was confusedly present to me that I ought to place myself where he had stood. I did so; I applied my face to the pane and looked, as he had looked, into the room. As if, at this moment, to show me exactly what his range had been, Mrs. Grose, as I had done for himself just before, came in from the hall. With this I had the full image of a repetition of what already occurred. She saw me as I had seen my own visitant.

(p. 185)1

She watches the effect of her appearance on Mrs. Grose, giving her, indeed, “something of the shock that I had received.”

Oscar Cargill has called attention to this scene as an instance of James's “marvelous symbolic irony, perhaps the best example in his fiction”;2 and the incident certainly seems to have an impact that goes beyond its immediate import in the narrative. However, what appears to have been overlooked is the significance of the fact that this is not the only instance in The Turn of the Screw of an ironic reversal of locations; that in fact James consistently replaces the ghosts with the governess to recreate the “full image” of her own perception. She herself feels compelled to act out the image in her mind.

The first time she encounters Peter Quint, as Freudians will recall,3 it is while she is wandering in the garden and daydreaming about the master, and she sees him at the top of the tower. On this occasion she does not, as when she next meets him, immediately go to where she saw him; however, on the night when she wakes to see Flora gazing intently out of the window, communicating, as the governess supposes, with Miss Jessel, she determines herself to look out of a different window that faces the same way: “There were empty rooms enough at Bly, and it was only a question of choosing the right one. The right one suddenly presented itself to me as the lower one—though high above the gardens—in the solid corner of the house that I have spoken of as the old tower” (p. 229). From this room high upon the tower, by again applying her face to the pane, she sees Miles looking up. She herself is sure that he is looking higher still, at Peter Quint on the tower, but by Miles's own assertion it was she he was looking at. Again, she is appearing to someone else as the ghost had appeared to her.

Sometimes it is only herself that she horrifies by this identification with the ghosts. On one of her nocturnal ramblings “I once recognized the presence of a woman seated on one of the lower steps with her back presented to me, her body half-bowed and her head, in an attitude of woe, in her hands” (pp. 226–227). Later she adopts the same attitude in the same place: she has just returned alone from her disturbing interview with Miles outside the church: “Tormented, in the hall, with difficulties and obstacles, I remember sinking down at the foot of the staircase—suddenly collapsing there on the lowest step and then, with a revulsion, recalling that it was exactly where, more than a month before, in the darkness of night and just so bowed with evil things, I had seen the spectre of the most horrible of women” (p. 256). She goes up to the schoolroom, only to find her “vile predecessor” usurping her place at the table, and to have “the extraordinary chill of a feeling that it was I who was the intruder.” (p. 257)

Miss Jessel's first and definitive appearance, of course, is at the far side of the lake in the grounds of Bly (vii). And it is almost predictable that is should be there that the governess later confronts Flora. The little girl has escaped her vigilance, has taken the boat and rowed herself across the lake.4 There the governess finds her and now openly accuses her of being aware of Miss Jessel's presence. But as the governess had once seen Miss Jessel there, a horrifying and evil presence, so now Flora sees her:

“I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you're cruel. I don't like you” [and she pleads to Mrs. Grose:] “Take me away, take me away—oh take me away from her!”

“From me?” I panted.

“From you—from you!” she cried.

(p. 281)

In the same way, in her agonizing and fatal confrontation with Miles, the governess calls his attention to Peter Quint, looking through the dining room window as she had once looked through at Mrs. Grose; but the only “devil” he can see is the governess herself.

Lear's image for the essential identity of the justice and the thief could be appropriately adapted for The Turn of the Screw: “Change places, and handy-dandy, which is the governess, which is the ghost?”

My point should be sufficiently clear. The occasion on which the governess runs round to look in through the window and terrify Mrs. Grose as the ghost had just looked in and terrified her—this is only the most obvious instance of a consistently maintained pattern in the action, in which the governess takes the place of the ghost. Part of James's purpose in this systematic exchange of locations is no doubt to give us another facet of the governess' complex psychology. She herself is conscious of some appropriateness in her taking the ghosts' places, and it is evidently part of her longing to be “justified” in her perceptions that moves her to endow her mental images with some measure of spatial reality: she becomes the embodiment of her own mental projections.

But there is a further significance in this image. What we have in effect is the symmetrical reversal of an object and its image in a glass (and if there is no actual glass there is usually the possibility of some other kind of projected image—a reflection in water, a shadow, or a trick effect of distance or half-light). And the question that James deliberately raises is whether that glass is a transparent pane, through which Peter Quint can clearly be seen, or whether it is, as it may become at dusk, opaque like a mirror, simply giving back to the governess a reflection of herself. The apparition and the perceiver may be distinct, each with a separate existence, or the one may be only the reflection of the other.

The image of the reflection is a dominant one in the novel. It is not only glass that can receive and reflect an image, but the human mind; and the recurrence of this word reflection becomes significant in the governess' communication as well as in her perceptions. Her mental projections are effected not only spatially, but psychologically, and by this means she makes Mrs. Grose “a receptacle of lurid things” (p. 231). When she tells her of Miss Jessel's appearance, “I was conscious as I spoke that I looked prodigious things, for I got the slow reflection of them in my companion's face” (p. 203). The reflexion is sometimes a two-way affair between these two, we find. It is noticeable that we hear about the major encounters with the ghosts not as they appear to the governess but as she relates the matter to Mrs. Grose afterwards. The total creation of the apparition is not immediate, nor singly in her own mind; it is a product partly of Mrs. Grose's mind, too, as the two catch and reflect back and forth the gleams of suspicion and awareness. Harold Goddard pointed out that it is from Mrs. Grose herself that the governess first gets a hint of some evil male presence at Bly.5 And now, as she is describing the apparition, she could be enlarging on that hint.

At first, looking for confirmation, she suggests that Mrs. Grose has “guessed” the identity of the male apparition. “‘Ah I haven't guessed!’ she said very simply. ‘How can I if you don't imagine?’” (p. 188). For the moment the governess is halted and cannot describe him: “‘What is he? He's a horror. … He's—God help me if I know what he is!’” (p. 189). But after a few blind alleys, a few gleams of communication, their minds are working in concert, and it is now that, “seeing in her face that she already, in this, with a deeper dismay found a touch of picture, I quickly added stroke to stroke” (p. 190). As in running round to look in through the window she has just created a general impression in Mrs. Grose's mind, so through her urgent and intimate communication with her afterwards she fills out the full image of Peter Quint.

The children's minds, on the other hand, are more opaque than Mrs. Grose's, and like untarnished mirrors give back to the governess only the image of her own distraught face. In talking to Miles, she recalls, “… to gain time, I tried to laugh, and I seemed to see in the beautiful face with which he watched me how ugly and queer I looked” (pp. 249–250). Similarly, when she has bundled off Mrs. Grose and Flora in the coach, and set the stage for her harrowing solo encounter with Miles, she communicates her own almost hysterical apprehension to the whole household: “I could see in the aspect of others a confused reflexion of the crisis.” (p. 293)

Douglas, too, testifies to her power of communicating her experience with an image that is close to that of the reflection: when asked if he took down her narrative, he replies, “‘Nothing but the impression. I took that here’—he tapped his heart. ‘I've never lost it.’”

That pane of glass between the human being and the apparition becomes a focus for the total and deliberate ambiguity in the tale. We may take our own choice as to which side of the pane we want to be: with the governess, looking outwards at the baleful stalking ghosts, or on the other side, looking inwards at her and the working of a diseased imagination. Or alternatively, in another operation of the image, we may think of the glass either as a transparent medium through which real ghosts can be seen, or as a mirror in which the governess sees, essentially, only her own reflection.

The choice is with us from the first, in the account of how Douglas prepares his audience for the governess' narrative. Leon Edel, in his careful analysis of the point of view in The Turn of the Screw,6 draws no conclusions as to the significance of this rather elaborate introduction. It seems to me, however, that James has in this passage, the first of the twelve installments, quite carefully defined two kinds of readers for his story. There are two distinct elements in Douglas' audience. One is a group of sensation-hungry women, who want a few chills and terrors to enliven their long winter evenings in the country-house, and so will hear Douglas' reading of the manuscript as another ghost story. For them dreadfulness is in itself “delicious,” and the more turns of the screw the better. Subtlety is not their concern: one of them laments that the story is not told “in any literal vulgar way,” because “that's the only way I ever understand.”

On the other hand Douglas is more particularly addressing the original narrator of the story, whom for convenience we may call [James]. It is for this kind of hearer, for [James] and, one might add, Goddard, Edmund Wilson and their followers, that the fact of the governess' love for her master becomes particularly relevant:

He continued to fix me. “You'll easily judge,” he repeated: “you will.” I fixed him too. “I see. She was in love.”

He laughed for the first time. “You are acute. Yes, she was in love. That is she had been. That came out—she couldn't tell her story without its coming out.”

(p. 150)

For this kind of listener the impact of the tale is not so simple as “sheer terror”; and the distinction is carefully made:

“Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It's quite too horrible.” This was naturally declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: “It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it.”

“For sheer terror?” I remember asking.

He seemed to say it wasn't so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. “For dreadful—dreadfulness!” (p. 148)

“Oh how delicious!” cried one of the women.

He took no notice of her; he looked at me, but as if, instead of me, he saw what he spoke of. “For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain.”

There we see Douglas' two kinds of hearer. For the general entertainment, he presents another ghost story; for [James], for “me in particular,” he presents something more subtle, that demands deeper psychological perception. Douglas' look through [James] at the illusion he is about to present is like the governess' look through the window at the visions she communicates. [James] the narrator and listener, like James the author, is our transparent medium of perception.

According to my contention, there isn't a right way and a wrong way to interpret the tale, but rather two ways, which the same reader may enjoy alternately, if he wishes; and James has carefully established this, both through the imagery of the glass and its reversal of locations, and in the narrative set-up of the story. Just as we may choose to look through the glass with the governess or at her, so we may choose to listen with the ladies, and hear a ghost story, or with [James], and hear a psychological novel. We have “the full image of a repetition,” as in a mirror, and we may decide for ourselves what to take for substance and what for shadow.


  1. Page references are to Volume XII of the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James (New York, 1908).

  2. “Henry James as Freudian Pioneer,” Chicago Review, x (Summer 1956). This is reprinted in A Casebook on Henry James's “The Turn of the Screw,” edited by Gerald Willen (New York, 1960), another useful collection of critiques and interpretations.

  3. See Edmund Wilson's seminal essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” The Triple Thinkers (London, 1948).

  4. T. M. Cranfill and R. L. Clark, Jr., in An Anatomy of The Turn of the Screw (Austin, 1965), suggest that Flora's abduction of the boat is another of the governess's delusions; however, there is no doubt about the location of the confrontation: at the far side of lake, where the governess had first seen Miss Jessel.

  5. In his essay of “about 1920 or before,” published posthumously as “A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. xii (June 1957), 1–36, Goddard draws attention to the scene in which the governess has her suspicions raised by Mrs. Grose's reference to a “he” who is apparently not the master (ii).

  6. The Psychological Novel, 1900–1950 (London, 1961), pp. 39–46.

Kevin Murphy (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: “The Unfixable Text: Bewilderment of Vision in The Turn of the Screw,” in Texas Studies in Literature & Language, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 538–51.

[In the following essay, Murphy explores “some of the strategies James employs to prevent a consistent reading of the text.”]

For ours is a most fictile world; and man is the most fingent plastic of creatures. A world not fixable; not fathomable!

—Carlyle, The French Revolution

Since its publication eighty years ago, The Turn of the Screw has enjoyed a double life. After Daisy Miller, perhaps James's most widely read piece of fiction, it has captivated readers, both naive and acute, as a tale of the grotesque in which a young and apparently good-hearted governess discovers the existence of ghosts at the country estate where she has been employed. Approached in a different fashion, however, it has equally captivated other readers as a revealing exemplum of self-delusion. Told by the governess herself, the tale casts mounting suspicion on the reliability of her version of the events, and, in an attempt to impose a consistent reading on all the elements presented in the story, these readers have concluded that the tale is a study in the onset of hysteria which has as its denouement the governess's inadvertent killing of the child Miles. That different readers would emphasize different aspects of the story is natural, but that so many careful readers would continue to come to conclusions radically opposed is extraordinary. What prolongs this critical debate is that one reading invariably cancels the other, since the governess cannot be both reliable and unreliable, both altruistic and hysterical, both perceptive and insane, simultaneously.1

James himself, in his comments on the story, replicates and encourages the ambiguity surrounding the tale. At one point, he seems to dismiss it as a “shameless potboiler”; at another, he elaborates that it is “an excursion into chaos while remaining, like Blue-Beard and Cinderella, but an anecdote.” He does add, however, that it is an anecdote which, like other fairy tales, returns upon itself. Then, almost at the opposite pole of his “potboiler” remark, he asserts in his oft-quoted comment on the story: “it is a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the ‘fun’ of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small) the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious.”2 This quotation is sometimes offered as an explanation for the dual life the tale has enjoyed, on the one level as a ghost story for the merely witless, on the other as a penetrating study of Victorian mores for the more discerning. But, taken at face value, the comment says that, if there is a trap in the story, it is one that will snag not the superficial but the fastidious reader. Given the dramatic disparity of response to the tale, James has apparently succeeded in doing exactly that many times over. Most readers, while immediately acknowledging the tale's ambiguity on at least two levels,3 set out to argue a consistent interpretation for one level or the other. In contrast, what I propose to discuss in this essay is the tale's ultimate opacity. In doing so, I will examine some of the strategies James employs to prevent a consistent reading of the text and discuss the implications inherent in the tale's final duplicity.


To begin with, therefore, we should note that we have two tales, not one. Although most of the argument centers about the story of the young governess, this narrative is itself prefaced by a prologue replete with its own narrator, characters, and interaction. This narrator, along with a group of complacent gentry, repairs to an old English country house to enjoy a Christmas holiday, and on Christmas Eve the conversation turns to tales of the grotesque. In response to an apparently mediocre tale of gruesomeness, Douglas, one of the assembly, throws out the first suggestion of a tale he knows, one that will go one step further than the one just heard. The first tale, since it concerned an apparition seen by a child, contained a turn of the screw, but his tale, since it contains two children—but he does not finish his sentence. One of the group suggests that his tale will therefore have two turns, and everyone is eager for Douglas to continue. The narrator of this interaction, initially somewhat detached from the conversation, notices the “quiet art” (p. 148) with which Douglas warms up the group, but soon he himself is involved in the pumping of the reticent Douglas. Douglas puts off telling his tale, saying that he will have to send to town for the manuscript. As it happens, it is not his own tale, but that of a woman who has been dead twenty years. The narrator, although “charmed” (p. 149) by Douglas's scruples, continues his questioning and discovers in the interplay as Douglas “fixes” upon him that he, the narrator, has somehow been singled out from all the auditors as the one most likely to understand fully the implications of the story. Douglas later, just before his death, reinforces this choice by giving the governess's manuscript to the narrator. For the moment, though, Douglas reveals that the author of the tale he has in mind was his sister's governess, a person he so warmly attests to that one of the group later suggests that Douglas may have been in love with her.

Even though this inference provides a possible explanation for Douglas's reticence and hesitation, it does not change the effect of his presentation. In his slow revelation of the tale's background, Douglas engages in a series of pregnant pauses that are calculated to involve, or at least have the consequence of inciting, the participation of his audience. At times we know that some of the additions, completions, and anticipations offered by his listeners are somewhat off the mark, at least to Douglas's mind. When the narrator, for example, suggests to Mrs. Griffin that the story will tell whom the governess was in love with, Douglas is quick to cut in: “The story won't tell, not in any literal vulgar way” (p. 151). But at other times, Douglas, with the silences he interposes mid-thought, seduces the narrator into a number of anticipations which Douglas then verifies. In fact, even though Douglas denies he is involved in this give-and-take, he carries the collaboration one step further by returning to complete the narrator's partial suggestion:

So far had Douglas presented his picture when someone put a question. “And what did the former governess die of? Of so much respectability?”

Our friend's answer was prompt. “That will come out. I don't anticipate.”

“Pardon me—I thought that was just what you are doing.”

“In her successor's place,” I suggested, “I should have wished to learn if the office brought with it—”

“Necessary danger to life?” Douglas completed my thought.

(p. 155)

Of the hundreds of ways Douglas might have completed this thought, he naturally chooses the one that sums up the drift of his forthcoming tale. But if we look at what precedes the remark, there is no reason to suppose that Douglas's completion would have been exactly or even roughly the same as the narrator's. The narrator is more than happy to accept Douglas's completion since it marks him as an acute, as opposed to a literal-minded or vulgar, listener, and thus he continues, with increasing confidence, to collaborate in the anticipations. The entanglement of the narrator is so complete by the time Douglas opens the manuscript that, when Douglas responds to one of the ladies that his story has no title, the narrator interrupts emphatically, “Oh I have!” (p. 157). But it is too late: Douglas begins to read the manuscript with the narrator and the rest of the assembly listening intently while we puzzle momentarily over what the narrator's title might have been.

What we have then in this short prologue to the governess's tale, aside from the information we learn about the governess's background before her coming to Bly, is a subtle demonstration of a storyteller's rhetorical entrapment of a willing, even if initially skeptical, audience. The serialization of his revelations, the pauses which draw forth any number of anticipations, the careful tailoring of these comments to extend the point of the narrative are all, in one sense, ploys for enticing listeners. What these devices rest on is the assumption, the confidence, that what is being collectively constructed demonstrates a common sensibility, a shared point of view, and, even more basically, that the governess's experience is capable of single interpretation. But from our perspective, we should note that, as Douglas and the narrator of the prologue “fix” upon each other and assume more and more about each other's intuitions, we as readers outside this interaction are led further and further into ambiguity. I take this time to labor what may appear obvious in order to emphasize the paradoxical nature of the rhetoric at play in the prologue: as the drift of the story becomes clearer for Douglas and the narrator, it becomes more elusive for us. In addition, even though we never find out what title the narrator had in mind just before he and Douglas disappear from the presentation, we do know the one James assigned to it focuses, at least in terms of the prologue, on a rhetorical enhancement of a tale. The turn of the screw to which Douglas refers in the first tale told to the assembly seems at most a sentimental embellishment, an innocent child exposed to the terror of an apparition. But what he has in mind concerning the governess's story is the consequence of doubling the participants. As we discover, the tale he presents involves not only two children but also two adults, and perhaps even two ghosts.


Just before the governess tells us of the sequence of events that leads up to her first apparition, she considers “all the art” she will need to render the scene “a little distinct” (p. 172). At this point, several weeks after her arrival at Bly, she has established something of a routine for herself: each evening she takes a turn on the grounds to enjoy the expanse of the country estate. Gathering up memories of the previous weeks, she congratulates herself on being “a remarkable young woman” (p. 174) and speculates on how she might appear to the attractive gentleman she met in Harley Street. Day-dreaming in this manner, she imagines exactly that—his face before her—just as she becomes aware of a man on the tower of the house. While this association of images is interesting from a variety of points of view, what follows is equally revealing. The governess declares she experienced two distinct shocks. The first is “the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real” (p. 175). She presumes the man on the tower is the person she had been musing about. The first shock, however, is followed by a second: “the violent perception” that the man she is looking at is not the handsome bachelor she so often dwells upon. The inability to mesh her inward image with her outward perception leads to an epistemological rupture, “a bewilderment of vision” (p. 176), which the governess is at pains to express.

The scene is important in at least two respects. If we step back from the tale a moment, we can see that this “bewilderment of vision” is, in fact, the gist of the governess's tale. From the outset of her story she has been caught between the anticipations of her imagination and the adjustments she must make as she focuses those anticipations against her experience. In the coach on the way to Bly, for example, she brooded over her impending relation with Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper whose authority she was to displace. When, however, Mrs. Grose willingly assigns a social superiority to the governess, the inexperienced young woman realizes that she is “strangely at the helm” (p. 164) of a ship which is lost and adrift. What apparently alleviates a surface social ambiguity characteristically creates a deeper and more inward uncertainty.

In another respect we can see that the governess, as she approaches a crucial part of the narrative, becomes more aware of herself as a storyteller. Although her tale is one of bewilderment and confusion, she realizes that it is of the utmost importance that she render that confusion clearly. In light of later developments, her ability, or inability, to present her situation accurately will decide her guilt or innocence in the death of young Miles. Despite the bewilderment and confusion that informs the tale, the governess reaches a point of absolute certainty concerning the man on the tower: “I saw him as I see the letters I form on this page” (p. 177). For the governess the act of writing out the story, of artfully rendering the situation distinct, is the final truth, the final justification.

For the reader, however, it is just the starting point. In terms of presentation, we have experienced a major shift in the mode of narration the moment the governess began speaking. With this shift comes an increase in empathy as we follow the train of the governess's thought and emotion firsthand. In addition, the governess's fear and hesitancy all but disarm the reader's skepticism since she, as much as any outside critic, grants the improbability of the apparition. To a great extent, then, we implicitly accept the governess's reasoning, in the scene following the first apparition, when she suggests that she does not tell Mrs. Grose of the man on the tower in order to spare the housekeeper any undue anxiety. Simultaneously, however, we note that the governess, as yet unaware of the ghostly nature of the man on the tower, is somewhat affronted by her ignorance of the man's identity when, according to her “office,” there should be “no such ignorance and no such person” (p. 177). She therefore takes several days to affirm clandestinely that the servants have not been playing a trick on the new member of the household. Given our sympathetic predisposition, we willingly accept and focus on the governess's modest claim to altruism; without this predisposition, however, we might as easily construe the concealment proof of a paranoid defensiveness concerning the governess's new station in life. The extent to which James balances this predisposition to believe what the governess says against other interpretations of the events is at the heart of the tale's ambiguity.

This mingling of epistemological and social uncertainty forces us, like the governess, elsewhere: we are inevitably led to consider her relation to those around her both from her and from our point of view. Given the peculiar nature of her new position, the governess finds herself closely drawn to Mrs. Grose, the person most recently responsible for the children. In an attempt to cope with the unexpected dismissal of Miles from his school, the governess turns almost instinctively to the more experienced housekeeper for advice, only to discover in the process that Mrs. Grose is illiterate. Even though the governess initially seems to dismiss her as an incompetent, the governess's own uncertainty keeps sending her back to the housekeeper for further verification during which the governess's vacillation is evident. When, for example, the governess suggests that Miles must have been an injury to the other students, Mrs. Grose is shocked and protests. The governess instantly reverses her tracks by insinuating through sarcasm that the other students are the ones at fault, even though this nuance seems to elude the straightforward housekeeper. The governess continues to pursue her “colleague” throughout the day for further information, and, interestingly enough, the method she uses recapitulates the fragmented interplay found in the prologue:

“I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that you've never known him to be bad.”

She threw back her head; she had clearly by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. “Oh never known him—I don't pretend that!”

I was upset again. “Then you have known him—?”

“Yes, indeed, Miss, thank God!”

On reflexion I accepted this. “You mean that a boy who never is—?”

“Is no boy for me!”

I held her tighter. “You like them with the spirit to be naughty?” Then, keeping pace with her answer, “So do I!” I eagerly brought out. “But not to the degree to contaminate—”

“To contaminate?”—my big word left her at a loss.

I explained it. “To corrupt.”

(p. 168)

This exchange emphasizes the growing contradiction that characterizes the governess's relation to Mrs. Grose. As in the prologue, the governess and Mrs. Grose communicate in this fragmented fashion presuming a common ground, in this case a mutual understanding of their “office.” As the tale progresses, it becomes clear that this office includes not only specific values concerning the rearing of children but also a general affirmation of class distinctions that carefully separate servants from gentry. Given the governess's infatuation with the gentleman in Harley Street, she has a compelling reason not to identify herself with the “belowstairs” housekeeper; but, given her uncertainty and confusion concerning her new responsibilities at Bly, she finds collaboration a psychological necessity. However, in the governess's attempt to clarify even as simple a point as a child's behavior, she confronts the barrier of language that separates them.

Mrs. Grose's illiteracy indicates an even more fundamental difference between the two when we note the governess's propensity to describe her experiences and perceptions in literary terms. Initially, she experiences Bly as a “castle of romance inhabited by a rosy spite” which might prove a storybook over which she had fallen “a-doze and a-dream” (p. 163). She rejoices that the “probable grey prose” of her office has been informed by the “romance of the nursery and the poetry of the schoolroom” (p. 181). In the critical sequence leading to the first apparition, the governess muses that “it would be as charming as a charming story” (p. 175) to meet the gentleman from Harley Street just before Quint appears on the tower. And immediately preceding her apparition of Quint on the stairway, the first apparition inside the house, the governess is deeply absorbed in Henry Fielding's Amelia.4 If we recall the governess's retrospective equation of the figure on the tower with the letters she forms on the page, it should seem inevitable that Mrs. Grose's eyes are “hopelessly sealed” (p. 280) when the governess tries to make her see the apparition of Miss Jessel at the lake. When the governess writes of Mrs. Grose, “as a woman reads another—she could see what I myself saw” (p. 239), she sums up both the expectation and limitation inherent in their collaboration. From the governess's point of view, any attempt to define her office, either socially or epistemologically, in terms of Mrs. Grose will lead to frustration. From our point of view, however, we are forced to judge the two together, for only in evaluating their collaboration can we reach definitive ground concerning the governess's reliability.

This view of the two characters in combination is given special emphasis in the scene following Quint's initial appearance outside the dining room. When Quint appears at the window, the governess realizes, or decides, that he is the same person who appeared on the tower and, in a “flash” of knowledge, that he has come for someone other than her. She immediately rushes outside to confront the intruder, but, discovering him vanished, takes up his position outside the window. What follows should be a classic in the literature of the double:

As if, at this moment, to show me exactly what his range had been, Mrs. Grose, as I had done for himself just before, came in from the hall. With this I had the full image of a repetition of what had already occurred. She saw me as I had seen my own visitant; she pulled up short as I had done; I gave her something of the shock that I had received. She turned white, and this made me ask myself if I had blanched as much. She stared, in short, and retreated on just my lines, and I knew she had then passed out and come round to me that I should presently meet her.

(pp. 185–86)

In one sense, the governess and Mrs. Grose replicate each other; in another, they of course “read” very different sights through the same pane of glass.

Despite this duplicitous replication, from our perspective the collaboration of the two following this scene seems to support unquestionably the veracity of the governess's apparitions. Locking hands with the housekeeper, the governess “shares” her apparitions with Mrs. Grose, assuring her that “I saw him as I see you” (p. 189). Mrs. Grose then applies her face to the window, once again repeating the governess's actions. In response to Mrs. Grose's amazement that the governess had the courage to confront the stranger, the governess calls to mind their mutual office by asserting it was her duty. Mrs. Grose replies, “So have I mine” (p. 190), and requests further information. At this point for the first time the governess gives a meticulously detailed description of the man at the window, and, even though Mrs. Grose hesitates until she is assured that the intruder is handsome and dressed in someone else's clothes, she does positively identify the apparition as the dead Peter Quint. The collaboration apparently assures us that the governess is telling the truth, for there would be no way she would have such a detailed description of Quint otherwise. The point is an important one since nowhere else in the tale do we have any positive proof that the apparitions may not be figments of the governess's very active and distraught imagination.

The problem with this reading, however, occurs in a parallel collaboration scene later in the story. The governess, having returned early from church intending to leave Bly, sees Miss Jessel sitting at the school desk. During the apparition the governess tells us in detail that Miss Jessel remains silent and that only she, the governess, cries out, “You terrible miserable woman!” (p. 257). In the reconstruction of the scene she later presents to Mrs. Grose, however, she says, with some active prompting from the housekeeper, that Miss Jessel specifically spoke of her torments and of her desire to possess Flora. The scene balances itself against the earlier verification since nowhere else in the tale do we have concrete internal evidence that the governess is falsifying what she sees. Thus, we are left with something of a dramatic contradiction: if the collaboration after the Quint apparition points toward the governess's truthfulness, the one after the schoolroom visitation makes her out a liar.

This discrepancy has sent many readers back to the initial verification scene to examine scrupulously that interchange in the hope of discovering a consistent reading of the story. The governess does say at that time that she has made sure that the intruder could not be someone from the house or village, and Mrs. Grose gives the positive identification in response to the vague description of the intruder's dress rather than immediately after the detailed description of Quint's hair and features. But the governess and Mrs. Grose go “over and over every feature” (p. 194) of what the governess has seen. For a reader to maintain that the governess is unreliable at this point, he would have to replace his original empathetic reading with considerable interpolation. On the other hand, it is equally clear that the governess, in collaboration with Mrs. Grose, whose name we should note may be homophonic with either “gross” or “grows,” at times inflates her perceptions into falsehoods.

What is fascinating about this dilemma is that James places us in a position which replicates the governess's initial uncertainty. Just as the governess has difficulty meshing her inward image of the handsome bachelor with her outward perception of the man on the tower, we too have difficulty coming to terms with our apparition, the governess herself. Our introduction to this character is entirely favorable: Douglas describes her in the prologue as “the most agreeable woman I've ever known in her position; she'd have been worthy of any whatever” (p. 149). The narrator of the prologue, with his collaborative intuitions appended to Douglas's sketchy suggestions, adds weight to this positive identification forming in our minds. With the shift to the governess's first-person narration, our imagination, in a sense, turns real: the governess is before us, as worthy and agreeable as she has been reported to be. The verification of her apparition of the dead Quint explains fully, or at least deflects our attention away from, the discordant elements in her personality. But, as the tale progresses, these discordant traits move closer and closer to the foreground. The governess's defensive snobbery concerning her ambiguous office, her constant interpretation of events to highlight her own altruism, and her obsession to save the children at any cost all become more pronounced and sinister.

The final scene, upon which the governess rests her case, epitomizes this tension and ambiguity. While interrogating Miles about his misconduct at school, the governess prods and terrifies the child into identifying the apparition she sees outside the window. When Miles blurts out, “Peter Quint—you devil!” the governess has what she considers ultimate proof that the children have been involved with the ghosts. More to the point, she considers Miles's naming of the dead Quint “his tribute to my devotion” (p. 309). But we also see that, from Miles's point of view, the governess herself is the evil spirit possessing the house. During this scene the governess explains her sudden jumps up and down, her grabs at the child, and her erratic behavior in general as responses to the apparition of Peter Quint at the window, but we can easily imagine the fear of a guilty child who sees himself in the hands of a dominating, vindictive adult. As the governess almost ghoulishly embraces Miles with the words, “What does he matter now, my own?—what will he ever matter? I have you,” all of her alarming traits of possessiveness and self-justification come into focus. From our point of view, whether the ghosts are real or not, we are left with the “violent perception” that the governess is not the worthy and agreeable person we originally imagined. From a larger perspective, we see that our “office” as reader is as fraught with ambiguity as the governess's. Like the governess, we see our world with words; and, like the governess, these words lead us to uncertainty.


In retrospect we can see certain analogies forming between the strategies of ambiguity James uses throughout the tale. In the prologue we see that a tale, “true” or otherwise, involves a certain two-sidedness, a duplicitous collaboration between teller and listener. Douglas provides half-sentences, fragments, and suggestions, to which his audience, especially the narrator, respond vigorously. Likewise, in the identification, or fabrication, of the ghosts, the governess and the housekeeper repeat this rhetorical act of collaborative creation, first with the governess prodding and encouraging the housekeeper, then with Mrs. Grose responding in kind. More pointedly, in trying to come to terms with the character of the governess, we see that these collaborations, rather than assuring accuracy and definitiveness, produce the opposite effect.

In this sense, the double being focused upon in this tale of replication is most obvious and constant: author and reader doubling experience through the duplicitous agency of words. But, given the ambiguity informing the tale, James forces us to reconsider our assumptions about the coherency and consistency of a text. More fundamentally, James puts the question: what is the “office” of a reader? Is he one who deciphers an objectively coherent text, or is he one who shapes anew and uniquely the inherently ambiguous world of words? If we look more closely at the collaboration in the prologue, we can see that James undermines the possibility of “objective” reading.

Douglas, as has been noted by his audience, is already biased toward the governess. His high praise of the governess, harbored the forty years since meeting her, and his melodramatic tapping of his heart to indicate his impression of her tale all but preclude his coming to terms with the dark side of her personality. Likewise, the narrator, while apparently more detached, demonstrates a bias of his own. In response to the warm description of the governess given by Douglas, the narrator's questions, anticipations, and collaborations focus not on the governess but on the gentleman bachelor in Harley Street. At first, the narrator relates Douglas's description of the character as “a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life” who easily impresses the young governess. But then the narrator continues: “One could easily fix his type; it never, happily, dies out. He was handsome and bold and pleasant, off-hand and gay and kind” (p. 153). He describes the uncle's abandonment of the children to Bly as a beneficent act, capped by his willingness to part with his manservant Peter Quint to take care of them. Granted, at this point the narrator is unaware of Quint's character or his behavior, ghostly or otherwise at Bly, but his preoccupation with the bachelor uncle is clear. In response to the pause that follows Douglas's description of the governess's employment, the narrator adds gratuitously, “The moral of which was of course the seduction exercised by the splendid young man” (p. 155). If we were to speculate about what the narrator's title for the tale might have been, it would certainly have something to do with the “splendid” and “young” bachelor.

Thus, we see that the act of “fixing” is itself duplicitous. In one sense, it involves a focusing of the senses to exclude, a momentary halt to the swim of sensation to discern what is real from what is imaginary. When Douglas fixes the narrator of the prologue, the narrator immediately senses his enhanced importance, his uniqueness. But the act can also involve a freeing of the imagination to include, a free association to make sense of bare outline. As the narrator of the prologue demonstrates, this liberation of the imagination to flesh out a word is a highly creative and subjective act. In relation to a text, a reader must constantly “fix” both inclusively and exclusively, but here James manages to set the one activity against the other.

If we maintain, as did most of James's readers for the twenty or so years that followed the tale's publication, that the governess has indeed seen ghosts, there is fragmentary evidence to support it. If, on the other hand, we maintain, as do many contemporary readers, that the governess is hysterical or deranged, there is fragmentary, but not conclusive, evidence to support that as well. In either case, however, it is necessary for the reader, in the name of reaching a consistent and exclusive interpretation of the tale, to interpolate explanations extraneous to the text. And, even though this qualifies much of the psychological criticism to which the tale seems to lend itself, I would suggest that the interpolation necessary to explain Mrs. Grose's identification of Quint balances itself against the interpolation possible to explain the governess's inflated account of her apparition of Miss Jessel in the schoolroom. In either case, though, we again repeat the governess's behavior: in response to our “bewilderment of vision” concerning this ambiguous character, we must create beyond the fragments to make sense of what we see. James, like the Impressionist painters, successfully shifts the plane of significance from the page or canvas to the eye of the beholder. Just as we must associate the red and blue adjacent lines and dots on the canvas to produce a unique and totally imaginary purple, so too we must create the coherence in The Turn of the Screw. In doing so, we reveal, like Douglas and the narrator, much about our own desires. In this light the governess remains an enigma, as true, as varied, and as grotesque as the letters and figures we form upon the page.


  1. There are of course many discussions of the tale's ambiguity, the most outstanding of which have been collected in A Casebook on Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, ed. Gerald Willen (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960). A more complete bibliography can be found in An Anatomy of The Turn of the Screw by Thomas Mabry Cranfill and Robert Lanier Clark, Jr. (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1965), pp. 173–88. Throughout the article I refer to volume 12 of the New York edition of James's novels and tales (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908). As both Edmund Wilson and Leon Edel point out, James's revisions for The Turn of the Screw and its location in his collected works enhance the purposeful ambiguity of the tale. See Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963), p. 94; and Leon Edel, ed., The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1948), p. 434.

  2. The “shameless potboiler” remark occurs in a letter to F. W. H. Myers dated 19 December 1898 in The Letters of Henry James, ed. Percy Lubbock, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), I, 300–01. The more detailed comment occurs in the Preface to The Aspern Papers reprinted in The Art of the Novel, ed. R. P. Blackmur (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934), p. 172.

  3. Leon Edel (pp. 425–35) suggests a third reading based on his exhaustive biographical study of James. This tale, along with many of the other ghostly stories, reflects James's lifelong obsession with the haunted state of childhood.

  4. James would hardly make such a pointed literary allusion casually. While this novel of “deprecated renown” offers a model of love and constancy to the inexperienced governess, it also abounds in concealments, masquerades, portentous dreams, and multiple interpretations of reported behavior. At one point, the narrator interjects an observation which might have been an epigraph for The Turn of the Screw: “Love … sprouts up in the richest and noblest minds; but there, unless nicely watched, pruned, and cultivated, and carefully kept clear of those vicious weeds which are too apt to surround it, it branches forth into wildness and disorder, produces nothing desirable, but choaks up and kills whatever is good and noble in the mind where it so abounds.” In light of the secure note of realism that runs through Fielding's other works, the choice of Amelia is doubly appropriate. Cf. The Works of Henry Fielding (Philadelphia: John D. Morris, 1902), vol. IV, pt. II, p. 72.

David A. Cook and Timothy J. Corrigan (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5352

SOURCE: “Narrative Structure in The Turn of the Screw: A New Approach to Meaning,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 55–65.

[In the following essay, Cook and Corrigan investigate how the narrative structure functions in the novella, concluding that it allows for multiple interpretations of the story.]

As the subject of a critical controversy which has raged for the past forty-five years, The Turn of the Screw has by now received more scholarly attention than any other single work of James, including the major novels. Since its first publication in 1898, the novella has been read alternatively as a simple ghost story; a gothic horror tale of demonic possession; a Freudian case history of sexual neurosis, hysteria, sadomasochism, paranoia, and/or schizoid dysfunction; a poetic allegory of good and evil; a metaphoric evocation of the Victorian cultural impasse; a psychoanalytic biography of Henry James; a study of infantile sexuality; and a novel of detection after the manner of Poe, Collins and Conan Doyle. This imposing group of interpretations seems impossible to assimilate in any coherent fashion. Yet all of these readings are merely elaborately refined variants of two more basic ones—one which holds that the meaning of the novel is the succession of real events objectively reported, which may or may not have resonance beyond the events themselves; and another which believes that the meaning of the novel is the diseased consciousness of the narrator, whose well-concealed unreliability is the work's greatest technical achievement. Both of these positions are tenable when argued with reason and sanity, as divergent essays such as Harold Goddard's “A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw” and Ernest Tuveson's “The Turn of the Screw: A Palimpsest” have shown.1

But the very admissibility of both kinds of interpretation says something important about the novel. This is what Leon Edel suggests in Chapter Three of The Psychological Novel:

We have thus in reality two stories. … One is the area of fact, the other is the area of fancy. There is the witness, in this case the governess and her seemingly circumstantial story, and there is the mind itself, the contents of which are given to the reader. The reader must establish for himself the credibility of the witness; he must decide between what the governess supposed and what she claims she saw.

“The reader's mind,” says Edel, “is forced to hold to two levels of awareness: the story as told, and the story to be deduced.”2 Edel's comments are particularly valuable here because he suggests that the key to The Turn of the Screw is found not in one or the other of two possible meanings but in narrative ambiguity itself, in the uncertainty between “the story as told, and the story to be deduced.” Thus we can no longer speak of “meaning” as a simple function of a text's content in which words describe a series of events, which the critic then interprets or paraphrases. Instead, we must understand “meaning” to be a function of the narrative structure of the work. Narrative structure is itself a term which evades simple definition. But it will suffice here to call narrative structure the set of internal principles or laws which govern a literary text, not only its story, or histoire, but also the discours or the system of language which tells the story. Only by examining how these narrative principles operate in The Turn of the Screw can we see how two meanings are simultaneously possible for the tale. More important, we shall discover through this method how the tension between these two meanings, as a narrative strategy, does in fact generate the total “meaning” of the text.

Here the presuppositions are unmistakably those of a structuralist critic: a narrative has no referential certainty, yet it must convince the reader of its truth; a narrative's only resources are linguistic; and only by examining how its linguistic units attempt to convince can we understand the significance of the particular narrative. The structuralist's paradigm of course is the Saussurean linguistic model, and a description of this model clarifies the structuralist position with regard to narrative and other language “systems.” Saussure discovered that the cause of terminological difficulties in linguistics was the fact that the terms themselves tried to name substances or objects (the “word,” the “sentence”) while language was a system characterized by the absence of such substances. Sixty years of criticism testifies that James was acutely aware of the arbitrary nature of language, and in The Turn of the Screw he called attention to it by emphasizing the tenuousness of the narrative model itself, that is, by underlining the admissibility of two mutually exclusive meanings for the same narrative statement.

To be more specific: the governess-narrator uses language to confirm the reality of what she thinks she sees, and thus she makes her suspicions “real” not only to herself but to the rest of her audience as well (including all of the characters at Bly and—most importantly—the reader). The reader picking up The Turn of the Screw consents to accept the governess's words as truth; he consents to play by the rules of her language, the structural laws of her discours. And since she tells her story in retrospect, knowing her ending when she begins, these laws do not change. What can be confirmed outside the narrative is scant. In fact, only the governess herself, Mrs. Grose, the children, the employer, and the estate at Bly are certifiably “real,” because these are verified by the framing narrative which precedes her tale. In order to sustain the narrative at all, then, the governess must be granted authority and credibility. And it is only through the most skillful of structural manipulations that James creates large cracks in the facade of her account, without ever destroying its credibility entirely. In short, James undermines the discours at strategic, often unobtrusive points and so leaves the legitimacy of the histoire well shaken but demonstrably intact. What results is a tension between the governess's narrative voice and the world outside that voice, a tension, to use the terms of Tzvetan Todorov, between a “marvelous” world of ghosts and an “uncanny” world of neurotic governesses.

In his suggestive book, The Fantastic, Todorov describes the genre of fantasy as a mode of literature with rules strikingly similar to those James posits for his ghost stories.3 Fantasy, Todorov states, is situated between the genres of the marvelous and the uncanny (T. 25). In marvelous literature, the supernatural is unquestionably real: ghosts and spiritual presences are as factual as the more quotidian events of the narrative. In contrast, the strange happenings in uncanny literature can be explained by logical and rational means. Mediating between both of these modes is fantastic literature. Here freakish narrative events can neither be explained away as uncanny nor accepted as marvelous, for in fantastic literature the reader is dealing with a genre which defines itself by the ambiguity it creates. “The fantastic,” says Todorov, “is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event” (T. 25). “‘I nearly reached the point of believing’: that is the formula which sums up the spirit of the fantastic: it is hesitation which sustains its life” (T. 31).

Perhaps the most effective narrative technique of fantastic literature involves manipulating point of view, which is also the main strategy of The Turn of the Screw. James notes that “only by looming through some other history—the indispensable history of somebody's normal relation to something” can supernatural phenomena “keep all their character,” “thickness” or “their imputed and borrowed dignity,” and Todorov strongly corroborates this notion when he discusses the point of view of the narrator as a major structural element in fantastic literature (T. 82–90). Since all occurrences in a story must be related through the narrator's consciousness, his voice is the single touchstone by which the authenticity of these narrative events may be determined. As long as his credibility remains dubious or unreliable, supernatural phenomena can never be wholly accepted or dismissed. Given a chain of bizarre events, the more credibility the narrator has, the more likely the work will belong to the marvelous: i.e., he will be telling the truth about the ghosts he sees. The less credibility he has, the narrative events will more likely be revealed as uncanny experiences which can be explained by facts outside the narrator's perspective. But in establishing and exploiting the uncertainty of a narrator's credibility, which—significantly—can only be established in the narrative itself, an author writes fantastic literature—such as The Turn of the Screw.

Once she begins her story, the primary narrator in The Turn of the Screw, the governess, acquires all the authority which comes to the narrator of a traditional novel, an authority which 18th and 19th century narrators rarely abused. Moreover, in the first section of the tale, Douglas describes the governess as “awfully clever and nice” and says “I liked her extremely,” giving her a good character reference before she even begins her narrative.4 That Douglas is himself a narrator simply confirms the fact that James is attempting to reinforce the tradition of reliability for his primary narrator. Despite some suspicious references to her character as being naive and “carried away easily” (J. 3), the governess does nothing in the first few pages of the text to cast doubt on her role as a honest and factual reporter. And when the placid surroundings at Bly are suddenly disturbed by the discovery that Miles has been expelled from school for committing some unspecified but reprehensible act, the arrival of the expulsion letter serves to validate the governess's uneasiness rather than to cast doubt on her credibility. Questions arise immediately, however, when the illiterate Mrs. Grose refuses to examine the letter, and we realize that it is the governess alone who relates and confirms its content. But even these questions are dispelled when soon afterwards Mrs. Grose timidly suggests that Miles has been known to misbehave. Furthermore, it is at this juncture that Mrs. Grose introduces into the narrative the suspect character of the former Ms. Jessel and vaguely hints at the disreputable character of the manservant Peter Quint. Thus, though the reliability of the apparently simpleminded Mrs. Grose is itself unknown, at this point in the narrative the worries and fears of the governess seem fully justified. The governess, of course, reports or constructs these events. But what is most important is not that she is a narrator in control of events but that she is able to establish—or at this point, maintain—the credibility of her narrative. The testimony of Mrs. Grose clearly reinforces that credibility.

The first real crack in the governess's narrative credibility occurs when Peter Quint “appears” to her for the first time. We have already been made aware of her romantic temperament and her attraction for her employer, “a bachelor in the prime of his 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” (J. 4). At Bly, the governess fancies herself “strangely at the helm” of “a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea take all color out of storybooks and fairy-tales” (J. 10). For the first two chapters of the novella, up to and including Mrs. Grose's announcement about a former governess, these romantic illusions remain confined to her private musings and are hardly alarming. But immediately after the last quoted passage, the governess has her first vision of Quint standing on the tower in the dwindling light of evening, and the objective nature of her narrative suddenly becomes questionable. Though there is no suggestion that she believes she has seen a ghost, the governess tips her hand in her description of her mental state immediately preceding the vision by showing her imaginative longings and causing the reader to doubt the actuality of the experience:

One of the thoughts that, as I don't in the least shrink now from noting, used to be with me in these wanderings was that it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone … when on the first of these occasions, at the end of a long June day, I stopped short on emerging from one of the plantations and coming into view of the house. What arrested me on the spot—with a shock much greater than any vision had allowed—was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real.

(J. 15)

Coming to this passage, the reader begins to hesitate over what is true and what is false in terms of the narrator's predisposition to perceive things as she will. And this hesitation increases as more and more textual evidence suggests the governess's lack of credibility. She refuses to tell Mrs. Grose about her encounter with Quint; her role as a heroine evolves into a role as a martyr, “with the instinct of sparing my companion” (J. 18). Moreover, we learn that she “was in receipt these days of disturbing letters from home, where things were not going well” (J. 20), and that her strained and excited mind is increasingly disturbed and burdened. As they add up, these facts begin to suggest a psychological explanation for many of the “events” in the governess's narrative, which now moves inexorably toward the crisis point of Quint's appearance.

The ambiguity of Quint's second visit is especially important in that the actual description of the scene reflects the structural tension of the entire novella. Juliet McMaster's study of this scene, “‘The Full Image of Repetition’ in The Turn of the Screw,” offers a sound analysis of how this structure works.5 The governess, whose objectivity is now in serious doubt, sees Quint from her position inside the manor classroom: Quint appears suddenly in the window, and then vanishes immediately. The governess dashes outside and puts herself in his recently vacated place. Meanwhile Mrs. Grose has entered the classroom, sees the governess peering through the window, and screams in fright. In the second apparition scene, then, James has established two perspectives, each of which is opposed to the other. In the first one, the governess apparently sees Peter Quint through the glass; in the second she sees her own manic image reflected in the same glass from the opposite point of view. The question becomes: which is the metaphor for the governess's vision, the transparent glass or the reflective glass. The governess has retained enough credibility to make Quint's appearance plausible. But her statement that “it was as if I had been looking at him for years and had known him always” (J. 20) and the fact that it is the governess, and no one else, who frightens Mrs. Grose causes the reader again to waver in his judgment of the scene and the entire narrative. Ultimately, however, the scene offers a perfect stalemate between opposing narrative and critical points of view.

Up to this point, the main drift of the narrative events has been to undermine the credibility which the governess-narrator was granted at the outset of the story. The classroom scene impedes this movement by dramatically freezing the vacillation between narrative credibility and incredibility, between what the governess sees and what she imagines she sees. The first major reversal in favor of the governess takes place when she identifies and describes Peter Quint to Mrs. Grose. There are few narrative strategies in The Turn of the Screw which cannot be defended from one or the other of the two major critical stances, and, as Harold Goddard argued so well, the governess's identification of Peter Quint here is indeed ambiguous enough to decipher as a simple manipulation of Mrs. Grose. However, this argument is finally acceptable only if the reader has already made up his mind about the governess's credibility, that is, if the reader categorically refuses to trust her language. Yet, to do this would be to ignore the narrative tension that James never wholly relieves. James is never terribly direct or emphatic in his fiction, and at this point in the narrative, when the governess's reliability is ebbing fast, the fact that she does identify Peter Quint, no matter what the circumstances, reestablishes her authority as a narrator. She now elicits as much confidence from Mrs. Grose and thus from the reader as she has yet had or will have; and two pages later when she obtains a confession from Mrs. Grose that “‘Quint was much too free” and a bad influence on Miles, her credibility reaches a new peak.

James is continually swinging the pendulum of the reader's sympathies back and forth in this novella, and, in a sense, this technique provides a concise definition of narrative itself: the movement from an equilibrium to a disequilibrium and then back to a new equilibrium. In a gothic novel, that disequilibrium occurs when the supernatural intrudes or when some surrogate for the supernatural, like madness, disrupts the narrative. In fantastic literature it occurs when it seems as if the supernatural intrudes. Thus, no sooner has the governess attained a high degree of credibility than it begins to wane. Almost simultaneously with Mrs. Grose's maligning of Quint's moral character, the governess remarks her own “dreadful liability to impressions” and she then makes her fullest statements of the deranged (and possibly sexual) joy she takes in being an “expiatory victim”:

I was in these days literally able to find a joy in the extraordinary flight of heroism the occasion demanded of me. … I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable. … They had nothing but me, and I—well, I had them. It was in short a magnificent chance. … I was a screen—I was to stand before them. The more I saw the less they would.

(J. 28)

The last sentence illustrates once more the dangerous solipsism which the governess has indulged in again and again. Her internal vision threatens to take precedence over all external evidence, and aptly, her next encounter with an apparition, that of Miss Jessel at the lake, occurs without her once lifting her eyes from her needlework to see it. She avers she “sees” the ghost “with certitude and yet without direct vision” (J. 29). In the manner of a classical paranoid psychotic, her certainty of conspiracy grows as the concrete evidence for it decreases: “There was no ambiguity in anything; none whatever at least in the conviction I from one moment to another found myself forming as to what I should see straight before me and across the lake as a consequence of raising my eyes” (J. 29). More and more, it seems as if this once credible narrator has not discovered her vision of evil but created it. She herself offers this paradox as a queer summary of Miss Jessel's visitation: “Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things they absolutely were not” (J. 30). Likewise, when Mrs. Grose affirms that Flora and Miss Jessel were specially suited for one another and spent much time together, the governess makes one of her most frightening and revealing comments: “It suited me too, I felt, only too well; by which I mean that it suited exactly the particular deadly view I was in the act of forbidding myself to entertain” (J. 37). The question is whether her “deadly view” comes after the facts or before them, and as textual evidence mounts against her, the latter option comes to seem the most probable. She has predisposed herself, in short, to see things in a certain way.

Consequently, when Miles takes his midnight walk in the courtyard and the governess quickly concludes that he is there to meet Quint, the reader is quite wary of her “certainty.” She has not been sleeping well, if at all, for several nights; she shows signs of severe neurosis; and this time she admits that she never truly sees Quint himself. In addition, there is a commonplace explanation for the incident. An over-protective governess has harassed and hounded a precocious young boy since his return from school. As a mild act of rebellion, he sneaks out at night, enlists his sister as a witness and accomplice, and attracts the governess that she might “Think me—for a change—bad!” It is a stunt which any twelve-year-old boy might try.

But the governess sees it another way and she promptly cross-examines Miles, hoping to force a confession from him. For her, it was a midnight rite in which Quint and Miles communed in evil. And so when Miles claims he did it simply “to be bad,” the word “bad” has far darker connotations for her than for the boy. They are so dark, in fact, that the impression she receives “proved in the morning light … not quite successfully presentable to Mrs. Grose” (J. 48).

The governess's ability to manipulate words and the significance of words like “bad” lies at the heart of meaning in The Turn of the Screw. Earlier in the tale we saw how the governess had confused Mrs. Grose with the word “contaminate” and how Mrs. Grose's inability to read Miles's expulsion letter had compelled her to rely entirely on the governess's rendering of the facts. In one conversation after another, Mrs. Grose's lack of language skills gives the governess immense power over her: the governess regularly chooses the other women's questions and then answers the questions herself. A conversation about the relationship of Quint and Miles which occurs near the middle of the book illustrates this language issue clearly. The governess speaks first:

Lord, how I pressed her now! “So that you could see he [Miles] knew what was between the two wretches?” “I don't know—I don't know!” the poor woman wailed. “You do know, you dear thing,” I relied, “only you haven't my dreadful boldness of mind. … But I shall get it out of you yet! There was something in the boy that suggested to you,” I continued, “his covering and concealing their relation.”

(J. 36–37)

Because Mrs. Grose has only a rudimentary understanding of words and the operation of the language system and the governess has a sophisticated knowledge of it, the governess can exclaim that the nature of the Quint-Jessel relationship “‘all lies in half a dozen words,’” and then proceed to give those words appallingly evil meaning. Thus, the governess controls the world at Bly through language as surely as she controls the narrative account of her experiences there, and ultimately, of course, both amount to the same thing.

With Miles, the governess does not have so clear a linguistic advantage. Miles is educated and has more natural intelligence than Mrs. Grose. But, still, the governess unquestionably has the upper hand in their relationship, and she uses this power accordingly to subdue Miles, notably through verbal attacks on him. Shortly after Miles's midnight walk, the governess challenges him during a journey to the local church. Miles responds by asking when he is to return to school. And after she clumsily evades his question, Miles presses harder:

“Does my uncle think what you think?” I markedly rested. “How do you know what I think?”

“Ah well, of course, I don't; for it strikes me you never tell me. But I mean does he know?”

“Know what, Miles?”

“Why the way I'm going on.”

I recognized quickly enough that I could make, to this enquiry, no answer that wouldn't involve a sacrifice of my employer. Yet it struck me that we were all at Bly sufficiently sacrificed to make that venial. “I don't think your uncle much cares.”

Miles, on this, stood looking at me. “Then don't you think he can be made to?”

“In what way?”

“Why by his coming down.”

“But who'll get him to come down?”

“I will!”

(J. 57)

Miles is obviously pleading for a release from the bondage imposed on him by the governess and for a return to his “own sort.” He intuits the governess's strange unwillingness to comply, and he invokes his uncle's ultimate authority to release him. The governess, however, has previously insulated Bly—and the narrative—from everything external to it by threatening to leave if Mrs. Grose should contact her employer. Miles's announcement is a counter threat to bring intruders into the self-contained fiction which the governess has created for herself at Bly. But the governess suppresses this knowledge with a startling manipulation of words and meaning. She reads “into what our young friend had said … the fulness of its meaning” (J. 57) and interprets the conversation as a complicated ploy by Miles to protect himself and the imagined conspiracy. For the governess, the “way I'm going on” refers to his involvement with Quint and Jessel, and his appeal to his uncle is a “sudden revelation of a consciousness and a plan” (J. 58) to make use of her fear “to gain, for his own purposes, more freedom” (J. 57). Later, she twists and turns her own words so that they substantiate and exaggerate her growing fears. Soon after the conversation with Miles, she sees, by her own account, the ghost of Miss Jessel. She stares at the apparition, and it soon vanishes. Yet when she describes the experience to Mrs. Grose, she says that she has had “a talk with Miss Jessel,” and she then fabricates a conversation between them which, by her earlier account, has never taken place.

Again, the subject of The Turn of the Screw is the nature of narrative. According to Todorov, fantasy literature invariably deals with the relationship between language and the supernatural, and this relationship manifests the fundamental principles behind all narrative language: “The supernatural is born of language, it is both its consequence and its proof: not only do the devil and vampires only exist in words, but language alone enables us to conceive what is always absent: the supernatural thereby becomes a symbol of language” (T. 82). The governess uses language to confirm the reality of what she sees or thinks she sees. What results is a subtle tension between the governess's narrative voice and the facts of the world outside that voice, a tension between a marvelous world of ghosts and an uncanny world of neurotic governesses.

This structural tension reaches its highest point when Miss Jessel makes her second appearance to the governess. Immediately prior to this, we noted, the governess's narrative credibility had been rapidly breaking down; and with her second sighting of Miss Jessel, her reliability reaches its lowest ebb. With Mrs. Grose, she follows Flora to the lake and frantically demands that the girl acknowledge the presence of Miss Jessel standing across the water in the distance. The housekeeper, like Flora, can see nothing, and when the governess madly insists that they both see the ghost, Flora falls into paroxysm from emotional strain. At this point, the narrative would surely dissolve into the ravings of a lunatic woman if James did not salvage his narrator through one more masterful turn of the screw.

Specifically, he confronts the reader with three important pieces of evidence which lend new credibility to the governess's suspicions. The first bit of evidence is the boat in which Flora claims to have crossed the lake. The governess remarks on “the prodigious character of the feat for the little girl” (J. 69) to use the large oars to row the boat, and how Flora could have managed it alone is never made clear. Secondly, while Flora lies ill, Mrs. Grose hears “From the child—horrors!” (J. 77). Mrs. Grose does not repeat these horrors, but that they should so shock a woman inured to the Jessel-Quaint liaison does somewhat justify the governess's fears. Finally, there is the confirmation of Miles having committed some shadowy and morally disgraceful deed at school, together with his confession that he stole and burned the governess's letter to his uncle. Miles's confession is the most damning indictment against the children and the most favorable evidence in support of the governess's claims. He breaks the silence of uncertainty which has surrounded the children and speaks the words: “Yes—I took it”; “I opened it”; “I've burnt it”; “I said things”; and “Yes, it was too bad.”

Yet despite Miles's admissions, the final scene is the novella's most ambiguous. It is never clear what exactly was Miles's crime at school. In addition, the emotional stasis of the governess becomes more and more dubious: her nervous excitement reaches a pathological intensity. Consequently, when in a flash of insight, the governess questions her position, she touches on a monstrous possibility: “for if he were innocent what then on earth was I?” (J. 87.) In this final scene, James has so finely balanced two supportable but opposing readings of the novel that it is virtually impossible to choose between them. Miles may indeed have been touched by evil and the ghost of Quint may stalk the grounds of Bly; on the other hand, the governess may simply be insane. Furthermore, the climactic death of Miles and the dialogue which renders it distills this tension into an ingenious conclusion. Not only is the real presence of Peter Quint in doubt here, but the import of Miles's curse “‘Peter Quint—you devil!’” is also unclear. How much Miles sees and knows, and how much is literally put in his mouth by the governess we can only speculate. But with Miles's death the narrative stops at a point of perfect equipose (or, if you will, equivocation): supernatural dispossession and total nervous breakdown are equally feasible explanations for the boy's death, given the weight of evidence on both sides.

What we have described, then, is a narrative whose structure admits two opposite interpretations on the basis of the same narrative events. In fact, it is a narrative whose structure is fashioned precisely so that it does admit two meanings. And in this paradox we find the solution to the critical conundrum of The Turn of the Screw. During her stay at Bly, the narrator of this novella, like all narrators, creates metaphors of order where nothing existed before but the randomness and flux of experience. That is, she uses the language of narrative discourse to organize and finally to control the strange and arbitrary world of circumstance into which she has been placed. This, with some qualification, is the process which informs all fiction. Every narrator (and novelist) employs language and metaphor to bridge the gap between his imagination and the world of experience. What results is a narrative strategy, like the governess's record of the events at Bly, by which the narrator challenges the reader to accept fiction as fact. The brilliance of The Turn of the Screw, however, is that James allows the reader to see just how tenuous such narrative strategies always are. By constantly undermining and restoring his narrator's credibility, James transforms a narrative which is potentially either a ghost story or a mystery tale about a demented governess into a very subtle fiction about the process of fiction itself. Todorov confirms this connection between fantasy literature and self-reflexive narrative art, and perhaps his comments should provide the last word on The Turn of the Screw: “It [fantasy literature] represents,” he writes, “the quintessence of literature, insofar as the questioning of the limit between real and unreal, proper to all literature, is its explicit center” (T. 168).


  1. Harold Goddard, “A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw,Nineteenth Century Fiction, 12 (1957), 1–36, and Ernest Tuveson, “The Turn of the Screw: A Palimpsest,” Studies In English Literature, 12 (1974), 783–800.

  2. Leon Edel, The Psychological Novel: 1900–1950 (New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1955), p. 73.

  3. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975). Further references from the text will be given parenthetically by initial and page number.

  4. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (New York: Norton and Co., 1966), p. 3. Further references from this text will be given parenthetically by initial and page number.

  5. Juliet McMaster, “‘The Full Image of Repetition’ in The Turn of the Screw,Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (1968), 377–382.

James B. Scott (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8066

SOURCE: “How the Screw Is Turned: James's Amusette,” in University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. 4, 1983, pp. 112–31.

[In the following essay, Scott explains the importance of children's games, pranks, and activities in The Turn of the Screw.]

When Henry James described his novella The Turn of the Screw as “an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the ‘fun’ of the capture of the witless being ever but small …),”1 he was not kidding. Several generations of readers have stranded themselves on what James deceptively denigrated as a “pot-boiler.” Oddly enough, critical focus has aimed at the wrong phrase (“to catch those not easily caught”), just as in reading this delightful and essentially humorous tale, readers are lured into focussing on the wrong characters. James's amusette (for that is the telling word) has caught just about everyone precisely because it is, indeed, “a plaything.”2

James's theory of art as organic postulates that no words necessary are omitted, but also that no unnecessary words are added. Why should he have expended so many words to describe the children's activities, if they are to be seen as static “victims?” Readers have apparently attributed all those details of the children's games, costumings, and whispered confabulations to “verisimilitude,” and forgotten about them. If, however, James honored his own definition of art as organic, these details must be necessary. Rather than static victims of evil, the children emerge under close observation as active perpetrators of a series of hoaxes. The governess, their victim, is actually the static figure.

If we choose to ignore James's many hints concerning the children's play, the governess' subjective narration indeed sounds like a ghost story. For Harold Goddard, the tale affirms childhood's innocence:

The evil leaves its mark, if you will, but no trace of stain or smirch. The children remain what they were—incarnations of loveliness and charm. Innocence is armor plate: this is what the story seems to say. And does not life bear out that belief? Otherwise, in what but infamy would the younger generation ever end? Miles and Flora, to be sure, are withered at last in the flame of the governess' passion. But corrupted—never!3

Edna Kenton sees a deep psychological study of the governess' psyche:

There are traps and lures in plenty, but just a little wariness will suffice to disprove, with a single survey of the ground, the traditional, we might almost call it the lazy version of this tale. Not the children, but the little governess was hounded by ghosts, who, as James confides with such suave frankness in his Preface, merely “helped me to express my subject all directly and intensely.”

So, on The Turn of the Screw, Henry James has won, hands down, all round; has won most of all when the reader, persistently baffled, but persistently wondering, comes face to face at last with the little governess, and realizes, with a conscious thrill greater than that of merely automatic nerve shudders before “horror,” that the guarding ghosts and children—what they are and what they do—are only exquisite dramatizations of her little personal mystery, figures for the ebb and flow of troubled thought within her mind, acting out her story.4

Robert Heilman sees the ghosts as real, and in contact with the children: “I am convinced that, at the level of action, the story means exactly what it says: that at Bly there are apparitions which the governess sees, which are consistent with her own independent experience, and of which the children have a knowledge which they endeavor to conceal.”5

Leon Edel thinks the governess imagines she sees apparitions, but is sure that the children do not:

The governess' imagination, we see, discovers “depths” within herself. Fantasy seems to be reality to her. Anything and everything can and does happen, in her mind. The attentive reader, when he is reading the story critically, can only observe that we are always in the realm of the supposititious [sic]. Not once in the entire story do the children see anything strange or frightening. It is the governess' theory that they see as much as she does, and that they communicate with the dead. But it is the governess who does all the seeing and all the supposing. “My values are positively all blanks save only so far as an excited horror, a promoted pity, a created expertness,” James explained in his Preface. But we have one significant clue to the author's “blanks.” In his revision of the story for the New York Edition he altered his text again and again to put the story into the realm of the governess' feelings. Where he had her say originally “I saw” or “I believed” he often substituted “I felt.”6

Eric Solomon, having applied the methods of Sherlock Holmes, announces: “Never again need there be another explication of The Turn of the Screw …,” and proceeds to frame Mrs. Grose as the perpetrator of evil, accusing her of having bumped off both Miss Jessel and Quint. Her motive? She wanted to be governess herself!7 Mark Spilka sees the apparitions as “sex-ghosts” arising out of the governess' severely repressed libido: “The intruder supplants another object of romantic fancy, her master and the children's uncle, whom she dreams of meeting now on the path, smiling and approving, as in a ‘charming story.’ Instead she sees the sex-ghost, Peter Quint.”8 For Charles G. Hoffman the ghosts are real, and Wayne C. Booth is of the same opinion: “I may as well begin by admitting—reluctantly since all of the glamor is on the other side—that for me James' conscious intentions are fully realized: the ghosts are real, the governess sees what she says she sees.”9

Let us begin by reassembling the actual data of the story. All readings of The Turn of the Screw that conclude the governess is an ogress for various reasons having to do with her romantic self-image, her deeply repressed libido, her unbalanced childhood, her strict religious training—perhaps true in themselves—fly in the face of the stated testimony in the story. That testimony must be accepted, or we have no story. The young governess was recalled, years later, as having been an excellent person. Douglas found her to be “the most agreeable woman I've ever known in her position; she would have been worthy of any [presumably any man's affection] whatever.”10 In a succession of meetings and conversations he found her “awfully clever and nice. … I liked her extremely and am glad she liked me too.”11

To this clever and agreeable woman, authorship of the narrative is attributed. Surely this feat, with its concomitant attempts at accuracy and honesty, even when the evidence puts her in a bad light, suggests a person of above average qualities. The data as given by the governess, who wrote the account years later—that is to say, did not dash it off on the tide of hysteria—is to be taken as essentially accurate. James himself assures us in the Preface that the story depends upon trusting the accuracy of the governess' observations, if not of her interpretations of them: “It was ‘deja tres-joli’, in The Turn of the Screw, please believe, the general proposition of our young woman's keeping 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.”12

Now what had been going on at Bly prior to the arrival of this inexperienced twenty-year-old governess? The real existence of one Peter Quint, deceased, formerly a personal servant to the Harley Street bachelor, and of Miss Jessel, also deceased, a former governess, must be accepted. Was Peter Quint named for Peter Quince of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as has been suggested?13 Certainly this is an inviting possibility, although not a necessary one. Peter Quince the clown—that is “not a gentleman”—aspired to dress up in costume, impress the “quality”; produce his poor play for the amusement of dukes and courtiers. Peter Quint of James's tale was a gentleman's gentleman who purloined coats and vests from his master's wardrobe, to play the urbane playboy at bucolic Bly. He pinched bottoms, this Quint, or “was too free,” in Mrs. Grose's phrase, with the young female help. One has every reason to surmise, in fact, that he managed to get poor Miss Jessel pregnant, as a consequence of which she was obliged to leave her position. Very likely she died in connection with childbirth.

Peter Quint taught little Miles everything he knew, no matter how inappropriate that knowledge might be to one of Miles's tender years. Young Miles thus became a prodigy, altogether too knowing in the ways of the world, and precociously in advance of the innocent governess who would shortly be hired to take care of him. A little scholar, mathematician, pianist and actor, he could memorize yards of verse as well as plan and execute simple but effective stratagems. At school he amused himself at the expense of everyone he found amusing. He “said things,” he finally admits, for which he was a length expelled. This expulsion was not upsetting to Miles; he was far too mature to be ruffled by trifles. The world, he knew, is filled with schools; one could always be sent to another. A great little imitator, Miles was cursed with his precociousness, for he found himself living in a humorless world.

Imagine, then, his delight upon returning in enforced fashion to dull Bly at meeting a new governess, one who is chockful of insipid but beautifully idealistic banalities as to what she shall do for her little charges. The governess is simply too enticing a target for Miles's feeble resistance to withstand. He decides to throw a little mystery into her life. He does not wish her ill—at least not at first—he just craves a bit of amusement to while away the time until fall. An amiable rascal, Miles really likes his new governess.

Significantly, the governess sees no “apparitions” until little Miles returns to Bly. Then one fateful evening after tucking her charges in bed, the governess strolls out on the grounds. These strolls have become a habit with her, something that Miles no doubt would notice. She likes to amuse herself with the almost-proprietary feelings she is beginning to allow herself. During this twilight hour while the governess romances her fantasies, Miles is busy preparing one of his own. He dons one of the late Peter Quint's coats, one which Quint had previously stolen from his master. The governess will later report to Mrs. Grose that her apparition was dressed “in somebody's clothes. They're smart, but they're not his own.”14 How could the lady possibly know this? Because, of course, the clothes do not fit. Then Miles, bent on impersonating his late friend, stuck himself up with some whiskers and clapped upon his head an audacious mop of “red hair, very red, close-curling.” The clear-eyed governess also took note that the eye-brows were “somewhat darker,” thus letting us know that Miles had trusted to distance and twilight to average out the wig and his own darker coloring. The governess was also able to make out that the eyes of her apparition were sharp and strange: “I only know clearly that they're rather small and very fixed.”15 Of course they are small; the little imposter is only ten years old! As for the clarity of the eyes, we can only note that by the time Miles has worn himself out scaring the governess, his eyes will not seem so bright. The governess sums up her impression by concluding: “He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor.”16 Her perceptions, as James has indicated, are crystalline; for essentially she is right. Still, one might wonder how Miles could impersonate the height of an adult? Miles knew that his inferior stature must give him away. His solution was two-fold. First, he would depend heavily upon sharp angle-divergences from the horizontal—these would throw off the observer's perspective; just to be sure, he would employ distance. Finally, he would conceal the lower torso just enough to confound any possible estimation of his own shortness. We see, then, for our first apparition, the ludicrous sight of Miles supporting himself upon the parapet of the tower by hands “stiff-armed” upon the ledge, and “walking” himself along by shuffling his hands:

He was in one of the angles, the one away from the house, very erect, as it struck me, and with both hands on the ledge. So I saw him as I see the letters I form on this page; then, exactly, after a minute, as if to add to the spectacle, he slowly changed his place—passed, looking at me hard all the while [Miles must make sure she looks at his face, not his hands as he “walks”] to the opposite corner of the platform … and I can see at this moment the way his hand, as he went, passed from one of the crenellations to the next.17

Not too difficult a feat of gymnastics for a ten-year-old. The governess saw, as James assures us, but was unable to interpret correctly what she saw. Miles must have been sufficiently satisfied with the results to put in the back of his mind the notion of staging a reappearance.

On a rainy Sunday, the sort of day when kids chafe with boredom, the governess prepares for the late service at church. She tidily recalls her mended glove which she had stitched in the dining room, as she says: “with a publicity perhaps not edifying—while I sat with the children at their tea. …”18 That is, the children took note of her sewing, and knew she would retrieve the glove before going to church. By this time, the light is fading; it is a good time for deceptions. Reentering the dining room, the poor lady is presented with a second vision of the dead Peter Quint. She sees him more closely, but not more clearly, and again in half-view: “He was the same—he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window, though the dining room was on the ground floor, not going down to the terrace on which he stood.”19

Alack! Our sharp-eyed governess makes her first mistake. She assumes that he stands on the terrace, although she only sees the upper half of her apparition. Of course she is wrong. Miles's little legs are not that long. He hangs from the vines, or possibly stands on a box or ledge—and he again wears his Peter Quint outfit.

The governess' terrors now engage like gears with her early training. She regresses. She decides that since the figure coolly surveyed the room, it was not looking for her, but “someone else.” It's a spook right out of a ghost story, in other words, out to “get” the children. She runs out of the house and around the corner to confront … nothing: “The terrace and the whole place, the lawn and garden beyond it, all I could see of the park, were empty with a great emptiness. There were shrubberies and big trees, but I remember the clear assurance I felt that none of them concealed him. He was there or was not there; not there if I didn't see him.”20 Mistake number two, and really serious this time. Ghosts never hide behind trees or bushes, it is true, but little boys up to mischief do. The governess, not James, believes in ghosts. Here again, as James promises us in the Preface, the governess is accurate, but she is starting to misinterpret everything. That is where James was having so much fun with his readers, who were busily populating his story with their own themes of good and evil, or moralizing upon their own Freudian bogeymen. Why should we insult the author's intelligence with our own superstitions? Brother to William James, Henry was well aware of the various theories of the nature of reality, as well as of the “psychical phenomena” that James understood were created by autosuggestion. Had the governess been less romantically given to frissons, and had she immediately searched the grounds, she would have infallibly dragged out of concealment one small boy, rather ridiculous in “somebody's clothes,” glued-on red chin-whiskers, and a red wig. Instead of seeking her tormenter, the badly shaken governess begins to identify with him. She places herself against the window, standing now where she had seen the apparition: “It was confusedly present to me that I ought to place myself where he had stood. I did so; I applied my face to the pane and looked, as he had looked, into the room.”21 Her image, distorted by the faulty glass, scares the bejesus out of Mrs. Grose, who now enters the room. Why, we wonder, does the governess so stand, and so frighten? She is now ready to reveal her two visions of spirits, and this unconscious identification with the “ghost” helps her stage the occasion. We next learn from Mrs. Grose that the Harley street bachelor had departed Bly a year ago, leaving behind his servant, Peter Quint. The chapter ends with Mrs. Grose's dramatic disclosure: “Yes, Mr. Quint is dead.”22

James had now drawn his slipnoose around the necks of many thousands of coneys, and only those “not easily caught” can hear the high, tinkling laughter, the silvery voice, as George Meredith described it, of the Comic Spirit. Under the pressure of their own insecurities and spectral imaginings, governess and housekeeper, two women “alone in a haunted house,” reaffirm a moral world of “good” people and “bad” people. These are categories that James's fiction often hoots at in mirthful derision. In The Art of Fiction he denies that one can “carve a moral statue,” or “paint a moral painting.” In the Preface, he announces that his “values are all blanks.” His task, as he saw it, was to produce the perfect work of art, not to preach. Peter Quint, according to Mrs. Grose, was “bad” because he liked pretty girls and, heaven help us, booze! Mrs. Grose says of this “bad” man that “he did what he wished … with them all,”23 that is, with Miss Jessel and the rest of the female help. Unfortunately for him, he died of a “visible wound to the head.”24 A fall on a slippery slope, a blow by a jealous rival or outraged father would explain the matter. The governess settles for the icy slope. Their moral rectitude will work adversely, however, effectually blinding the two women to the truth until the governess reaches a state of frenzy.

James was at pains to point out that his apparitions are essentially “imps.”25 Because of the story's popularity and success, James was obliged to write comments on it to editors, correspondents and readers; yet was careful not to disclose the center of his mystery. Why should James reveal his mechanism when his express purpose was to hoodwink everyone he could? Indeed, it was easier for James to deceive his readers than it was becoming for little Miles to fool the governess. That lady's personal courage in giving pursuit to the second “ghost,” rather than cringing in a corner and screaming, mandated the refinements that were to follow.

Miles has learned that the governess is a lot braver woman than he had reckoned on. If there is to be a third manifestation, he must arrange matters so that he cannot be pursued. The plan, briefly, is this: Flora, by now a co-conspirator, is to decoy the governess down to the lake whilst Miles arranges himself in disguise on the other side. Object in view: to scare hell out of the governess. He will now impersonate the late Miss Jessel, but at a sufficient distance to discourage pursuit. We start with the usually restless Miles for once deeply buried in a book: “We had left Miles indoors, on the red cushion of a deep window seat [from which he can see when the coast is clear]; he had wished to finish a book, and I had been glad to encourage a purpose so laudable in a young man whose only defect was an occasional excess of the restless.”26 The over-active Miles indoors reading, and in that window—this already sounds suspicious. The governess tells us, as she strolls out with Flora:

I was aware afresh, with her, as we went, of how, like her brother, she contrived—it was the charming thing in both children—to let me alone without appearing to drop me and to accompany me without appearing to surround. … I walked in a world of their invention … so that my time was taken only with being, for them, some remarkable person or thing that the game of the moment required.27

We note the unconscious irony here, for the “game” invented for today is to show the governess a resurrected Miss Jessel. Reaching the marge of the lake, the governess becomes aware by a process of presque-vu that someone is on the other side. By the end of the chapter she will have steeled her courage to “face what I had to face.” That is, she raises her eyes to see the distant figure of impudent-imp Miles, now dressed in a cast-off black Miss-Jessel-dress, standing on a hidden stump or box and staring at his sister. At his sister! We see that Miles is indeed refining upon the game. As the governess becomes increasingly protective, Miles senses that her romantic nature tends to project her into heroic postures. He knows right where to aim at the lady's psyche. Having borrowed a page from the ghost stories of childhood, he now appears to be the ghost of Miss Jessel, longing for the soul of tiny Flora. He knows, as well, that the governess will not likely offer pursuit at the expense of abandoning Flora.

By the end of Chapter 7 the governess is convinced that the children are “lost”: possessed by the wicked spirits she supposes to be walking the earth. As she weeps, little Flora reproaches her in wide, blue-eyed innocence. This open gaze effectually aborts a half-formed conclusion the governess is unwilling to allow herself: “To gaze into the depths of blue of the child's eyes and pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning was to be guilty of cynicism in preference to which I naturally preferred to abjure my judgment and, so far as might be, my agitation.”28 The governess sees that the girl is pretending innocence, but denies the testimony of her own observation because it contradicts a cherished nineteenth-century theory that children are tender innocents. Yet we might ask if any of James's child characters are really childlike. Invariably they tend to be both “old” and precocious (cf. “The Pupil” as a rather autobiographical instance of childhood maturity). The reason for Miles's precocity is not difficult to find. We learn from Mrs. Grose that for a period of months Quint and the boy had been “perpetually together … quite as if Quint were his tutor—and a very grand one—and Miss Jessel only for the little lady. When he had gone off with the fellow, I mean, and spent hours with him.”29 Miles apparently absorbed a good deal more than was good for him.

Chapter 9 provides the most explicit information the author chooses to impart concerning the mechanics of the children's escapades. Here we can observe all of the requisite skills for mounting special effects. The children build their games around the static governess, “telling her stories, acting her charades, pouncing out at her, in disguises, as animals and historical characters … there were confabulations in corners, with a sequel of one of them going out in the highest spirits in order to ‘come in’ as something new. … Sometimes, indeed, when I dropped into coarseness, I perhaps came across traces of little understandings between them by which one of them should keep me occupied while the other slipped away.”30 The governess is a willing plaything for the children, who, she observes, delight in secrets, are adept at disguises, live in a world of make-believe and have an extensive wardrobe of costumes. She sees them stage distracting maneuvers, yet makes no connection between their play and the specific conditions and costuming of the apparitions.

The fourth appearance of Miles as Quint is a shocking turn of the screw. The governess will be shown not only that spirits can penetrate the house itself, but also confirmation that Flora is being sought. On this occasion, reading Amelia most of the night, the governess hears movement in the hall. Locking the door behind her, she travels to the stairwell, where she sees the figure of Quint on the landing below. Again, the dimness of the light and the deep perspective help Miles bring off his effect. The figure the governess describes as absolutely human, palpable and substantial, turns its back and descends “straight down the staircase and into the darkness in which the next bend was lost.”31 We have no way of knowing, of course, whether Miles intended to be overheard in the hall; he may have been surprised in the act of exiting the house, bent on making his appearance on the lawn outside. This latter possibility seems likely, for upon returning to her room the governess discovers that Flora has artfully arranged her bed to give the impression she's sleeping in it, when in fact she's hanging out the window, as though being “called” by the spirit of Quint. In response to the question “You thought I might be walking the grounds?” Flora replies: “Well, you know, I thought someone was,” and sweetly explains why she arranged the bed: “Because I don't like to frighten you!”32 The governess, however, takes this wickedly ironic comfort literally.

Following this episode, the governess sits awake nights, waiting. We may suppose that such wakefulness will have a damaging effect upon the lady's general health and equanimity. What even worse damage, then, must the children be doing themselves by their perverse tactics? By the end of the story little Flora will have become feverish and hysterical, and Miles will be so debilitated as to succumb to a heart attack. For in order to turn the screw on the governess, the children must stay awake, too.

Stay up the governess and children surely do. One night the governess “recognized the presence of a woman seated on one of the lower stairs with her back presented to [her], her body half bowed and her head, in an attitude of woe, in her hands.”33 We shudder to think of the hours of patient sitting on the stairs necessary for Miles to show the governess this fifth and latest horror. On still another night Miles engineers what may well be his tour de force, a supernatural manifestation done entirely without costuming. In clear moonlight the governess sees

on the lawn a person, diminished by distance, who stood there motionless and as if fascinated, looking up to where I had appeared—looking, that is, not so much straight at me as at something that was apparently above me. There was clearly another person above me—there was a person on the tower [of course she's wrong here, Miles is pulling a very old gag, that of “looking up,” in order to make others foolishly gawk at nothing] but the presence on the lawn was not in the least what I had conceived and had confidently hurried to meet. The presence on the lawn—I felt sick as I made it out—was poor little Miles himself.34

Miles explains his presence as a determination to show the governess that he could be “bad.” She, however, is persuaded by her own inner fears that he was somehow lured outside by a ghost—indeed, that he was looking above her at one. How, we might wonder, was the governess to know Miles was out there, so that she should look? Miles explains, “Oh, I arranged that with Flora. … She was to get up and look out. … So she disturbed you, and, to see what she was looking at, you also looked—you saw.” Here is the culprit's own admission of staging this sixth appearance, yet again, as before, the governess sees events with clarity, but is unable to interpret them properly.

By Chapter 12, in trying to explain her ghost-theory to Mrs. Grose, the governess can summarize certain common conditions under which the apparitions occur: “They're seen only across, as it were, and beyond—in strange places and on high places, the top of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools.”36 Perspective, distance, angles; Miles employs whatever will compensate for his features and size, and whatever will discourage pursuit. We have seen that rather than realize why she sees “ghosts” only in such places, the governess consistently chooses a metaphysical and “moral” interpretation of the events: a distant, spectral threat is moving closer and closer. By all logic, however, if that word can be used in connection with the traditions of ghost stories, there is no necessity for “real” ghosts to make use of the logistical oddities the governess has observed.


Now as fall approaches and the children pump their governess for details about her home, her “eccentric” father (still another red herring from James's inexhaustible larder of deceptions), the days pass with no more appearances, although often conditions appear favorable: “The place with its grey sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theatre after the performance—all strewn with crumpled playbills.”37 This theatrical image is extremely unlikely for a young lady who has never in her life seen a play! It is not at all unusual, however, for the socially gregarious author, who, working through his heroine, announces the end of the supernatural performances. Miles had evidently tired of the game; his thoughts are turning, with the leaves, to school, and to new fields of enterprise. He demands to know when he is to go back to school, only to learn that no enrollment plans have been made. He faces the prospect of spending an inactive year as a virtual prisoner of Bly.

Miles's performance has ended or, to be more exact, has been suspended, and now hallucination replaces the staged appearances to which the governess has been subjected, and with a self-induced vision. The governess is now under severe emotional pressure, and Miles turns the screw still another quarter-turn. At the church door Miles demands that the governess “‘clear up with my guardian the mystery of this interruption of my studies, or you cease to expect me to lead with you a life that is so unnatural for a boy.’”38 The governess fears failing with Miles, with her position, and ultimately with the Harley Street bachelor who has figured so richly in her fantasies of success. Thus rather than sit beside Miles in the unbearable pew, she returns to Bly. Her head is filled with the temptation to take flight, simply to disappear from Bly; but at the same time she is in a state of near-collapse:

I remember collapsing down at the foot of the staircase—suddenly collapsing there on the lowest step, and then with revulsion, recalling that it was exactly where more than a month before, in the darkness of night and just so bowed with evil things, I had seen the spectre of the most horrible of women.39

Self-hatred overcomes the governess as she begins to relive what may well have been the final moments before Miss Jessel's departure from Bly. Her tendency to identify with Miss Jessel, both emotionally and in posture, reminds us that the governess had behaved in very much this same way when, after her second sighting of Miles as Peter Quint, she had placed herself where her tormentor had stood and looked into the dining room. The governess is now in a dangerously unbalanced state of mind. We see her enter the classroom to pick up her few possessions, preparatory to flight, and there we witness, for the first time, the governess in a state of actual hallucination. An image generated out of her own despair, that of Miss Jessel, is sorrowfully seated at the teacher's desk, her head propped in her hands. The image is quite unlike those of previous appearances, for it “passed away” or vanished, where in every other sighting the figures of Quint and Jessel remained fully palpable while walking out of the range of vision. The governess cries out to this “terrible, miserable woman,” again, a self-condemnation, and we become aware of the evanescence of the figure: “She looked at me as if she heard me, but I had recovered myself and cleared the air. There was nothing in the room the next minute but the sunshine and a sense that I must stay.”40 This apparition behaves as ghosts should. Screamed at, it disappears; or, stated more exactly, after discharging a quantity of overwrought emotion, the governess is partially restored to her normal senses.

As we have been witness to the previous scene, it becomes apparent to us that in reporting this sighting to Mrs. Grose, the governess is either deliberately or unconsciously lying. No words, we know, were spoken by the apparition; yet in response to Mrs. Grose's question, “‘A talk! Do you mean she spoke?’” the governess replies:

“It came to that. I found her, on my return, in the schoolroom.”

“And what did she say?” I can hear the good woman still, and the candour of her stupefaction.

“That she suffers the torments—!”

It was this, of a truth, that made her, as she filled out my picture, gasp.

“Do you mean,” she faltered, “—of the lost?”

“Of the lost. Of the damned. And that's why, to share them—” I faltered myself with the horror of it. But my companion, with less imagination, kept me up. “To share them—?”

“She wants Flora.”41

At this point we are dealing with a form of hysterical psychosis. The governess is reporting what happened, not in the schoolroom, but in her own troubled imagination. The setting is most appropriate to this hallucination, for school is the key to the whole problem. Miles belongs in one, and wants to be sent to one. The governess can not advance his education herself, yet stands in the way of his escaping Bly. How, then, can Miles be sent to school? Clearly, he must force intervention into his case. He cannot communicate with his uncle, and the only other adult of sufficient authority to help him is Mrs. Grose.

With Chapter 18, Miles reluctantly resumes his torture of the governess. We readily infer his reluctance from the many signs he shows, both before and after this next apparition, of his real affection for her. His method is to distract the governess while Flora rows the boat across the lake. Once she misses Flora, and finds the boat gone, the governess can be expected to hurry around the lake to rescue Flora. By this time, Miles will have costumed himself as Miss Jessel and will appear on the near side of the lake, the Bly side. The difference between this and other appearances is that with Flora missing, the governess will naturally assume that the child is with Mrs. Grose. Mrs. Grose will thus be made aware by the governess that the child is gone, and can be depended upon to assist in the search. The needed witness will then be present to force the issue of the mystery of Bly out into the open, or, as Miles puts it to the governess: “‘My uncle must come down and you must completely settle things.’”

As though they were on the best of terms, Miles offers to entertain his governess musically. After half an hour of song, the governess asks where Flora is and Miles responds: “‘Why, my dear, how do I know?’—breaking moreover into a happy laugh.”42 His behavior is obviously intended to trigger the governess' alarm. Yes, Miles is a little devil, all right, but not because he is possessed by spirits from beyond the grave—James knew better than that—but because his natural precocity has been abetted by unfortunate factors: his having no parents, his guardian's indifference to him; and piled upon neglect, he has had too much of the wrong kinds of attention from substitute parental figures like Quint. Last in line is the well-intentioned but ineffectual governess, who now stands between the boy and his future.

It may be objected that Mrs. Grose denies seeing this seventh apparition, the figure of Miss Jessel across the lake: “‘She isn't there, little lady, and nobody's there—and you never see nothing, my sweet! How can poor Miss Jessel—when poor Miss Jessel's dead and buried’?”43 Again, James catches more coneys. Mrs. Grose does in fact see the figure, but moves to protect the child Flora by denying the presence. The following day, however, in the absence of the children, she admits to the governess that she has at last witnessed and now believes in “such doings.”

We see why Miles, after having retired it, has again gotten out his supernatural machinery. In modern terms, the children desire a “confrontation” with their governess, but in the presence of a second adult witness, one who can be expected to take the desired action of reporting to the children's uncle about these “goings on.” The confrontation involves causing the governess to name Miss Jessel—a dead woman—in the presence of both Flora and Mrs. Grose, and to state that this dead woman now stands in plain sight. Flora's carefully rehearsed part of the plan is to turn against the governess in deadly hatred. Indeed, so well does she act that the governess observes that Flora speaks “exactly as if she had got from some outside source each of her stabbing little words.” Yet Flora manages to make one revealing mistake: “‘I don't know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have.’” No one has suggested, at any time, that Flora has ever seen anything spooky. Her denial implies her knowledge of other, previous manifestations. Yet both the governess and Mrs. Grose have maintained throughout that little Flora is innocent, and must be protected from the knowledge of what they suppose to be evil. Flora's sudden turning against her governess is a calculated move, the logical climax to the scenario Miles generated for that purpose, rather than being, as it appears, a spontaneous demonstration. We may be certain the whole scene was previously rehearsed, right down to that rhythmic triplet, “‘Take me away, take me away—oh, take me away from her!’”


We are now in a position to unravel the final and fatal “appearance.” This one is not the eighth; if we count only those productions mounted by Miles, there are seven. The governess' hallucinatory image of Miss Jessel in the schoolroom and the final manifestation of a “white face” at the dining room window while she attempts to shake the truth out of Miles are two events quite outside of Miles's manipulations. Indeed, Miles is now powerless to continue the game. The governess insists that Flora be removed from Bly at once, to prevent the “contamination” of Flora from spreading to Miles. Unwittingly, she has taken the right step to solve the mystery, for without Flora's assistance Miles will be unable to stage his little surprises. The odd, but artistically correct climax James conceived will balance in ironic perfection the misunderstanding of the governess against the final and fatal hallucination to which little Miles will become subject.

With Flora and Mrs. Grose removed, Miles and the governess are brought to a final showdown in the dining room. The governess seeks some admission of guilt from Miles; she wants him to admit he has seen ghosts of the dead. For his part, Miles seeks to conceal his hoaxing. The governess asks if Miles intercepted a letter she had mailed to the boy's uncle; but before he can reply, she sees “Peter Quint” at the window. She makes no mention, this time, of the red hair and red whiskers she had been careful to describe previously. All we are shown in the way of details is the “white face” of “damnation.” This is the distorting glass through which Mrs. Grose, upon seeing the governess, was given such a fright. There are two good possibilities for what the governess sees at this moment. She may see a self-induced hallucination. This tempting explanation is encouraged by James, who has the governess' questioning of Miles timed in cause-effect fashion to the appearance of the face at the window. A second explanation is even more likely. Miles has just said that he must go out to see the servant Luke. Waiting in the yard, Luke may stroll to the window to see if the little master is through talking. We already know what the glass does to any face appearing behind it, so if we prefer a palpable image, Luke's will do.

Seeing the face at the window, the governess pounces upon Miles to shield his eyes from the sight, but Miles does not know that. He thinks she is seizing him because he admitted taking her letter. He had imagined it would reveal some of his carryings on, and is puzzled that it contained “nothing.” When the governess attempts to connect this purloining to his expulsion from school, Miles denies that he stole while there. But for what reason was he expelled? Apparently for precisely the sort of behavior he delights in at Bly: impersonation. Miles admits he “said things” to his friends. The governess is utterly confounded, for she had been expecting him to say “said things” to those he disliked, that he showed insubordination—“talked back.” The explanation for Miles's expulsion is simple enough: he mocked the school's staff for the entertainment of his friends. This behavior came to light through letters his schoolmates wrote home to their parents. Miles was perhaps given a warning or two, then, toward the end of the school year, expelled. When the governess, again seeing the face at the window, springs upon Miles with an outcry, he asks “Is she here?” and names Miss Jessel. Now it is clear that Miles actually sees nothing at the window and is only guessing. Based upon his own evocation of Miss Jessel the day before, he is beginning to suspect that his late governess' spirit has been awakened by his impersonation of her. The governess at this point tells him it is not Miss Jessel, so Miles now guesses “‘It's he?’” The question form tells us that he still sees nothing. When the governess queries: “‘Whom do you mean by he?’” Miles cries out: “‘Peter Quint—you devil!’” He still sees nothing, as his supplication “‘where?’” lets us know, but he clearly believes that an evil spirit is somewhere present. The tables are turned, now, with the governess momentarily gaining strength against the “apparition” while the screw is turned mercilessly on little Miles. She can shield his body, but she cannot shield his imagination from the kind of psychotic hallucination which is about to occur in Miles, at the very moment the governess becomes free of it, as she says, “‘forever.’” Her ecstatic triumph builds upon her acceptance of Miles, sins and all. Because she now feels vindicated by Miles's naming of Peter Quint, she can transcend fear and so clear her mind. Alas, we now observe Miles undergoing the same hallucinatory experience:

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day [so the governess thinks, for she is reporting that she sees nothing, and so assumes that Miles sees nothing, at the very moment when he imagines he sees Quint] … he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.45

Miles has just seen the face of Quint, in his mind's eye, of course, but projected upon the window. Or he has seen the distorted face of Luke. Since he had used Quint's image to frighten the governess, he now supposes that Quint's spirit has come to “get” him. Miles collapses into the governess' arms, dead of a terror-induced heart-stoppage. The governess has a different explanation, saying that “his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.” Irony dominates here, for Miles dies not dispossessed, but “possessed.” He has finally seen what he had caused the governess to see seven times. Since he is more susceptible to fright than the governess, who has shown herself to be a terribly brave woman, and since he is exhausted from a summer's sleeplessness, the shock of that single appearance proves fatal.

We can be certain that no one mourned Miles's death more than the governess; after all, no one cared more for him. In later years, she proved her competency in her profession, at least when the children were less impishly given to playing tricks on her, for she became governess to Douglas's younger sister.


  1. “Preface,” The Aspern Papers; The Turn of the Screw; The Liar; The Two Faces, The Novels and Tales of Henry James [New York Edition] (New York, 1908), p. 12.

  2. An Amusette is a toy, a plaything. James would have been aware that it is also a light caliber (obsolete) field piece—just right for plinking away at distant targets.

  3. Harold C. Goddard, “A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw,NCF, 12 (1957), 33.

  4. Edna Kenton, “Henry James to the Ruminant Reader: The Turn of the Screw,The Arts, 6 (1924), 255.

  5. Robert Heilman, “‘The Turn of the Screw’ as Poem,” UR, 14 (1948), 277.

  6. Leon Edel, The Modern Psychological Novel (New York, 1964), pp. 44–45.

  7. Eric Solomon, “The Return of the Screw,” UR, 30 (1964), 205.

  8. Mark Spilka, “Turning the Freudian Screw: How Not To Do It,” L& P, 13 (1963), 106.

  9. Charles G. Hoffman, The Short Novels of Henry James (New York, 1957), p. 75; and Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1961), p. 314.

  10. Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw,” The Two Magics (New York, 1898, rpt. 1920). All page references are to the 1920 edition.

  11. Ibid., p. 7.

  12. James, “Preface” to The Aspern Papers.

  13. Ignace Feuerlicht, “‘Erlkönig’ and The Turn of the Screw,JEGP, 58(1959), 73.

  14. Turn of The Screw, p. 57.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid., pp. 40–41.

  18. Ibid., p. 48.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., p. 50.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid., p. 58.

  23. Ibid., p. 78.

  24. Ibid., p. 66.

  25. “Preface.” James could scarcely disclaim more clearly than he does here the very basis of most readings of his tale:

    Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself—and that already is a charming job—and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. This ingenuity I took pains—as indeed great pains were required—to apply; and with a success apparently beyond my wildest hope. How can I feel my calculation to have failed, my wrought suggestion not to have worked, that is, on being assailed, as has befallen me, with the charge of a monstrous emphasis, the charge of all indecently expatiating? There is not only from the beginning to end of the matter not an inch of expatiation, but my values are positively all blanks save so far as an excited horror, a promoted pity, a created expertness—on which punctual effects of strong causes no writer can ever fail to plume himself—proceed to read into them more or less fantastic figures. Of high interest to the author meanwhile—and by the same stroke a theme for the moralist—the artless resentful reaction of the entertained person who has abounded in the sense of the situation. He visits his abundance, morally, on the artist—who has but clung to an ideal of faultlessness.

  26. Turn of the Screw, pp. 67–68.

  27. Ibid., p. 68.

  28. Ibid., p. 82.

  29. Ibid., p. 85.

  30. Ibid., pp. 93–94.

  31. Ibid., p. 98.

  32. Ibid., p. 102.

  33. Ibid., pp. 102–103.

  34. Ibid., p. 106.

  35. Ibid., p. 113.

  36. Ibid., p. 117.

  37. Ibid., p. 123.

  38. Ibid., p. 138.

  39. Ibid., p. 140.

  40. Ibid.

  41. Ibid., p. 145.

  42. Ibid., p. 159.

  43. Ibid., p. 174.

  44. Ibid., p. 175.

  45. Ibid., p. 208.

David S. Miall (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8787

SOURCE: “Designed Horror: James's Vision of Evil in The Turn of the Screw,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 3, December, 1984, pp. 305–27.

[In the following essay, Miall offers a reading of The Turn of the Screw based on Sigmund Freud's “The Uncanny.”]

Henry James's tale of the supernatural has been the subject of intense critical attention ever since it was written. As all students of the story know, the presence of ghosts in it has presented a serious challenge to modern orthodoxy, but perhaps we are now less exercised by this aspect of the story. As a result, the narrative and aesthetic implications of the ghosts are not much considered. Explications of the story continue to appear with some frequency, but most of these are addressed to the status and assertions of the main narrator: for example, H. Robert Huntley's diagnosis of hysteria in the governess, Howard Faulkner's questioning of the fictionality of her narrative, or Linda S. Kauffman's argument that the governess's narrative is an extended love letter to the absent master. Two other more subtle approaches, those of Christine Brooke-Rose and Marcia M. Eaton, take for granted the ambiguity of the story (are the ghosts real or not?) and study the narrative strategies which sustain the double meaning.1 What the ghosts themselves may mean, if they were intended to be seen as a reality and not just a hallucination of the governess, receives little attention.

Following Martha Banta's helpful discussion,2 I wish to argue that James intended us to take the ghosts seriously but that this does not commit us to the reality of the supernatural. The paradox here is only an apparent one. Coleridge, no believer in supernatural phenomena, prepares us to accept the supernatural as an aesthetic premise in his account of the genesis of The Lyrical Ballads. Regarding the supernatural poems that he was to write, he says:

the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.3

Coleridge's interest, then, is that of the emotions. The truth that James offers in his tale of the supernatural is also that of the emotions, for which the supernatural is a sufficient but not a necessary cause. As James observed in his other preface to tales of the supernatural, his interest was in the effect of his supernatural phenomena, in “showing almost exclusively the way they are felt, by recognising as their main interest some impression strongly made by them and intensely received.”4 To explain the ghosts away is to obscure the emotional truth they present and to miss the point of the tale, since as ghosts they embody symbolically the main concerns of James's story. What they present is the state and condition of ultimate evil, the paralysis of consciousness. The story is concerned with the progressive emotional registration of this intractable threat.

The governess, I shall suppose, sees the ghosts and records their objective presence. She then interprets what she has seen, and of course soon builds a theory about the relation of the ghosts to the children, discovering as a direct result her own role as the children's savior. In this she misleads herself; the threat is not exactly what she supposes. This twofold perspective on the ghosts, that of recording and interpreting, has been amply demonstrated in the structure of the story by Donald P. Costello;5 it also has a good warrant in James's preface:

It was “déjà très-joli,” in The Turn of the Screw, please believe, the general proposition of our young woman's keeping 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.

(AN, p. 173)

Both the factual presence of the ghosts and their interpretation present problems, but to answer these by either declaring the ghosts a reality or a hallucination is to blur the force of the story; so, too, is the recourse to a so-called Freudian explanation of the governess's condition. The main point of the story, as James himself proposed in his preface, is the question of evil. Here the mode of operation of the ghosts is the key factor, together with the reading of them and their intentions that the governess makes. The threat of the ghosts is a profound one: a principal part of the story's power lies in the fact that the governess feels the threat; she registers its reality at the emotional level, but is never able in full consciousness to articulate its precise nature. The existence of this threat beyond the level both of speech and effective counteraction is the principal raison d'être of the story. As Susan Crowl shows, there is a certain claustral quality to the story, initiated by the sense we have of Douglas' reluctance over the tale: a prefiguring of its central evil lies in this breaking of the ice that is required to begin at all.6

Thus the story depends on a certain view of language and a type of psychology far from the (as it might be termed) vulgar Freudian approach of Edmund Wilson.7 Modern critical diminution of interest in psychological matters is perhaps partly responsible for current views which circumvent the question of evil. But an evil such as that shown by James, operative and undefeated, requires the closest attention. My intent here is to examine the question of James's presentation of the main carriers of evil, the ghosts, by developing further Banta's argument about their aesthetic function in the story. I then wish to explore the nature of the evil which they present. To this enterprise, Freud turns out to be interestingly relevant, but not because a psychiatric diagnosis of a putative repression is required. Rather it is his grasp of the uncanny that offers an indispensable insight concerning the question of evil. In order to obtain a grasp on the precise nature of James's ghosts, however, it is useful to compare them with the ghosts of early psychical research, and, in particular, with a well-authenticated case of an apparition probably known to James, which exhibits some striking similarities to The Turn of the Screw.


Francis X. Roellinger issued a study of James's tale in relation to contemporary interest in psychical matters in 1949; other more recent studies have been made by E. A. Sheppard in her book on the story, and by Martha Banta. Roellinger and Sheppard both found interesting parallels between James's ghosts and cases of haunting reported in the literature of the Society for Psychical Research and elsewhere; there are, for instance, several cases on record of children seeing ghosts who have “come for” someone.8 James's own account of how he conceived the story is based on a similar anecdote, told him by the Archbishop of Canterbury some two years before he wrote The Turn of the Screw. James, of course, disclaimed in his preface any close parallel with the literature of contemporary hauntings. Such “ghosts,” he said, are

as little expressive, as little dramatic, above all as little continuous and conscious and responsive, as is consistent with their taking the trouble—and an immense trouble they find it, we gather—to appear at all. … I had to decide in fine between having my apparitions correct and having my story “good”—that is producing my impression of the dreadful, my designed horror.

(AN, pp. 174–75)

James's disclaimer, however, may address the passivity and inconsequentiality of the recorded ghosts rather than their narrative potential. In this respect, most of the actual cases in the literature certainly seem arbitrary and uninteresting so far as the motivations of the apparitions are concerned—nothing comparable to the case of Peter Quint, in which James has his eye on something much more significant. But as Roellinger claims,

For readers today who approach the story with preconceptions still largely derived from the familiar phantoms of Gothic fiction, it is important to realize that the ghosts of The Turn of the Screw are conceived to a surprising extent in terms of the cases reported to the Society.9

Sheppard's examination of the Proceedings of the Society led her to the same conclusion.10 With respect to the apparitions' sudden and arbitrary appearance, their normal dress, their uncommunicativeness, James does indeed follow the literature of contemporary hauntings. This is relatively uninformative, however, in relation to James's purposes in The Turn of the Screw. A much more illuminating view is obtainable from a consideration of one particular case not noticed by Roellinger and only briefly mentioned by Sheppard.11

The Morton case was first published in 1892. It is very probable that James knew about it, either from the pages of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research12 or from his friend F. W. H. Myers, one of the founders of the Society, who investigated the case at first hand in 1886. Myers became known to both William and Henry James several years before the writing of The Turn of the Screw.13 (Myers was later to write to James about the story and receive an evasive reply), and it seems most probable that Myers would have talked to them about the case, which he described later as “one of the most remarkable and best authenticated instances of ‘haunting’ on record.”14

The case concerned a family living in a large house in Pittville Circus in Cheltenham.15 The daughter of the house, Miss Morton (a pseudonym), then nineteen, was the principal witness and the author of the account that appeared in the Proceedings. There were a number of other children in the family both younger and older, some of whom occasionally saw the ghost, including her six-year-old brother. The servants of the house also reported a light and noises associated with the visitant. The ghost frequently appeared on the first-floor corridor, descended the stairs, went into the sitting room, and took up a position behind a sofa by the window. Here she would stand, sometimes for up to half an hour, then go out along the hall and disappear by a door into the garden. The appearance of the ghost is described by Miss Morton:

The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. … the whole impression was that of a lady in widow's weeds. … a general effect of blackness.

(Proceedings, pp. 313–14)

Miss Morton, who showed much determination in her dealings with the ghost, attempted to speak to it several times, but the figure only gave a slight gasp as if about to speak, then passed on. She also eluded Miss Morton's attempts to touch her. The description of the case is full of such remarkable details, which persuade the reader of the truth of her account. A number of other witnesses are also on record who support the testimony of Miss Morton with sightings of their own.

In a number of ways the case is reminiscent of James's fictional ghosts. The comparison is important for aesthetic reasons, leading as it does to certain conclusions about what the significance of the ghosts might be in the light of James's declared purposes in writing his story. It must be said at once, however, that Miss Morton's apparition was a perfectly harmless one. It frightened some of the family and the servants, but this was incidental and had no relation to any purpose the figure might be conceived to possess (in fact, no purpose could be assigned to its manifestations).

Perhaps the most immediately striking resemblance between the Morton case and The Turn of the Screw is that the principal witness is a young woman of determined character. She later trained to be a doctor. The governess, as James remarked in the Preface, “has ‘authority,’ which is a good deal to have given her” (AN, p. 174); so does Miss Morton, who was nineteen to twenty at the time of the haunting (James's governess is twenty). As noted before, the governess and Miss Morton both try to pursue or outface their apparitions. Miss Morton tried to speak with and touch the figure in black, but to no avail. In order to test its immateriality she even stretched small threads across the stairs and saw the apparition walk through them.

Miss Morton's youngest brother, age six, clearly saw the ghost (we recall that Miles is ten; Flora is eight):

On or about December 18th, 1883, it was seen in the drawing-room by my brother and another little boy. They were playing outside on the terrace, when they saw the figure in the drawing-room close to the window, and ran in to see who it could be that was crying so bitterly. They found no one in the drawing-room.

(Proceedings, p. 314)

In his own account the brother adds to this that “on looking up at the drawing-room we both saw a tall figure in black, holding a handkerchief to her face with her right hand, seated at the writing-table in the window, and therefore in full light” (Proceedings, p. 325). The governess, it will be recalled, surprised Miss Jessel, who, also—notably—dressed in black and presenting an aspect of utmost woe, was “seated at my own table in the clear noonday light.”16

One of the special circumstances of the governess's predicament is that only she can see the ghosts, apart from (she supposes) the two children. Miss Morton reports that even when her father stood in the same room as the ghost and went up to the place where it stood, he could see nothing. Such differences in ability to see an apparition are common in the literature. It is a point to which I shall return.

The apparition was, significantly, also seen looking in at a window (another point in the Morton case which links it with a highly important scene in James's narrative):

On the evening of August 11th we were sitting in the drawing-room … my eldest sister, Mrs. K., and myself both saw the figure on the balcony outside, looking in at the window. She stood there some minutes, then walked to the end and back again, after which she seemed to disappear.

(Proceedings, p. 317)

The strange gust of frozen air which ends the governess's interview with Miles in chapter 12 also has a close parallel in Miss Morton's account. Five servants standing on the landing heard the footsteps of the ghost walking up and down between them, and “as they passed they felt a sensation which they described as ‘a cold wind,’ though their candles were not blown about.” In another incident Edith Morton, age eighteen, described how she was sitting alone at the piano one July evening “when suddenly I felt a cold, icy shiver, and I saw the figure bend over me, as if to turn over the pages of my song” (Proceedings, pp. 320, 325). This feature is similar to one of Roellinger's cases, where the witness testified to having experienced “an icy wind and a feeling of being ‘watched.”’17 It is, again, another feature of apparitions common in the psychical literature, as Sheppard points out.18

The governess's awareness of the sound of footsteps, which turn out to be supernatural, is also paralleled by Miss Morton's account (she is quoting the second sentence from one of her own letters):

During these two years the only noises I heard were those of slight pushes against my bedroom door, accompanied by footsteps; and if I looked out on hearing these sounds, I invariably saw the figure. “Her footstep is very light, you can hardly hear it, except on the linoleum, and then only like a person walking softly with thin boots on.”

(Proceedings, p. 315)

Another major similarity (and this is a much more significant one, aesthetically speaking) is the inability or unwillingness of the ghosts at Bly to communicate. Miss Morton tried several times to communicate with her apparition, but to no avail:

The first time I spoke to her was on the 29th January, 1884. [Quoting from a letter:] “I opened the drawing-room door softly and went in, standing just by it. She came in past me and walked to the sofa and stood there, so I went up to her and asked her if I could help her. She moved, and I thought she was going to speak, but she only gave a slight gasp and moved towards the door. Just by the door I spoke to her again, but she seemed as if she were quite unable to speak. She walked into the hall, then by the side door she seemed to disappear as before.”

(Proceedings, p. 314)

Finally, the key passage in The Turn of the Screw in which the governess's description of Quint is recognized by Mrs. Grose—one of the main pieces of evidence against the hallucination theory—also has a close parallel. The Cheltenham house had originally been occupied by a Mr. S. and second wife, who are said to have quarreled bitterly and eventually separated in 1876, when Mrs. S. left the house to live in Bristol. She died two years later, the body being returned for burial to Cheltenham at a church within a quarter of a mile of the house. The first sightings of the apparition may have begun almost at once, according to the testimony of other witnesses collected by Miss Morton. She first saw the apparition herself shortly after her family moved into the house in 1882, and the apparition seemed to be that of Mrs. S., as determined from various clues, the most persuasive of which was this:

Although none of us had ever seen the second Mrs. S., several people who had known her identified her from our description. On being shown a photo-album containing a number of portraits, I picked out one of her sister as being most like that of the figure, and was afterwards told that the sisters were much alike.

(Proceedings, p. 322)

Here, then, are a remarkable set of similarities between the Morton case and James's story:

  1. the ages and characters of Miss Morton and the governess as well as their attitude toward the ghosts are similar;
  2. the ghosts are seen by young children, but an adult who is present is unable to see anything;
  3. a tall apparition, dressed in black is involved and on one occasion is found seated at a writing table;
  4. an apparition is seen looking in at a window;
  5. the apparition is associated with a cold wind;
  6. a sound of light footsteps is heard;
  7. the uncommunicativeness of the apparitions is observed;
  8. the identity of the apparition is established from a witness's description.

Given all that this list offers, itself almost a prospectus for The Turn of the Screw, there is yet one overwhelming difference. Compared with James's ghosts—the “hovering prowling blighting presences,” “the evoked predatory creatures” (AN, p. 175)—the Cheltenham apparition is quite without malevolence. Nor is the case unusual in that respect. Malevolent ghosts appear to be a fantasy of Gothic fiction and popular fear. They are notably absent from the pages of the Proceedings. Myers himself went to some pains to dissociate the cases he knew from the aspersion of evil. In the conclusion to the long chapter “Phantasms of the Dead” in his magnum opus, where he discussed over forty accounts of apparitions, Myers had this to say about the usual superstitious view of ghosts:

I cannot recall one single case of a proved posthumous combination of intelligence with wickedness. … all that world-old conception of Evil Spirits, of malevolent Powers, which has been the basis of so much of actual devil-worship and of so much more of vague supernatural fear;—all this insensibly melts from the mind as we study the evidence before us. … In that faintly opening world of spirit I can find nothing worse than living men; I seem to discern not an intensification but a disintegration of selfishness, malevolence, pride.19

Thus, it would seem, James took the evidential aspects of contemporary hauntings, but gave them a moral coloring peculiarly his own. The Morton case, if indeed it was known to James, supplied a wealth of vital circumstantial detail, despite James's disclaimer, which under James's hands, however, underwent a sea change to something grotesque and terrifying. What is the nature of the change? And what precise suggestions concerning that change do the details of the Morton apparition supply? The Morton case offers in one rich narrative all the most interesting details of the standard apparition in psychical literature, together with one or two less usual aspects, and in this respect it touches just those points which James's transforming genius needed. His tale is then able to suggest a level of profound fear, a universal horror, which, although anchored in the specific details of a ghost story, is at the same time independent of the question of whether the ghosts are “really” there or not.

In order to explore the nature of the evil that James creates in The Turn of the Screw, then, it is necessary to see what the Morton case, all ingenuously, proposed to an imagination such as James's.


Banta shows in detail how James rejected the scientific attitude to the supernatural represented by the Society for Psychical Research: it lacked the aesthetic dimension. Their version of the supernatural offered only fragments, as James said in his preface, “washed clean of all queerness” (AN, p. 169). The science of his brother William, of Myers and Sidgewick, in Banta's words, heaped up facts “without accompanying them by that grace-giving sense of context and continuity that grants them significance.” For James, the significance of the supernatural lay in its symbolic value, in the light it could cast on human consciousness. “The Jamesian artist's datum,” Banta observes, “is symbolic; it is a sign that stands for something at a transcendent remove from the facts.” It is not enough merely to wonder, however; the supernatural story must be about something: “the revelation of ‘aboutness’… joins the source of his art (the wondrous) and the emotional effect of his art” in creating a meaningful whole.20 What meaning was James presenting, then, in The Turn of the Screw, that carries both wonder and emotional conviction?

Banta argues that the point of the story is given in the set of relationships within which the governess finds herself. Our understanding of the governess, according to Banta, resides mainly in her relation to the other characters, both real and supernatural: “James was more interested in portraying the governess's relationship to ‘the Others’ since they are in effect her own nature.” The others, including the ghosts, represent aspects of herself with which she must negotiate. Her consciousness is shaped by those relationships, and thus the story becomes peculiarly the plight of her consciousness. “James's ghosts personify the latent evil of the world … that finds its hiding place within the living, not an abstract, dismissable evil that vanishes when the dead return to their otherworldly dwelling place.” Banta believes it is the governess's consciousness that gives the ghosts their potency; they become the symbol for something hidden in her. The ghosts are there to show us as readers what the governess is, “what she ought to be able to realize about her deepest nature, and what she refuses to admit she is.”21 The governess, however, stands for all of us in this; she is not a distorted reflection from which we can afterwards look away in relief that we are not like that. The story concerns more than a failure to control the moral will, which is Banta's main diagnosis.

The facts draw a circle around some unspecified symbolic meaning, but in this the face at the window, the woman in black, and the other “facts,” such as are seen in the Morton case—all carry a depth of suggestion beyond any Proceedings case history. But it was James's declared intention to leave the evil unspecific, and it must be accepted that he has been wholly successful. Those attempts in the critical literature of this story to find the governess guilty of murder, some suppressed sexual pathology, or whatever, fail to convince precisely because they locate in some limited and, eventually, uninteresting sin an evil that was deliberately left mysterious. James's preface is quite clear on this point:

Portentous evil—how was I to save that, as an intention on the part of my demon-spirits, from the drop, the comparative vulgarity, inevitably attending, throughout the whole range of possible brief illustration, the offered example, the imputed vice, the cited act, the limited deplorable presentable instance?

(AN, p. 175)

The vulgarity of a named transgression, whether that of the governess, Peter Quint, or Miss Jessel, is just what the story is not concerned with. The evil, though mysterious, is not beyond specification, but the evil is that of a state, not any given act. The Morton case, because it carries an implicit aesthetic dimension, is of considerable use in exploring the ramifications of evil in James's story and in underlining the major differences between reported apparitions and the meaning of The Turn of the Screw.

Take the fact that Miss Morton could plainly see the ghost while her father could not. In The Turn of the Screw the major crisis of the story before the final disaster turns on the same situation. But here it involves the overthrow of the governess as a figure of “authority” with control both over Flora and over Mrs. Grose's understanding of events:

With this hard blow of the proof that her eyes were hopelessly sealed I felt my own situation horribly crumble, I felt—I saw—my livid predecessor press, from her position, on my defeat, and I took the measure, more than all, of what I should have from this instant to deal with in the astounding little attitude of Flora.

(p. 280)

That “more than all” shows the deceptive priorities of the governess's consciousness, since Flora is shown to be quite beyond her reach or control. Since she has never really been in control of the children, the weight of the significance of this particular incident falls on the situation of the governess, on her “defeat” by Miss Jessel. In this respect the incident is only the latest in a series in which the governess is shown to read a situation correctly but to misread its significance for herself. The principal significance here, as throughout the story, is her increasing isolation.

Being able to see the ghosts gives the governess a special insight into the nature of affairs at Bly, which is denied the duller-witted Mrs. Grose. But such privilege sets her apart; it also fails to give her more than half the wisdom needed to cope with what she learns. The danger to herself, amidst the moral enterprise of protecting the children, goes unacknowledged except at one or two rare moments. Even when she does adopt a perspective on her own role, however, it is far wide of the real danger. During Miles's moments of half-confession before the final catastrophe the consciousness of the governess is filled with the victory of bringing Miles to confess, and little attention is paid to the threatening undercurrent of the situation: “I was infatuated—I was blind with victory, though even then the very effect that was to have brought him so much nearer was already that of added separation” (p. 306). The implications of this for Miles are obvious, but for the governess much less clearly observed by her. The situation, she suddenly thinks, may in some profound sense be wrongly conceived by her—“if he were innocent what then on earth was I?” (pp. 306, 307). But the question only “paralyses” her momentarily before she resumes the inquiry with Miles.

Here the difficulty of her case approaches its tragic and unanticipated climax. Most cases, like the Morton apparition, yield no such point to them; the closest enquiry must remain inconclusive, faced with the given, arbitrary facts. Miss Morton's repeated challenge to the apparition of her house to state its business, to declare if it needed help, elicited no response. The isolation of the figure, if it consisted in a sentient being at all, is complete; either it resists or cannot comprehend attempts to communicate, or its own tentative movement, leaning over the piano as if to turn the page, is thwarted by an understandable human fear. It is as the symbol of a given predicament, the imprisonment of consciousness, that the ghost, such as that which haunted Miss Morton, is eloquent: it possesses this quality whether or not the ghost is “really” there. So with James's story. Under certain circumstances the reality or otherwise of the ghosts would be intensely important; but the implication of this story is the effect on the governess's consciousness of the ghosts' threat. What the encounters with the ghosts and her limited comprehension of them increasingly press on our attention is the unnoticed evil inhering in her situation.

Having endowed his ghosts with intentions—at least in the eyes of the governess—James can then imbue the details of the ghosts' appearances and behavior with much unspecified felt significance. The most obvious aspect of this is that the ghosts represent an attack on the moral center of the governess's character, a trial of her “authority.” Power exercised rightly is a dynamic, progressive thing, and it must be assumed that this is what the governess would have shown under normal circumstances. The tragedy (for this is what James called it in his preface) is that the power of the governess is turned back on itself, nullifying its own sources and reducing her unwittingly to an agent of the children's destruction. Her strength is challenged in specific ways by the ghosts, all of which leads to a general moral evil: that evil, it can be inferred from the presentation of the ghosts, is a kind of paralysis or stasis. The ghosts, already in that predicament, now invade the governess's moral sphere and infect her with their own condition. In a sense, the children are their disposable agents: from the readers' point of view the ghosts' real victim is the governess herself. It is the state of her very existence which is brought into question by her response to the events, not any forbidden act or item of knowledge. Again, James offers a hint to this effect in the preface when he observes of previous fictions about evil that “one had seen … some grand form of wrong-doing, or better still of wrong-being, imputed” (AN, p. 176). The ghosts of The Turn of the Screw, then, precipitate the governess into a state of wrong-being. They do so by making her a trespasser, by isolating her, and by making themselves designedly the object of the governess's cause. For this latter purpose the fine moral sensitivity of the governess, of course, offers the perfect medium. Susan Crowl observed of the governess that “those minds capable of greatest original force and vision are often those capable of greatest self-delusion.”22 This much overstates the position, but it suggests that given the intelligence of the governess, her development of a forceful view about the ghosts prevents her from putting other equally immediate questions about them.

Another feature of the Morton case, as it is described to us, is the simultaneous alienation yet at-homeness of the apparition. As (presumably) a previous inhabitant of the house, Mrs. S. in her new manifestation now moves from corridor to living room, standing as if in contemplation by the sofa for lengthy periods, or moves out towards the garden, just as she might have done when at home. At the same time, she cannot or will not talk; to some percipients she carries with her an unnatural swirl of icy wind to which no candle responds; and she hides her face perpetually behind a handkerchief as if possessed by some unknown grief. Again, like Miss Jessel, she is seen sitting at a writing desk, suggesting possession and a secure familiarity with the furnishings of her home, yet in a position which, to the boys outside, makes her look as if she is crying bitterly. It is the Mortons who are “at home,” however, and the apparition which is out of place; after a spate of sightings, in fact, the apparition begins to fade, and over the three years up to 1889 it gradually disappeared altogether. James reverses this process. It is the ghosts who are definitively “at home,” while the governess is increasingly forced into alienation.

The governess's position as a trespasser is signaled even at her first encounter with a ghost. It is, she reasons afterwards, probable that an intruder has found his way into the house to survey her from the tower. But the rhetoric of the passage makes it seem just as probable that she is the real intruder. As she comes into view of the house she is “arrested” by the sight. She is the one who is put out by the confrontation, while he stands up there in possession of the moment, as if he were the owner of the house whom she first briefly supposes him to be, with “a touch of the strange freedom … in the sign of familiarity of his wearing no hat” (p. 177). Most importantly, Quint stands on top of the house, showing mutely but forcibly his command over what has been and is yet to happen in the territory below. This is the meaning of his elevation—it is a kind of advance sign of his moral superiority.

Outfacing Quint, then, becomes a chief part of the governess's crusade, fatally so at the end, it seems. The struggle is not so much about the souls of the children but about territorial position. When she next sees Quint looking in at the window, her immediate impulse is to hurry around to the terrace to confront him (he isn't there). When she meets him halfway up the stairs at night, she outfaces him until he turns to go down again. It seems absurd to say that this is what Quint “wants,” but from a certain point of view the governess's response is exactly what Quint, were he able to have such a thing as a motive, could wish for: it fixes the governess, puts her at a given impasse in relation to each event. If she cannot outface each visitation, she and the children are lost. The screw that is turned ever tighter is that of the governess's own moral intransigence; she becomes as implacable as the things she thinks she faces.

Looking in at the window can then be read as a symbol of the governess's imprisonment: Quint is gazing through an aperture at his captive, although appearing to seek something else. Similarly, Miles's predicament near the end (his case now closely parallels that of the governess) is suggested by the prison imagery of the description of the window before which he is standing: “The frames and squares of the great window were a kind of image, for him, of a kind of failure. I felt that I saw him, in any case, shut in or shut out” (p. 299). Finally, the recurrence of Quint's face in the window in the closing scene intensifies the effect and makes it more explicit: “Peter Quint had come into view like a sentinel before a prison” (p. 303). This induced stasis of the governess's position is underlined by other associations of Quint's visitations. There is a paradoxical double sense of both death and familiarity, which intensifies her sense of isolation. At Quint's first appearance on the tower the place becomes “a solitude.” Within this, she says, “It was as if, while I took in, what I did take in, all the rest of the scene had been stricken with death” (p. 176). At the second sighting through the window, she remarks that “it was as if I had been looking at him for years and had known him always” (p. 184). The evasion in James's account of both occasions is subtle: “while I took in, what I did take in” makes a plausible reading until it is noticed that what is left indefinite. “Take in” here implies both a deception and, perhaps, some kind of infection or blight—both fit the governess's case. Thus even at the second occasion the governess's sense of familiarity allows her afterwards to read the shrubbery with certainty for Quint's presence: as she surveys the garden from the terrace all is “empty with a great emptiness. There were shrubberies and big trees, but I remember the clear assurance I felt that none of them concealed him. He was there or not there: not there if I didn't see him” (p. 185). Already it is as if she is in a symbiotic relationship to Quint, her familiarity with him a sixth sense for his presence.

Another major feature of the Morton case, the uncommunicativeness of the figure in black, becomes another profound point reinforcing the governess's isolation. The ghosts at Bly are impressive partly because they do not speak. The nature of the communication that passes between them and the governess (or infection, perhaps) is nonverbal, but nonetheless persuasively there for being unspecified: “He appeared thus again with I won't say greater distinctness, for that was impossible, but with a nearness that represented a forward stride in our intercourse and made me, as I met him, catch my breath and turn cold” (p. 184). Again, as she encounters Miss Jessel at the writing table, feeling that she, the governess, is the intruder, Miss Jessel “looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers.” The governess calls out in protest, and “she looked at me as if she heard me” (p. 257). But for the most part the ghosts glare, either at her or the children. In its admixture of the sense of death and familiarity, it is this uncanny intimacy of the relationship with the ghosts, beyond actual language, that hints at the depth at which the relationship exists for the governess. The governess, however, misreads the nature of the visitations (it is crucial to the story that she does so): the real meaning of the ghosts develops, not in the threat to the children, but unconsidered within her. It is that state of “wrong-being” which James himself noted indirectly in the Preface. A closer view of what this implies will require a more considered return to Freud as well as a review of some other rhetorical suggestions implanted within the story.


Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself—and that already is a charming job—and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.

(AN, p. 176)

The understanding of the evil that the story presents is, according to this well-known statement of James, sufficiently available to the reader without the specific instance. In some way, James seems to be saying, the grasp of evil is already within the reader; the purpose of the story, which appears to have been realized most successfully, is to make the reader conscious of that potential vision, to make him conscious of what may exist unconsciously. The resources of language would not seem to be directly available for this task—I have already pointed to one of the narrative's key moments of evasion—but to require the tapping of realms of symbolic expression, structures of feeling that make present the source of the evil to the reader as an operative power without the limitations contingent upon naming it. In this work the simultaneous senses of death and familiarity provide a significant clue.

Freud begins his essay “The ‘Uncanny’” with this point: “the uncanny,” he says, “is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.”23 Freud's explanation for this, as Banta notices, is that the uncanny represents a residue of the primitive childhood belief in animistic powers.24 This in itself might be thought frightening enough to account for the ghosts at Bly: as Freud goes on to say, in a comment apposite to James's story, a part of our fear of apparitions would seem to imply “the old belief that the dead man becomes the enemy of his survivor and seeks to carry him off to share his new life with him.”25 This, of course, is just what the governess comes to believe of Quint and Jessel. Of Miss Jessel, for example, she describes to Mrs. Grose the “fury of intention” with which she looks at Flora at her first appearance by the lake, her intention being “to get hold of her” (p. 206). This, if it were all, would make the governess a psychological curiosity, but it explains little of the power of the story. Freud has another more interesting explanation.

The sense of the uncanny, according to Freud, is also conveyed by coincidences and repetitions. Supposing a man comes across the figure 62 several times in one day—on the door of a hotel room, the number in an address, the compartment of a railway train. He may begin to feel a superstitious fear that the number 62 has some special meaning for him: perhaps it indicates the limit of his lifespan. The source of this fear actually lies in certain primitive instinctual impulses, the “compulsion to repeat,” a compulsion which is “powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character.” To be reminded in whatever way of this “compulsion to repeat” is to sense the uncanny.26 Freud's main account of the instincts behind this aspect of the uncanny (left somewhat obscure in this essay) is set out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Here he first elaborated his conception of the death instinct, whose aim is to restore the organism to the inanimate state from which (at the earliest time) it came. Such an impulse is discerned by Freud behind the “compulsion to repeat.” Freud's concept of the death instinct is a forbidding and little-explored aspect of his later psychoanalytic theory. As J. C. Flugel remarks, in one of the few examinations of it in the literature, “it has a certain awe-inspiring quality” whose “profound implications … can be dimly felt though its precise significance as yet escapes clear consciousness.”27 For present purposes two aspects of Freud's complex discussion will suffice.

Freud claims that the compulsion to repeat seems to be something “more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it over-rides.” It is manifested, for example, in dreams which repeat a traumatic experience, which Freud concedes fall outside his earlier principle that all dreams originate in impulses of wish fulfillment. Here the impulse is described by Freud as the attempted mastery of a stimulus (that is, the original trauma) which proved too strong for the system. The dream has the purpose of “developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis.”28 The attempt to master a stimulus by the induction of anxiety may thus be a major purpose of the uncanny, although Freud does not say so specifically in his essay on the topic.

The anxiety that is induced in the reader of The Turn of the Screw arises specifically from the recurrence of the ghosts, whose appearances are attended by images of silence, death, and immobility. Such a repetition of an apparition is, of course, a feature of many recorded hauntings, notably the Morton case. It is this particular feature that is responsible for the ghosts' disturbing power: the image of stasis, of imprisoned consciousness, the doomlike repetition of the same routine over the apparition's territory. Where James's story departs most distinctly from the standard case is simply in its conversion of a passive to an active threat. His ghosts, like the vampires of traditional legend, are endowed with the will to draw others to follow their fate. Now the governess has not, so far as we know, been subject to a trauma before her arrival at Bly; the ghosts that she sees represent nothing directly relevant to her personal history. Their threat, if Freud is correct, cannot relate to her repression of sexuality: rather, they arouse a fear of something that is prior to the establishment of the pleasure principle itself, the primeval urge of the instincts to “restore an earlier state of things.” Such instincts, Freud says, are “the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life.” He continues:

This view of instincts strikes us as strange because we have become used to see in them a factor impelling towards change and development, whereas we are now asked to recognize in them the precise contrary—an expression of the conservative nature of living substance.29

It is this inertia that seems to lie at the root of the uncanny, the death instinct (normally latent or repressed) in its untrammeled operation. Freud also notes that people's fear of analysis may have the same source, “a dread of rousing something that, so they feel, is better left sleeping,” so that “what they are afraid of at bottom is the emergence of this compulsion with its hint of possession by some ‘daemonic’ power.”30

The appeal of the uncanny, it could be argued, thus lies in its address to the most primitive aspect of all instincts, the compulsion to repeat and, in this respect, the expression of the tendency to death. The readers' pleasure in the uncanny represents a type of effort at mastery—it is not he, after all, but the governess who has to deal with the irruption of ghosts. In the reading of The Turn of the Screw we can rehearse in safety our anxiety in the face of the final enemy, whose source turns out to be rooted in our own unconscious (hence the sense of familiarity).

The evil that James leaves unspecified is the stasis of death, but this death is not the inorganic inertia of Freud's account; it is the inertia of the prison inmate or the vampire's life-in-death, a state of immobility or paralysis. Death itself is perhaps inconceivable, as Freud observed elsewhere,31 so that another of the animistic survivals tapped by the uncanny is likely to be the buried belief in the immortality of consciousness. What the uncanny brings into question, particularly in the case of James's tale, is the state in which that consciousness survives. To be suspended like the Sibyl at Cumae, or fixed in ice like the figures at the botton of Dante's “Inferno,” in a state of perpetual, unmoving consciousness—this seems to be the final, the “designed horror” which lies in wait for the reader of The Turn of the Screw.

Other features of the story, if this is correct, fall into place in support of this account. The poignancy of the story, the extra turn of the screw, is given by the fact that ostensibly the chief victims of the predatory ghosts are children. Not only does the possible premature knowingness of Miles and Flora disturb, but even more unsettling in such a setting is the presence of children, prime symbols of growth and development (suggested by the name “Flora”). Their lack of a personal history, apart from Miles's enigmatic behavior at school, intensifies the sense that they are dislocated from normal childhood processes. In this respect, also, they succeed in overturning the authority of the governess, becoming instead the governors of events until the final episodes of the story. The stasis threatened by Peter Quint and Miss Jessel is carefully suggested by their placement in the scenery of Bly. That Quint first appears on top of the house shows, as I have mentioned, that his authority is to supersede that of the governess. Appearing again (and at the end) framed in a window implants the notion of a blocked perspective, windows elsewhere (as, for example, in James's own image of the house of fiction) symbolizing rather some view of the future or a realizable potential. The staircase is another and more specific image related to the progressive in human potential: Quint is encountered and outstared on the staircase at Bly, a key moment of fixity that cancels the usual symbolic meaning of stairs. So with Miss Jessel: she is seen for the first and last times standing at the end of the view, blocking the farther reach of the path that has just been followed, whether on this or the other side of the lake. The setting itself, finally, turns out to represent a prison rather than the promised Garden of Eden of the governess's first sight, a hortus conclusus from which there is no escape (even letters somehow cannot make their exit). This rigidly enforced isolation of the governess offers the ideal conditions within which the challenge of the ghosts can develop.

This is the unspecified evil which James's story, according to his preface, was intended to arouse in the reader. It was left unspecific because it supersedes all particular occasions or instances of it, and is the more powerful for that reason. The ghosts are the dramatic and highly effective agents of that evil, but their existence is not in the end the main point of the story; Quint and Jessel are the givens, the premises of something much more serious. The ghosts are only agents. The real source of the designed horror lies, since she is susceptible to it, in the governess; but by implication it lies much more significantly in ourselves.


  1. Huntley, “James' The Turn of the Screw: Its ‘Fine Machinery,”’ American Imago, 34 (1977), 224–37; Faulkner, “Text as Pretext in The Turn of the Screw,Studies in Short Fiction, 20 (1983), 87–94; Kauffman, “The Author of Our Woe: Virtue Recorded in The Turn of the Screw,Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 36 (1981), 176–92; Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981); Eaton, “James's Turn of the Speech-Act,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 23 (1983), 333–45.

  2. Henry James and the Occult: The Great Extension (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 116–17.

  3. S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross, 2 vols. (1907; rpt. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1954), II, 5.

  4. The Art of the Novel, introd. Richard P. Blackmur (New York: Scribner's, 1934), p. 256; hereafter cited in my text as AN.

  5. “The Structure of The Turn of the Screw,Modern Language Notes, 75 (1960), 312–21.

  6. “Aesthetic Allegory in ‘The Turn of the Screw,”’ Novel, 4 (1971), 110, 112.

  7. The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects, rev. and enl. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948), pp. 88–95.

  8. Roellinger, “Psychical Research and ‘The Turn of the Screw,”’ American Literature, 20 (1949), 401–12, rpt. in The Turn of the Screw, ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York: Norton, 1966), 132–42; Sheppard, Henry James and “The Turn of the Screw” (New York: Oxford Univ. Press; Auckland: Auckland Univ. Press, 1974).

  9. “Psychical Research,” p. 136.

  10. Henry James and “The Turn of the Screw,” p. 157.

  11. Ibid., pp. 206–8.

  12. Miss R. C. Morton, “Record of a Haunted House,” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 8 (1892), 311–32; hereafter cited in the text as Proceedings.

  13. James probably met Myers in 1878; see Sheppard, Henry James and “The Turn of the Screw,” p. 120.

  14. Frederic W. H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, New ed., 2 vols. (New York and London: Longmans, Green, 1954), II, 388–89.

  15. For a recent account of the Morton case and its subsequent history, see Andrew MacKenzie, Hauntings and Apparitions (London: Heinemann, 1982), ch. 3.

  16. “The Turn of the Screw,” in Vol. 12 of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition (New York: Scribner's, 1908), p. 256; hereafter page numbers are cited in the text.

  17. Roellinger, “Psychical Research,” p. 140.

  18. Henry James and “The Turn of the Screw,” p. 241, n. 216.

  19. Human Personality, II, 78.

  20. Henry James and the Occult, pp. 43, 49, 44.

  21. Henry James and the Occult, pp. 122, 126, 130.

  22. “Aesthetic Allegory in ‘The Turn of the Screw,”’ pp. 108–9.

  23. “The ‘Uncanny,”’ in Vol. 17 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74), p. 220.

  24. Henry James and the Occult, p. 128.

  25. “The ‘Uncanny,”’ XVII, 242.

  26. “The ‘Uncanny,”’ XVII, 238.

  27. Studies in Feeling and Desire (London: G. Duckworth, 1955), p. 96.

  28. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in Vol. 18 of The Standard Edition, pp. 23, 32.

  29. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, XVIII, 36. An explicit literary example of a traumatic neurosis and ensuing repetition compulsion is provided by Coleridge: see David S. Miall, “Guilt and Death: The Predicament of the Ancient Mariner,” Studies in English Literature (in press).

  30. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, XVIII, 36.

  31. “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” in Vol. 14 of The Standard Edition, p. 289.

Millicent Bell (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6579

SOURCE: “The Turn of the Screw and the Recherche de L' Absolut,” in Henry James: Fiction as History, edited by Ian F. A. Bell, Vision Press, 1984, pp. 65–81.

[In the following essay, Bell maintains that “it is not the ghost of the two dead household servants that the governess seeks to validate, but something more undenotable, an evil in the children and in the world which the ghosts can be said simply to represent.”]

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 of her mind, and all efforts to find internal clues of veracity or distortion in what she tells us are baffled by its essential mode. The confidence she has inspired in her fictional editor, Douglas, does not really help, either, for he, too, is a possibly compromised and implicated speaker over whose shoulder the first-person narrator of the frame-story looks at us without either reassurance or scepticism. But her report perplexes the reader in other ways too; the principle of uncertainty operates more fundamentally in leaving us in doubt about her way of reading experience generally, her evaluation of herself and others, her identification of motive and meaning in their behaviour and her own, her moral vision. One may say that the presence or absence of the Miss Jessel and Peter Quint at Bly is crucial in such a judgement; if they are to be believed in, she is justified in her view of the children and her sense of her own duty, and if not, she is a victim of delusion. But, in fact, this is not so. Though the story gains its special frisson from its fantastic element, one can conceive an equally powerful Jamesian mystery that might be based entirely on the moral uncertainty alone. One has only to think of another work, The Sacred Fount, to see that James could have composed a fiction whose indeterminacy is rooted in our unease concerning the narrator's deductions and judgements about others, his purely visual perceptions being never in doubt.

Todorov has himself noticed that in some of James's ghost stories the quality of the fantastic is threatened by the possibility of allegory. In ‘The Private Life’, the double who sits at his desk writing while another self occupies himself with mundanity may or may not be a supernatural presence, but he is so much more obviously a symbolic figure in a fable of the artist's nature that the hesitation of the fantastic is almost eliminated. He finds The Turn of the Screw, on the other hand, James's most realized example of the fantastic, one that maintains its uncertainty throughout the text and keeps it to the forefront. But I would argue that it, too, is a fable. And I would support this view by means of another insight of Todorov which he does not apply closely to The Turn of the Screw—that many of James's fictions concern themselves with the act of perception turned towards an absence, that they are quest stories in which the pursuit of some phantasmal object without presence except to the perceiver threatens the ambivalence of the fantastic, makes meaningless the question, ‘Does the ghost exist?’ Precisely this happens, I think, in The Turn of the Screw. The story, I would urge further, represents a search for an absence that is not restrictedly ‘ghostly’. It is not the ghost of the two dead household servants that the governess seeks to validate, but something more undenotable, an evil in the children and in the world which the ghosts can be said simply to represent. This absence can never be converted to presence; precisely for that reason all reader curiosity about the children's relation with the dead or proofs of their corruption must be frustrated.

James would seem to have deprecated any attempt—such as this one—to take his tale very seriously, tending to reply to questions about its meaning with the evasive declaration (to H. G. Wells in 1898) that ‘the thing is essentially a pot boiler.’ He could still refer to it in the preface to his revision in the New York Edition as ‘a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, or cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught’. But what trap is laid for the over-clever may, after all, be precisely illustrated by the way puzzlement over the ghostliness of the ghosts had led so many astray. His other remarks in this same preface are worth examining, and suggest that by calling his work one of pure ingenuity he may have meant that he had dispensed with any claim to the realistic. What he has written, after all, he tells us, was something in the mode of romance, ‘a perfect example of the imagination unassisted … unassociated, a fairy-tale pure and simple … an annexed but independent world.’

But if the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw belong to the realm of romantic dream rather than to literal reality this does not mean that they are the dreams of a sick young woman who has hallucinated. Their irreality functions mythically, to create a profound perception about the structures of human experience. Leon Edel, perhaps taking a hint from the preface, has noted the connection with the two fairy-tales James particularly mentions. Like Cinderella, the governess is the youngest child who ventures alone into the world dreaming of a meeting with Prince Charming. And Bluebeard's last wife, Fatima, is given the keys to the treasures and told not to enter a forbidden room. But her curiosity overcomes her and she finds the bloody corpses of her predecessors as, indeed, the governess, longing for her absent master, comes upon her dead predecessor. What such archetypal narratives may mean as representations of human desire and fear should concern us even in James's transforming context. He saw his governess's visions, the putative evil spirits, the demons of fairy tale, as having a symbolic function: ‘They would be agents, in fact; there would be laid on them the dire duty of causing the situation to reek with the air of Evil.’ By their capacity for, as it is said in the story, ‘everything’, by the material absence of that capitalized absolute, they would suggest a general vision which he was sure the reader could make present sufficiently out of his own memories.

But Romance is essentially Manichean. It sees the world in terms of opposed purities, allowing only for ideal virtue and undiluted viciousness, for heroes and heroines, villains and villainesses diametrically opposed, for evil and good in so complete a state that no experience we recall can fully express them. The condition of romance depends upon absence (as realism does upon presence) not because romantic narratives do not contain details but because the details are never enough; no amount of them will ever fill the void of the absolute, supply enough wicked deeds to justify the Wicked King's title, describe the Good Prince so that his goodness is fully accounted for. Implicit in the diametrics of the romance is the mythos of the Christian tradition which, while according responsibility for creation to one sacred being, yet suggests that God's contest with Satan splits the universe into domains of equal power, inexhaustible sources of the divine and the demonic.

In The Turn of the Screw this version of life is the governess's private one; she is the writer of romance, the absolutist of the Manichean interpretation of the Christian tradition. In a way, therefore, our interest in her must after all, be psychological—not in the sense of Edmund Wilson and his followers so that we may discover the cause of her hallucinations in erotic tensions but so that we may find the story's subject in her theory of experience. James's chosen technical method, the first-person narrative unillumined by exterior comment, focuses us upon her mind and its schemes of judgement. James had remarked of the ghost story generally—in another preface in the New York Edition—that

the moving accident, the rare conjunction, whatever it be, doesn't make the story,—in the sense that the story is our excitement, our amusement, our thrill and our suspense; the human emotion and the human condition, the clustering human conditions we expect presented, only make it.

James seems to have realized only as he wrote that the story's subject was the governess's mind. He had begun with a different focus, the idea of the effect on the children of their sight of the apparitions, as his notebook germ, the story told him by the Archbishop of Canterbury shows. In this notation there is no hint of the narrator James would create; the Archbishop had related that he had been told about the haunted children by ‘a lady who had no art of relation, and no clearness’. This original focus on the children's perceptions is preserved in the prologue of the story when Douglas speaks of the interest his tale will offer:

I agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. … But if the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?

But, in fact, the screw of childish perception of horror is never really turned at all in the story we subsequently receive. We never witness as dramatized mental events the appearance of Quint and Miss Jessel to Flora and Miles; indeed, this gap in the presentation is so marked that there are grounds for supposing that the children never see them at all, even though the governess thinks otherwise. Instead, characteristically, James has given us still another of his studies of a consciousness intellectually and emotionally mature and refined enough to provide drama and theme. It may not be accidental that James chose to include The Turn of the Screw not with some of his other ghost-stories but in the volume of the New York Edition that contains The Aspern Papers, in which the narrator's self-presentation is the subject we are called upon to grasp and evaluate.

That the governess's mind was the story's subject Virginia Woolf perceived in 1918 when she remarked in the course of reviewing a book about the supernatural that the ghosts

have neither the substance nor the independent existence of ghosts. The governess is not so much frightened of them as of the sudden extension of her field of perception, which in this case widens to reveal to her the presence all about her of an unmentionable evil. The appearance of the figures is an illustration, not in itself specially alarming, of a state of mind which is profoundly mysterious and terrifying.

As Woolf points out, the appearance of the figures, the onset of the ‘state of mind’ which is suddenly opened up to the unknown in itself, is preceded ‘not by the storms and howlings of the old romances, but by an absolute hush and lapse of nature which we feel to represent the ominous trance of her own mind’. One remembers, at Woolf's reminder, the wonderful sentence in the story, ‘The rooks stopped cawing in the golden sky, and the friendly evening hour lost for the unspeakable minute all its voice’, which precedes the first appearance of Quint. The world of nature and the self, ‘golden’ and ‘friendly’ as Bly appears, is about to reveal itself as deceptive and corrupt.

Deceptive and corrupt, however, to a particular way of seeing. ‘Seeing’ is more than a matter of the eyes and the truthful record of what they register. The governess's ‘seeing’—moral and metaphysical—is what we are made, by the devices of the story, to ponder, to question. James remarks in his preface that the record the governess keeps is ‘crystalline’, but he adds, ‘by which I don't of course mean her explanation of them, a different matter’. If she is an ‘unreliable narrator’ it is on the grounds of judgement. If the governess sees always with an imagination that shifts alternately from a view of Bly as paradise unfallen to a view of it as permeated with corruption, it is because her mind is like one of those designs which allow us to see a flock of white birds crossing a black sky from left to right or a flock of black birds crossing a white sky from right to left—but never both flocks at once. It is an imagination incapable of perceiving ambiguity, only capable of admitting one view and excluding the other. It cannot reconcile and combine, can only exchange the view for its exclusive opposite.

Maybe this accounts for the fact that the characters' configuration in the story the governess tells consists of doubled pairs representing alternate versions of the same reality with the exception of Mrs. Grose, whose simple, whose admirable ‘grossness’ makes such a division impossible. The governess sees herself duplicated twice, in opposite ways, in the person of Miss Jessel and little Flora. She sees the master, whose masculine actuality is represented in her imagination as a figure either of infinite grace or infinite corruption as both little Miles and Quint.

For who is Quint in this drama of the self's revelation to itself? He is, of course, a version or inversion of the owner of Bly, the God-like fine gentleman who has sent the governess upon her mission there with the injunction never to appeal to him—and who has caused her to fall in love with him. The governess has already admitted to Mrs. Grose that she was ‘carried away in London’, and the housekeeper says, ‘Well, Miss, you're not the first—and you won't be the last.’ The master's sexual magnetism has exercised itself—for good or evil—before, and is, in fact, soon confused with Quint's in the conversation that ensues when the governess inquires about her predecessor. That predecessor, moreover, is also a projection from within the governess—this time, of her own capacity for sexual subjection. ‘She was young and pretty—almost as young and almost as pretty, Miss, even as you’, says Mrs. Grose. ‘He seems to like us young and pretty’, says the governess, to which the answer of Mrs. Grose, is, ‘Oh, he did … I means that's his way—the master's.’ Her seeming to correct herself in this curious fashion suggests to the governess that the housekeeper is speaking of someone else. Indeed, she may be, for Quint, who is the master's ‘man’, also ‘liked [them] young and pretty’, it is soon made clear to us. On the other hand, the housekeeper may not really be referring to anyone but the master. It is only the governess who must divide the master from a double who has his capacity for vice, or from that rôle in relation to women which arouses her resentment.

It is after this conversation that the objectified image of the master as an object of hatred rather than love appears just when she has been half-expecting to meet the gentleman from Harley Street. She thinks—with one side of her mind, one might say—that he will suddenly appear, smiling and approving of her handling of the problem presented by the letter from Miles's school—the letter that suggests to her that the perfect little boy has committed some unmentionable wickedness. She has, of course, decided to do nothing—unwilling to establish the nature of the child's offence or to clear him of fault, as she could do by writing the school an inquiry. She thus retains her capacity for alternate visions of Miles who, as I have said, is also a representative of the master. And now the master's double appears in his place, an apparition whose description at first is only that he wears no hat—and so is not a gentleman—but otherwise might be the master or the master in ungentlemanly aspect, for he wears his ‘better's’ clothes and ‘looks like an actor’, that is, an impersonation of someone else.

Quint is her intuition, then, of the evil in the fine gentleman, the benevolent masculine authority who has commanded and possessed her erotic fancy, or a version of the master as her suspicion and resentment conceive him now, at a moment of trouble when he cannot be appealed to. Miss Jessel, as I have already stated, is herself. The predecessor is seen later in postures that the governess even recognizes as her own. When she is about to write a letter to the master she is confronted by sight of this figure at her own desk, occupied in writing ‘like some housemaid writing to her sweetheart’. The governess has collapsed at the foot of the steps in the lonely house after her return from her conversation with Miles outside the church—a conversation in which he tells her definitely that he must leave. She realizes that it is exactly there, identically bowed, that she has seen ‘the spectre of the most horrible of women’. Her own emotions, at this moment, are those of guilt and shame—she has deserved Miles's reproach that he is kept from school and ‘his own sort’ by her possessive surveillance. And, perhaps, in the figure of despair, the haggard and terrible Miss Jessel, she sees the self within her which could deserve to be cast off by the master. But she cannot see herself as, in a mingled human way, both of these at the same time.

Her attachment to Miles is, by this same division of mind, also a representation of her attachment to the master. The 10-year-old boy is a ‘little gentleman’, an exquisite, tiny representation of male glamour, dressed, like Quint, if not in the master's clothes, at least by the master's tailor. If he is an unfallen child, an avatar of the good master, he is also Quint from whom he acquired the wickedness of adult masculinity. He has become a nephew also of Quint who as a sort of surrogate uncle, ruled the household in the master's stead, making ‘too free’ with the maids and with ‘everyone’, as Mrs. Grose remembers. To the governess, Miles is beguilingly graceful and gallant; he calls her ‘my dear’, he makes love to her with his flattery of her as a ‘jolly perfect lady’, and in the scene after Flora's departure when they dine together alone, the governess herself thinks of them as a pair of newlyweds, too shy to speak before the waiter. Indeed, she has been utterly ‘carried away’, just as Mrs. Grose predicted when she said, ‘You will be carried away by the little gentleman’, words that echo the statement that the governess had already been carried away in Harley Street. Critics have observed that the governess fastens her sexual passion, frustrated of its object in the master, upon the child, but it should be noted that Miles has enacted for his own part the master's seduction. And as its sequel, he will abandon her, by his resolution to go back to school. This is such an abandonment as she knows, the poor governess, she might expect from the master—who would also want to go back to his ‘own sort’, his own class. Miss Jessel, one takes it, was used and abandoned if not by the master in proprie persona then by his alternate, Quint.

Flora, of course, completes the symmetry of the three couples—the governess and the master, Miss Jessel and Quint, and the two children—and though there is no sexual relation between the children to make for exact duplication, she, too, stands in a slighter way for the governess. In her original beauty and innocence she is an absolute of the governess's own goodness more perfect because pre-sexual, unfallen. She, too, would be abandoned by Miles who wants to leave for his ‘own sort’, this time the world of masculinity from which she is divided, as a girl, as absolutely as the governess is divided from the master's and Miles's world by both class and sex. In the end, her beauty becomes suddenly ugly, hard, like Miss Jessel's, when she seems ‘an old, old woman’ to the governess who has, herself, by this time, lost her own innocence forever.

I have elaborated the pattern of duplicates in the story to emphasize its structure of mirroring and reversal. One can seem to say almost the same thing as I have been doing by identifying all these paired figures, or at least Miss Jessel and Quint, as hallucinatory projections of the governess's repressions. But this is to literalize the poetic design of James's fable, and to diminish its thematic strength. That design and import is rather, as I have said, the vision of a world divided, bifurcated, just as the paired figures are, into absolutes of good and evil. If such perfection of beauty, goodness, grace as represented by the children exists in the world, then the opposite of these qualities is implied by them. The governess's own nature is an exhibition of a love that is hate, trust that is fear, solicitude that is destructiveness. I believe that James wishes to suggest a criticism of this view of human nature and the world at large. In this moral fable the governess's tragic fall from the rôle she imagines for herself—saviour and protector, agency of absolute goodness—brings her to that opposite condition which is conjured also by her imagination, that of destroyer. In her demand that the children admit that they have known and seen the ghosts, she is demanding their admission of their own absolute evil which must simultaneously exist as an alternative to the absolute good she has seen in them. She will not believe in Miles's attempt to convince her that he can be ordinarily bad. Believing in his absolute goodness she insists upon his capacity for some inconceivable demonstration of damnation.

A close reading of the entire story will show how its ambiguity, so often referred to, is really a kind of binary permutation in which alternatives maintain their exclusiveness. The governess's narrative language reinforces at every point the effect of a viewpoint in which assertions can be read backwards, so to speak, to mean their opposites. Such effects can be summarized in the governess's own phrase when she starts her tale: ‘I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong.’ The see-saw rhythm is immediately initiated. She had, she tells us, somehow dreaded her arrival at Bly, but was, instead, delighted by its beauty—the ‘bright’ flowers, the ‘golden’ sky—and she is received ‘as if I had been the mistress’, a fulfilment, seemingly, of her dream of marriage to the master. On this first evening she meets the beautiful, perfectly named Flora, and goes to bed in a grand room. But there is a ‘drop’ in Mrs. Grose's eagerness to see her, an excessive eagerness that implies another reading of appearances. And appearances are just what the governess will not ever trust, since all things may be replaced by their opposites.

Even when she seems to assert that things are wholly what they seem, doubt invades her sentences and makes them mean another thing entirely:

But it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connection with anything as beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably more than anything to do with the restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about the room to take in the whole picture and prospect, to watch from my open window the faint summer dawn, to look at such stretches of the rest of the house as I could catch, and to listen, while in the falling dusk the first birds began to twitter, for the possible recurrence of a sound or two less natural and not without but within, that I had fancied I heard.

There could be no uneasiness—yet uneasiness is precisely what the image of Flora, described in Edenic terms, provokes in her. And, not surprisingly, she soon hears, she believes, ‘the cry of a child’ sometime during the night. These ‘fancies’ were thrown off, she adds immediately, yet she contradicts their identification as fancies by promptly going on to say that ‘in the light, or the gloom, I should rather say, of other and subsequent matters’ these impressions would return. Examining her feelings the next morning, she produces a statement which, denying, seems to assert a ground for fear:

What I felt the next day was, I suppose, nothing that could be fairly called a reaction from the cheer of my arrival; it was at the most only a slight oppression produced by a fuller measure of the scale, as I walked round them, gazed up at them, took them in, of my new circumstances.

As little Flora conducts her from one part of the house to another she rocks from one attitude to another:

I had the view of a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all colour out of story-books and fairy-tales. Wasn't it just a story-book over which I had fallen a-doze and a-dream? No; it was a big ugly antique but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-displaced and half-utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship.

And so the first little chapter ends, and the next begins with a ‘this’ whose referent is, presumably, this second view of Bly which is said to have come home to her when she went to meet ‘the little gentleman’ and during the evening was ‘deeply disconcerted’ by the letter which arrives from Miles's school. She does not read it to Mrs. Grose but she admits that it says only that he cannot be kept on, which immediately means to her ‘that he's an injury to others’. She asks Mrs. Grose if she has ever known the boy to be bad, to which the housekeeper, who does not think in absolutes, as I have said, eagerly assents, while vigorously rejecting the terms the governess employs—‘contaminate’, ‘corrupt’—in reference to him. As I have already noted, however, the governess will never really be convinced, even by Miles himself, that he is capable of venial fault, only, as he is angelic, of demonic wickedness, like Satan himself for whom there could have been no half-way halting-place between Heaven and the Hell to which he fell. So she continues to invoke by denial a wicked Miles. After meeting him, she is ready to pronounce it ‘monstrous’ she says, that ‘such a child as had now been revealed to me should be under an interdict’. And her sentences still continue their curious game: ‘It would have been impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence.’

It becomes structurally necessary, as the story advances, that this see-saw play be kept up, that the choice between the alternatives be put off as long as possible. So the governess never does the obvious things that might resolve the problem of choice. She does nothing about the letter from the school; she does not show it to Mrs. Grose, and we are ourselves prevented from judging the nature of its contents. She does not write to the boy's uncle about it; she does not write to the school authorities to inquire of them the exact cause for his dismissal; she does not question Miles himself. Yet the perfect trust on which this attitude seems to be based is ready to yield to its opposite. The gentleness of the children is called ‘a trap that put her off her guard’, the peacefulness of the succeeding days, ‘the hush in which something gathers or crouches’.

When she has her first vision of the man on the tower, she does not make general inquiry about a possible intruder, but only after the figure's second appearance speaks to Mrs. Grose about the being she describes as ‘a horror’, or ‘like nobody’, as though he could not be identified in ordinary human terms. Miles, meanwhile, continues to astound her by his perfect goodness, which she scrutinizes for evidences of its opposite:

If he had been wicked he would have ‘caught’ it, and I should have caught it by the rebound—I should have found the trace, should have felt the wound and the dishonour. I could reconstitute nothing at all, and he was therefore an angel.

Without warrant, it would seem, then, she ‘knows’ that there has been something between Miles and the dead valet, and that the spectre is trying to continue relations—and her suspicion is confirmed by Mrs. Grose's revelation, to her ‘sickness of disgust’, that, alive, Quint had been ‘too free’. So Miles is corrupt after all! She begins to watch the children with an attentiveness of suspicion that she calls a ‘service admirable and difficult’, a devoted guardianship, but her own words betray her: ‘I began to watch them in a stifled suspense, a disguised tension, that might well, had it continued too long, have turned into something like madness.’ And what ‘saved’ her from this madness, the madness of being unable to move from the pole of trust to the pole of condemnation? Why, ‘proofs’ of the children's infernal natures, the first of these being the appearance of Miss Jessel and Flora's appearance of pretending that she has not seen this female figure of ‘quite as unmistakable horror and evil’. But she will not confirm or dismiss her hypothesis by questioning the child herself.

The alternatives are, as always, absolutes. If the child meets the dead governess willingly, is it not, asks Mrs. Grose, ‘just proof of her blest innocence?’ But the governess counters: ‘If it isn't a proof of what you say, it's a proof of—God knows what! For the woman is a horror of horrors.’ At this point, the governess announces, ‘It's far worse than I dreamed. They're lost.’ So the governess has moved from her vision of perfect goodness to its opposite. But now it is her own worth and validity that she describes in the self-contradictory language that suggests negation even as it affirms, as in the following which pretends to exonerate Flora:

To gaze into the depths of the child's eyes and to pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning was to be guilty of a cynicism in preference to which I naturally preferred to abjure my judgment.

In the presence of the children, however, the see-saw is again in motion, and ‘everything fell to the ground but their incapacity and their beauty’, until, as it swings back to the negative side she feels ‘obliged to re-investigate the certitude’ of Flora's ‘inconceivable communion’.

By questioning Mrs. Grose she ascertains, to her satisfaction, that Miles had known about the relation between Quint and Miss Jessel and had concealed this knowledge and been corrupted by it. It is no use for Mrs. Grose to cry, ‘If he was so bad then as that comes to, how is he such an angel now?’ Everything the governess now thinks she learns about the relations of the children and the dead pair suits ‘exactly the particular deadly view [she is] in the very act of forbidding [herself] to entertain’. She resolves to wait for the evidence of Miles's damnation. Even as she waits, however, the effect of her pupils' appearance gives a ‘brush of the sponge’ to her convictions and she begins ‘to struggle against [her] new lights’. Their charm, as it maintains itself, seems ‘a beguilement still effective even under the shadow of a possibility that it was studied’. Their graceful responsiveness to her succeeds ‘as if [she] never appeared … literally to catch them at a purpose in it’. ‘If’ the children ‘practised upon [her], it was surely with the minimum of grossness’.

It is then she has her third encounter with Quint and finds that Flora, at the window, denies that she has seen or looked for anyone but the governess herself—who reflects, ‘I absolutely believed she lied.’ And she sees Miss Jessel on the stairs before, on another night, the little girl is again at the window, and the governess declares with conviction, ‘She was face to face with the apparition we had met at the lake and could now communicate with it as she had not then been able to do.’ She herself sees only little Miles in the garden, but is convinced that he is gazing up at the tower above her head, the tower at the top of which, standing in the same spot, she had herself seen the valet's ghost. So the governess concludes and concludes, and her images betray her self-knowledge or her suspicion of absolute evil in herself when she describes how Mrs. Grose listened to her ‘disclosures’, her theories. It was, she says, ‘as had I wished to mix a witch's broth and propose it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan.’

Miles's explanation is the very centre of the story, the nub of the problem I have been describing as the governess's absolutist obsession. He tells her that he simply wanted to bring down a little her conception of his unnatural goodness, to make her think him ‘for a change—bad!’ He had been very naughty; he had sat up without undressing until midnight, and then he had gone out and nearly caught cold. ‘When I'm bad I am bad!’ he says, in triumph. And she is nearly persuaded to see-saw once again thinking of ‘all the reserves of goodness that, for his joke, he had been able to draw upon’. But she returns to her conviction that the children are engaged in a continuous deception and that ‘the four … perpetually meet.’ She tells Mrs. Grose: ‘Their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness. It's a game. It's a policy and a fraud!’ Miles's plea for a normal human allowance of good and bad co-mingled has failed.

Yet more and more her language betrays that she, who has dreamed the rôle of saviour, has become by her own converting vision, demonic. ‘It was not, I am sure today, then, my mere infernal imagination’, she declares, or, after she sees Miss Jessel at her desk, ‘she was there, so I was justified, she was there, so I was neither cruel nor mad.’ Against the weak denial of the syntax the powerful epithets, ‘infernal’, ‘cruel’, ‘mad’ thrust themselves. The children continue affectionate, and she says, ‘Adorable they must in truth have been, I now feel, since I didn't in those days hate them!’—and we are made to suspect that hate them she did and does. Miles's reasonable plea for school and his liberty arouses her determination to prevent it, it would seem, for now she will write the master and inform him of the expulsion from the old school. Again, when Mrs. Grose asks the nature of the child's offense, she—and we—are denied, and the governess answers in terms, once more, of the evil-goodness alternatives: ‘For wickedness. For what else—when he's so clever and beautiful and perfect?’ Only abstract wickedness can be the counter-truth of such an appearance of completest goodness. She is driven now, beyond her former discretion, to even ask him what had happened and to receive for answer only his shriek as she appeals to him, drops on her knees, to ‘seize once more the chance of possessing him’, and he blows out the candle—or Quint does. The admission, the proof absolute, still evades her while she reflects,

Say that, by the dark prodigy I knew the imagination of all evil had been opened to him; all the justice within me ached for the proof that it could ever have flowered into act.

And so the children continue either divine or infernal, as the governess's use of the words betrays. She calls their contrivance to keep her from simultaneously observing them (Miles plays the piano for her while Flora goes off to the lake), ‘the most divine little way to keep me quiet’. ‘Divine?’ echoes Mrs. Grose, and the governess rather giddily responds, ‘Infernal then!’ The governess is now ready to speak out, to say, ‘Miss Jessel’, to Flora, and point to the opposite bank of the lake with triumph and even ‘gratitude’ that the apparition is there and the moment of proof has arrived, but the child sees nothing and says to Mrs. Grose, who sees nothing also, ‘Take me away from her!’

There is nothing more to be hoped for from Flora, and she must be taken away by Mrs. Grose, who gives the governess what ‘justifies’ her when she reports the ‘horrors’—again undenotable—that she has heard from the child. She is, consequently, alone with Miles, still to extract a confession from him. She is assailed by a ‘perverse horror’ of her own efforts:

for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse?

But the illumination passes. She asks him if he stole her letter and Quint's ‘white face of damnation’ appears at the window once more just as the boy admits that he has taken it. And then she asks him what he had done at school and gets only his vague reply that he ‘said things … to those I liked’. It sounds altogether so meagre a criminality that the governess swings, for the last time, away from her conviction of his depravity and feels ‘the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for an instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent what then on earth was I?’ It is her innocence, finally, that may be its opposite, that is, damnation. And this, in fact, is what she must find confirmed at the very last. Pointing to the wraith she sees at the window, clasping the terrified child to her breast, she hears him cry out, ‘Peter Quint—you devil!’ She has triumphed; it is ‘a tribute to her devotion’; she has named the ‘hideous author of our woe’, almost identified, in the Miltonic phrase, with the Devil himself. Or she has been herself named the devil of the story, she who has believed in the absolute beauty of childish innocence, in the master's unimpugnable grace, in her own holy motives—for Miles, who sees nothing that she sees, is dead.

Darrel Mansell (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6474

SOURCE: “The Ghost of Language in The Turn of the Screw,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 48–63.

[In the following essay, Mansell analyzes James's utilization of language in The Turn of the Screw.]


A word cannot be meaningless; to be a word it must have meaning.1 So-called syncategorematic words (such as “if”) may be a special case. These are said to have no meaning in themselves but only in the context of the sentences in which they figure.2 Demonstratives (“this”), pronouns, and proper nouns (“Napoleon,” “Icarus”) are also special in that the meaning they do have is usually said merely to refer outward to a referent; the referent itself is then the word's actual meaning.3 Other than these cases, to whatever extent they are considered special, words have meanings.

A meaning is an idea. What the idea is of can be considered in either (or indeed both) of the following ways. The idea can be considered to consist of certain attributes, aspects, or features (for instance, those in a dictionary definition of “tree”) of whatever is meant. The idea that is the meaning is not the idea of any particular tree which exists in space and time (the gnarled oak on grandfather's farm), but only a type consisting of what all the subsumed particulars are considered to have in common;4 or the meaning is such a type of which any particular must have some,5 but not necessarily all, of the attributes. “Tree” means a type made up of the attributes considered more or less common to all trees.

The meaning or type (usually called a reference or designatum)6 may indeed have particular instances of itself in space and time. These are instances in that they have all, or some of, the attributes of the meaning itself.7 Such particular instances of a meaning (the gnarled oak) are its referent, extension, or denotatum.8 A meaning's extension actually exists in the world as a particular object or the object's state of affairs.

A word's meaning can also be considered in a somewhat different way. Here the relation of meaning to particular object is reversed. The object does exist in the world. Whoever is to have a meaning of it is introduced to the object by an ostensive act (such as pointing)9 accompanied by the word for the object. The learner conceives his own meaning consisting of attributes he himself imputes to the object,10 a meaning that is his personal means of referring back to the original object or another like it.11 His meaning (unlike the type meaning) need not consist of any attributes conceivably essential to, or indeed actually in, the object itself12 so long as the meaning works as a reference.

Both conceptions of word meaning have in common an idea which is a meaning, and the possibility of a particular material object the meaning can or does point to or back to. A meaning thus can point or refer outside itself into the actual world.13 So it is that words have their remarkable ability to talk about something other than themselves.14

Many word and sentence meanings are referable to particular objects or extensions in the ways described above. How the meaning relates to the extension has nothing at all to do with language. The relation is merely the “truth-value” of the meaning.15 The truth-value varies according to whatever is taken as an extension; but the meaning itself always remains the same. “I am walking” has an unchanging meaning which is true, false, or otherwise depending on what if anything is taken at any particular time as the meaning's extension.

Aristotle seems to have thought that all word meanings are referable to extensions.16 But clearly some are not—or can be considered not to be. “The King of France is bald” (Russell's well-known example) and “He who discovered the elliptical shape of the planetary orbits, died in misery” (Frege's example)17 have meanings whether or not there are extensions for the meanings to be referred to. The case is the same for mythical entities like “Icarus” and otherwise unreal entities like “green horse.”18 Meanings without extensions to be referred to are nevertheless meanings and just as much a part of the language system as other meanings.19


The meanings of statements about literature (“The Turn of the Screw was first published in Collier's Weekly”; “The bachelor in The Turn of the Screw lives in Harley Street”) are referable to extensions (in the first case a historical event, in the second certain words on the page), have a truth-value, and can be judged true or false. The meanings of statements in literature (“He did stand there! … at the very top of the tower”), on the other hand, are generally considered extensionless and without truth-value. Of literary texts it can be said, “There is no concrete object corresponding to them in the real world.”20

Nevertheless, even literary texts must say either that the types or objects meant or referred to by the words exist in the extensionless, imagined inner “world” of the text itself, or that the types do not exist there. The meaning of “He did stand there” posits him as standing there even if the “there” has no extension in the real world but only inner extension (as it were) in the imaginary world created in the text. The meanings of “he did not stand there” and “as if he stood there” do not even have such inner extension in the “there.” Thus of meanings with no extension in space and time, and no truth-value, some have a kind of interior extension and some do not.

But those that do not nevertheless posit the existence of their meant types even if there is no place and time either in the real world or the text's imaginary world for the types to exist in. It is a peculiarity of language that a meaning cannot do otherwise than posit its type's existence even in meaning that the type is not in some outer or inner there. A meaning always posits the existence of its type or object. A king can be meant into existence such that the meaning is judged true or false of an actual king who does exist; or a king can be meant into existence solely in the world of a text. But a king cannot be meant into no existence at all. “There is no king” will not do. The meaning does not posit his nonexistence. The meaning brings him into existence so as to attribute to him, not baldness, but the attribute of not being there. He exists with the attribute not. Thus Wittgenstein's observation that the propositions “p” and “sp,” while they have opposite senses, have corresponding to the propositions one and the same state of affairs.21

A negative, hypothetical, or condition otherwise contrary to fact is not in language truly such a contrary but (as Wolfgang Iser says) the inducement to realize the very thing meant not to be. Language, he says, can never be about nothing.22 This ability of language to talk about nonexistent things as if they did exist has been called a defect.23 Language can never quite get rid of the thing it says does not exist. The thing is still there haunting the sentence—language creates ghosts.


Literary statements positing the nonexistence, the non-inner-extension (as discussed above), of their types or objects thus have a way of turning into statements that do seem to posit such an extension. It is possible to read Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as meaning that the altar (line 32) and the little town or citadel (35, 36) are actually depicted on the urn itself24—that these little details are posited as extended in the poem's inner world. This is because, while the interrogatives in which these details are embedded mention them as merely where the sacrifice might (hypothetically) be going to and where the people may (hypothetically) have come from, the posited details seem nevertheless now “fact” themselves, there, as if they were extended on the urn itself—language's unavoidable ghostly presences now as if “on” the urn.

Criticism of this poem can be said to have progressed over the years as extension has properly been taken away from more and more of the detail. The poem as ekphrasis, description of a real urn extended in real space and time, has given way to the poem as description of an imaginary urn extended only in the poem's inner world; this in turn has given way to the poem as partly detail without even inner extension25—types generated by language's might's, may's, and not's with no there at all to exist in.

The Turn of the Screw is another such case. Henry James's story was first read as a ghost story in which the governess describes ghosts which exist, have extension, in the story's inner world of a country house. The story then came to be read as a psychological one in which the ghosts are in the governess's mind—thus still have inner extension but now “in” a character extended in the story's inner world. There ought to be a further stage in which some of the details turn out not to have any inner extension at all but to be merely scared up into being by language defectively going about its job of meaning (and being meant by its author to be thus defective in meaning) that something is negative, hypothetical, or otherwise contrary to fact.

Consider, for instance, the following passage, severely edited down so as to string together by ellipsis marks the crucial words positing where if anywhere the types are meant to be extended:

… the conviction I from one moment to another found myself forming as to what I should see straight before me and across the lake as a consequence of raising my eyes. They were attached at this juncture to the stitching in which I was engaged. … There was an alien object in view—a figure. … meanwhile … I transferred my eyes straight to little Flora. … then … I was determined by a sense that … within the minute she had … turned her back to the water. This was her attitude when I at last looked at her. … Then I again shifted my eyes—I faced what I had to face.26

Unless mistakenly edited, the above does not mean that the figure is there; does not even mean that the governess imagines it there though it is not; but means that if (hypothetical) she should do so-and-so she would see (or imagine) it there (the final “faced what I had to face” being followed by the hiatus preceding the next chapter, which is set in a different time and place). Furthermore, the above passage does not mean that Flora turned her back to the water; does not even quite mean that the governess imagines Flora did though actually Flora's back was to the water from the beginning; but means that the governess senses that Flora had turned her back but only says how Flora actually was when the governess at last looked at her.

Here is language with its negatives, hypotheticals, and conditions otherwise contrary to fact scaring up types that have no inner extension, no there, whatever. Below, in turn, are passages from critics whose interpretations of the story belong not to stage one (the ghosts at Bly) but to stage two (the ghosts in the governess's mind)—and have yet to go on to stage three (the ghosts in language):

Lifting her eyes from her sewing, the governess perceives a specter across the lake. …27

… it is she—always she herself—who sees the lurking shapes and heralds them to her little world. Not to … Flora, but, behind Flora and facing the governess, the apparitional Miss Jessel first appeared. There are traps and lures in plenty. …28

The critics have indeed in the italicized words fallen into a trap—seen a ghost. The text does not mean that the figure did appear; nor does the text even quite mean that the figure was imagined by the governess to appear; only that if the governess had lifted her eyes she would have seen (or imagined) it. Yet a third example:

When she looks up, the child has turned her back to the apparition on the far side of the lake.29

Here not only has the hypothetical and unseen figure been given inner extension as seen; so also has Flora's hypothetical and unseen turning of her back.

The Turn of the Screw is thus amenable to stage three criticism so as to take away even inner extension from those of its meanings that do not properly have any extension at all. Indeed, this story is more than amenable; it asks for such treatment (a relevant article on the story by Shoshana Felman is referred to below). The Turn of the Screw begins as extended in an ample enough inner world: London's Harley Street, the grounds and rooms of Bly, the governess's inner thoughts as she walks and sits there. But little by little this extension is taken away. By the end the story has reduced itself to a text, with only a text's dimensions: no as-if “real” three-dimensional inner world, no such there for the meanings to extend themselves in—merely words themselves. The Turn of the Screw creates itself a text (the governess's manuscript) in the midst of the story's inner world, then takes away that world and leaves itself—a text.


The story begins in an inner world extended in space and time just as the external world is extended. The reader looks through a window into this word-world which is like his own. There Douglas and his auditors exist in the before and after of “inner” time (he writes to London for the manuscript, they wait, then listen to it read word by word). His auditors in turn are made to “look” through another window into the governess's word-world, which too is extended like their own and like the reader's. The governess exists in the before and after of “inner-inner” time (she goes to Harley Street, she waits, she goes to Bly, where summer turns to autumn). Likewise all the worlds are extended in three-dimensional space. Douglas's is (he gets up, presents his back to the fire). His very manuscript is so extended in three dimensions (“a thin old-fashioned gilt-edged album”).30 Also the governess's world (its gravel drive and rooms).

Thus when she “sees” the apparition outside the dining-room window, there is indeed an outside, an outside to which she then goes so as to be where the apparition was (chap. 4). A window with extension beyond it into a third dimension—that is the world in which the story begins. By the end, as Miles stands framed in the same window (chap. 24), the third dimension of an outside has all but disappeared. The Turn of the Screw has become “flat” like the text on a page, or flat like a text which has given up projecting any inner extension, any there, that is “real” like the world seen through a window. There is next to nothing anymore beyond the story's flat, two-dimensional window to be walked into or seen.

A world extended in three dimensions with time passing—that is our real world and the inner world conventionally projected by the window of a text. Such an inner world, less one dimension and time, turns into that other kind of inner world projected by the graphic arts such as painting. Portraits and scene-painting are the real projected in two dimensions. The Turn of the Screw is a strikingly malerisch text intent on flattening itself out by presenting some of its objects not as three-dimensionally “real” but as paintings.

The governess notes the portraits on the walls at Bly (chap. 4), and she likens the children themselves to paintings (for instance, the reference to Raphael in the first chapter). She seems to conceive herself not so much as writing up the reality of her ghostly presences as painting them into existence. She expresses her satisfaction at bringing Mrs. Grose “stroke by stroke” (chap. 7) to see in her Peter Quint “a touch of picture” (chap. 5). She notes that the housekeeper “filled out my picture” (chap. 16). She congratulates herself on having created of her presences a “picture” down to the “last detail,” a “portrait on the exhibition of which” Mrs. Grose “had instantly recognised and named them” (chap. 8).

Her presentation of Peter Quint's first appearance is that he is there “as a picture in a frame”—against a background of no sound, no movement, as if time has stopped (chap. 3). When he appears again, framed in the dining-room window, he is presented, as he was on the tower, only from the waist up as a half-length portrait (chap. 4); the same again when he appears on the staircase having ascended “halfway up” and with a window as frame behind him (chap. 9).

Does his presentation have inner extension into the third dimension? Does he have a back to present as does Douglas? The following passage seems to give him one:

I can't express what followed … save by saying that the silence itself … became the element into which I saw the figure disappear; in which I definitely saw it turn, as I might have seen the … wretch to which it had once belonged turn … with my eyes on the … back. …

(chap. 9; my italics)

But the back is not there—merely a ghost back created by language's hypothetical “as I might have.” Does Miss Jessel have a third dimension? As she is presented sitting on the stairs, her back to the governess, does she have a front?

I had been there but an instant … when she vanished without looking round at me. I knew, for all that, exactly what dreadful face she had to show. …

(chap. 10)

Here, too, no extension into the third dimension—merely a ghost front created by the governess's saying that she knows what the face would have looked like.

The Turn of the Screw thus presents itself as a strange inner world projected some places in three dimensions, some places in two. Bly is not “real” so as to be walked through, yet with portraits propped on towers and leaning against staircases; rather, Bly is real in some places, but in others two-dimensional and painterly so as to baffle the idea of through. “Baffle”: a word used in reference to Miles in the final scene as he tries to look through the window and finds nothing there.

A portrait is three-dimensional reality projected on the two-dimensional plane of the canvas through or behind which nothing is signified; the same is true of a story as a text. There is nothing through or behind the two dimensions of the text. The gilt-edged album can indeed be leafed through. But opened to a page, the album becomes a text with no through. The Turn of the Screw is not only painterly but textual in its presentation of objects given no other side, no third dimension.

Do any of the objects and characters in the governess's narration have a dimension that pulls them free of the flat page on which they are put down as text? She seems to be writing not about her subject but to be writing the subject itself. She refers to the “grey prose of my office” (chap. 4) and even accuses one of her characters of having behaved under the “dictation” of another (chap. 20). The bachelor is “such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel” (prologue). Peter Quint comes into existence as the governess is thinking that to meet a certain someone “would be as charming as a charming story” (chap. 3). When he appears, where is he? “… I saw him as I see the letters I form on this page” (chap. 3). Then in the dining room he is in the (flat) window. Could he actually be in the third dimension of the shrubbery behind the window? She purports to search for him there, knowing “He was there or was not there: not there if I didn't see him”—and indeed he is neither seen nor there (chap. 4). The Turn of the Screw is flat both like a painting and like an opened text.


Most of the objects and characters in the governess's text are at least there to the extent that they are written up into the three or two dimensions of Bly's inner world. But some, while written, are not there at all. These are sheerly ghost objects scared up by her language31 and (like Keats's little town mentioned earlier) having no provenance whatever in the inner world of Bly. There is, for instance, a waiter who does not exist at Bly, nor does he exist merely as a figure of speech in the governess's thoughts at Bly; he exists in the text itself—a ghost waiter created by language.

We continued … as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding-journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter32 had left us.

(chap. 22; my italics)

Most of the story's ghosts-in-the-text are pronouns. Again and again there are pronouns with mistakable and mistaken referents:33

“That's what he wants!”…

“The child?”

“Heaven forbid! The man.”

(chap. 6)

“Take me away … oh take me away from her!

“From me?”…

“From you—from you!”

(chap. 20)

Indeed, nothing is more characteristic of the story than the perverse reluctance of its pronouns to settle on unambiguous referents. The story's way of going about its business is evident in an early interrogation of Mrs. Grose by the governess—“But of whom did you speak first?” (chap. 2)—and again in the tense words she directs at Miles in that phantasmagoria of mistakable pronouns the final scene: “Whom do you mean by ‘he’?”

A pronoun independent of a referent can be said to have no meaning (as discussed in the first section)—like the bachelor's letter communicating nothing but its reference to an enclosed other letter which is nevertheless still sealed as yet unread.34 A pronoun in this state brings into existence a “he,” “she,” or “someone” which hovers without any extension in the Bly-world to attach itself to.

There are, for instance, pronouns which the reader temporarily attaches to a mistaken referent. The pronoun, thus attached, extends itself or “sends” itself into Bly's inner world to take on life there—subsequently to be proved not extensible or deliverable as addressed. The pronoun as mistakenly addressed has proved itself to be extended or living only where Russell's King of France lives: in the very text itself that has brought “him” into being rather than in an imaginary or real world referred to by the text.

Thus the governess describes herself as wishing to meet a “some one” clearly in reference to the bachelor, and then as looking at the tower: “He did stand there!” The bachelor is now there in the “he” for the reader up to “was not the person” (chap. 3), where the pronoun finds its proper referent, the “there” of the “he” proves nowhere, the “he” a ghost-bachelor only in the text and not on the tower. The same for the governess's saying in the final scene that “I saw him” meet “my leap.” To the reader a possible referent is the ghost of Peter Quint described as in the window. But the referent subsequently proves to be Miles, the ghost of Peter Quint left to inhabit only the sentence itself.

Some of the story's pronouns simply have no certain referents to be discovered:

“You thought I might be walking in the grounds?”

“Well, you know, I thought some one was.”

(chap. 10)

“Of course we've the others.”

“We've the others—we've indeed the others.”

(chap. 23)

Flora in the first example and Miles in the second may be considered to have or not to have in mind a certain referent; and the referent may be considered to be or not to be that of the governess. These pronouns have no certain referents as unmistakable entrees into the Bly-world. Such pronouns are free to take on whatever life the reader chooses to give them. But the life, the extension, is not—cannot be—in the world referred to by the text but only in the world of the text. The same is true of the following:

“It's he?

“Whom do you mean by ‘he’?”

“Peter Quint—you devil!”

(chap. 24)

Miles's “you” as he stands facing into the dining room has no certain referent (Peter Quint? the governess?). The pronoun does not—cannot—attach itself unmistakably to anything extended in the inner world of Bly. The “you” scared up into life inhabits not Bly but the text—a ghost in the text.


The above features have the effect of turning the story from a text describing an inner world to a text describing merely itself. The story's own most prominent terms for this effect are, first, that Bly begins as an inside which has an outside, and ends merely an inside; and, second, that the story begins as a mailable or sendable letter, and ends an unsendable one.

Bly's windows at the beginning are open (chap. 1). The governess can go to an outside which is beyond the window (chap. 4). Indeed, she can apparently go to the village (chap. 5). She knows “space and air and freedom” (chap. 3). But the constrictions of painterliness and textuality seem progressively to close off any beyond, any outside. The governess comes not to be able to imagine those pictures of perfection Flora and Miles as being, as extended, beyond or outside Bly itself: “the only form that in my fancy the after-years could take for them was that of a romantic … extension of the … park” (chap. 3).

Bly comes more and more to be not a window with a beyond but a mirror. Among its furnishings to confront the newly arrived governess are full-length mirrors and (in the next sentence) a Mrs. Grose (chap. 1). That worthy is described offering her reflective self (her “mere smooth aspect”) to the governess's fancies as a “large clean saucepan” (chap 11). When the governess looks “prodigious things,” she gets “the … reflexion of them” in Mrs. Grose's face (chap. 7). Mrs. Grose presents “the plain assent of her experience to whatever … I found credible” (chap. 12). Many of the housekeeper's replies are merely repetitions and echoes (“she echoed” [chap. 5]) of the governess's own words (some examples appear in chapters 1, 2, and 5). The governess has every reason to feel “that we should on every question be quite at one” (chap. 1).

By the story's baffling final scene there is next to nothing through or beyond the Bly-window to be seen or heard—merely reflection and echo, the open-windowed Bly now a “prison.” The face once beyond the window is now described (and once repeated) as “against the glass”—the face now as it were in the plane of the glass rather than through it. There is no beyond.35 The governess, who had faced Miles away from the window lest he see, can at the last let him turn to face it: “I had nothing now there to keep him from.” There is next to nothing any longer outside the flat plane of the text, no objects, nothing but the “quiet day.”

The story presents this effect in yet another way. Here the story is a letter rather than a window; the “dimension” gradually taken away is not what is through the window but what is beyond the letter as any recipient. In the prologue the text's inner world has busy communication by means of print and letters with a “beyond.” Douglas successfully writes to London for the manuscript, a manuscript that is successfully communicable to his auditors in the reading and to Henry James's readers by means of the narrator's exact transcript. In the manuscript itself the bachelor publishes into the beyond of Hampshire a newspaper advertisement; and the prospective governess successfully writes to London in response.

Bly itself at the beginning still precariously has this communication with a dimension beyond itself. The governess is in receipt of letters from home (chap. 4). She is also in receipt of a letter from the London bachelor. But this letter begins the fading away of Bly's communication with anything in an extra-Bly dimension beyond.36 The bachelor's letter is disturbing (the governess's letters from home were “disturbing” as well [chap. 4]) in cutting off further communication outward on the part of its receiver: “Not a word” (chap. 2). (She had previously been told that she must “neither appeal nor … write about anything” [prologue].) This valedictory letter (he never writes to his wards [chap. 13]) is thus a prologue which cuts off references to a beyond and refers meaning exclusively inward to the words of a text (“Read him, please; deal with him” [chap. 2]), just as the story's own prologue also cuts off reference to Douglas himself and refers meaning instead to the words of the governess's own text (“The story itself will tell”).37

Such meaning-as-reference is baffling in putting off meaning itself onto a document still sealed unread and hence meaningless to the referrer, unreadable by Mrs. Grose (chap. 2), less than communicative to the governess herself (who does not know what to make of it [chap. 2]), and never finally communicated to the reader. The bachelor's communication, that final dimension of beyond or outside the sheer text of The Turn of the Screw, is merely a reference to a sealed text swallowed up into the self-referring text of the story itself—locked up in one of the drawers in the governess's room (chap. 3). The governess's text, unlocked and referred inward to Douglas's auditors, itself presents a text referred inward only to be locked up again. “The story itself will tell”—only what the story itself will tell. Outside, beyond, has come in for the last time only to be locked away out of sight.

The story then goes about its job of making certain nothing escapes outward from the prison of its text. Flora sets busily to practicing the writing of her O's, but distracted, stops (chap. 2). That portrait of tragedy Miss Jessel is described sitting at the schoolroom table as if a housemaid writing a letter to her lover—but interrupted, stops (chap. 15). The children write letters outward to their uncle, but the letters are never posted (chap. 13). Mrs. Grose proposes writing to him herself via the bailiff, but refers the communication to the governess (chap. 16), who does indeed write a letter—never posted (chap. 21). All communication at Bly flags. At the Sea of Azof the governess enters into the children's game by playing “something … very quiet” (chap. 6). Scenes occur in an “intense hush” (chap. 3), a “still hour” (chap. 6), the “quiet day” of the last sentence. Flora's interrupted O's turn into the “nothing” Miles finds in the governess's unposted letter (chap. 24).

The Turn of the Screw ends a picture with no third dimension, a window become blank or a mirror, a letter unsendable beyond itself—flat like that two-dimensional place Flatland38 so as to allow its imprisoned figures no view, no communication, no reference beyond the plane of their own restricted existence.


The prologue brings into being the governess's narrative; the narrative in turn brings into being—nothing possible beyond itself, no epilogue. This story perversely turns away from verisimilitude—away from the window—and turns itself into a text with no reference beyond its literal self. Words themselves, not the dimensions of reality they can be made to refer to, are the story's power. Words, even words that are saying what is not and that are extended nowhere, can scare up ghosts to haunt the printed page itself. Words have that power. That stolid, unimaginative nonreader Mrs. Grose, offered the bachelor's letter, puts her hands behind her back (chap. 2) as if being handed a bomb. Hidden at the dead center of this story is what Miles did that is the root-evil of which the story is the flower—words, “I said things.”


  1. See Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (Paris: Payot, 1916), pp. 99–100; Bertrand Russell, The Principles of Mathematics (London: Cambridge University Press, 1903), p. 47.

  2. See William P. Alston, Philosophy of Language (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 14.

  3. On the general subject of referring meanings, see Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 8 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931–58), 2 (Elements of Logic, 1932): 160–65; Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), pp. 163–64. For demonstratives, pronouns, and proper nouns, see Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, trans. J. N. Findlay, 2 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), 1:328 and 2:684–85; Roman In-garden, The Literary Work of Art, trans. George G. Grabowicz (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 245; Rudolf Carnap, The Logical Structure of the World, trans. Rolf A. George (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 48. But proper nouns are held to be unique in language and essentially different from demonstratives and pronouns in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations” Generally Known as the Blue and Brown Books, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p. 82.

  4. Peirce, 2:168–69; Charles W. Morris, Foundations of the Theory of Signs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938), p. 5.

  5. For an account of this so-called cluster concept, see Saul A. Kripke, “Naming and Necessity,” in Semantics of Natural Language, ed. Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman, 2nd ed. (Boston: D. Reidel, 1972), pp. 280, 327.

  6. On reference, see C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, 2nd ed. rev. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927), pp. 10–11. On designatum, see Morris, pp. 3–5.

  7. For an account and criticism of how an extension is judged to be of a meaning, see Hilary Putnam, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning,”’ Philosophical Papers, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975–83), 2 (Mind, Language and Reality, 1975): 234–35, 245. See also Kripke, p. 300.

  8. For referent, see Eco, pp. 59–60; Ogden and Richards, p. 11. For extension, see Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976), p. 144. For denotatum, see Morris, p. 5.

  9. On the vexed question of objects that are absent or otherwise not capable of being pointed at, see Keith S. Donnellan, “Speaking of Nothing,” PhR, 83 (1974): 8 (the “historical explanation” theory). See also Putnam, p. 246; Kripke, pp. 298–302 (the “initial baptism and causal chain” theory).

  10. See Kripke, pp. 328, 319 (“paradigmatic instances”); Putnam, p. 234 (“indexical component”).

  11. For a general account of the meaning as itself a reference (like a proper noun), see Stephen P. Schwartz, “Introduction,” in Naming, Necessity, and Natural Kinds, ed. Stephen P. Schwartz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 29.

  12. On the components or “markers” of a personal meaning, see Putnam, pp. 266–69. On the relation of the markers to the object itself, see Putnam, pp. 256, 265. On what constitutes the object itself, independent of what anyone's personal meaning of the object is, see Kripke, p. 326 (“contingent” and “essential” properties of an object) and p. 320 (“atomic structure”); Schwartz, pp. 27–28; Putnam, p. 240 (“genetic code”) and p. 232 (“microstructure”). On how such an essential property of the object can figure in a meaning, see Kripke, pp. 269, 329; Putnam, p. 231 (“rigid designator”).

  13. Alston divides meanings into those with and without extralinguistic reference (p. 18).

  14. See Alston, p. 19.

  15. See Morris, pp. 21–22; Eco, p. 59.

  16. De interpretatione 1. 16a3 (meaning or “affections of the soul” as “likenesses” of “actual things”); see Aristotle's “Categories” and “De Interpretatione,” trans. J. L. Ackrill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), p. 43.

  17. Bertrand Russell, “On Denoting,” in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, ed. Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949), p. 107. Gottlob Frege, “On Sense and Nominatum,” ibid., p. 95.

  18. The latter is an example of Goodman's (p. 145). See also his “On Likeness of Meaning,” in Semantics and the Philosophy of Language, ed. Leonard Linsky (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1952), p. 69.

  19. Goodman's point (Languages of Art, p. 145). Frege comments on the sentence “Odysseus deeply asleep was disembarked at Ithaca” that the “proposition remains the same, no matter whether or not the name ‘Odysseus’ has a nominatum” (p. 90).

  20. Wolfgang Iser, “Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction,” in Aspects of Narrative, ed. J. Hillis Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 7. See also Frege, pp. 90–91.

  21. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 45 (4.0621). See Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 115–16.

  22. The Implied Reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), pp. 37, 268.

  23. Frege, p. 95 (in reference only to certain “special cases”).

  24. See, for instance, Sidney Colvin, John Keats (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917), p. 417. Stephen A. Larrabee, English Bards and Grecian Marbles (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), p. 223, comments on how Keats “took liberties with the Antique in carving a town” on his urn.

  25. See my “Keat's [sic] Urn: ‘On’ and On,” Lang & S, 7 (1974): 235–36.

  26. The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition, 26 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907–17), 12:201–2 (chap. 6).

  27. Oscar Cargill, “The Turn of the Screw and Alice James,” PMLA, 78 (1963): 242 (my italics).

  28. Edna Kenton, “Henry James to the Ruminant Reader: The Turn of the Screw,” The Arts, 6 (1924): 254 (my italics).

  29. Francis X. Roellinger, Jr., “Psychical Research and ‘The Turn of the Screw,”’ AL, 20 (1949): 409 (my italics).

  30. The prologue preceding the first chapter (p. 156); hereafter designated as “prologue.”

  31. A similar point is made by David A. Cook and Timothy J. Corrigan, “Narrative Structure in The Turn of the Screw: A New Approach to Meaning,” SSF, 17 (1980): 64 (citing Tzvetan Todorov's observation that the “supernatural is born of language”).

  32. As originally published in Collier's the text reads “maid”; changed to “waiter” in the New York Edition.

  33. Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis, ed. Shoshana Felman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), p. 154, remarks on this aspect of the story. See also John Carlos Rowe, The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), p. 132.

  34. On this letter-within-a-letter as the separation of “signifier from signified,” see Felman, p. 145. She sets up the equation “to see ghosts = to see letters” (pp. 151, 166), and avers that “‘seeing ghosts’ and ‘seeing letters’ both involve the perception of ambiguous … signifiers” (p. 154). But finally she is not making a linguistic point like mine by a psychoanalytic one: the story's letters are undeliverable to the uncle, who represents the unconscious; the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel represent some of the content of the undeliverable letters.

  35. Indeed, Jacques Derrida remarks that all literary texts make themselves into prisons with no beyond; for his discussion of Jacques Lacan's seminar on a story that raises all the issues I have discussed above—“The Purloined Letter”—see “The Purveyor of Truth,” YFS, no. 52 (1975), pp. 101, 110.

  36. Felman notes this undeliverability of letters (p. 141).

  37. And vice versa the story can be seen as cutting off reference to the prologue; thus Rowe comments that the prologue “becomes a necessary introduction once it has been determined as that which the Governess's written narrative seeks to exclude” (p. 131).

  38. For a brief account of such a mathematical structure, see Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 262.

Paula Marantz Cohen (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Freud's Dora and James's Turn of the Screw: Two Treatments of the Female ‘Case,’” in Criticism, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 73–87.

[In the following essay, Cohen finds parallels between James's novella and Sigmund Freud's Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.]

Sigmund Freud's Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw are two texts, written within three years of each other, which raise important questions about the nature and function of their respective genres. Freud writes a clinical case history; James, a ghost story. Yet a comparative reading of the two works not only calls into question their authors' use of these genres but also the basic assumptions about truth and fiction which we normally attach to the genres themselves.1


A Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, perhaps the best known of Freud's case histories, is rarely referred to by its actual title. Instead, it tends to be known as the case of “Dora,” the pseudonym Freud chose to protect the identity of the young woman he treated briefly for hysterical symptoms toward the end of 1900. The official title is exacting in its wording, calling attention to the incompleteness of the analysis, and suggesting that what follows will be rigorously scientific and inaccessible to most readers. The unofficial title suggests the opposite—and indeed, the case history proves supremely readable and diverting, even for those with no previous knowledge of Freudian theory.

Yet if Freud's text reads more like a work of fiction than a scientific treatise,2 it would be unfair to accuse him of manipulating an objective genre for fictional purposes. It is not that Freud's case history is more fictional than other medical case histories but rather that it is more self-revealing. By teaching us how to interpret the motives that lie behind his patient's words and actions, Freud unwittingly teaches us how to interpret his own motives as they lurk behind the formal choices of the written case history.3 In so doing, he unmasks both himself and his genre.

In the “Prefatory Remarks” which serve as an elaborate frame for his work, Freud begins Dora's case history by explaining the scientific value of presenting the case in realistic detail. Almost at once, however, he contradicts his claim to realism by assuring us that he has taken “guarantees to secrecy” to prevent anyone from linking the case to a real individual. He needs such guarantees, he says, to protect his subject from those “many physicians who (revolting though it may seem) choose to read a case history of this kind not as a contribution to the psychopathology of neuroses, but as a roman à clef designed for their private delectation.”4 In interpreting Dora's responses at a later point in the text, Freud will assert a basic tenet of psychoanalytic theory: “there is no such thing as an unconscious ‘No”’ (p. 75), he writes. If “[t]he ‘No’ uttered by a patient after a repressed thought has been presented to his conscious perception for the first time … is ignored … evidence soon begins to appear that in such a case ‘No’ signifies the desired ‘Yes’ (p. 76). The same rule, applied to his own protest concerning the proper use of his text, alerts us to the possibility that he may unconsciously view the case history precisely in the manner he is condemning—both as a roman à clef (not Dora's, but his own) and as a simple roman (or novel) in the nineteenth-century mode, that is, as a narrative which uses illicit or unconventional human relationships both to titillate and to present the reader with their annihilation in the form of a simple moral resolution. In fact, Freud engages in this same double movement when he underlines that aspect of his work most likely to interest those reading, as he puts it, “for their private delectation” while, at the same time, laying claim to the scientific value and high seriousness of his purpose.

Later in his preface, Freud goes on to explain that he has taken the liberty of re-ordering and editing his material so as to make it easier for the reader to follow the flow of the analysis. Alluding to Dora's breaking off of the analysis before its completion, he also notes how, “like a conscientious archeologist,” he has sought to restore what is missing, “taking the best models known to me from other analyses” (p. 27). Finally, he admits to not having “reproduced the process” (that is to say, the technique) of the analysis in his case history, “but only the results of that process” (p. 27). These explanations are attempts to justify methodology, but they also make us aware of what is missing and thereby call attention to the artfulness with which the case history has been constructed. By using the genre so self-consciously (or with such unconscious self-consciousness), Freud places himself within a tradition of fiction writers who employ claims of authenticity in order to draw attention to their skill in imitating reality. To use his own terminology, he both “betrays and conceals” his method. This is the same tendency that he ascribes to the unconscious in the production of pathological symptoms. And if, as he claims, what is invariably betrayed and concealed by the unconscious is sexual in nature,5 then a sexual content must also lie behind his own use of the case history.

The body of the analysis does disclose such a content as Freud betrays through his choice of words and his reconstruction of events a personal sexual attitude to which Dora, on paper if not in life, is made to submit. Thus, attempting to justify his right to probe Dora's most intimate thoughts and desires by comparing himself to a gynecologist who “does not hesitate to make them [patients] submit to uncovering every possible part of their body” (p. 65), his language suggests a sexualized scene of male domination and female submission even as it asserts a clinical detachment of method (the position of detachment can itself be said to contribute to the fantasy of domination). He projects the same attitude onto Dora's relationship with Herr K. When, for example, Dora expresses disgust at having received a forced kiss from this older, married man, Freud insists that this “was surely just the situation to call up a distinct feeling of sexual excitement in a girl of fourteen who had never before been approached” (p. 43), and concludes: “the behaviour of this child of fourteen was already entirely and completely hysterical [since] I should without question consider a person hysterical in whom an occasion for sexual excitement elicited feelings that were preponderantly or exclusively unpleasurable” (p. 44). Here, the “occasion for sexual excitement” is defined from what is clearly Freud's own point of view. Similarly, when he postulates a fantasy of fellatio as deriving from Dora's childhood habit of thumb-sucking and relates this to her supposed knowledge of the sexual relations between her father and Frau K, he ignores the sexual needs of both the female in the imagined scene and the female imagining the scene.6 Just as he fails to consider that Dora might not respond to the aggressive male sexuality of Herr H., he fails to consider the possibility that Dora might fantasize a different kind of sexual relationship, one which centers on the woman's pleasure.

Yet in order that Freud's projection of his own sexuality onto Dora's experiences be persuasive to those whom he is addressing, it must also reflect a collective attitude which has been appropriately systematized into ideology. What becomes apparent as we read is that Freud is, in fact, acting in unconscious complicity with Dora's father and Herr K., both of whom embody conventional Victorian views toward women. Certainly it should be seen as significant—though Freud does not treat it as such—that Herr K. had been responsible for referring Dora's father to him, who, after being treated himself, would in turn bring Dora for treatment. In an unaccountably brief reference to this chain of events, Freud explains that the father, four years after having been cured by him of the symptoms of what turns out to be a venereal disease, “brought his daughter, who had meanwhile grown unmistakeably neurotic, and introduced her to me, and … after another two years he handed her over to me for psychotherapeutic treatment” (p. 34). The terminology of exchange employed here will be the same terminology invoked by Dora (as reported by Freud) when she explains that “she had been handed over to Herr K. as the price of his tolerating the relations between her father and his wife” (p. 50). While Freud will later admit to having failed to deal satisfactorily with Dora's transference in her association of him with Herr K. and by extension with her father, he does not see the degree to which his actions actually do mimic those of her father and Herr K. He fails to see this because his behavior is more than a singular duplication; it is the behavior of most men toward women in his society. Just as Dora's father needs her to perform the role of dutiful, trusting daughter and Herr K. needs her to perform the role of physically available, seduceable woman, Freud needs her to perform the role of malleable patient—to lend her intelligence, not just her loyalty or her body, to the imposition of his will. There is, of course, a potential conflict of interest here; for the ideal patient for Freud is not the ideal wife or mistress, but the woman who has failed to perform these roles properly. Furthermore, the intelligence which Freud values in a patient may be precisely that which makes her unfit for her prescribed social and familial role. Freud manages, however, to resolve this double bind so as to have it both ways. Thus, while he initially appears to diverge from Dora's father and Herr K. in his willingness to believe Dora's account of the scene by the lake, he ends by supporting the interests of the male characters by insisting that Dora's motives are the opposite of what she thinks—that she is in fact in love with Herr K. and wishes him to renew his advances. Since he has laid down the rule that “there is no such thing as an unconscious ‘No,”’ his interpretation of Dora's unconscious wish denies her any avenue of protest except the one she ultimately takes, leaving the analysis. In another, more striking example of this capacity to reconcile his personal psychoanalytic interests with the interests of the culture, Freud first records Dora's belief “that she had kept abreast with her brother up to the time of her first illness, but that after that she had fallen behind him in her studies,” and then provides the following gloss: “It was as though she had been a boy up till that moment, and had then become girlish for the first time. She had in truth been a wild creature; but after the ‘asthma’ she became quiet and well-behaved. That illness formed the boundary between two phases of her sexual life, of which the first was masculine in character, and the second feminine” (p. 101). The note not only links femininity with politeness and curtailed activity (accepted female traits), but also with illness. Yet it is the illness which Freud explains as a repression of normal sexuality and which requires his intervention (here, asthma is interpreted as an early symptom of hysteria). This would seem to place Freud in the extraordinarily powerful and privileged position of creating “normal” women out of a sex which is inherently sick and abnormal.7 Such a position would fit well within a culture in which notions of sexual and racial inferiority coexisted with the belief that educating these so-called inferiors was a social responsibility.

In the case of Dora, he admittedly fails to bring about the cure which would have returned his patient “whole” to her father and Herr K.8 Nonetheless, Dora's breaking off of the analysis can be said to provide Freud with certain obvious advantages. For one thing, by leaving the analysis early, Dora makes it more possible for him to fill in his own material for what is missing. As he admits himself, the shorter time frame has the advantage of yielding a more manageable quantity of data. He can also generalize more easily (“taking the best models known to me from other analyses”) while avoiding all responsibility for effecting a cure. Meanwhile, the incomplete analysis serves as an excuse to leave unexplained that material which, as shall be shown, would disrupt the coherence of his theory within the framework of patriarchal culture. Thus Freud's drive for authority, formidable when the patient is present (“the patients themselves are easy to convince” [p. 66]), is redoubled in the wake of failure, and this failure is itself transformed into a more complete expression of narrative control. In this, Freud resembles no one more than the fiction writer who, by predetermining his subject's character and actions and by limiting his own level of responsiveness, assumes the role of omniscient narrator within his own work. Yet when we compare Freud's text to James's, we see that the case history, far more than the work of fiction, demands this kind of radical closure in order to control knowledge for its own purposes.


In James's The Turn of the Screw as in Freud's Dora we are presented with a story whose narrator makes elaborate claims in support of its truth. Like Freud, this narrator is also a kind of archeologist, for he attempts to situate the story we are about to read—to place it in context and explain how it came to him—much as Freud tries to do in introducing Dora's case. And just as Freud admits to having selected and re-ordered the events of the analysis, the preliminary narrator of the James story is careful to explain that the manuscript he is about to present has gone through a number of transcriptions before emerging in its present form.

However, the same rhetorical strategies produce different effects in James's story because they are employed within a genre which carries different expectations. The use of a fictional genre, specifically that of a ghost story to present the governess' case, must qualify any claims concerning its authenticity; after all, the case put before us in The Turn of the Screw is the account, not of an established physician and scientific researcher, but of a nameless governess, a woman, now dead, who, during some early portion of her long, anonymous life, claimed to have encountered ghosts. Moreover, the narrator who opens the story is clearly of questionable reliability. If, like Freud in his preface, James's narrator exhibits a scrupulous attitude toward method, taking pains to explain how the manuscript we are about to read has been passed on and transcribed, his credibility is explicitly undermined by the suggestion of intimacy which colors his relationship to the storyteller Douglas and by the suggestion that Douglas himself was in love with the governess whose story he tells; finally, the governess herself, we are told, was in love with her employer—the “gallant” bachelor of Harley Street, who is responsible for setting the events of the story in motion. The presence of such emotional involvement at all three levels of storytelling discredits any pretense at objectivity. Furthermore, the audience for the story hardly seems a fitting one for an objective narrative. Though the narrator tells us that what we are about to read was originally told to a “compact and select” audience, we have already learned that this audience consists of an assembly of hangers-on during a Christmas holiday at a country house, a group who in the evening revel in the “common thrill” of telling each other ghost stories; thus, we know that the “compact and select” audience is, in fact, a rather motley assembly of thrill-seekers.9 Freud condemns just such an audience (“those reading for their private delectation”) in an attempt to control the use to which his case history will be put. James appears to be denying the possibility of such control. He uses the language of objectivity and exclusivity but encourages us to see the ironic and contradictory meanings which this language can incorporate.

But it is in the character of the governess in The Turn of the Screw that the interplay of explicit and implicit—manifest and latent—meaning, which informs the story on so many levels, is focused and intensified. Quite the opposite of the strong-minded, idiosyncratic Dora, James's governess seems at first to be the prototype of the cardboard heroine—a woman with no individual life at all: no name, no past history, no unusual or noteworthy desires or goals. As a governess, she also occupies a situation which exaggerates her status as a female stereotype: she is made responsible for a large house, assigned the care of two small children (a boy and a girl) and bid to perform her tasks in the absence of any male companionship, yet by the will of an invisible male authority. But the irony which James reveals to us is that the role, designed to subdue and subordinate women, ultimately ends by doing the opposite: the governess, the presumed source of domestic order, wreaks havoc in the domestic space and ends by driving one child from the house and destroying the other. This paradox forces us to reevaluate the female role to which the governess so exaggeratedly conforms and see it as the potential breeding ground for a “pathological” imagination—an imagination which arises in order to fulfill the expectations created by the role and to fulfill needs which the role denies. “I dare say I fancied myself in short a remarkable young woman and took comfort in the faith that this would more publicly appear” (p. 19), the governess recalls about her feelings on first arriving at Bly. The statement seems pathetically at odds with our awareness that this is a quite unremarkable young woman, altogether cut off from any contact with a larger, “public” world, yet it is also prophetic, given the extraordinary events with which this woman will become involved. The governess is, then, both deluded and inspired and, with this in mind, her mental condition can be explained in a context which incorporates both sides of the critical controversy which surrounds it. It no longer seems a matter of deciding whether she has either gone mad or has really encountered ghosts, but of accepting the possibility that both situations may be true.10 For James's story connects the governess' mental illness with a social reality likely to foster it and shows us that, though his protagonist may be insane, the world she inhabits is also metaphorically haunted—a world which must drive its women insane. What the governess “sees” in her ghostly encounter, I would argue, is the “reality” of male sexuality as threatening rather than seductive. Her romantic daydream about her bachelor employer turns into a nightmare—only a nightmare with the force of truth: “what arrested me on the spot … was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real. He did stand there! [but] … the shock … was a violent perception of the mistake … the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed” (pp. 19–20). This replacement of an imagined, romantic object with its more vivid, horrifying counterpart suggests a literalized passage from the conscious into the unconscious (“I opened the door to find again, in a flash, my eyes unsealed. In the presence of what I saw I reeled straight back upon resistance” [p. 69])—as well as a journey from a superficial, delusionary belief in the myths of culture to an understanding of what stands behind these myths. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel can be called, among other things, expressions of the governess' unconscious knowledge of the destructive dynamic of male domination and female submission. Of Quint, she writes: “… there was a touch of the strange freedom, as I remember, in the sign of familiarity of his wearing no hat—[he] seemed to fix me, from his position, with just the question, just the scrutiny through the fading light, that his own presence provoked. … some challenge between us, breaking the hush, would have been the right result of our straight mutual stare” (p. 21). Here, as in each of their future meetings, the governess and the hatless “familiar” Quint, who had once been “in charge” at Bly, engage in a tacit power struggle. In the encounters with Miss Jessel, however, the mood is different. Entering the schoolroom one day when the children are at church, the governess again drifts into a romantic daydream, this time of “some housemaid who … had applied herself to the considerable effort of a letter to her sweetheart,” only to see this fantasy materialize into the image, “dishonoured and tragic,” of her “vile predecessor”:

There was an effort in the way that, while her arms rested on the table, her hands, with evident weariness, supported her head; but at the moment I took this in I had already become aware that, in spite of my entrance, her attitude strangely persisted. Then it was—with the very act of its announcing itself—that her identity flared up in a change of posture. She rose, not as if she had heard me, but with an indescribable grand melancholy of indifference and detachment, and within a dozen feet of me, stood there as my vile predecessor. Dishonoured and tragic, she was all before me; but even as I fixed and, for memory, secured it, the awful image passed away.

(p. 69)

If Quint must be overcome outside of her, Miss Jessel must be overcome within. Through his rendering of the governess's confrontation with these ghosts (the dark side of her romantic fictions), James traces the emergence of his character's opposition to the established power relations of her culture, and his story becomes both an individual portrait and a social critique.

Moreover, James allows the governess to exist as an individual even as he delineates her as a type because he allows himself to identify with her through the use of first-person narration. Her account has persuasive power because the author, at least temporarily, embraces it. And since the governess's case is both that of the mad-woman and that of the stereotypical female, James's identification with her becomes a giving up of the safety and seeming sanity of male identification for the solitude and risk of insanity of female identification.

Freud too can be said to be interested in Dora both as an individual (the subject of the analysis) and as a type (the vehicle for the “elucidation of the commonest cases [of hysteria] and of their most frequent and typical symptoms” [p. 39]). But where James's method of storytelling requires that he present his character's experiences from her point of view, Freud's third-person “telling” of Dora's case permits him to exclude her point of view. This exclusion of Dora's viewpoint seems to be ultimately linked to a conspicuous omission in the case history: Freud's failure to deal with the role of Dora's mother. “I never made her mother's acquaintance,” he notes dismissively. “From the accounts given me by the girl and her father I was led to imagine her as an uncultivated woman and above all … a foolish one, who had concentrated all her interest upon domestic affairs” (p. 34).11 If, as Freud claims, Dora has reactivated her Oedipal love for her father in order to mask her love for Herr K., doesn't it follow that her love for Herr K. masks what Freud acknowledges to be a still more repressed love for Frau K., and that this, in turn, ultimately disguises the most basic and most repressed of all loves—Dora's pre-Oedipal love for her mother? Freud refuses to make these connections and, instead, all but banishes the mother from the case history. However, the two governesses who figure briefly but resonantly in Dora's story (one is Dora's former governess, the other the K.'s former governess) assume behavioral characteristics which would ordinarily be associated with the mother: both have been in love with the master of the house (Dora's father and Herr K. respectively), both achieve an intense (if short-lived) intimacy with Dora, and both provide Dora with knowledge of sexual matters. These women, I would argue, are the visible traces of the mother in the analysis. Subjects of exploitation and substitution, they perform the mother's role as translated into the economic structure of the culture; they are the professional embodiments of woman as self-less. As such, they can be read as markers for the existence of repression in the case history—not Freud's repression only but that of the culture (what some scholars have gone so far as to call “the manifestation in him of a perversion—the repression of the mother—which lies at the root of western civilization itself”12). Indeed, the genre of case history and of scientific discourse in general is designed to enforce this repression: by prescribing that the investigator occupy a position of detachment from the subject of investigation, it excludes the female point of view while allowing for an unconscious identification with and projection of the male point of view. James's fictional genre, in contrast, by permitting the shape of the story to be more ambiguously defined, allows the author to embrace his subject's point of view and evade repression far more effectively. Abandoning the male persona of the child Miles (the embodiment of potential privilege and patriarchal power), James lets that part of himself be seduced and subdued by that which has been repressed—that other part of himself which identifies with and wishes to be reunited with the mother. If this can be read as a regressive wish, it is also a revolutionary act, for it allows the woman to surface in a male story.


Finally, this discussion leads us to consider the nature of truth as it relates to the two texts and, more generally, to the two genres being examined.

We know that Freud self-consciously pursued truth, for he saw this as the goal of science and he thought of himself first and foremost as a scientist.13 Because science involves a detachment from the subject of inquiry as a basis for its method, Freud, in writing the case history, places himself outside the “madness” of Dora and excludes her point of view. Were she to intrude—were her point of view to be taken into account—meaning would be split beyond the possibility of a coherently articulated analysis. Yet in excluding the female point of view, Freud cannot avoid imposing the male point of view—his own and that of his culture—upon Dora's experiences; thus he operates out of what Jacques Derrida has termed “blindness”14—the blindness which comes of repressing something in order to bring coherence to subject-matter that Freud so much wants to be considered as science. In this context, his “revolutionary” theories become mere continuations of a tradition of established repression; both his scientific method and his basic premise of measuring normality against social norms make him the tool of the system which he so scandalized. This view finds reinforcement in the theories of Michel Foucault which maintain that the opening up of sexual discourse by Freud was merely an elaboration of the expanding network of power that had been set in motion with the taboo on sexuality in previous centuries.15 The new discourse merely made these lines of power more firmly entrenched.

Nonetheless, Freud's “science” also points the way to what has been left out. The case history, in its insistence upon scientific method, both “betrays and conceals” its own limitations. As has been shown, the very gaps in the case history are revealing, and with their help it becomes possible to find material elsewhere that fills in for what is missing (ironically, this is similar to what Freud does in the writing of Dora's case history16). Thus, fragments of the repressed mother return in the form of the governesses. Finally, it would be unfair not to credit Freud himself with some awareness of the limitations of this method. All of his works, and the Dora case is no exception, are sprinkled with qualifiers and apologies. However, I would argue that these statements, whose manifest content expresses anxiety concerning what may have been left out of the analysis, contain a latent content of anxiety concerning what may have gained admission despite the efforts of Freud's intellectual, conscious censor.

Thus far we have concentrated on James's story as a counterpoint to Freud's insofar as James offers a corrective for the Freudian (i.e., patriarchal) point of view through his ability to identify with the governess. We can now see how the governess in James's story actually mirrors Freud's point of view by pursuing truth from the other side (a “180 degree turn of the screw” of perception). For when James allows the unconscious (the identification with the female which has been repressed) to express itself consciously, he shows that it recreates the world in its own image. Just as Freud diagnoses madness in Dora, the governess diagnoses madness in the children, and her method of proving her thesis is equivalent in structure to Freud's scientific method.17 It is no wonder, then, that critics of the story have divided themselves, mirror-wise, into two camps: the Freudians and the anti-Freudians. The divisions could be more properly defined as patriarchal and matriarchal. Those who, with Edmund Wilson, “diagnose” the governess simply as mad as a result of sexual repression would fall into the patriarchal camp. They read the governess as Freud reads Dora—as a collection of symptoms—and hence exclude her point of view. The matriarchal reading, in contrast, would posit the governess' point of view as a salutary reversal of patriarchal interpretation—as the rightful if violent return of the repressed in the assertion of the female perspective. Both camps have their “ghosts.” For the patriarchal readers, the “ghosts” are the governess and those like her insofar as they are the traces of the unconscious (the excluded) in patriarchal culture.18 For the matriarchal readers, they are Freud and Victorian society itself, which cast their shadow upon the female struggle for freedom and self-assertion. In both cases, the “ghosts” are what the reader would like to banish; they are the omissions and silences which are most present where meaning is most logical and reassuring—in short, most scientific. Freud's text, ironically, is the more ghost-ridden though it has no explicit ghosts in it, while James appears to be struggling to fill the gaps that meaning imposes, or at least to be pointing to where the gaps must inevitably reside. Quint and Miss Jessel are not comfortable apparitions whom we can easily explain away as the result either of the mental imbalance of the governess or of the supernatural events proper to the genre of ghost story. Instead, they straddle the two worlds of interpretive possibility and leave the reader without a stable frame of reference. In The Turn of the Screw, any attempt at consistent reading inevitably breaks down under analysis and forces us to take into account what has been left out. In another short novel written during the same period, James introduces ghosts in a more metaphorical way, when he has his heroine speak fondly of a place where she experiences “the impression of something dreamed and missed, something reduced, relinquished, resigned: the poetry, as it were, of something sensibly gone. …” The place, declares the heroine, has “ghosts.”19

It is this acknowledgement of ghosts that makes it possible for James to relay a truth in his fiction that incorporates, but goes beyond, scientific truth. James's story contains the scientific attitude towards truth (in the governess's point of view as well as in the point of view of her potential critics), but it also exposes such truth as limited.20 If, through the governess, James allows the unconscious to surface, he also shows us that, in the act of letting the repressed speak, something must be repressed in its turn: the boy's point of view must be murdered.21 It is indeed ironic that James, who has been labeled stuffily Victorian in his failure to deal explicitly with sexuality in his fiction, seems more capable than Freud of counteracting and exposing the limited truths which are based on repression.


  1. Oscar Cargill in “The Turn of the Screw and Alice James” (PMLA, 78 [1963], 238–49) also compares James's Turn of the Screw with a specific Freudian case history when he argues that the “germ” of James's story is Freud's “The Case of Lucy R.” published in 1895 in Freud and Josef Breuer's Studies on Hysteria. Unlike Cargill, however, my interest is not in tracing influence but in comparing the methodology of James and Freud in their treatment of similar subject matter and in analyzing the “truths” which emerge from these respective treatments. The Dora case, though written after The Turn of the Screw, seems to lend itself especially well to such a comparison.

  2. The observation that Freud's case history employed many of the techniques of the fiction writer seems to have first been put forward by Steven Marcus in his 1954 essay, “Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History,” rpt. in Representations: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Random House, 1975). This has been a popular critical position ever since.

  3. A particularly interesting variation on the concept of applying Freud's methods of analysis to his own text is Madelon Sprengnether's “Enforcing Oedipus: Freud and Dora,” (The (M)other Tongue, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane and Madelon Sprengnether [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985], pp. 51–71) which considers “the ways in which Freud's narrative style may be viewed as symptomatic or hysterical” (p. 52).

  4. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier Books, 1969), p. 23. Future references will be from this edition and page numbers will be given in the text.

  5. “According to a rule which I had found confirmed over and over again by experience … a symptom signifies the representation—the realization—of a phantasy with a sexual content, that is to say, it signifies a sexual situation” (Dora, p. 63).

  6. Sprengnether offers a fascinating interpretation of Freud's projection of his own Oedipal fantasy onto this material to disguise Dora's pre-Oedipal fantasy.

  7. Lorna Duffin (“The Conspicuous Consumptive: Woman as Invalid,” in The Nineteenth Century Woman: Her Cultural and Physical World, ed. Sara Delamont and Lorna Duffin [N.Y.: Barnes and Noble, 1978], pp. 27–30) has noted that, during the Victorian period, frailty and sickliness had become part of the middle class stereotype of femininity, serving as the conspicuous symbols of social position and affluence.

  8. It is worth noting here that, in this rejection by Dora, Freud comes closest to the female position. Jane Gallop makes a similar point in The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982). Also, in his initial failure at being accepted by the scientific/medical community (i.e., in being perceived to operate under false or fantastic assumptions) he can be said to occupy the female position in relation to a male establishment. Neil Hertz (“Dora's Secrets, Freud's Techniques,” Diacritics, 13, 1 [Spring 1983], 65–76) argues along these lines when he maintains that Freud resembled the female hysteric in the creative development of his theories (which were at first condemned by the medical establishment), but then re-asserted his male authority with the deploying of the clinical techniques which served eventually to give shape to his ideas and win him acceptance into the fold. In the case of Dora, Freud can be said to have experienced an initial failure when Dora broke off treatment before the analysis was completed, and then to have recouped that failure in his writing of the case history. It seems significant that, during the period of the Dora analysis, Freud was suffering a low point in his reputation, but that the publication of the case history in 1905 (four years after it was written) coincided with a marked rise in his reputation.

  9. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1981), p. 6. Future references will be from this edition and page numbers will be given in the text.

  10. The controversy dates from Edmund Wilson's famous essay, “The Ambiguity of Henry James” (The Triple Thinkers [New York: Penguin Books, 1962]), a Freudian reading of the story which argued that the governess was suffering from hysterical symptoms as a result of sexual repression. Since Wilson's reading, critics have tended to align themselves on one or the other side: they read the story either as a ghost story (i.e., they take the governess's word that the ghosts exist) or as a Freudian case history (i.e., they “diagnose” the governess as mad and correct for the distortions in her reading). I believe that the story is not meant to be read in such “either/or” terms.

  11. Freud, Dora and Dora's father can be said to “dismiss” the mother from their consideration much as one would dismiss a governess. Freud also connects his own dismissal by Dora with the dismissal of a governess when he records how Dora gave him a fortnight's notice before terminating the analysis. He then reports his response: “That sounds like a maidservant or a governess—a fortnight's warning” (p. 127). This comment leads to discussion of the K.'s governess whom Dora had not mentioned before. Jane Gallop offers an interesting discussion of the symbolic role of the governess in the analysis and of Freud and Dora's unwillingness to identify with her.

  12. Jerry Collins, J. Ray Green, Mary Lydon, Mark Sachner and Eleanor Honig Skoller in “Questioning the Unconscious: The Dora Archive,” Diacritics, 13, 1 (Spring 1983), 41.

  13. In his excellent biography, Freud and His Followers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), Paul Roazen stresses Freud's view of himself as a scientist and his tendency to emphasize scientific over therapeutic results. Freud likened analysis to a surgical operation, arguing that it had attained the “certainty and delicacy” of surgery and demanded the same “emotional coldness” (Quoted in Roazen, p. 133).

  14. See Derrida's discussion of Rousseau, “From/Of Blindness to the Supplement” in Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 144–152. Roazen quotes from a letter in which Freud admits that he had to “blind” himself “artificially in order to focus all the light on one dark spot …” (p. 189).

  15. The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980).

  16. Admittedly, my “corrective” reading of Freud's text (and, for that matter, any reading insofar as it employs standard methods of analysis) must also, to some extent, be a repressive reading.

  17. “I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him” (Turn of the Screw, p. 103). Shoshana Felman in her Lacanian reading of The Turn of the Screw (“Turning the Screw of Interpretation, Yale French Studies, 55/56 [1977]) asserts that it is “the governess's very ‘science’ which seems to kill the child” (p. 163), for “[t]he comprehension … of the meaning the Other is presumed to know, which constitutes the ultimate aim of any act of reading, is thus conceived as a violent gesture of appropriation, a gesture of domination of the Other” (p. 164). Felman argues, moreover, that the Freudians “comprehend” Freud in the same way that the governess “comprehends” the children. I would only argue that it was Freud who taught his followers to comprehend him as they do. His “talking cure,” after all, is about the giving of form and meaning to what has been unexpressed and incoherent (making the “unconscious conscious”) and its “science” involves a technique of reading and implies a necessary power relation between analyst and patient.

  18. Freud's analysis of the bisexual meaning of a symptom appears to be relevant here: “the patient finds an easy way of evading analysis of one sexual meaning by diverting his associations constantly to the opposite meaning, as if along a parallel line” (“Hysterical Phantasies and Their Relation to Bisexuality” in Dora, p. 152).

  19. The Spoils of Poynton (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 196.

  20. See René Girard's “Narcissism: The Freudian Myth Demythified by Proust” in Psychoanalysis, Creativity and Literature: A French-American Inquiry, ed. Alan Roland (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1978). Girard demonstrates that Freud's analysis of narcissism is more limited than Proust's rendering of the condition through his characters' behavior in Remembrance of Things Past. Girard concludes by proposing, “for a change, a Proustian reading of Freud” (p. 309), much as I have suggested a Jamesian reading.

  21. “They are in my ears still, his supreme surrender of the name and his tribute to my devotion. … I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped” (Turn of the Screw, p. 103).

Robert Emmet Whelan (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9812

SOURCE: “Ordinary Human Virtue: the Key to The Turn of the Screw,” in Renascence, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1988, p. 247–67.

[In the following essay, Whelan explores the governess's profound moral and spiritual crisis, maintaining that the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel mirror the evil tendencies within the children and the governess.]

“My hovering prowling presences, my pair of abnormal agents,” with their “dire duty of causing the situation to reek with the air of Evil,” is how Henry James describes the roles of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. There is no doubt that James intends to “bring the bad dead back to life for a second round of badness,” and wishes to make these evil ones, “the haunting pair, capable … of everything—that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims so conditioned might be conceived as subject to” (xxi). In any event, these corrupting agents, these damned souls, wish to lure the children to join them in Hell. What has been generally overlooked by the critics is that these “demon-spirits” (xxi) also wish to bring about the damnation of the governess. Flora, Miles and the governess—all three—must choose between Heaven and Hell; but it is the governess's trial and her choice that grant substance and weight to the similar trials and choices faced by the children. It must also be noted that, however malevolent and maleficent Peter Quint and Miss Jessel may be in themselves, they at the same time serve admirably to mirror the evil tendencies at work within the children and their governess.

Unfortunately the governess brings to Bly as her constant companion the unregenerate self that Peter Quint, Miss Jessel and the children will exploit in their attempt to lead the governess away from the clear duties of her office. At any rate, real as the wicked specters of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are (and they are as real as Flora and Miles), the problem confronting the vicar's daughter at Bly differs not a jot from that of any other Christian governess who believes that man's “adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Pet. 5.8). As a matter of spiritual good sense, the governess must learn to be detached in large measure from her mysterious visitants—detached enough to prevent the strangeness of her position from blurring her moral vision. Since much of the story does indeed do little more than depict the governess's growth in spiritual illumination, James is right in differing with the reader who complained that James “hadn't sufficiently ‘characterized’ [his] young woman engaged in her labyrinth; hadn't endowed her with signs and marks, features and humours, hadn't in a word invited her to deal with her own mystery as well as that of Peter Quint, Miss Jessel and the hapless children” (xviii). To James's mind this reader was “capable evidently, for the time, of some attention, but not quite capable of enough” (xviii) to discover that the governess deals so successfully with “her relation to her own nature” as later to be “able to make her particular credible statement” (xix) of her strange adventure at Bly. In this record she “has ‘authority’” (xix), an authority flowing from the wisdom and integrity she finally achieves through self-conquest.

Upon her arrival at Bly, however, this “fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage” (153) has neither clarity of mind nor serenity of soul. ‘[Y]oung, untried, nervous,’ she faces a grim prospect: ‘a vision of serious duties and little company, of really great loneliness’ (155). Since the governess from the very first realizes that the headmaster's failure to go into particulars about Miles's behavior at school can only mean that Miles was ‘an injury to the others’ (166), she is far from virtuous when she (1) fails to inform the uncle of Miles's dismissal from school, (2) fails to ask Miles the reasons for his expulsion, (3) fails to ask Mrs. Grose about Miles's past behavior, and (4) fails later on to confront the children with her knowledge of their evil communion with Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. With time the governess does in fact perform all these neglected duties, thereby giving turn after turn to what she herself calls “the screw of ordinary human virtue” (295).

Diverted at first, however, from her obvious duties by her love for the “‘the splendid young man’” (155) who is the children's uncle, as well as by her love for the beautiful and angelically behaved Miles and Flora, the governess becomes for a time the unconscious prey of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. By thus avoiding the “grey prose of [her] office” (181)—by, for example, permitting deep obscurity “to cover the region of the boy's conduct at school” (181–82)—she makes her work seem “all the romance of the nursery and the poetry of the schoolroom” (181). Because Miles never speaks of his school, never mentions a comrade or master; and because the governess is ready to accuse the headmaster of vindictively resenting the boy's “superiorities of quality” (182); and because she, out of blind devotion to Miles, is “quite too disgusted to allude” (183) either to masters or comrades, our young lady perversely infers that her inability to reconstitute definite misbehavior on Miles's part establishes the boy as angelically innocent. Like many doting parents she in short thinks that Miles, having been “only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, … had paid a price for it” (182). In thus refusing “to reduce [their] situation to the last rigor of its elements” (193), she is able to face the “mystery [of the boy's expulsion] without a pang” (182). Of such blameworthy behavior on her part she self-accusingly writes, “I was lifted aloft on a great wave of infatuation and pity. I found it simple, in my ignorance, my confusion and perhaps my conceit, to assume that I could deal with a boy whose education for the world was all on the point of beginning … The best way to picture it all is to say that I was off my guard” (173).

Off her guard she doubtless remains when she somewhat violently resists the certitude granted her by her first vision of Miss Jessel on the other side of the lake—resists in a word the knowledge that “the inconceivable communion” she then surprises between Flora and Miss Jessel “must have been for both parties a matter of habit” (211). The governess's conviction that Flora has seen Miss Jessel across the lake is really of the same order as that enjoyed by parents in the presence of children hiding some misdeed behind a cloud either of unbelievably angelic behavior or of diversionary activity. When at this time the governess waits “for what a cry from [Flora], what some sudden innocent sign either of interest or of alarm” (202) occasioned by their visitor, will tell her, she hears and sees nothing of the sort. She is nevertheless assured of Flora's awareness of Miss Jessel in the first place “by a sense that within a minute all spontaneous sounds from [Flora have] dropped; and in the second by the circumstance that also within the minute she [has], in her play, turned her back to the water” (202). In this way Flora's double life bursts upon the governess's consciousness; and to this insight, for the children's sake and for her own moral ease, she must be loyal. But such loyalty is not to her liking. In the hope of shaking her certitude about Flora's having seen Miss Jessel, but with the sole effect of establishing more firmly the fact of Flora's hidden life, the governess, in the small hours with Mrs. Grose, needs “to recapitulate the portentous little activities by which [Flora] sought to divert [her] attention—the perceptible increase of movement, the greater intensity of play, the singing, the gabbling of nonsense of the invitation to romp” (211).

During this late night talk Mrs. Grose goes all the way with the governess, “all to its being beyond doubt” (209) that the latter has seen exactly what she claims. To keep Mrs. Grose in the grip of this awesome truth the governess has at this time only to ask how, if she has “made it up,” she comes “to be able to give, of each of the persons appearing to [her], a picture disclosing, to the last detail, their special marks” (209). Despite their oneness on Miss Jessel's wicked presence both Mrs. Grose and the governess for the present lack the resolution to sound the “depths and possibilities” (209) of the matter—the possibility, that is, of deep damnation for the children. Knowing from her vision that Miss Jessel is “a horror of horrors”—knowledge fully confirmed by the trustworthy housekeeper's earlier experience—the governess desperately clutches at Mrs. Grose's tenuous suggestion that Flora may yet be perfectly innocent in spite of Miss Jessel's determination to get hold of her. Wishing to look upon her new suspicions of Miles and Flora as unwarranted and criminal cynicism, the governess prefers to “abjure [her] judgement and, so far as might be, [her] agitation” rather than “gaze into the depths of blue of [Flora's] eyes and pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning” (210). With the children's “voices in the air, their pressure on [her] heart and their fragrant faces against [her] cheek,” everything falls to the ground for the governess “but their incapacity and their beauty” (210). At all events she represses with some success her recently gained knowledge of the children's habitual guilty communion with the Evil Dead.

Just after Quint's first appearance at the dining-room window the governess has it from Mrs. Grose that Quint ‘was definitely … bad’ (196), and that he had been too free with Miles. Even at the time of this confession, however, she senses that Mrs. Grose has not told her all. Consequently, under the further shock of Miss Jessel's first appearance at the lake, she insists that ‘the time has certainly come [for Mrs. Grose] to give [her] the whole thing’ (207). What then comes to light is that Quint and Miss Jessel had been lovers, and that, upon becoming obviously with child, Miss Jessel had left Bly, only to die soon after of what both Mrs. Grose and the governess imagine to be something dreadful—possibly abortion or suicide. All this new evidence opposes the governess's strong desire to believe in the children's still unblemished innocence, and tends rather to support her unwilling belief in their evil intimacy with Quint and Miss Jessel. Prompted thus by her desperation of mind to find reasons for looking upon her certitude as a delusion, the governess invokes “such further aid to intelligence as might spring from pushing [her] colleague fairly to the wall” (211). Notwithstanding Mrs. Grose's having told her, “bit by bit, under pressure, a great deal,” the governess is intuitively aware of “a small shifty spot on the wrong side of it all still sometimes [brushing her] brow like the wing of a bat” (211). Feeling “the importance of giving the last jerk to the curtain” (212), she asks Mrs. Grose directly, ‘What was it you had in mind when, in our distress, before Miles came back, over the letter from his school, you said, under my insistence, that you didn't pretend for him he hadn't literally ever been “bad”?’ (212).

Mrs. Grose's answer fortunately makes it no longer possible for the governess to look upon Miles, ‘imperturbable little prodigy of delightful loveable goodness’ (212) though he has been, as a creature of still undefiled innocence. What the housekeeper has been keeping back is “neither more nor less than the particular fact that for a period of several months Quint and the boy had been perpetually together” (212). Mrs. Grose also reveals that, upon her having ventured “to criticise the propriety, to hint at the incongruity, of so close an alliance” (212) with Quint, Miles lied about certain occasions when ‘they had been about together quite as if Quint were his tutor—and a very grand one—and Miss Jessel only for the little lady’ (213). Moreover, upon Mrs. Grose's having remonstrated with him for his friendship with “a base menial” (215), Miles insolently said she was another. Mrs. Grose further admits (under the governess's prompting) that there was ‘something in the boy that suggested to [her] … his covering and concealing’ (214) the sordid relations between Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. At all events, that the boy should have been so exclusively in the company of a man like Quint, and Flora alone with a woman like Miss Jessel—this with all it implies suits “exactly the particularly deadly view” our governess is “in the very act of forbidding [herself] to entertain” (215)—suits, unfortunately for her peace of mind, the view that the children are hiding from her the corrupting communion they still carry on with Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. “[C]hecking the expression of this view” (215) to Mrs. Grose the governess limits herself to this observation about Miles: ‘His having lied and been impudent are, I confess, less engaging specimens than I had hoped to have from you of the outbreak in him of the little natural man. Still, … they must do, for they make me feel more than ever that I must watch’ (215).

Though from this time the governess can no longer persuade herself that Miles and Flora are “like those cherubs of the anecdote who had—morally at any rate—nothing to whack!” (182); and though Mrs. Grose's revelations should indeed dispel the last shadow of an excuse the governess might have for believing Miles incapable of behavior meriting his expulsion from school, the governess weakly escapes from her predicament by declaring that ‘until further evidence,’ she does not accuse Miles of ‘carrying on an intercourse that he conceals from [her]’ (216). So, instead of now bringing to a seasonable end her unconscionable delay in informing the uncle of the headmaster's letter, she persists in her delusion about where her duty lies, and lets ‘I must wait’ (216) close her nocturnal interview with Mrs. Grose. More watching and waiting on our young lady's part, however, only make her more akin to Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, who now properly mark the governess's growing guilt by appearing to her for the first time within the house.

“Stranger than I can express, certainly, was the effort to struggle against my new lights” (217), is the way she later expresses her wonder at her attempt to escape from her disturbing conviction about the children's secret relations with Quint and Jessel. In any event, her horrible certainties have for her the profitless effect of making the children “immensely more interesting” (217). Since at this time she also perversely promotes in herself the surrender to the “extraordinary childish grace” (217) of Miles and Flora, “the real account … of the hours of peace” she can still enjoy is that “the immediate charm of [her] companions [is] a beguilement still effective even under the shadow of the possibility that it [is] studied” (218). She nevertheless wonders how her little charges can help guessing that she thinks “strange things about them” (217). It even occurs to the governess that she may now and then excite suspicion in her charges by “the little outbreaks of [her] sharper passion for them” (218)—sharper because of the clouding of their innocence occasioned by Miss Jessel's recent appearance at the lake. She further asks herself if she “mightn't see a queerness in the traceable increase of [the children's] own demonstrations” (218). Yet, in spite of looking with cynical eye upon the extravagant and preternatural fondness the children show for her, she allows the remarkable flights of their facility for learning, especially the boy's “perpetually striking show of cleverness” (219), to lull her into an “unnatural composure on the subject of another school for Miles” (219).

Under everything, however, lies an impression she does not dare work out, that Miles is “under some influence operating in his small intellectual life as a tremendous incitement” (219). In addition she comes across “traces of little understandings” (220) between the children by which one of them shall keep her occupied while the other slips away. There not unexpectedly comes an hour after which this business—the sustained dissimulation of both the governess and the children—is for James's heroine “all pure suffering” (220). What marks her having reached the heart of that suffering is her third encounter with Quint as he stands on the landing halfway up the staircase. That Quint is “absolutely, on this occasion, a living detestable dangerous presence” (222) suggests with allegorical point that the governess, by remissly watching and waiting, has herself become a dangerous presence to the children. Moreover, that at this moment Quint knows the governess as well as she knows him underscores at least Quint's exploitation of the governess's perverse loyalty to her promise not to bother the children's uncle.

Upon returning to her room after Quint's disappearance from the stairs, and upon then finding Flora out of bed and at the window, she meets in Flora's ‘You naughty: where have you been?’ (224) the very reproach she should long before have addressed to both Flora and Miles. As a result the governess finds herself “arraigned and explaining” instead of “challenging [Flora's] own irregularity” (224). She is, however, preparing for such a challenge when a moment later Flora denies having seen anyone walking on the grounds. “Why not,” the governess then thinks, “break out at her on the spot and have it all over?—give it to her straight in her lovely little lighted face? ‘You see [Miss Jessel and Quint], you see, you know that you do and that you already quite suspect I believe it; therefore why not frankly confess it to me, so that we may at least live with it together and learn perhaps, in the strangeness of our fate, where we are and what it means?’” (225–26).

Because she does not break out with these words, it is allegorically fitting that, while on subsequent nights protectively patrolling the passage outside her room and Miles's, she should look down on one occasion from the top of the staircase and recognize Miss Jessel seated on one of the lower steps, “her body half-bowed and her head, in an attitude of woe, in her hands” (227). Miss Jessel here mirrors both the evil within the governess and the suffering that must be hers so long as she neglects her obvious duties. In any case, as long as the governess fails to appeal to the uncle for help, she, like Quint and Miss Jessel, evilly haunts the lives of her young charges.

The temptation to confront the children with her knowledge of their double lives nevertheless continues strong within the governess. Having found Flora for the second time out of bed and at the window, the governess, while on her way to a room looking down on what Flora sees, is tempted to go straight into Miles's room and march to his window, thereby risking a revelation to Miles of her desire to see Miss Jessel, whom she wrongly supposes to be in the garden below. This impulse she resists; but, having a moment later discovered Miles looking up from the moonlit grounds at what she assumes to be Quint atop the old tower, she descends and, upon returning the boy to his room, insists he tell her why he went out of the house. Miles's answer, that he went out to make her think him bad, is edged with irony in that he knows she suspects the evil duplicity of his habitual behavior. At any rate the discovery of Miles on the grounds and the governess's subsequent talk with him in his room convince her more than ever that the four—Quint, Miss Jessel, Flora and Miles—‘perpetually meet’ (236). Indeed, when on the next day she and Mrs. Grose sit and look at the children “passing and repassing in their interlocked sweetness” (237), she insists that even while Miles and Flora ‘pretend to be lost in their fairy-tale they're steeped in their vision of the dead restored to them’ (236). What most confirms her in this conviction is the children's ‘systematic silence’ about their former companions—their never having, even ‘by a slip of the tongue, … so much as alluded to either of their old friends, any more than Miles has alluded to his expulsion.’

Fully aware of the apparent madness of her conclusions, the governess nevertheless assures Mrs. Grose that the children's ‘more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness’ is ‘a policy and a fraud’ (237). Miles and Flora, she insists, want to get to Quint and Miss Jessel ‘for the love of all the evil that, in those dreadful days [before the governess's arrival at Bly], the pair put into them.’ What brings Quint and Miss Jessel back, she declares, can be no other than ‘to ply [the children] with that evil still, to keep up the work of demons.’ All these inferences Mrs. Grose accepts as “further proof of what, in the bad time—for there had been a worse even than this!—must have occurred” (238). In any event, “the plain assent of [Mrs. Grose's] experience to whatever depth of depravity” her young companion finds “credible in [their] brace of scoundrels” is the best justification, apart from her visions, the governess has for looking upon the children as cooperating victims of Quint and Miss Jessel. Though rightly concluding that ‘the success of the tempters is only a matter of time’ unless something is done to resist them, the governess benightedly opposes Mrs. Grose's sanely responsible suggestion that the uncle come and take the children away. The excuse the governess gives for not immediately ‘writing to him that his house is poisoned and his little nephew and niece mad’ (239) is that the uncle will be almost certain to find both the poison and the madness within the governess's own heart. The image, so horrible to her fancy, of the uncle's “derision, his amusement, his contempt for the breakdown of [her] resignation at being left alone and for the fine machinery … set in motion to attract his attention to [her] slighted charms” (240)—this image is really an empty bugbear; for the governess does not after all have to invite the uncle's scepticism by reporting her visions of the Evil Dead. Prudence on her part dictates rather that she restrict her report of Miles's dismissal from school and to the evidence of the evil influence Quint and Miss Jessel, before their deaths, had on their charges. Actually the governess's deepest reason for deferring her appeal to the uncle is that she has made ‘her prime undertaking … to give him no worry’ (239). The inadequacy of this motive becomes immediately evident when Mrs. Grose points to the uncle's dislike of worry as the very reason Quint and Miss Jessel took him in for so long. Though at once denying any kinship to these fiends, the governess (her moral vision blurred by her love for the uncle) blindly reasserts her determination to give him no trouble. Proud as she has been and still is “to serve [the uncle] and to stick to … [the] terms” (240) of their agreement, she threatens to leave, on the spot, both the uncle and Mrs. Grose if the latter should appeal to the uncle for help. Under the pressure of this threat, just as earlier when faced with Miss Jessel's scorn, Mrs. Grose avoids her duty of saving the children from their spiritual peril—this time by not informing the uncle of the governess's refusal to deal with the boy's dismissal from school.

During the next month the governess finds her eyes sealed to all further visions of Quint and Miss Jessel. Her inability to see the Evil Ones at a time when she supposedly most wants to see them marks with dramatic irony her own guilty and self-induced moral blindness. Her sensitivity to invisible presences and unspoken nuances persists, however; and does not owe itself to her mind to her “mere infernal imagination” (241). There are times during these dark autumnal weeks when she is ready to swear that “literally, in [her] presence, but with [her] direct sense of it closed” (244), the children have visitors who are known and welcome. What plagues the governess is the cruel idea that, whatever she has seen, Miles and Flora see more—“things terrible and unguessable and that [spring] from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past” (246). Tempted to break out with the cry ‘They're here, they're here, you little wretches, … and you can't deny it now!’ (244), she too readily finds an excuse for not doing so in the chance that the injury of such an outbreak “might prove greater than the injury to be averted” (244). At odd moments, however, her horrible conclusions force the governess to shut herself up “audibly to rehearse … the manner in which [she] might come to the point” (245) of accusing the children of their evil communion with the Others—or, at the very least, to the point of uttering the names of Quint and Miss Jessel. At any rate, “the note above all, sharper and sharper” (241), heard by the governess during this period, is “the small ironic consciousness on the part of [her] pupils”—“the element of the unnamed and untouched” becoming between the children and her “greater than any other.” Forbidden ground for the governess and the children is “the question of the return of the dead in general and of whatever, in especial, might survive, for memory, of friends little children [have] lost” (242). Scrupulously skirting these subjects, the governess does not even indulge “in some direct reference to the lady who … prepared [the children] for [her] discipline.” At all events, what always closes those “prodigious palpable hushes” (245) when the outsiders are there—those pauses of all life having “nothing to do with the more or less noise [all three] at the moment might be engaged in making” (246)—is the precious question that helps them through these perilous moments: ‘When do you think he will come? Don't you think we ought to write?’ (246). Because the governess lets her young friends understand that their letters to him are “but charming literary exercises” (247) never to be posted, there is pointed malice in the children's persistence in plying her with the supposition that the uncle might at any moment be among them. It is exactly as if the children know “how almost more awkward than anything else” (247) the uncle's arrival, with his consequent discovery of Miles's absence from school, would be for the governess. In spite of her extraordinary tension in the face of such triumphal duplicity on the part of her charges, the governess never loses patience with them. Her patience, however, deserves censure for its moral remissness. Far better for the governess in honest exasperation to have accused the children of leading double lives! Before this happens, relief fortunately comes to her in the form of a crisis—“the relief that a snap brings to a strain or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation” (247).

The crisis arrives on a Sunday morning as Miles and she walk side by side to church. By an accident of thought she happens at this moment “to be particularly and very gratefully struck with the obedience of [her] little charges” (248); and she wonders why they “never resent [her] inexorable, [her] perpetual society.” More aware than usual of having “all but pinned the boy to [her] shawl,” she acknowledges at the same time that “Miles's whole title to independence, the rights of his sex and situation, [are] so stamped upon him” as to make it almost impossible for her to object if he should suddenly strike for freedom. While she wonders how she will meet Miles when his “revolution unmistakably occur[s],” Miles opportunely makes his declaration of independence. With his words ‘Look here, my dear, … when in the world, please, am I going back to school?’ (249), “the curtain [rises] on the last act of [the governess's] drama and the catastrophe [is] precipitated.”

Because at first the governess finds nothing to reply, Miles immediately perceives he has gained an advantage. The “something new” (249) between them takes a sharper point when Miles complains about being ‘with a lady always’ then the governess, hinting at his companionship with Miss Jessel, asks, ‘And always with the same lady?’ (250). Though with this question the “whole thing [is] virtually out” between them, Miles again asks, without blench or wink, about his return to school, saying he wants his own sort for companions (Miles's own sort naturally suggesting to the governess not only boys of his own age but also the perverse Peter Quint and Miss Jessel). Failing at this opportune moment to mention the headmaster's letter, the governess seems, as she quickens their step toward the now visible church, to be “running a race with some confusion to which [Miles is] about to reduce her” (251). Miles then asks if his uncle thinks what the governess thinks, if in short he knows the way his nephew is going on—a query that, despite its apparent reference to Miles's long absence from school, also makes his unacknowledged secret life loom large between him and the governess. At any rate, when the governess replies that she does not think the uncle much cares, Miles, to the governess's deep distress, says he will get his uncle to come down to Bly to deal with the important question of school.

Too agitated to follow Miles into the church, the governess, sitting on a low tomb outside, gradually recognizes the full meaning of what Miles just said. To her great discomposure, the governess realizes that Miles, in voicing his desire to return to school, is “immensely in the right, [is] in a position to say to [her]: ‘Either you clear up with my guardian the mystery of this interruption of my studies, or you cease to expect me to lead with you a life that's so unnatural for a boy’ (254–55). What she considers most unnatural for Miles at this time, however, is his “sudden revelation of a consciousness and a plan” (255). Her “pitiful surrender to agitation” (254) before the question of Miles's return to school has made, she realizes, the boy aware of her deepest fear—a fear, she suspects, that the boy will “probably be able to make use of … to gain for his own purpose more freedom” to commune wickedly and uninterruptedly with Quint. To repeat, her fear is “of having to deal with the intolerable question of the grounds of [Miles's] dismissal from school, since that [is] really but the question of the horrors gathered behind”—the horror, for instance, of the wicked ones' “addressing to their younger victims some yet more infernal passage or more vivid image” (246) than they think good enough for the governess.

In the last analysis, that Miles' uncle “should arrive to treat with her of these things [is] a solution that, strictly speaking” (254), the governess ought to desire. Unable “to face the ugliness and pain” (254) of the only sane solution available to her, however, she temporarily surrenders in panic to the impulse “to put an end to [her] ordeal by getting away altogether” (255) from Bly. To betray her charges, fly from her duty, and bring the uncle down to Bly would indeed make the governess strongly akin to her predecessor, the infamous Miss Jessel. No wonder, then, that, tormented with the question of how to escape from the house before the others return from church, the governess suddenly collapses on the lowest step of the staircase—“exactly where, more than a month before, in darkness of night and just so bowed with evil things,” the governess saw “the spectre of the most horrible of women” (256). Thus, here and elsewhere, James allegorically identifies his young heroine's moral remissness with Miss Jessel. Recalling to her dismay the seated figure of the odious Miss Jessel, the governess is “able to straighten” herself (her standing up aptly serving as an emblem of her imminent return to moral rectitude). The immediate consequence of her rise, however, is that she still flees from her conscience as she climbs the rest of the stairs to gather some of her belongings from the schoolroom. Upon opening the door she finds for the third time her “eyes unsealed” to the presence of Miss Jessel. Her inner eye is also unsealed at this moment to the evil within herself: “In the presence of what I saw I reeled straight back on resistance.” Her resistance is not only to Miss Jessel but also to her own cowardly neglect of her responsibilities to Miles and Flora. Just as upon her arrival at Bly the governess is able, in the long mirrors of her room, to see herself from head to foot for the first time, so too in a moral sense does she see herself fully when Miss Jessel, rising from her chair at the governess's table, clearly reveals her identity. Moreover, since a strained and tragic melancholy has characterized the governess as the natural consequence of her guilty indifference to what was behind Miles's expulsion from school, it is allegorically proper that Miss Jessel should rise from the table “with an indescribable grand melancholy of indifference and detachment” (257). When the governess “fixe[s] and, for memory, secure[s]” the awful image of her vile predecessor standing before her, she also sees her own condemning conscience standing before her. Pressing hard on this point, James has Miss Jessel look at the governess “long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at [the governess's] table [is] as good as [the governess's] to sit at hers”—which is but to say that James' young heroine now accepts the sharp actualities of her case, painfully recognizing that, in not making use of the headmaster's letter to bring the uncle to Bly, she has been no more qualified than Miss Jessel to have Miles and Flora in her charge. In wild protest against “the extraordinary chill of a feeling” that it is she, and not Miss Jessel, “who [is] the intruder,” the governess cries out at Miss Jessel, ‘You terrible miserable woman!’—an accusation the governess knows she herself merits for her neglect of duty up to this time. In thus condemning her alter ego—that is, in sensing she must not turn her back on her conscience through flight from Bly—the governess clears the air of Miss Jessel's malevolent presence and is left alone with the sunshine. Here indeed we have the turning point of the story; the minister's daughter clears the air of her soul and brings to her heart the sunshine of a clear conscience. “… I had recovered myself,” she writes, “and cleared the air. There was nothing in the room the next minute but the sunshine and the sense that I must stay.” In any event, the Sunday stillness of the house at this time nicely brings in the supernatural both to underline the governess's moral crisis and to suggest the divine approval of her decision to employ ordinary virtue as her most effective weapon against Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.

From her vision of Miss Jessel with “her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe” (257) the governess learns that Miss Jessel suffers the torments of the damned and wants Flora to share them. In the light of this knowledge she (1) makes up her mind to send for the children's uncle, knowing full well Miles ‘has ideas of what he gains’ (260) so long as fear prevents her calling on the uncle for aid; (2) decides that, after showing the uncle the letter from the headmaster, she will insist she cannot undertake the question of a school for a boy who has been expelled for wickedness—the only possible cause, to her mind, in the case of a boy in every other way admirable; and (3) frankly blames the uncle for having left such people as Quint and Miss Jessel in charge of innocent children.

All this comes to light during the governess's talk with Mrs. Grose on this same fateful Sunday. Dispossessed to a great degree of her own personal devil, and like the man in the Gospel who, his unclean spirit gone out of him, returns to his house to find it “empty, swept, and garnished” (Matt. 12.44), the governess just before tea goes to the housekeeper's room which, “all swept and garnished” (258), serves to symbolize the spiritual order just reestablished within the governess's heart. Her state of soul is not yet shared, however, by the Mrs. Grose she finds sitting “in pained placidity before the fire.” Yet almost at once Mrs. Grose takes a step toward spiritual peace; for just after admitting her guilt in not informing the uncle of the moral unfitness of Quint and Miss Jessel, she voices her decision to ask the bailiff's help in writing immediately to the uncle. The governess, however, not wishing the bailiff to know their whole story, now makes Mrs. Grose and herself morally at one by promising to write the uncle that very night. The moral ascent they take together finds an apt emblem in the housekeeper's room, “a large clean picture of the ‘put-away.’”

Before writing to the uncle that night, the governess, led by her enlightened conscience, takes a candle to visit Miles in his bedroom. The lit candle represents what will be the governess's immediate attempt to dispel the spiritual darkness in which Miles has dwelt for so long. Seeing Miles “as some wistful patient in a children's hospital” (263), and ready to give all she possesses on earth “really to be the nurse or the sister of charity” who might help to cure him, for the first time the governess deals realistically with all that lies behind what Miles calls ‘this queer business of ours.’ She asks at long last about the old school Miles has never mentioned, only to become at once aware of the boy's desire to gain time—of his waiting and calling for guidance from the invisible Quint (264). Deeply touched “to see his little brain puzzled and his little resources taxed to play, under the spell laid on him, a part of innocence and consistency,” she nevertheless keeps him under pressure by saying, ‘You've never mentioned to me one of your masters, one of your comrades, nor the least little thing that ever happened to you at school … Until you came out, that way, this morning, you had since the first hour I saw you scarce made a reference to anything in your previous life.’

Having voiced, in his response to this, his desire to get away from Bly; and having also insisted that his uncle must come down to ‘completely settle things’ (265) with the governess; and having then heard from the governess's own lips of the impossibility of his return to the old school, Miles declares he wants a new school, saying it “with admirable serenity, with positive unimpeachable gaiety” (266). It is this very note that evokes for the governess “the poignancy, the unnatural childish tragedy, of his probable reappearance at the end of three months with all this bravado and still more dishonour.” Still hoping, however, to draw a confession from Miles, the governess asks if he has nothing to tell her. He replies that he wants just to be let alone. When Miles follows this up by rudely telling the governess to finish the letter she has begun to his uncle, she, in the spirit at least of doing all her duty demands of her, does exactly that: she asks Miles what went on at school, and also what went on before that at Bly, questions giving Miles the opportunity to respond effectively to her anguished appeal: ‘I just want you to help me to save you!’ (267). Miles's answer, his refusal to confess, comes instantaneously “in the form of an extraordinary blast and chill, a gust of frozen air and a shake of the room as great as if in the wild wind, the casement had crashed in.” This extraordinary occurrence doubtless points to the corrupting presence of Quint, such a preternatural explanation demanded by the fact of “the drawn curtains unstirred and the window still tight.” The governess's cry ‘Why the candle's out!’ and Miles's ‘It was I who blew it, dear!’ show that, despite the governess's courageous attempt to push Miles fairly to the wall, moral darkness continues to abide in Miles's heart.

The full significance of the extinguished candle unfolds itself the next morning in the schoolroom as the children resume their lives of beautifully sustained duplicity. The governess remembers on the part of her pupils “no more brilliant, more exemplary morning” (268). Never does Miles, “to the uninformed eye all frankness and freedom,” seem to the governess's initiated view “a more ingenious, a more extraordinary little gentleman.” It is, moreover, right after dinner that Miles betrays the dangerous uses he has in mind for the greater freedom he demanded the day before. His performance for the governess on the schoolroom piano seems to her to have been only his ‘infernal’ little way of enabling Flora to hunt out Miss Jessel. Before the governess acts on this assumption and sets out with Mrs. Grose in search of the absent Flora, she escapes from her long period of guilty watching and waiting through a definite act: taking from her pocket her letter to the uncle, written the night before, she puts it on the hall table for posting in the village. Having done all for the moment within her power to combat the evil threatening Miles, she can announce to Mrs. Grose that she does not now so much mind the possibility of Miles' being left alone with Quint while they search the grounds for Flora.

Possessed now of a clear “vision of [her] serious duties” (155), the governess is not going to repeat the sin of omission that was hers at the time of Miss Jessel's first appearance at the lake. The question of dead servants still paying visits to Miles and Flora is no longer closed to discussion. So when, her suspicion confirmed, she finds Flora has rowed to the spot where Miss Jessel first appeared, she is ready to accuse Flora of having come there for the sole purpose of meeting Miss Jessel. What the governess and Flora, in confrontation there, “virtually [say] to each other [is] that pretexts [are] useless now” (277)—“the singular reticence of their communion [being] even more marked in [Flora's] frank look” which says, ‘I'll be hanged … if I'll speak.’ Persisting in her never-broken silence about the Evil Ones, Flora merely asks where Miles is. The governess, at last doing what she has never yet dared, says she will tell where Miles is if Flora will tell where Miss Jessel is. “[T]he quick smitten glare with which the child's face now receive[s]” the sound of Miss Jessel's name makes the governess's breaking of her long-observed silence like “the smash of a pane of glass” (278). Then, as if to justify the governess and show she is “neither cruel nor mad,” Miss Jessel stands before them exactly where on the opposite bank Mrs. Grose and the governess stood moments before. To the governess's cry ‘She's there, she's there!’ Flora, with the same “astounding self-possession” (273) that was hers upon Miss Jessel's first appearance at the lake, pretends again not to see. Flora, with her native wit heightened by Miss Jessel's influence, defends herself, as on the night of Miles's midnight adventure, by arraigning the governess—by turning at her “an expression absolutely new and unprecedented and that [appears] to read and accuse and judge” (279). Refusing to fall back into the hypocritical game she and Flora have played so long, the governess allows her certitude to call out passionately, ‘She's there, you little unhappy thing—there, there, there, and you know it as well as you know me.’ Under the sway of Miss Jessel's malevolent presence, Flora simply shows the governess, “without an expressional concession or admission, a countenance of deeper and deeper, of indeed quite suddenly fixed reprobation.” At this point Flora is “an old, old woman,” having become “hideously hard” with the sudden failure of “her incomparable childish beauty” (281).

Protesting, “with her small mask of disaffection” (281), that she sees nobody; and asking Mrs. Grose to take her away from the governess, “the wretched child,” to the governess's mind, speaks “exactly as if she … [gets] from some outside source each of her stabbing little words” (282). In this way, the child, ‘under her [Miss Jessel's] dictation,’ has seen ‘the easy and perfect way to meet’ the governess's just, though most tardy, interference. Passing, with Mrs. Grose, “a night of extreme unrest, a night agitated above all by fears that [have] for their subject not in the least her former but wholly her present governess” (285), Flora ingeniously and nefariously plays her false role to the end; hypocritically resenting, ‘for all the world like some high little personage, the imputation on her truthfulness and … her respectability.’ It is indeed true that at the lake Mrs. Grose, her own eyes not open to Miss Jessel, understandably tells Flora that, because ‘poor Miss Jessel's dead and buried’ (281), she can't possibly be standing across the way. But when, before dawn of the next day, she reports to the governess about Flora's night, she confesses that both the horrors Flora has spoken about the governess and the appalling language she has used, so like Miss Jessel's, have made her believe more than ever in the children's evil communion with Quint and Miss Jessel. Communion with Miss Jessel, Mrs. Grose admits, has indeed made Flora, ‘every inch of her, quite old’ (285).

Flora now adopts ‘a grand manner’ (286) that testifies to the deepness of her duplicity. Flora has to all appearances a just grievance, by which she will be able to depict the governess to the uncle as ‘the lowest creature’ (286). The governess, who only a month earlier abhorred the sort of figure she would make in the uncle's eye should word of her supposed visions and the children's reach him, now drops that fear in deciding that Mrs. Grose must take Flora to the uncle. She also insists on having Miles stay on at Bly with her for a day or two, believing (as a result of the boy's voluntary visit to her the evening before) that ‘he wants to speak’ (288). Upon then learning from Mrs. Grose about Miles's theft of the letter to the uncle, she declares ‘that what Miles had on his mind last evening was precisely the need of confession’ (292). ‘I'll get it out of him. He'll meet me. He'll confess. If he confesses he's saved. And if he's saved—” are her last words to Mrs. Grose, who completes the governess's thought with ‘Then you are?’ Mrs. Grose's parting words, ‘I'll save you without him!,’ bring these two women “shoulder to shoulder” (291)—make them morally at one. Indeed, when Mrs. Grose tells the uncle of Miles's expulsion and of the evil influence Quint and Miss Jessel had over the children before the governess's arrival, she will be correcting both her own moral remissness and the governess's.

Flora's departure from Bly forces the crisis in Miles's history. Will he deliberately cement his corrupt alliance with Quint, or will he ally himself with the governess? The fact that Miles, on the previous Sunday, has struck for greater freedom creates the proper atmosphere for Miles's choice between Heaven and Hell in the story's final scene; for it is Miles's exercise of free will that brings the tale to an emphatic close. Some light, moreover, can be shed on the last day of Mile's life if we turn to a scene from James's Roderick Hudson. When Roderick declares the will ‘an abyss of abysses and a riddle of riddles,’ and further insists that ‘there's a certain group of circumstances possible for every man, in which his power to choose is destined to snap like a dry twig’ (I, 141), his friend Rowland Mallet rebukes his fatalism with words very much in accord with the general tenor of The Turn of the Screw: ‘My dear man, … don't talk about any part of you that has a grain of character in it being “destined.” The power to choose is destiny. That's the way to look at it’ (I, 141). Full freedom to choose is in fact what the governess grants Miles immediately after her failure to reclaim Flora. Upon her return to the house after her encounter with Miss Jessel and Flora at the lake, she “never so much as look[s] for the boy” (283). Moreover, when later by the schoolroom fire she is “served with tea by the usual maid, [she] indulge[s] … in no enquiry whatever” about him. “He had his freedom now—he might have it to the end!” she writes. Twenty-four hours later Miles himself, in telling the governess about his day away from the house, calls our attention to his freedom: ‘Oh, yes, I've been ever so far, all round about—miles and miles away. I've never been so free’ (299).

The governess also possesses freedom, but she must exercise it in the most straightened of circumstances. Left alone to deal with Miles, she is, to her mind, “face to face with the elements,” and in “a tighter place than [she has] charged with much to do”—charged indeed with the very salvation of Miles's soul. There is the highest degree of propriety in the fact that, on the morning of Flora's departure from Bly, Miles should go for a stroll immediately after breakfast instead of observing “the regular custom of the schoolroom” (294). This choice clearly denotes the boy's “frank view of the abrupt transformation of [the governess's] office,” which has now ceased to be a matter of instruction. What Miles himself will “now permit this office to consist of [is] yet to be settled;” but ultimately he will let her help him to repent. Even before this happens, there is for the governess “a queer relief … in the renouncement of one pretension;” for she recognizes “the absurdity of [their] prolonging the fiction that [she has] anything more to teach him.” At any rate, though aware of her inability “to meet [Miles] on the ground of his true capacity” (294–95) for learning, she sees that she must nevertheless appeal to his fine intelligence “on the ground of his true capacity” for moral reform. “[I]t would be preposterous,” she feels, “with a child so endowed, to forego help one might wrest from absolute intelligence” (296). “What [has] his intelligence,” she asks herself, “been given him for but to save him?” Accordingly, after her last dinner with Miles, the governess appeals to his intelligence—or, more precisely, to his conscience—when she asks what happened to him both at school and at Bly before his departure for school. When she insists that there ‘couldn't be a better place or time’ (301) for him to bring it all out, Miles tries to flee from confession by promising to tell her later everything she wants. ‘You'll stay on with me,’ he prophetically continues, ‘and we shall both be all right, and I will tell you—I will. But not now’ (302). When he then stands before her “with the air of a person for whom, outside, some one [Quint] who [has] frankly to be reckoned with [is] waiting,” he resorts to a lie and pleads the necessity of seeing Luke immediately. The governess, “to reach [Miles's] mind, risk[s] the stretch of a stiff arm across his [evil] character” (296), and insists he tell her at once if he took, the day before, her letter from the table in the hall. By this query she takes “‘nature’ into [her] confidence and [her] account, by treating [her] monstrous ordeal [of struggling with Quint for Miles's soul] as a push in a direction unusual … and unpleasant, but demanding after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue” (295).

When Peter Quint appears at the window at this moment, the governess maintains her spiritual equilibrium by “the success of [her] rigid will, the will to shut [her] eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what [she has] to deal with [is], revoltingly, against nature” (295). Thereby she is able to keep Miles temporarily unaware of Quint's presence, and to push him, his face “as white as the face against the glass” (304), toward confession. Miles now confronts a crisis like that of the governess when two days earlier she faced Miss Jessel in the schoolroom. Miles's first step toward spiritual victory is taken when he admits he took the letter and, having found nothing to harm him there, burned it.

Observing that the window is now clear of Quint's presence, the governess feels that her personal triumph, having temporarily quenched Quint's influence over her charge, will culminate in Miles's full confession. Like someone “fighting with a demon for a human soul” (303), the governess pursues her advantage by asking Miles what he did at school to bring about his expulsion. Learning that his crime at school was to say things too bad to be mentioned in the headmaster's letter, the governess asks what these things were, only at once to see “again, against the glass, as if to blight [Miles's] confession and stay his answer, … the hideous author of [their] woe—the white face of damnation” (308). Still a little reluctant to tell all, Miles averts himself from the governess precisely when Quint's face reappears at the window. At this she, with a cry, springs straight upon the boy to protect him from Quint—“the very wildness of [her] veritable leap only serving as a great betrayal” (308) of Quint's presence. Perceiving, however, that Miles only guesses at the presence of the returned dead, and that he cannot see Quint, the governess lets “the impulse flame up to convert the climax of [Miles's] dismay [at his blindness] into the very proof of his liberation.” As she tries to enclose Miles in a protective embrace, she cries out to Quint, “No more, no more, no more!” Miles demands ‘Is she here?’ as he catches “with his sealed eyes the direction of [her] words.” Echoing in shock Miles's “strange ‘she,’” the governess hears the desperate and furious ‘Miss Jessel, Miss Jessel’ fall from his lips—a reference at long last on Miles's part to his former governess. Denying Miss Jessel's presence, but at the same time vigorously affirming the presence of someone at the window straight before them, the governess says, ‘It's there—the coward horror, there for the last time!’ (309). As a result, “bewildered, glaring vainly over the place and missing wholly, though it now to [the governess's] sense, fill[s] the room like the taste of poison,” Miles asks, ‘It's he?’ Then, in response to her determined challenge, to her ‘Whom do you mean by “he”?’ Miles gives the full proof of his hitherto wicked life and makes his confession complete. ‘Peter Quint—you devil!’ are Miles's words as he, his eyes still sealed, searches vainly about the room for Quint's specter. Miles's “supreme surrender” of Quint's name is “his tribute to [the governess's] devotion,” and marks his escape from Quint's evil influence. To underline her success in rescuing Miles from Quint, the governess, pointing to Quint at the window, says ‘There, there!’ to Miles, who with the defeat of his evil tempter now sees “but the quiet day.” “We were alone with the quiet day,” writes the governess in quiet assent to Miles's achieved salvation, “and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.” Her duty now done and her personal devil defeated, the governess has effectively played the role of Miles's guardian angel. In her encounter with Miss Jessel in the schoolroom, she clearly sees her duty to the children; in her final adventure at the lake with Miss Jessel and Flora, and in her last confrontation with Quint in “the ‘grown-up’ dining-room” (183), she does it.

At the center of this tale of wicked ghosts and haunted children there is the old verity that most wickedness comes from sealing our eyes to the duties and evils immediately before us. Though the governess's eyes are open to the real presences of Quint and Miss Jessel, they are sealed to her own duties, her self-deception and cowardice helping to cast a dark and evil spell over the lives of her young charges. However, in closely questioning Mrs. Grose about the lives of the children while under the care of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel; in openly accusing Flora of hiding her guilty communion with Miss Jessel; in writing her letter to the uncle and placing it, sealed and directed, on the hall table; in sending Mrs. Grose as her spokesman to the uncle; in pressing Miles to admit his theft of her letter; in insisting sternly that Miles lay bare the misbehavior behind his expulsion from school; and in insisting further that Miles admit to his and Flora's habitual communion with Quint and Jessel, the governess achieves turn after “turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

The governess becomes the virtuous heroine of this story because she finally faces the conscience she has for so long sedulously avoided. Like James's Louisa Pallant who, by God's mercy, sees her own worldliness in the hideously worldly daughter she has formed (XIII, 534), and like Spencer Brydon who in “The Jolly Corner” opens his eyes to his own dark self at the moment of his face-to-face encounter with his spectral alter ego, the governess condemns her own moral remissness when she faces Miss Jessel in the schoolroom. Her illuminations of soul are “aids to action that might have figured a pair of ample wings—wide pinions for the present conveniently folded,” but that on the occasion of Quint's last appearance she would “agitate for [the] great efforts and spread for [the] great flights” (Outcry, 24) necessary to the salvation of Miles's soul. These great efforts and flights make the governess “quite an admirable, even a worshipful image of full-blown life and character” (Outcry, 24) deserving the high praise Douglas accords her more than fifty years after her adventure at Bly.

Evidently writing under the spell of “the old idiotic superstitions” (Outcry, 42) Henry James has an inveterate faith in ordinary human virtue. Thus the whole effect of the governess's final encounter with Quint is to call attention to her fortitude and control. Finding inspiration in her very difficulties, she defends Miles in the highest and properest spirit, so that for both her and Miles everything is true and right and straight. As brave as she is clear, the governess has grown at last into the sterner stuff that children like Miles require, desire, and deserve. Miles engages to listen to the governess only when she, after many bad moments and many false notes, plays the music of ordinary human virtue. Miles, to use another figure, can take from her hand the perfect flower of felicity only because she has already plucked that flower for herself.

Stanley Renner (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7455

SOURCE: “Sexual Hysteria, Physiognomical Bogeymen, and the ‘Ghosts’ in The Turn of the Screw,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 43, No. 2, September, 1988, pp. 175–94.

[In the following essay, Renner attributes the governess's detailed description of Peter Quint to nineteenth-century beliefs about the symptomatology of female sexual hysteria.]

For readers and critics for whom the true—and clearly the richer—story of James's The Turn of the Screw is its dramatization of a woman's psychosexual problem and the damage it does to the children in her charge, the immovable stumbling block has always been the governess's detailed description of Peter Quint, a man dead and buried whom she has never seen. If James does not mean for readers to take Quint (and subsequently Miss Jessel) as a bona fide ghost, so the argument runs, why does he arrange things so that the only way to account for her description of him is that she has seen a supernatural manifestation? Asks A. J. A. Waldock, in the classic formulation of the question,

How did the governess succeed in projecting on vacancy, out of her own subconscious mind, a perfectly precise, point-by-point image of a man, then dead, whom she had never seen in her life and never heard of? What psychology, normal or abnormal, will explain that? And what is the right word for such a vision but “ghost”?1

Efforts thus far to circumvent this obstacle—Harold C. Goddard's argument that Mrs. Grose makes her identification before and with negligible help from the governess's detailed description, John Silver's that the governess has learned of Quint in the village before she describes him, and Oscar Cargill's that she has gotten wind of Quint from little Flora, who shows her around Bly “room by room, secret by secret”—have not settled the issue.2 In this [essay] I want to show that the story provides its own eminently logical, quite unsupernatural, indeed, deeply naturalistic, accounting for the manifestations the governess describes. The logic of this line of development has escaped observation, I believe, because it derives from idea structures that have since faded from general awareness: the symptomatology of female sexual hysteria and the supposed behavioral significance of human physiognomy. What the governess sees on her first encounter with the famous “ghosts” of Bly, the experience that sets in motion the story's central line of development, is thus not the ghost of a dead man she has never seen but the projection of her own sexual hysteria in the form of stereotypes deeply embedded in the mind of the culture. The story's spectral figures, colored by the governess's sexual fear and disgust, symbolize the adult sexuality just beginning to “possess” Miles and Flora as they hover on the brink of puberty. Frantically trying to block the emergence of their sexuality, the governess does damage to their natural development that, in the case of the male child, proves fatal.

The first appearance of an apparition in the story and the governess's state of mind on that occasion are, of course, crucial to understanding the ghosts and their place in James's design. As the story itself asserts, “the fact to be in possession of” is that the governess is a parson's daughter leaving the shelter of home for the first time, coming up to London in “trepidation,” and encountering a young gentleman presented in the story as a girl's romantic dream, from whom she accepts employment.3 As the Jamesian narrator of the prologue deduces, and Douglas, who knew the governess and tells her story, does not deny, she “succumbed” to “the seduction exercised by the splendid young man” (p. 6). Thus James pointedly calls attention to a group of characterizing details about the governess—her sheltered religious background, inexperience, vulnerability, anxiety and fear, and susceptibility to romantic emotions—that establish her as a virtual Victorian cliché of sexual ambivalence. With her almost classic conflict between idealistic innocence and naive romantic impulses she is the virginal ingenue encountering sexual danger in the form of a “handsome,” “bold,” young gentleman bachelor with “charming ways with women,” enjoying a life of pleasurable self-indulgence (p. 4). This emphasis on the governess's susceptibility to romantic emotions is an important feature of the buildup to the first apparition.

With this preparation the reader comes to the governess's first encounter with the apparitions that harrow her throughout the story: she sees a frightening male ghost that she later describes so particularly that Mrs. Grose, in astonishment and consternation, identifies it as Peter Quint, deceased former valet of the children's uncle and guardian, who, with the last governess, also deceased, had previously shared the charge of the children. When, however, the episode is read closely in the light of the turn-of-the-century understanding of sexual hysteria, it unfolds as a remarkably astute dramatization of an actual hysterical attack.

Although she suppresses the erotic component of her impulses, it is clear that the governess is indulging in romantic fantasies of her dashing young gentleman employer as she enjoys an evening stroll, the children “tucked away” in bed: how “charming” it would be, she fancies, if “someone would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve” (p. 15).4 And then she does see him. Whatever the psychic validity of the phenomenon James presents in this scene, it is clear that the governess is able to conjure up in her fantasy such a powerful impression that she feels she is actually seeing someone not present. And what she sees, at least at first, is her gentleman employer's “handsome face” reflecting the “kind light” of approval with which she has hoped he will notice her. With “the sense that [her] imagination had … turned real,” she declares unequivocally, “he did stand there!” (p. 16).

But then as she views this figure from her own imagination she experiences an indescribable “bewilderment of vision”: the figure now before her, she explains, “was not the person I had precipitately supposed.” Readers have customarily accepted the governess's own explanation for what happens to her vision: that her first impression was mistaken and that the figure that ultimately stands before her has been there all along. But the fact is that she was not mistaken; her identification of the handsome gentleman is too positive, too emphatic to have been a mistake. What has actually happened is that the attractive male figure she first imagines is transformed in her own mind into the frightening male figure she subsequently projects. That the transformation is brought about by fear—specifically fear of male sexuality—is the clear implication of the terms in which the governess explains the “shock” to her sensibility caused by the figure that ultimately met her eyes: “an unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred” (p. 16).

More than twenty years ago Cargill established James's actual technical knowledge of sexual hysteria, both his almost certain familiarity with Breuer and Freud's Studien über Hysterie and his “personal acquaintance” with an actual case of hysteria in “the illness of his sister [Alice] and with the delusions and fantasies of that illness.”5 Thus it should not be surprising that in The Turn of the Screw he could portray an accurate, virtually textbook case of sexual hysteria. Briefly summarized, sexual hysteria, as it was understood in the milieu of The Turn of the Screw, is a psychosexual disorder mainly afflicting women, particularly women with “fine qualities of mind and character,” caused by a profound conflict between their natural sexual impulses and the repression of sexuality required by society and exaggerated by Victorian idealism—a conflict in the hysterical, Havelock Ellis explains, “between their ideas of right and the bent of their inclinations.”6 The classic symptom of hysteria is thus “‘a paradoxical sexual instinct’… by which, for instance, sexual frigidity is combined with intense sexual preoccupations” (Ellis, p. 213). The resulting conflict can be of such intensity as to precipitate some kind of “nervous explosion” (Ellis, p. 231). “Pitres and others,” Ellis notes, “refer to the frequently painful nature of sexual hallucinations in the hysterical” (p. 217). In some cases “nausea and vomiting” or an “actual hysterical fit” may occur (pp. 223, 225).

Today the term “sexual hysteria” is familiar, but less so is its substance: the actual syndrome designated by the name. Thus, even though the term has been applied to the governess,7 no one has shown how exactly she fits the profile of a typical sexual hysteric. It would be hard to imagine a more classic manifestation of its symptomatology than James's governess. Her “superiority of character” (Ellis, p. 220), revealed in her sense of responsibility for the children, is unquestionable. She exhibits, in classic form, the conflict between sexual impulse and inhibition found by clinicians of the time at the root of the disorder, suffering from “sexual needs … and in large measure, indeed, … precisely through the struggle with them, through the effort to thrust sexuality aside” (Ellis, p. 224). A “fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage,” the governess is clearly in a state of extreme tension of the kind most likely to trigger an attack of hysteria. And she fits the profile of the typical female hysteric in several ways: she is a “single woman … whose sexual needs are unsatisfied”; she appears to be “attractive to men”; she leads the kind of “small, smothered life” conducive to hysteria; and she is extremely suggestible (Ellis, pp. 218, 229n.). Indeed, in typifying the hysterical situation Ellis mentions the case of a governess much like that of James's protagonist: “in one case,” he writes, “a governess, whose training has been severely upright, is, in spite of herself and without any encouragement, led to experience for the father of the children under her care an affection which she refuses to acknowledge even to herself” (p. 221).8 James's governess, according to all the evidence in The Turn of the Screw, is the product of a training “severely upright,” and she feels, “without any encouragement,” an attraction to the paternal figure (if not the father) of the household in which she is employed, which she regards as only the desire to please an employer and merit his approval.

Not only does James's governess fit the classic profile of the female sexual hysteric, she also experiences the “hysterical fit” observed by turn-of-the-century clinicians. That her first hallucination precipitates a “nervous explosion” of some intensity is clear from her own account. Like that of the classic hysteric, her “mental activity … is split up, and only a part of it is conscious” (Ellis, p. 220). Her initial fantasy of her handsome employer is conscious, but his transformation into a figure embodying her fear of sexuality is generated by deep-rooted unconscious inhibitions. The effect—“the shock I had suffered,” as she describes it—is a manifestation of the kind of “shock to the sexual emotions,” that, according to Freud, could “scarcely fail sometimes to produce such a result” (Ellis, p. 231). “Something is introduced into psychic life which refuses to merge in the general flow of consciousness” (Ellis, p. 222), and that something is the governess's unacknowledged sexual attraction to the charming gentleman: it does not fit with her idealized romantic and spiritualized notions about love. The resulting “collision,” as she herself terms the experience, between her conscious ideals and her unconscious impulses triggers in her emotions a profound disturbance. “Driven” by her “agitation,” as she confesses, and only half conscious, she “must, in circling about the place, have walked three miles” (p. 17). As the hysterical shock involves shame and disgust and often “cannot even be talked about” (Ellis, p. 222), so the governess, upon encountering Mrs. Grose, “somehow measured the importance of what I had seen by my thus finding myself hesitate to mention it” (p. 18).

If the figure the governess “sees” is an example of “the frequently painful nature of sexual hallucinations in the hysterical” (Ellis, p. 217), a manifestation of her deep fear of sexuality engendered when her unacknowledged sexual impulses intrude themselves into her idealized romantic fantasy of her employer—when, to put it another way, the relationship she fantasizes begins to take its natural course toward a sexual consummation—the logical question to be addressed is “What form would such a hallucination take?” Obviously, it would be a male figure, and it would be sexually threatening. The figure the governess sees is male, and the “fear” she feels is like that stirred in “a young woman privately bred” by “an unknown man in a lonely place.” Assuming, then, this generalized embodiment of a threatening sexual male figure, if the governess were to imagine the apparition more particularly, what particular features might it be expected to have? The answer is that there existed in the culture a widely recognized stereotype of the predatory sexual male, a set of typical features and characteristics that such a figure would be presupposed to manifest. Logically enough, it is this figure that the governess describes in The Turn of the Screw.


Europe in the nineteenth century was much intrigued by the theory that there exists in human nature a determinative relationship between physiognomical features and character. In a recent book Graeme Tytler documents “the universality of physiognomy in nineteenth-century Europe” and in particular the immense influence of the physiognomical speculations of Johann Caspar Lavater, an eighteenth-century Swiss clergyman, whose Physiognomische Fragmente in four volumes was certainly, Tytler says, known about by “most nineteenth-century men of letters.”9 Widely popularized in newspapers and periodicals, physiognomical theory exercised a significant influence on the novel during the period from the early 1770s to about the 1880s as the pseudo-scientific spuriousness of its conclusions came to be increasingly recognized. There is no evidence that James knew Lavater's work firsthand. But there is evidence beyond the elaborate physiognomical portrait the governess describes in The Turn of the Screw that he knew something of the subject, as when in his description of Caspar Goodwood in A Portrait of a Lady he mentions “blue eyes of remarkable fixedness, … and a jaw of the somewhat angular mould which is supposed to bespeak resolution.”10 And it is certain that James would have been well versed secondhand in the physiognomics of fictional characterization: the roster of writers named by Tytler as most influenced by physiognomy—Fielding, Dickens, the Brontës, Thackeray, Balzac, Flaubert, George Sand—reads like a gallery of novelists most familiar to James.

To demonstrate the physiognomical stereotypicality of the fearful male figure the governess hallucinates, whose actual unreality James may be implying in her remark that “‘he's like nobody,’” it will be useful to reproduce her description at length:

“He has no hat. … He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are somehow darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange—awfully; but I only know clearly that they're rather small and very fixed. His mouth's wide, and his lips are thin, except for his little whiskers he's quite clean-shaven. He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor.

“… He's tall, active, erect, … but never—no, never!—a gentleman. …”

[Mrs. Grose] visibly tried to hold herself. “But he is handsome?”

I saw the way to help her. “Remarkably!”

“And dressed—?”

“In somebody's clothes. They're smart, but they're not his own.”

She broke into a breathless affirmative groan. “They're the master's!”

(pp. 23–24)

Certain details of this description can be traced to more general assumptions than those of physiognomical theory. The figure is remarkably handsome, and “the handsome man,” according to general prejudice, particularly in men, “is likely to be a cad.” Quite ready “for his own immediate profit … to defy the conventions that other men subscribe to,” the cad “may dress and adorn himself in what is commonly condemned as bad taste” as “a crude and external manifestation of his disregard of the conventions of masculine behaviour.” Thus he has no scruples against “taking advantage of the susceptibility which women exhibit in the presence of good-looking men.” Usually with “neat and symmetrical features” and “attractive to many women,” the cad is hampered neither by “a bad reputation nor bad manners … : his aim is not love or even philandering, but amour.”11 Presumably, the fearful male figure the governess hallucinates, with his “straight good features,” his somehow not quite suitable clothes, his “secret disorders, vices more than suspected,” and his success with women—“He did what he wished,” Mrs. Grose says, “with them all” (pp. 24, 28, 33)—emanates from some such stereotype.

Beyond conveying this general aura of sexual danger, however, the governess's description of the threatening male specter she conjures up turns out to be a detailed physiognomical portrait, the most telling feature of which is its “red hair, very red, close curling.” “Most nineteenth-century novelists,” Tytler observes, “are concerned, like their predecessors, almost entirely with the color of the hair.” While red hair, according to Lavater, is said to characterize “a person supremely good or supremely evil,” the general consensus has always favored the latter view, a prejudice that can be traced as far back as the Bible (Tytler, pp. 213, 215). Indeed, there is a close connection, not at all surprising in view of Lavater's clerical vocation, between physiognomical stereotypes and biblical personifications of evil. In the Old Testament the association of red hair with evil would have been reinforced by the story of Esau, who yielded to fleshly appetite, sold his God-given birthright for a mess of pottage, and spawned the lineage repudiated by Jehovah. More telling against red hair was the suspicion that Judas must have been a redhead.12 But most relevant of all to the governess's hallucinations in The Turn of the Screw is the knowledge that in ancient lore it was held that Satan materialized in the form of a red-haired male. It would not be surprising if a parson's daughter, hysterically projecting an image of her sexual fear and revulsion, would envision a figure embodying features of this long-standing assumption about the human form assumed by the Tempter himself.

Indeed, the correspondence is striking. The threatening male figure she projects has “very red” hair (emphasis added). In The Devil in Legend and Literature Maximilian Rudwin observes that “the Devil's beard as well as his hair is usually of a flaming red color.” The figure she sees is associated with “vices more than suspected” (p. 28); among other things, to be sure, “Satan is famed as the greatest gambler ever known upon or under the earth.”13 And other details of her portrait whose place in the design of the story has remained obscure are at least traceable to lore about Satan. The odious figure gave the governess “a sort of sense of looking like an actor.” “The Devil is likewise regarded as the inventor of the drama,” says Rudwin; “indeed, the actors were regarded by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and even for many centuries afterwards, as servants of Satan” (p. 259). Finally, the penchant of the governess's projected figure to wear the clothes of a gentleman in order to be taken for what he decidedly is not is very much a part of his Satanic aura:

The Devil … has on clothes which any gentleman might wear. … It has been his greatest ambition to be a gentleman, in outer appearance at least; and to his credit it must be said that he has so well succeeded in his efforts to resemble a gentleman that it is now very difficult to tell the two apart.

(Rudwin, p. 50)

Thus, in projecting in human form the embodiment of her deep, puritanical fear of evil, which in Victorian times tended to mean sexual evil,14 the governess envisions an attractive male figure, one to whom she would instinctively respond—a figure projected in the form of the Tempter himself, as he was imprinted in the mind of the culture of which she is representative. But her projection draws also on stereotypes established in the physiognomical lore of the preceding centuries. The importance of Lavater in the considerable influence of physiognomical theories on the nineteenth century, and particularly on important novelists, has been mentioned. But there were many other practitioners in the field, and in their writings, as well as in those of novelists influenced by physiognomical lore, can be found most of the details of the apparition the governess projects. This is a precarious business at best: the spuriousness of the science assures that one can find almost as many different readings of the same features and expressions as there are physiognomists. But there is pretty solid agreement supporting Lavater's suspicion of red hair. The mind of Chaucer's Miller, for example, with a beard red “as any sowe or fox,” runs to “synne and harlotries.” Swift equips Gulliver with the prevailing prejudice against red hair. In describing the Yahoos—“cunning, malicious, treacherous and revengeful” as well as “cowardly … insolent, abject, and cruel”—Gulliver observes “that the Red-Haired of both Sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest” and finds it curious that the female Yahoo with a lecherous eye for him did not have “Hair … of a Red Colour, (which might have been some Excuse for an Appetite a little irregular).”15 Among physiognomists, Joseph Simms, after acknowledging that “many cases might be cited in which red-haired persons have been very amiable,” finds nevertheless that this color, “if curliness is added [Quint's hair is “very red, close-curling”], indicates a … disposition to ardent love,” and if it is very coarse “is a sign of propensities much too animal.”16 Paolo Mantegazza agrees that “red hair, although rare, is disliked by nearly all because it is an almost monstrous type.”17 Although, as Tytler points out, physiognomical (as well as phrenological) explanations for human behavior had lost credibility for perceptive people by the end of the century, their assumptions remained in some minds so ingrained as to be almost taken for granted. Thus, in Ann Veronica (1909), as Ann and her fellow suffragettes are arraigned after their raid on the House of Commons, H. G. Wells describes “a disagreeable young man, with red hair and a loose mouth, seated at the reporter's table, … sketching her.”18

If, by general agreement, red hair is a sign of lechery, other features of the male sex villain the governess projects can also be found with threatening significance in physiognomical lore. The figure's eyes, for example—“sharp, strange—awfully; … rather small and very fixed”—which give the governess “such a bold hard stare” (p. 19), have a clear sexual significance. According to Simms, “there is a close connection between the eyes and the sexual organs” (p. 299). To the authoritative Lavater, “small, and deep sunken eyes, [are] bold in opposition; not discouraged, intriguing, and active in wickedness.”19 The significance of the figure's eyebrows—“particularly arched and as if they might move a great deal”—is also explained by physiognomy: the arch by Mantegazza, who finds that the proud and impudent “have arched eyebrows which are often raised,” the movement by Lavater, who explains that “the motion of the eyebrows contains numerous expressions, especially of ignoble passions; pride, anger and contempt: the supercilious man … despises, and is despicable.”20 The wide mouth and thin lips of the governess's figure fit Mantegazza's observation that “no face recalls the expression of cruelty so much as a wanton one,” and “the expression of cruelty is almost exclusively concentrated round the mouth; … The mouth is closed, the corners are drawn back as far as possible, … The eye is clear, widely opened, and fixed upon the victim” (p. 178). Even the “habit of going about bareheaded” (the governess's figure “has no hat” [p. 23]) attracts physiognomical attention.21 Indeed, the essence (as well as the eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and hair) of the governess's projected figure, embodying her hysterical but unconscious sexual horror, is reflected closely in one of a series of descriptions Lavater provides of physiognomical types, clearly an epitome of brutal male power:

Rude, savage, ruffianly, danger-contemning, strength. It is a crime to him to have committed small mischief; his stroke, like his aspect, is death. He does not oppress, he destroys. To him murder is enjoyment, and the pangs of others a pleasure. The form of his bones denotes his strength, his eye a thirst of blood, his eyebrow habitual cruelty, his mouth deriding contempt, his nose grim craft, his hair and beard choleric power.

(III, 249–50)


Not only is it reasonably certain that James knew about physiognomical theories and the use of such devices by novelists familiar to him, then, but he also creates in his governess a character who fits the profile of the typical sexual hysteric, who has hysterical hallucinations, and whose mind projects her sexual fear in a form that draws on the very religious and physiognomical stereotypes with which a mind such as hers would logically be furnished. It remains only to show some striking prototypes of the governess's physiognomically stereotypical redheaded sex villain in popular novels of the era. A link to one such prototype exists in The Turn of the Screw itself: the governess is reading Amelia just before her third hallucination of the figure identified as Quint (p. 40), and Amelia contains a similar figure, Robinson, who has Quint's long pale face, red hair (actually “a red Beard”), and clothes that call a kind of disreputable attention to themselves.22 Although Robinson is not, to the reader's knowledge, sexually villainous, his life resembles Quint's, at least the latter's reputation for “strange passages and perils, secret disorders, vices more than suspected” (p. 28). Robinson is a gambler, cheat, thief, and criminal conspirator. The governess, not having finished the novel, would not know of his repentance in the end and thus could be expected to regard him with emotions that might contribute to her fearful hallucinations. Even more terrifying, however, in this novel with its undercurrent of sexual danger and ruin are its interpolated histories of young women betrayed by their naive indulgence in the pleasurable sensations excited by the attentions of attractive men: Miss Mathews, seduced by a soldier under false promises of marriage, and Mrs. Bennet, seduced by a nobleman after quaffing only “Half a Pint of Small Punch,” which had been drugged. The latter's case would have been especially terrible to the governess, for Mrs. Bennet was the naive, sheltered daughter of a clergyman and got into trouble precisely by entertaining romantic fantasies of an attractive man: she intended only to “indulge [her] Vanity and Interest at once, without being guilty of the least Injury” (Amelia, p. 295). The warnings of both these wretched fallen women must surely have terrified the governess. Miss Mathews offers her fate as a warning to every woman “to deal with Mankind with Care and Caution … and never to confide too much in the Honesty of a Man, nor in her own Strength, where she has so much at Stake; let her remember she walks on a Precipice, and the bottomless Pit is to receive her, if she slips; nay, if she makes but one false Step.” Mrs. Bennet warns “that the Woman who gives up the least Out-work of her Virtue, doth, in that very Moment, betray the Citadel” (Amelia, pp. 53, 295). Indulging in romantic fantasies of her dashing gentleman employer, the governess, had she read thus far into Amelia, might indeed suddenly discover herself on the way to ruin, the outworks of her virtue undermined by her own susceptibility to an attractive male. Small wonder, in such a case, that the gentleman of her fantasy should metamorphose into a villainous projection of sexual fear. And just as she does not need (and indeed does not have) any knowledge of Peter Quint to accomplish the transformation, so her complementary projection of the female counterpart of her sexual fear does not require knowledge of Miss Jessel and her shame: it is, in an important sense, the governess herself, the awful projection of herself ruined by the sexual evil toward which her own sexual impulses are urging her.23

Tytler's demonstration of the physiognomical awareness reflected in Amelia is corroborated by Fielding's mention of the term “physiognomist” in the novel,24 as well as by the physiognomical description of the villainous Robinson. But Robinson is not a sexual villain. The projection of the governess's fear is even more in the lineage of numerous red-haired male villains rendered, like her projected figure, in detailed physiognomical portraits in some of the best-known novels of the era. Uriah Heep, for example, with his slimy designs on the saintly Agnes in David Copperfield, bears a close resemblance to the governess's vision. Although Heep is anything but handsome, “this red-bearded animal,” “this detestable Rufus,” has the hair color, pale face, wide mouth, and piercing eyes of the figure described in The Turn of the Screw. Heep's face is “pale” and “cadaverous,” “his mouth [is] widened” like a gargoyle's, and his eyes, “sleepless … like two red suns,” were a “shadowless red” and “looked as if they had scorched their lashes off.”25 An older, aristocratic version of the same character type is Lord Steyne, the sharkish nobleman who undoes Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Steyne's description captures the grotesquerie, as well as several details, of the portrait of Heep. His “shining bald head … was fringed with red hair. He had thick bushy eyebrows, with little twinkling bloodshot eyes, … His jaw was underhung, and when he laughed, two white buck-teeth protruded themselves and glistened savagely in the midst of the grin.”26 In Daniel Deronda Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, like the governess's figure, is handsome, and, as Gwendolen Harleth discovers, trails, like Quint, a past of secret disorders and vices, like gambling and keeping a mistress, more than suspected. Grandcourt is “decidedly handsome,” has “a mere fringe of reddish-blond hair,” a complexion of “a faded fairness resembling that of an actress,” and “long narrow grey eyes” that “looked at Gwendolen persistently with a slightly exploring gaze.”27 This list could be extended considerably.

To be sure, the governess, whose ordeal takes place around the 1840s, could not have known the redheaded sexual villains Heep, Steyne, and Grandcourt. My point is, rather, that James, writing in the 1890s, surely did know them and that in creating the figure she describes he drew the same type of character, one whose lineage in literary history, James is careful to imply, she would have been familiar with. The only book she is shown reading in The Turn of the Screw is Amelia, but through her remarks about her reading at Bly James implies that, free from the strict censorship of the vicarage, utterly on her own, and with a good deal of time on her hands, the governess fell with avidity on the “roomful of old books at Bly”—books of a kind that had come into her “sequestered home” only “to the extent of a distinctly deprecated renown”—the very category of books that could not fail to whet “the unavowed curiosity of [her] youth.” No catalog of the library at Bly has survived, but one category of its holdings was “last-century fiction” (p. 40)—fiction, that is, full of the ordeals of virginal ingenues pursued by sexual villains. At the time of her first manifestation of hysterical symptoms when she projects the redheaded sex fiend, she has already been some weeks at Bly. If she is, as is likely, immersed in eighteenth-century fiction full of Gothic terror—fiction, as Tytler demonstrates, steeped in physiognomical lore—the figure she describes is exactly what might be expected.

There can be no doubt that James could have done what I have proposed. His own upbringing as a boy in proper household, “surrounded by admonishing governesses, a permissive father, an often stern ambiguous mother,”28 would have provided, in general outlines, a prototype for the situation as well as the atmosphere at Bly. (Indeed, there is good reason to suspect, in view of James's own well-known sexual problems and Douglas' pointed hints to the Jamesian narrator of the opening frame that when “he looked at me, … he saw what he spoke of” [p. 2], that it is his own story James tells in The Turn of the Screw.) In his familiarity with the work of his brother William, coupled with his knowledge of sexual hysteria, its supposed causes, and its manifestations, James certainly possessed the requisite psychological acumen to dramatize the psychology of sexual fear in a maternal figure and its effect on the children in her charge. And, given his artistic seriousness and penchant for subtlety, as well as the persistent undercurrent, despite his prim distaste for the explicit airing of sexual matters, of sexual implication in his work, what I have suggested is, I believe, precisely what he would do with the story. Indeed, the demonstrable extent to which the governess represents a classic case of sexual hysteria and the fact that the figure she projects is a classic example of physiognomical cliché, deliberately elaborated for ironic effect, serve to indicate James's intentions in The Turn of the Screw. It is not, except on the surface for the superficial reader, a ghost story but a psychological drama about the disastrous effects of Victorian sexual attitudes on the development of children.29

In the light of the foregoing, a belated, apologetic, perhaps ironic sympathy is due poor Edmund Wilson for his ordeal over The Turn of the Screw: he was on the right track but could never get over the obstacle of the ghosts.30 Wilson was right: the problem is with the troubled sexuality of the governess, who, the story pointedly emphasizes, was greatly attracted to the gentleman who employed her but also, in an exaggerated but quintessentially Victorian way, deeply fearful of and hostile toward sexuality. As she indulges her romantic feelings toward her attractive employer, she senses subconsciously that by thus relaxing her sexual defenses even so innocuously she has set foot on the path to ruin. At that point, the attractive male projection of her pleasurable sensations changes to the terrifying male projection of her fear. The figure she projects emerges from her own subconscious imprinting by religious and cultural stereotypes—an amalgam of religious personifications of evil and temptation and well-established physiognomical stereotypes of the villainously libidinous male, with numerous precedents in the literature of the period, colored, conceivably, by some awareness of the views of Lavater himself, who had established a reputation throughout Europe as a preacher as well as a physiognomist.31 Thus awakened, the governess's hysterical fear of sexuality is superadded to her sense of her duty as governess of two children approaching puberty. She takes upon herself the role of angel in the house—guardian of idealized, spiritualized love and sexual purity. Along the same line she is, as James seems to have realized, a manifestation of the Great Governess of the era, representing maternal control over the sexual mores of the household and thus of the culture at large.

Through the figures the governess projects—one representing her fear and revulsion at male sexuality, the other her fear and disgust at female reciprocation of male lust (she realizes with a spasm of ambivalence that what went on between Quint and Jessel “must have been also what she wished!” [p. 33])—James contrives to objectify her sexual state of mind. But the main line of development in the story is the effect such a deep aversion to sexual phenomena has on the development of children. But how does one dramatize so psychological a drama? James's solution to the problem is masterful. The “ghosts,” which work well enough on the literal level (where even many learned critics have enjoyed them), become, on the figurative level, a means of objectifying the psychology of both the governess and the children and also the psychological meaning and consequences of her behavior toward them: they represent both her fear and revulsion and the children's natural sexual development. For, of course, the sexual male and female figures so fearfully on the governess's mind are possessing Miles and Flora: they are merely the adult sexual beings the children will become when the sexuality latent in childhood emerges through adolescence and establishes itself in adulthood. This possession, however, is not evil; it is merely natural. The many elaborate explications of the evil in The Turn of the Screw notwithstanding, the only evil the story presents is that Quint and Jessel were sexually active. The powerful aura of evil that pervades the story emanates from the psyche of the governess, who, after all, tells the story: it is her hysterical Victorian aversion to sexuality, heightened for satirical effect by James's subtle irony. In her compulsion to keep the children from being possessed with this evil, then, she is actually blocking their normal sexual development. Naturally, when she looks so anxiously at Miles and Flora, children entering puberty, she sees signs of their sexual maturation—the adult male with an attraction to young and pretty women in Miles and the adult female with a reciprocal attraction to handsome young men in Flora. In trying to suppress all manifestations of their natural sexual development she inflicts grievous damage on their psyches. With apt Oedipal implications, James allows Flora to escape to the protection of the father figure; but the male child, trapped in the psychosexual undertow of the mother-son relationship, is destroyed.

One question remains. If the redheaded sexual male does, as I have demonstrated, well up hysterically in the governess's mind from physiognomical stereotypes, how does it happen that this figure so closely resembles the real person Peter Quint? The answer is not, certainly, that James gave credence to physiognomical science. For, as he was undoubtedly aware, the physiognomical stereotype, as well as the evil ascribed to Quint and Jessel, was a purely subjective phenomenon, an attitude of mind. In an atmosphere of increasing rationality, Tytler explains, there emerged as the nineteenth century wore on a “subtler treatment of physiognomy,” which tended to treat it “as a problematic sign of the observer's own moral character” (p. 319). Thus in The Turn of the Screw the governess's physiognomical imprinting, like her sense of sexual evil, is a part of her characterization as an upright and idealistic person, but one with dangerously unhealthy attitudes toward sexuality. James needed the real Quint and Jessel also, as has been suggested, both to objectify the psychological drama and to have it both ways, as he surely intended: that is, to produce, on the surface, a ghost story that would materialize interestingly on the figurative level as one of the most remarkable psychological dramas in literature.

For that, ultimately, is the story of The Turn of the Screw—a more significant story, I maintain, than either a ghost story or a parable of some amorphous good and evil. If that is still debatable, the assertion that the psychological drama is more humanly relevant both to James's time and to our own is surely not. At least a story about the damage done to the sexual development of children by Victorian sexual fear and disgust would satisfy James's own requirement that the art of fiction must be an imitation of life.


  1. “Mr. Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,Modern Language Notes, 62 (1947), 333–34.

  2. See Goddard, “A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw,Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 12 (1957), 11–13; Silver, “A Note on the Freudian Reading of ‘The Turn of the Screw,’” American Literature, 29 (1957), 210–11; and Cargill, “The Turn of the Screw and Alice James,” PMLA, 78 (1963), 242. A recent exercise of the standard rebuttal to any psychological reading of the ghosts is David S. Miall's observation that “the key passage in The Turn of the Screw in which the governess's description of Quint is recognized by Mrs. Grose” is “one of the main pieces of evidence against the hallucination theory.” He elaborately attempts to explain the evil in the story in terms of “what the ghosts themselves may mean, if they were intended to be seen as a reality and not just a hallucination of the governess” (“Designed Horror: James's Vision of Evil in The Turn of the Screw,Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 39 [1984], 306).

  3. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Robert Kimbrough (New York: Norton, 1966), p. 4. All further references are to this edition and appear in the text.

  4. Cargill agrees that “to the end of her tale [the governess's] sudden infatuation is the mainspring of her action” (“Turn of the Screw and Alice James,” p. 243).

  5. Turn of the Screw and Alice James,” p. 247.

  6. “Auto-Erotism,” Studies in the Psychology of Sex, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 1936), I, Part One, 220. Further references to this section of Ellis' work are cited in the text. I make no claims, by the way, for the validity of turn-of-the-century assumptions about sexual hysteria, which are presently being challenged. My point is only how faithfully James reproduces these assumptions in his characterization of the governess.

  7. See Robert H. Huntley, “James's The Turn of the Screw: Its ‘Fine Machinery,’” American Imago, 34 (1977), 229.

  8. Ellis is most likely alluding to “The Case of Miss Lucy R.,” included in Studien über Hysterie, the case which Cargill convincingly links to The Turn of the Screw, pp. 244–46.

  9. Physiognomy in the European Novel: Faces and Fortunes (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 110, 316. Additional references to this work appear in the text.

  10. The Portrait of a Lady, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Robert D. Bamberg (New York: Norton, 1974), p. 42.

  11. John Brophy, The Human Face (London: George G. Harrap, 1945), pp. 85–86.

  12. See Wendy Cooper, Hair: Sex Society Symbolism (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), p. 75.

  13. (Chicago and London: Open Court, 1931), p. 48.

  14. See Mark Spilka, “Turning the Freudian Screw: How Not to Do It,” Literature and Psychology, 13 (1963), 108.

  15. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Robert A. Greenberg (New York: Norton, 1961), pp. 232, 233.

  16. Physiognomy Illustrated; or Nature's Revelations of Character (New York: Murray Hill, 1889), p. 402.

  17. Physiognomy and Expression (New York: Scribners, 1914), p. 62.

  18. Ann Veronica (New York: Harpers, 1909), p. 252.

  19. Johann Caspar Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy; for the Promotion of the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind, trans. Thomas Holcroft, 3 vols. (London: G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1789), III, 179.

  20. Mantegazza, Physiognomy and Expression, p. 181; Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy, III, 183.

  21. See Tytler, Physiognomy in the European Novel, p. 294.

  22. Henry Fielding, Amelia, ed. Martin C. Battestin, The Wesleyan Edition of the Complete Works of Henry Fielding (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1983), p. 29. May L. Ryburn has called attention to the resemblance between Fielding's Robinson and the figure the governess describes. Ryburn observes quite logically that this parallel “would seem to lay the ghosts to rest forever, except as they existed in the governess's mind” (“The Turn of the Screw and Amelia: A Source for Quint?,” Studies in Short Fiction, 16 [1979], 237).

  23. The view of the female figure the governess sees, a genteel woman ruined by indulging her sexual impulses, as a fearful projection of the governess herself and also of the adult sexual female Flora will become, also susceptible to sexual promptings, is supported by Paul N. Siegel. Siegel discusses James's subtle dramatization of the governess's psychosexual ambivalence: she is horrified at Miss Jessel's sexuality and its consequences and terrified of her own susceptibility to sexual feeling, of which she is subconsciously aware; but she is also fascinated and excited, because of her powerful attraction to her employer, by identifying herself with Miss Jessel and her indulgence of sexual desires. Although he does not pursue its consequences, Siegel also senses James's implication that Miss Jessel in some way prefigures in the governess's mind a Flora grown up and hardened by sexual experience. See “‘Miss Jessel’: Mirror Image of the Governess,” Literature and Psychology, 18 (1968), 36. The story's most telling hint of this is in the episode of the girl's second excursion to the lake. With the awful vision of Miss Jessel burning in her mind, the governess sees that Flora's “incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failed, had quite vanished. … she was hideously hard; she had turned common and almost ugly.” Flora's indignant response to her accusations seems to the governess like “that of a vulgarly pert little girl in the street” (pp. 72–73).

  24. Fielding, Amelia, p. 47.

  25. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (New York: Washington Square Press, 1958), pp. 213, 210, 226, 362.

  26. William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, Riverside Edition, ed. Geoffrey and Kathleen Tillotson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), p. 366.

  27. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1961), pp. 79, 80.

  28. See Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 22.

  29. This conclusion is also reached by Jane Nardin, who asserts that The Turn of the Screw “is neither about evil metaphysically conceived, nor about madness clinically conceived, but rather [about] a particular social milieu and the way it affects people living in it.” See “The Turn of the Screw: The Victorian Background,” Mosaic, 12, no. 1 (1978), 142.

  30. For a review of Wilson's ordeal see Martina Slaughter, “Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,” in the Norton Critical Edition, pp. 211–14.

  31. See Tytler, Physiognomy in the European Novel, p. 24.

Bruce E. Fleming (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4089

SOURCE: “Floundering about in Silence: What the Governess Couldn't Say,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1989, pp. 134–43.

[In the following essay, Fleming perceives “both the governess's reactions and the ghosts, whether real or imagined, as related halves of a particular world-view or perceptual paradigm—one that informs not only this novella but much of James' entire fictional universe as well.”]

The question of the reliability of the governess in The Turn of the Screw has produced one of the most developed ongoing debates in James criticism. There is on the one hand the Kenton/Wilson/Goddard school that suggests that the ghosts are imagined by the governess and hence not “real”; on the other are the critics who insist that the evidence in favor of their existence is irrefutable because objective: they are perceived by the housekeeper as well.1 I suggest that there is in fact a way of perceiving The Turn of the Screw which mediates between the two sides of this debate, seeing both the governess's reactions and the ghosts, whether real or imagined, as related halves of a particular world-view or perceptual paradigm—one that informs not only this novella but much of James' entire fictional universe as well. The question thus ceases to be whether or not the governess produces, or imagines, the ghosts (for, in my view, we can as well say that the ghosts produce the governess), but instead, what the implications are of the presence of both for an understanding of this work in particular, and the world of Henry James in general.

For both governess and housekeeper operate according to what seems an absolute division of the world into good and bad, allowed and forbidden—and the Cerberus that guards the gate between them is the act of articulation. There is for the governess an absolute distinction, that is, between what can be said—the articulated or articulable—and what cannot be, which floats in the vast realm of the unspoken and unspeakable. And the fact that the act of articulation is such a monumental one for the governess indicates precisely the gulf between these two realms. The vastness and power of the realm of silence with respect to that of the articulated, moreover, is made clear precisely to the extent that the act of escaping it requires effort.

It is clear, in fact, that both the governess and the housekeeper are—in a phrase James himself suggests—floundering about in silence: both are constantly breaking off in the middle of a phrase, leaving words unsaid, filling in sentences for each other like two members of a vaudeville team, and maneuvering to see how the other has meant a suspicious term. Near the end of the story, for example, Flora is being kept in her room after the incident at the lake where the governess has seen Miss Jessel but Mrs. Grose has not. This has resulted in a situation where the housekeeper is unconvinced that Flora should in fact leave the house; after spending the night with the girl, she is of another mind:

“… it's the place itself. She must leave it.” She held me a moment with heavy eyes, then brought out the rest. “Your idea's the right one. I myself, Miss,—”


“I can't say.”

The look she gave me with it made me jump at possibilities. “You mean that, since yesterday, you have seen—?”

She shook her head with dignity. “I've heard—!”


“From that child—horrors!” she sighed with tragic relief. “On my honour, Miss, she says things—!” But at this evocation she broke down. …2

(We notice that it is an act of speech on Flora's part which has brought about this change of opinion.)

Nor, shortly thereafter, can Mrs. Grose bring herself to articulate the possibility that Miles has taken the letter the governess wrote to her employer—so that even the governess grows impatient:

I now perceived still more how she had been beating about the bush and how weary at last it had made her. “Your letter won't have got there. Your letter never went.”

“What then became of it?”

“Goodness knows! Master Miles—”

“Do you mean he took it?” I gasped.

She hung fire, but she overcame her reluctance. “I mean that I saw it yesterday, when I came back with Miss Flora, that it wasn't where you had put it. …”


And her conclusion, which she offers without ever having enunciated the possibility that Miles is guilty, is simply: “You see!”

It is, I say, articulation which poses problems for both women, rather than what is thought or understood. The governess, to be sure, regards herself as the frank one in this pair. At one point, for example, she is pressing Mrs. Grose to admit that Miles knew about the relation between Miss Jessel and Quint, or, as she says, “knew what was between the two wretches”:

“I don't know—I don't know!” the poor woman groaned.

“You do know, you dear thing,” I replied; “only you haven't my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back, out of timidity and modesty and delicacy, even the impression that, in the past, when you had, without my aid, to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable. But I shall get it out of you yet!”


It is, however, evident to the reader that the governess is floundering about in silence as well—the silence forced upon her, first of all, by her employer, as well as by her own self-imposed muffling. The employer's last command had, after all, been “not a word” (639); when Mrs. Grose asks her what she will say in answer to the letter from the headmaster, her answer is “nothing,” whereupon she congratulates herself for being “wonderful” (645). Clearly there is virtue of the heroic kind in silence. Speech is, moreover, positively ill-bred. At one point the governess reproaches herself with respect to the children: “They have the manners to be silent, and you, trusted as you are, the baseness to speak!” (699).

It is also around a question of articulation that the final climactic scene of the novella revolves—where the governess is, at least in her conception, struggling with Quint for possession of Miles. For it is only when Miles is finally made to say the name of Peter Quint after his circumlocutions and denials (and even an attempt to get off with the pronoun “he”), in what the governess calls “his supreme surrender of the name,” that she concludes that she has won: “What does he matter now, my own? … I have you” (747). Yet what seems most striking in this example is the incapacity of the governess to conceive in any terms but those of either/or binary opposition. Miles is either hers or Quint's, and the mere uttering of a name pulls him out of one realm with a jerk and plops him in the other. Similarly, her horror at Flora during the first apparition of Miss Jessel at the lake is precisely due to Flora's refusal to acknowledge the ghost; Flora keeps her knowledge of its presence—which the governess is convinced she in fact possesses—a secret, unarticulated and unspoken, rather than exposing it to the light of rationality and the social world through words.

The governess's conception of moral categories is correspondingly binary and absolutist, revolving around whether or not the label “bad” can be applied to Miles; it is clear that this is a question of articulation as well. The question is raised by the letter from Miles' headmaster announcing that he has been dismissed from school, which is the first inkling the governess has that something is rotten in the state of the so-perfect children she has been hired to supervise. She turns immediately to the housekeeper for counsel; the latter asks her what Miles has done. Instead of answering, the governess hesitates, then simply hands Mrs. Grose the letter, discovering thereby that she cannot read: “I winced at my mistake, which I attenuated as I could. …” At this point the governess unfolds the letter to read it out loud but cannot bring herself to do so: “faltering in the act and folding it up once more, I put it back in my pocket.” Finally, she blurts out a question: “Is he really bad?” (640).

This last adjective, which seems to have cost the governess such pain, and which has been produced at all only because of the dammed-up force of her not having said it earlier, is clearly meant in some sort of absolute, substantialist sense, rather than in the trivial one that is usual when speaking of children, roughly synonymous with “naughty.” To this, Mrs. Grose is utterly unable to respond. And it is only when this substantialist concept is rephrased as a concept of action—the governess explains the headmaster means “that he's an injury to the others” (640)—that both are able to scorn away the notion, using as the speciously associative (as well as Phryne-like) evidence for its impossibility the beauty of the girl, Flora, who appears at that moment at the schoolroom door. (The letter itself, as well, leaves unsaid more than it says, for in fact it gives no comment on, or descriptions of, Miles at all, expressing only “regret that it should be impossible to keep him” [640]. Yet even this little bit is too much for the governess.)

This substantialist sense in which both women understand the word “bad” is made even clearer during an exchange that same evening, when the governess—bothered by the subject in the meantime—feels compelled to bring up the question again. She asks it employing what I call the trivial sense of the word (characterizing actions rather than essence); yet the substantialist sense is lurking behind the question. The result is that the entire conversation becomes an intricate dance with the two women avoiding this word and sparring to discover in which of the two senses the other means it. The governess feels it necessary to immobilize Mrs. Grose on the stair by putting a hand on her arm—“at the bottom I detained her, holding her there with a hand on her arm” [641]—as if to ensure that the anticipated difficulty of the conversation will not cause her to break away. She then uses The Word—though as part of a sentence whose emphasis of sense and intonation is on another aspect entirely (Mrs. Grose's personal knowledge), and in a context where it can be interpreted in either of the two senses I have been speaking of:

“I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that you've never known him to be bad.”

She threw back her head; she had clearly, by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. “Oh, never known him—I don't pretend that!”

The governess is immediately distraught, interpreting Mrs. Grose's reaction as a confirmation of her own worst fears (an ascription of “bad” in the substantialist sense), unable to repeat the word:

I was upset again. “Then you have known him—?”

“Yes, indeed, Miss, thank God!”

On reflection I accepted this. “You mean that a boy who never is—?”

“Is no boy for me!”

I held her tighter. “You like them with the spirit to be naughty?” Then, keeping pace with her answer, “So do I!” I eagerly brought out.


The pivotal point, thus, comes in this moment of the governess's reflection, after which she gives the only interpretation of Mrs. Grose's affirmative that she can accept or imagine the housekeeper's asserting with such spirit and energy while thanking God at the same time: that is, she interprets the (never-repeated) word “bad” as meaning merely “naughty”—evidence of high spirits, normal and even desirable in a boy. She allows herself to be pulled in the direction Mrs. Grose is pulling her (she is “keeping pace with her answer”), though it seems she is uneasy over this so-easy papering-over of the possibilities inherent in this key word: she would rather have had Mrs. Grose face squarely the substantialist sense and deny it rather than pretend it didn't exist.

It is this uneasiness, in fact, which seems to produce her continued probing, as in the last line of this particular exchange, which produces another idea: “‘So do I!’ I eagerly brought out. ‘But not to the degree to contaminate—’” This last word is, of course, borrowed from biology and has distinct substantialist overtones: contamination is usually invisible to the naked eye and can be instantaneous. Once again it is revised into a verb of action, which once again is laughed away: “‘To contaminate?’—my big word left her at a loss. I explained it. ‘To corrupt.’ ‘Are you afraid he'll corrupt you?’” asks Mrs. Grose, implying a continuous action (and reaction) over a long period. At this point the governess agrees to drop the subject: “I gave way for the time to the apprehension of ridicule” (641).

The final evidence that this conversation, like the previous one, revolves around an unenunciated ambiguity of the word “bad” is found in the fact that this ambiguity is precisely what Miles uses to taunt the governess when she catches him on the lawn at night, asserting it with the same sunny force that Mrs. Grose had used: “Think me—for a change—bad!” he suggests before kissing her. And then he insists on the word, knowing that the governess still dares not understand him in the more serious sense (all of this, or course, is the governess's interpretation): “When I'm bad I am bad!”—to which, she can only reply, “I see, I see—it's charming” (691). And the scene closes with Miles's repeating the word yet a third time and with the governess's “recognition of all the reserves of goodness that, for his joke, he had been able to draw upon,” where “recognition” clearly means something akin to “assertion.” The problems of articulation of this moral concept are thus linked to the fact that the articulation is of something absolute: the act of wrenching the word from the realm of silence is overwhelming precisely because the word seems to imply so much.

These moral dualisms of the governess, to be sure, are determined by Christian eschatology: Quint and Miss Jessel are “demons”; Miss Jessel “suffers the torments … of the damned” (709); the governess asks herself if the children might not already be “lost” (671).3 She then agonizes over the question of which of the two camps of good and evil, of lost and—we presume, though the word is never used—saved the children are in:

“They're not mine, they're not ours. They're his and they're hers.”

“Quint's and that woman's?”

“Quint's and that woman's. They want to get at them.”

Oh how, at this, poor Mrs. Grose appeared to study them. “But for what?”

“For the love of all the evil that, in those dreadful days, the pair put into them. And to ply them with that evil still to keep up the work of demons, is what brings the others back.”


The reader may sense from this that the conclusions the governess comes to here are as extreme in one direction as her first beatific perception of the children was in the other; thus this utter disillusionment is only the logical flip side of her saccharine, initial point of departure. At the beginning, in fact, Miles has “a positive fragrance of purity” and an “air of knowing nothing in the world but love” as well as “a sweetness of innocence”; the purity of both children is also clear to the governess because they are—here she is referring to Miles—“incredibly beautiful” (644). There is, moreover, a line of critical thinking produced precisely by this sense that the governess's reactions to both ghosts and children are extreme, though (unlike my point of view) it takes for granted that her reactions are justified and sets out to prove as a result that the pair's goings-on must have been truly awful. The suggestion is that Quint's relations with Miss Jessel were sado-masochistic in nature or that he molested the children, thereby causing Miles' possible homosexual misconduct at school.4

But this last point is clearly mere speculation, the headmaster's letter, the only real evidence we have on the matter, tells us nothing. In fact, I believe we are justified only in concluding that Miss Jessel died pregnant by Quint or in giving birth—this the result of an affair which the children knew about and which she, despite the difference in social status between Quint and herself, positively desired. “She couldn't have stayed,” says Mrs. Grose (reminding us of the phrase current until quite recently: “They had to get married …”), and she admits that she “wanted not to know” what Miss Jessel died of—thereby clearly linking the cause of her death to the scandal. Quint, for his part, seems to have sinned by not respecting his place as a menial (usurping the master's clothes and responsibilities) as well as by involving a “lady” in his designs.5

The strongest evidence for the suggestion that the sexual relations of the two were in some way perverse seems to be in the exchange where Mrs. Grose, speaking of Quint, tells the governess: “He did what he wished.” “With her?” asks the governess. “With them all,” replies the housekeeper. Yet this is the passage which goes on to hint at what I take to be Miss Jessel's pregnancy and death, so that these initial references to perversion—if such they be—are not even reacted to properly, and the conversation goes into what must, morally speaking, be a decrescendo before being merely broken off. It seems unlikely, moreover, that women sufficiently shocked by mere pregnancy as to refer to it with the obliqueness practiced here could be so cool in referring to considerably more brutal goings-on, and this initially, rather than as a build-up of moral gravity to an indictment.

By the same token, time spent by Quint with Miles is simply time spent together (scandalous enough for Quint's being a menial), and his shocking “freedom” with them all is sufficiently abhorrent for the same reason. Nor do I think the “vices” of Quint referred to at one point, and discussed by Evans, are any more than the affair with Miss Jessel, already appalling enough for this exaggerated world of substantives and exclusion. We should not, that is, underestimate the prudery of these women—in my terms, their respect for the world of exclusion and silence that almost comes to seem more substantial than the world of the articulable.

In fact, I believe that the ghosts are the logical expression of this constant valorization of the world of silence and evil through the power this world seems to hold over acts of articulation and perceptions of virtue. It is the logic of this work as a whole—that is, transcending the psyche of a particular person—that suggests this view through its clear delineation of the two realms of the articulable and good on the one hand and the bad and condemned to silence on the other.6

We may note as well that much of the fiction of James is informed by a similar logic of articulation and exclusion, and, in noting this, we may be even more willing to let go of the question of the objectivity of the ghosts at Bly, seeing them instead as symptomatic of larger forces at work in James' entire oeuvre. The repressed middle-aged gentleman longing after an experience he will never have is, of course, one of the commonplaces in James (and James criticism), as is its female flip side, the awful Europeanized American women who accept (and, it seems, positively encourage) sins of a sexual nature. Nearly all moral judgments in James, moreover, are as absolute as those of the governess: Winterbourne's big question in Daisy Miller is precisely to which of a pair of either/or categories Daisy belongs; extramarital sex is as unquestionable a sin in The Golden Bowl (where Maggie's greatness is that she manages to overcome her perfectly justified horror at this in search of a higher goal, so that she attains sainthood) as it is in The Ambassadors (where Strether finally stops kidding himself that Europe can be good for Chad, or himself, when he realizes that in fact Chad's relationship is sexual). And the European/American duality at the heart of the “internationalist” works, from the first of them to the last, is hardly less absolutist and schematic.

Many of James' characters, moreover, have the same difficulties as the governess in articulating elements belonging to the region of darkness (which is sometimes almost synonymous with the region of the distasteful). Strether never can bring himself to name the odious, or dreadfully common, article on which Chad's fortune rests; Daisy's sin is that she goes around saying what she thinks; nobody ever says just what Millie Theale's illness is; and whatever it is that Maisie knows, it is certainly not because she has been told. Maisie, in fact, seems almost a prototype for the reader of much later James: a great deal of the conversation in The Golden Bowl takes on its hermetic character because the characters continually “hang fire” in order to avoid saying things that the other members of their world seem able to intuit (much as the governess and Mrs. Grose operate by unspoken understanding) but that James refuses to explain to the outsider; thus, when the characters find each other “wonderful,” “superb,” and “courageous,” the reader can only shake his or her head and wonder why.

This moral absolutism, this sharp division of the world into the two realms of the articulated and the vast Out There which contains so many of the more violent elements of human nature, this extreme faith in the almost mystic power of articulation: these are, it seems, what produce the ghosts at Bly, not the hallucinations of one poor character. The inhabitants of James' world may sometimes seem like a circle of pioneers in their stagecoaches, huddled together in protection against the Indians whom they almost seem to call up out of the brush by their very fear and defensiveness. James' works, in fact, are frequently as touching as a good Western in their assumptions regarding the substantive nature of Good and Evil. Touching, because they delineate a world which the knowledge of the terrible ordinariness of evil has not yet sullied, a world of extreme black and white contrasts rather than the shadow-world of grays in which so many of us have learned to live, a world in which speech seems the ultimate action rather than (as it may seem in our daily lives) the most futile and debased.


  1. The major contributions of these two groups form almost the entirety of Gerald Willen's still invaluable A Casebook on Henry James's “The Turn of the Screw” (New York: Crowell, 1960).

  2. Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw,” in Great Short Novels of Henry James, ed. Philip Rahv (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1986), p. 732. Future references are cited in the text.

  3. Robert Heilman, making something of the same point, offers an interesting analysis of the dualisms in the work as corresponding to the elements of a Christian morality play. See “‘The Turn of the Screw’ as Poem,” Casebook, pp. 174–188.

  4. This idea is suggested, or touched on, by Oliver Evans in “James's Air of Evil: ‘The Turn of the Screw,’” and by Oscar Cargill in “Henry James as Freudian Pioneer”; see Casebook, pp. 209–210 and 237, respectively.

  5. The aspect of social transgression has been analyzed by Thomas Mabry Cranfill and Robert Lanier Clark, Jr., in An Anatomy ofThe Turn of the Screw” (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1965), pp. 106–117.

  6. A number of other commentators have sensed, for reasons different from mine, that there is some inherent connection between the ghosts and the humans here at Bly. Among them are: Mary Y. Hallab, “‘The Turn of the Screw’ Squared,” Southern Review, 13 (July 1977), 492–505; David S. Miall, “Redesigned Horror: James' Vision of Evil in ‘The Turn of the Screw,’” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 39 (December 1984), 305–327; Tobin Siebers, “Hesitation, History, and Reading,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 25 (Winter 1983), 558–573. The most involved analysis is that of Christine Brooke-Rose, which—like that of Siebers—is based on Todorov's notion of the fantastic and uses as examples some of the same scenes of breakings-off and fillings-in I have considered; see A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981).

Peter G. Beidler (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7897

SOURCE: “‘My Bad Things’: James on James,” in Ghosts, Demons, and Henry James: The Turn of the Screw at the Turn of the Century, University of Missouri Press, 1989, pp. 222–41.

[In the following essay, Beidler examines James's extratextual comments on The Turn of the Screw in order to gain insight on the story.]

Critics of both the evil-ghost and the deluded-governess persuasions are prone to seek corroboration for their theories by quoting Henry James's extratextual statements about the story. They point to his letters to his friends, and they cite his lengthy preface about the story, prepared a decade after the first publication of the story and published as part of the New York Edition in 1908. Some critics of both persuasions find what they think of as ample support for their readings in these after-the-fact authorial statements. Where James's comments do not support their readings, they call him “evasive” or else proclaim all extratextual comments to be “irrelevant” to an explication of the text. Of course, James's comments after he wrote The Turn of the Screw are often both evasive and irrelevant: evasive because he probably found it demeaning to be utterly explicit about explaining his own work; irrelevant because the story does, after all, speak for itself. Still, certain of James's after-the-fact comments are worth looking at in connection with the present study, partly because they sometimes illuminate now ambiguous intentions and partly because some of what I have been saying in previous chapters may shed light on what James meant by certain of his comments about the story.

Let us consider, for example, a couple of comments Henry James made about the governess. On December 9, 1898—just a year after he finished writing The Turn of the Screw—James replied to a letter (now lost) in which H. G. Wells had apparently gently criticized The Turn of the Screw. Wells particularly wished that James had more fully characterized the governess. In his reply Henry James described his story as “essentially a pot-boiler and a jeu d'esprit,” but did give a more specific reply to Wells's comment about the weakly characterized governess. I quote here that portion of James's reply to Wells:

Bless your heart, I think I could easily say worse of the T. of the S., the young woman, the spooks, the style, the everything, than the worst any one else could manage. One knows the most damning things about one's self. Of course I had, about my young woman, to take a very sharp line. The grotesque business I had to make her picture and the childish psychology I had to make her trace and present, were, for me at least, a very difficult job, in which absolute lucidity and logic, a singleness of effect, were imperative. Therefore I had to rule out subjective complications of her own—play of tone etc.; and keep her impersonal save for the most obvious and indispensable little note of neatness, firmness and courage—without which she would n't have had her data.1

James's comment to Wells about having ruled out subjective complications of his narrator might be noted by those who insist upon reading the story as nothing more than the subjective complications of his narrator. James's comment that he needed “my young woman” to be firm and courageous in order for her to get data seems, in the light of what we have been saying about the science of psychical research, to mean simply that James needed a narrator who would not run trembling from the first evidence of the supernatural or of danger, for she would then not have stayed at Bly long enough to gather the data that were to form the heart of her narrative about children and “spooks.” All this suggests that James thought of the governess primarily as a means to get a story told, rather than as the central character in that story.

One other comment should be made about the governess's courage. Much has been said about her love for or infatuation with the uncle in Harley Street, especially by critics who desire to emphasize her faults—her general unreliability, her “sexual repression,” her desire to draw attention to her “slighted charms,” and so on. We might do well to recall that the narrator of the frame story tells us that her desire not to disappoint the “splendid” man who put so much trust in her “gave her the courage she afterwards showed” (p. 4). It is unfortunate that whereas the narrator emphasized the infatuation as explanation for the courage she showed at Bly, many critics have emphasized the infatuation as explanation for her lunacy. Henry James's letter to Wells suggests that he might have sided with his frame narrator in emphasizing her courage.

It may well be that a decade later Henry James was recalling this exchange of letters with H. G. Wells when he referred to a reader who had complained about the incomplete characterization of the governess. I quote the remark from the 1908 preface:

I recall for instance a reproach made me by a reader capable evidently, for the time, of some attention, but not quite capable of enough, who complained that I hadn't sufficiently “characterised” my young woman engaged in her labyrinth; had n't endowed her with signs and marks, features and humours, had n't in a word invited her to deal with her own mystery as well as with that of Peter Quint, Miss Jessel and the hapless children. I remember well, whatever the absurdity of its now coming back to me, my reply to that criticism—under which one's artistic, one's ironic heart shook for the instant almost to breaking. “You indulge in that stricture at your ease, and I don't mind confiding to you that—strange as it may appear!—one has to choose ever so delicately among one's difficulties, attaching one's self to the greatest, bearing hard on those and intelligently neglecting the others. If one attempts to tackle them all one is certain to deal completely with none; whereas the effectual dealing with a few casts a blest golden haze under cover of which, like wanton mocking goddesses in clouds, the others find prudent to retire. It was ‘déjà très-joli,’ in The Turn of the Screw, please believe, the general proposition of our young woman's keeping 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.”2

This passage is of particular interest for two reasons. First, James again explains that it simply was not his purpose in The Turn of the Screw to offer a full characterization of the governess. He was concerned, rather, with the affairs of “Peter Quint, Miss Jessel and the hapless children.” He could not do everything in one story and therefore chose to “intelligently neglect” the governess, to let her “retire.” All he wanted was to have her keep “crystalline” her “record” of the events at Bly. He felt he could not do that if he also tried to endow her with complex signs, marks, features, humors, and mysteries of her own.

Second, James makes an important distinction between the governess's record of the events at Bly and “her explanation of them, a different matter.” If the reading I have been proposing is right, this remark suggests that James wanted to have his narrator record what she observed with as much accuracy and clarity as he could manage, but he did not want her fully to understand or be able to explain the meaning of all that she observed. To be more specific, this remark suggests that he wanted her to see the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and he wanted her accurately to sense that they are somehow out to “get” the children. But he wanted her to be wrong in thinking that the mere visibility of the ghosts is a threat and that to protect Miles and Flora all she has to do is continue to see the ghosts. She does not, in any case, recognize the real danger to the children: that the malignant spirits of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel can possess her young charges and in that manner lure them into evil, into death, and into damnation. The governess does, to be sure, give some early hints that the children might possibly at times be possessed. For example, she notes her puzzlement that Miles is able to do so very well in his lessons, his feats of entertainment, his memorizing, his acting. She speaks of having “the impression, if I had dared to work it out, that he was under some influence” (p. 39). Henry James does not want her to dare to work it out, at least not yet, but she nevertheless leaves this hint, for readers who do want to work it out, of the possibility that the “influence” may involve possession. Rather than have her “explain” everything that is going on, he wants her to get on with her record of the events in the story. She does so. Her record of what happens is generally reliable; her explanation of what happens is not always reliable.

And why should her explanation be reliable? It would scarcely have served James's literary purposes to have the governess fully understand and accurately explain all the mysteries at Bly. That would have made the reader's job too easy and would have shed light into too many corners James preferred to leave shadowy. The governess has much in common with other Jamesian “unreliable narrators.” The purpose of the unreliability here, however, is not to direct the reader's attention to her own flaws but rather to create ambiguity regarding the exact nature of the mysterious phenomena she witnesses. James speaks in several places about his desire to leave unspecified the precise evil of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Nowhere, however, does he speak more directly than in the 1908 preface:

Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself—and that already is a charming job—and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.3

For the governess to be more reliable, to understand more accurately or completely the mysteries at Bly, would have reduced Henry James to giving those “weak specifications.” He wanted the governess to understand Peter Quint and Miss Jessel only partially, because he wanted the reader's imagination, the reader's own horror of them, to provide details of the utmost evil possible. James thought one of his primary tasks in The Turn of the Screw was to avoid letting his narrator tell too much about his “bad things.” He had seen fiction fail too often from that very fault. To quote again from the preface:

One had seen, in fiction, some grand form of wrong-doing, or better still of wrong-being, imputed, seen it promised and announced as by the hot breath of the Pit—and then, all lamentably, shrink to the compass of some particular brutality, some particular immorality, some particular infamy portrayed: with the result, alas, of the demonstration's falling sadly short. If my bad things, for The Turn of the Screw, I felt, should succumb to this danger, if they should n't seem sufficiently bad, there would be nothing for me but to hang my artistic head lower than I had ever known occasion to do.4

Henry James can scarcely have known that in leaving the doings of his “bad things” so unspecified and imparticular, he was to invite his readers to imagine that it was rather his narrator who was the only truly bad thing in the story.

More specifically, what did Henry James have to say, after he wrote The Turn of the Screw, about Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, his “bad things” at Bly? He says, for example, that his ghosts are not the kind of ghosts reported in the annals of psychical research:

I had for instance simply to renounce all attempt to keep the kind and degree of impression I wished to produce on terms with the to-day so copious psychical record of cases of apparitions. Different signs and circumstances, in the reports, mark these cases; different things are done—though on the whole very little appears to be—by the persons appearing; the point is, however, that some things are never done at all: this negative quantity is large—certain reserves and proprieties and immobilities consistently impose themselves. Recorded and attested “ghosts” are in other words as little expressive, as little dramatic, above all as little continuous and conscious and responsive, as is consistent with their taking the trouble—and an immense trouble they find it, we gather—to appear at all. Wonderful and interesting therefore at a given moment, they are inconceivable figures in an action—and The Turn of the Screw was an action, desperately, or it was nothing. I had to decide in fine between having my apparitions correct and having my story “good”—that is producing my impression of the dreadful, my designed horror. Good ghosts, speaking by book, make poor subjects, and it was clear that from the first my hovering prowling blighting presences, my pair of abnormal agents, would have to depart altogether from the rules. They would be agents in fact; there would be laid on them the dire duty of causing the situation to reek with an air of Evil. Their desire and their ability to do so, visibly measuring meanwhile their effect, together with their observed and described success—this was exactly my central idea; so that, briefly, I cast my lot with pure romance, the appearances conforming to the true type being so little romantic.5

That is a rich passage, worth reading for a number of reasons. It reveals, for example, that Henry James was undeniably familiar with the reports of the Society for Psychical Research. More important, it reveals that he thought the immobile ghosts of the psychical research reports, though perhaps “wonderful and interesting” at a given moment, simply would not be sufficient for an effective or extended story requiring action. In saying all that, James reveals just what kinds of ghosts he thought would be effective in his story, his “action”: “expressive,” “mobile,” “dramatic,” “responsive,” “active,” “purposeful,” “continuous,” “conscious,” and “romantic” ghosts. “Good” ghosts, the “true type” of ghost found in the psychical research reports, simply could not provide him with the “hovering prowling blighting presences” he had in mind. Although the official reports could provide him with certain static details about ghostly appearance and demeanor, James's “abnormal agents” must be not the merely telepathic agents that men like Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney described, but “agents in fact.” Critics have generally ignored the implications of that phrase, but what can “agents in fact” mean except nontelepathic, nonsubjective ghosts? Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not merely illusionary images or thought-transferred memories of dead persons. They are real agents come back from the dead for what James called in his preface “a second round of badness.”6

When he says, “I cast my lot with pure romance,” Henry James means not that he abandoned the visual appearance or behavior of the “recorded and attested” modern ghosts, but that he gave Peter Quint and Miss Jessel the motives and the power for action of the older-style fictional ghosts. He offers some illuminating alternative terms or synonyms for the kinds of ghosts he is talking about:

Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not “ghosts” at all, as we now know the ghost, but goblins, elves, imps, demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft; if not, more pleasingly, fairies of the legendary order, wooing their victims forth to see them dance under the moon.7

Surely there is nothing less evasive in James's preface than that statement. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not the kinds of ghosts discussed in the modern psychical cases presented by Myers and Gurney, but are beings of an older, more romantic, order: demons, elves, fairies, goblins, imps. Have we forgotten what those terms mean?

I quote below from the Oxford English Dictionary, omitting those meanings that are utterly irrelevant in the present context and omitting all illustrative examples:

Demon. A supernatural being of a nature intermediate between that of gods and men; an inferior divinity, spirit, genius (including the souls or ghosts of deceased persons). Applied to the idols or gods of the heathen, and to the “evil” or “unclean spirits” by which demoniacs were possessed.

Elf. The name of a class of supernatural beings, in early Teutonic belief supposed to possess formidable magical powers, exercised variously for the benefit or the injury of mankind. They were believed to be of dwarfish form, to produce diseases of various kinds, to act as incubi and succubi, to cause nightmares, and to steal children. … Sometimes distinguished from a “fairy”: (a) as an inferior or subject species; (b) as a more malignant being, an “imp,” “demon.”

Fairy. One of a class of supernatural beings of diminutive size, in popular belief supposed to possess magical powers and to have great influence for good or evil over the affairs of man.

Goblin. A mischievous and ugly demon.

Imp. A “child” of the devil, or of hell. … Applied to … petty fiends or evil spirits. … A little devil or demon, an evil spirit.

These definitions, of words Henry James himself used to describe Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, help us to determine more clearly that he had in mind creating malignant spirits who interfered, with evil intent, in the affairs of the living. When we put such definitions together with the reference, in the last passage quoted above from the preface, to the children as “victims” of these spirits, there seems little reason to doubt that one of James's primary purposes in The Turn of the Screw was to portray two innocent children beset by the most malicious evil he and his readers, between them, could conjure up.

I should like now to consider one other phrase in that last sentence quoted above from the preface: that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are “demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft.” I have for the most part refrained in earlier chapters from referring to witchcraft. I have been concerned rather to show that Henry James knew, drew on, and carefully selected among much more recent phenomena reported by contemporary psychical researchers and spiritualists. But now that James himself has given the cue, I feel that I must remind modern readers about what some of the seventeenth-century witchcraft cases were like. I can best do so by quoting selections from three of those old cases. My quotations are all taken from George Burr's Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648–1706. Although Burr's book was published in 1914, just two years before Henry James's death and thus too late for James to have read it before writing The Turn of the Screw, it merely gathers together and republishes cases that were in print much earlier and so available in a number of sources. Because Burr's introductory essays and notes will inform interested readers about the publication history of the narratives, I shall say little more about that history here. My own concern is with the cases themselves, because they shed light on Henry James's comment about one of the traditions that he acknowledges as providing background for his conception of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.

The first witch case I cite was reported by Increase Mather in his 1684 Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences. It involves the demon possession of a sixteen-year-old girl in Groton, Massachusetts:

Another thing which caused a noise in the Countrey, and wherein Satan had undoubtedly a great influence, was that which hapned at Groton. There was a Maid in that Town (one Elizabeth Knap) who in the Moneth of October, Anno 1671, was taken after a very strange manner, sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing, sometimes roaring hideously, with violent motions and agitations of her body, crying out Money, Money, etc. … Six Men were scarce able to hold her in some of her fits, but she would skip about the House yelling and looking with a most frightful Aspect. … And now a Daemon began manifestly to speak in her. Many words were uttered wherein are the Labial Letters, without any motion of her Lips, which was a clear demonstration that the voice was not her own. Sometimes Words were spoken seeming to proceed out of her throat, when her Mouth was shut. Sometimes with her Mouth wide open, without the use of any of the Organs of speech.

(“Miss Knap and Her Accusing Demon”)

The case of Elizabeth Knap shows that victims of witchcraft often behaved very much like the victims of spirit or demon possession, showing great strength, uttering strange speech, and generally behaving very unlike their normal selves.

A somewhat different case is that of Bridget Bishop, reported by Increase Mather's son Cotton in his Wonders of the Invisible World. A longtime resident of Salem Village, Bridget Bishop was the first of the Salem witches to be tried (on June 2, 1692) and the first to be executed (on June 10). Cotton Mather's account of her trial is interesting to us for several reasons. Most important, it demonstrates the bad effects that witches were supposed to have on children. Note particularly that Bridget Bishop was accused of having caused the deaths of the Stacy child and the Gray child, as well as the illness of the Shattock child. For readers of James's story familiar with such accusations leveled at witches, the illness of Flora and the death of Miles might have had particular resonances. And I wonder if the last name of the members of the Bly family who testified against Bridget Bishop could have suggested to Henry James the name he gave to the country manor in which his mysterious story is set. I reproduce only selections from Cotton Mather's long account of the Bishop trial:

I. She was Indicted for Bewitching of several persons in the Neighbourhood, the Indictment being drawn up, according to the Form in such Cases usual. And pleading, Not Guilty, there were brought in several persons, who had long undergone many kinds of Miseries, which were preternaturally Inflicted, and generally ascribed unto an horrible Witchcraft. …

VI. Samuel Gray testify'd, That about fourteen years ago, he wak'd on a Night, and saw the Room where he lay full of Light; and that he then saw plainly a Woman between the Cradle and the Bed-side, which look'd upon him. He Rose, and it vanished; tho' he found the Doors all fast. Looking out at the Entry-Door, he saw the same Woman, in the same Garb again; and said, In Gods Name, what do you come for? He went to Bed, and had the same Woman again assaulting him. The Child in the Cradle gave a great schreech, and the Woman Disappeared. It was long before the Child could be quieted; and tho' it were a very likely thriving Child, yet from this time it pined away, and after divers months dy'd in a sad Condition.

VII. John Bly and his Wife testify'd. …

IX. Samuel Shattock testify'd, That in the Year 1680, this Bridget Bishop often came to his house upon such frivolous and foolish errands, that they suspected she came indeed with a purpose of mischief. Presently whereupon his eldest child, which was of as promising Health and Sense as any child of its Age, began to droop exceedingly; and the oftener that Bishop came to the House, the worse grew the Child. As the Child would be standing at the Door, he would be thrown and bruised against the Stones, by an Invisible Hand, and in like sort knock his Face against the sides of the House, and bruise it after a miserable manner. Afterwards this Bishop would bring him things to Dy, whereof he could not Imagine any use; and when she paid him a piece of Money, the Purse and Money were unaccountably conveyed out of a Lock'd box, and never seen more. The Child was immediately hereupon taken with terrible fits, whereof his Friends thought he would have dyed: indeed he did almost nothing but cry and Sleep for several Months together; and at length his understanding was utterly taken away. …

XI. William Stacy … testify'd, that he verily Believed, the said Bishop was the Instrument of his Daughter Priscilla's Death; of which suspicion, pregnant Reasons were assigned.

XII. To Crown all, John Bly and William Bly Testify'd, That being Employ'd by Bridget Bishop, to help take down the Cellar-wall of the old House, wherein she formerly Lived, they did in Holes of the said old Wall find several Poppets, made up of Rags and Hogs Brussels, with Headless Pins in them, the Points being outward. Whereof she could give no Account unto the Court, that was Reasonable or Tolerable.

(“Mrs. Bishop and Her Salem Witchery”)

There were, of course, many more witch trials at Salem, but I need cite no more of them here. The Bishop case is more or less typical and, as the first and most prominent, set the tone both for the later trials and for the reports about them.

I would like to refer to one more case, an earlier one than these last two, that has particular relevance to a discussion of The Turn of the Screw. Not only is it about the diabolical temptation of a boy who reminds us of Miles, but it also reveals a number of parallels with Miles's experiences: the boy's being cut off from his parents; the distant concern, through letters, of an uncle; the speaking through the boy's mouth of words not his own; the devil's attempt to prevent the boy from making confessions that would free him; the boy's blurted rebuke of “the devil!”; the astonishing noise made by the devil as he leaves the boy's body after the tormented boy confesses. Even the special circumstances of publication of the narrative remind us of James's story. The narrative, published by Cotton Mather in his 1689 Memorable Provinces, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, concerns events that had happened some thirty years before publication. Cotton Mather claimed not to know what finally happened to the boy of the narrative, for he was limited in his knowledge to an account of the incidents written in his own grandfather's hand. “I have the Manuscript,” he reports in an introductory note, “from whence I have caused it to be Transcribed.” The Turn of the Screw, we recall, was also said to have been published from a transcribed copy of a faded manuscript written many years earlier in its author's own hand. Here is Cotton Mather's grandfather's narrative:

The Boy was for his natural Parts more than ordinary at seven years old. He with many others went to see a Conjurer play Tricks in Holland. There it was strongly suggested to him, He should be as good an Artist as he. From thence to eleven year old he used the Trade of inventing Lyes, and Stealing mony, Running away from his Father, spending of it at Dice, and with the vilest Company; and his Trade he used in that space (he confessed) above Forty times at least, and many strange Instances he gives of it. His Father following him with constant Instruction, and Correction, he was despertely hardned under all, and his heart sett in a way of Malice against the Word of God, and all his Father did to restrain him. When he was about ten or eleven years old, he ran away from Rotterdam, to Delph; and the Devil appeared to him there in the shape of a Boy, counselling him not to hearken to the Word of God, nor unto any of his Father's Instructions, and propounding to him, to Enter into a Covenant with him. Being somewhat fearful at first, desired that he would not appear to him in a shape, but by a voice, and though his heart did inwardly consent, to what the Devil said, yet he was withheld that he could not then Enter into a Covenant with him. His Father not knowing this, but of his other Wickedness, being a godly Minister, procured many Christians to join with him in a day of Humiliation; confessed and bewailed his Sins, prayed for him, and sent him to New-England and so committed him to God. From that time to this, being now about Sixteen years old, the Devil hath constantly come to him by a voice; and he held a constant Discourse with him. … Still the Devil would not away, nor could he get from him. Then out of Fear he cryed out, “Lord, Jesus, rebuke the devil!”… He would fain then have confessed his sins, but when he was about to do it the Devil still held his mouth, that he could not. He entreated God, to release him, promising to confess and forsake his Sins, and the Lord did so; but he being well, grew as bad, or worse than ever. About six weeks since, his Convulsion Fits came again three times most dreadfully, with some Intermissions, and his former Horrours and Fears. He would have confessed his Sins but could not. It pleased God to put it into the heart of one to ask him, Whether he had any Familiarity with the Devil? he got out so much then as, Yes. He fetching Mr. Pierson, the Convulsion Fits left him, and he confessed all, how it had been with him. That very night the Devil came to him, and told him, Had he blabbed out such things? He would teach him to blabb! and if he would not then write and seal the Agreement, he would tear him in pieces, and he refusing, the Devil took a corporal Possession of him, and hath not ceased to torment him extremely ever since. If any thing be spoken to him, the Devil answereth (and many times he barks like a Fox, and hisseth like a Serpent) sometimes with horrible Blasphemies against the Name of Christ; and at some other times the Boy is sensible. When he hath the Libertie of his Voice, he tells what the Devil saith to him, urging him to seal the Covenant still, and that he will bring Paper, Pen and Ink in the night, when none shall see, pleading, that God hath cast him off, that Christ cannot save him: That When He was upon earth He could cast out devils, but now He is in Heaven He cannot. Sometimes he is ready to yeild to all in a desperate way. Sometimes he breaks out into Confession of his former sins, as they come into his mind; exceedingly judging himself and justifying God in His for ever leaving of him in the hands of Satan. Once he was heard to Pray in such a manner so sutable to his Condition, so Aggravating his Sin, and pleading with God for mercy, and in such a strange, high enlarged manner, as judicious godly persons then present, affirm they never heard the like in their lives, that it drew abundance of tears from the eyes of all present, being about twenty persons. But his torment increased upon him worse after such a time; or if any thing were spoken to him from the Word of God by others, or they pray with him. The last week after he had confessed one strange Passage, namely that once in Discourse he told the Devil, that if he would make his Spittle to scald a dog, he would then go on in a way of Lying and Dissembling, and believe that he should do it, which he said, he did with all his heart, and so spit on the dog, and with that a deal of Scalding Water did poure on the Dog. In pursuance of his Promise, he went on in a way of Lying and Dissembling: That when he was urged about it, that he had done some mischief to the dog, then he fell down into a Swound, as if he had been dead. As soon as he had confessed this, the Devil went out of him with an astonishing Noise, to the terrour of those then present. … And the Devil entered unto him again a Second time, railing upon him, and calling him, Blab-tongue, and Rogue! he had promis'd to keep things secret, he would teach him to blabb, he would tear him in pieces. Since, he hath kept his Body in continual Motion, speaking in him, and by him, with a formidable Voice: sometimes singing of Verses wicked and witty, that formerly he had made against his Father's Ministry, and the Word of God, etc.

(“Mr. Blank and the Devil Who Tempts Him”)

Perhaps these narratives of witchcraft cases can help us to understand what Henry James meant when he spoke of “demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft.” It is not, of course, that James believed in witchcraft. Indeed, in his 1908 preface he calls his story everything but true or factual: “irresponsible little fiction … flower of high fancy … sinister romance … exercise of the imagination … fairy-tale pure and simple … piece of ingenuity pure and simple … pure romance … fable.” James says nothing of his belief or disbelief in witchcraft, and we have no need to speculate about that belief or disbelief. What he does do, and what he later said he did, is use for his own artistic ends some of the narrative characteristics associated with witchcraft. Wanting his story to “reek with an air of Evil,” he turned to old stories of witchcraft for models of the greatest imaginable evil: the Satan-tormented demoniac, the destroyer of innocent children, the devil acting directly as tempter and motivator.

Evil motive, the ultimate in sinister malignancy, was of course what witchcraft was all about. James in his preface expressed his need to make his “demon-spirits,” Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, seem convincingly motivated by evil:

The essence of the matter was the villainy of motive in the evoked predatory creatures; so that the result would be ignoble—by which I mean would be trivial—were this element of evil but feebly or inanely suggested. Thus arose … the question of how best to convey that sense of the depths of the sinister without which my fable would so woefully limp. Portentous evil—how was I to save that, as an intention on the part of my demon-spirits, from the drop?8

Henry James's concern in this and in most of his other remarks in his preface seems to have been with the artistry of his story, with the literary effect rather than with the literal factuality of his materials. Near the beginning of his 1908 preface, he laments the end of the good, old, horror-producing ghost story:

The good, the really effective and heart-shaking ghost-stories (roughly so to term them) appeared all to have been told, and neither new crop nor new type in any quarter awaited us. The new type indeed, the mere modern “psychical” case, washed clean of all queerness as by exposure to a flowing laboratory tap, and equipped with credentials vouching for this—the new type clearly promised little, for the more it was respectably certified the less it seemed of a nature to rouse the dear old sacred terror.9

In view of this and James's other statements about his intentions, and in view of the story he wrote, can there be any doubt that in The Turn of the Screw Henry James attempted to tell a ghost story about the old type of ghost? He knew the new type, the modern psychical ghost, but he wanted to write something more heart-shaking, something to stir up “the dear old sacred terror.” Some readers may think that James has failed to stir their hearts or to inspire them with terror. Others may think ghost stories in general are too trivial to be taken seriously as literature. Others may think that James should have tried for more subtle characterization, or a more complicated plot, or a more fully characterized governess. Others may simply not enjoy a fable about how inexperienced goodness pales in the presence of absolute evil, or a story about how an innocent youth is corrupted, then grows to manhood but dies in the process. These are all quite legitimate responses to The Turn of the Screw. It should, however, be enough for such readers to say simply, “I don't like it.” Instead, many of them have felt obliged to proclaim, “James did better than that.” Instead of taking Chaucer's age-old advice to turn over the leaf and choose another tale, they try to recast this one into something less “lazy,” more “rich,” and more “modern.”

I have tried to argue in these pages that Henry James's The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story. Whether it can also be, simultaneously, the story of an insane governess who merely imagines that she sees ghosts, I must leave to others to decide. It would be attractive, perhaps, to attribute to Henry James, the master craftsman of modern fiction, the ability to write the story in such a way that both the evil-ghost and the deluded-governess stories are simultaneously plausible. Certainly some modern critics have made just that claim.10 Other readers will find this claim unconvincing. Their instincts tell them that this story is to be read one way or the other, but not both ways. A healthy ambiguity they can appreciate in questions about why Ahab chases the whale or why Dimmesdale refuses to join Hester on the scaffold or why the governess stays at Bly. The various ways of answering those questions will seem, to such readers, not to tear the characters asunder but to enrich them. These readers, however, will feel differently about the question of whether the governess is sane or insane. If she is sane and sees ghosts, that is one story; if she is insane and only imagines that she sees ghosts, that is another. These readers will feel uncomfortable trying to have it both ways, for they will feel that the governess cannot be both sane and insane, cannot both see and imagine the ghosts.

It is obvious that I am not comfortable with the deluded-governess reading, at least as I described that reading in my introduction. I find the evil-ghost reading to be more satisfactory, especially if we think of it as the governess's own “reading” of what happens at Bly. It tells us what she sees, what she understands. Most of what she sees and what she understands is what we readers are to see and understand. In at least one important way, however, the evil-ghost reading is insufficient and needs to be supplemented—but not supplanted—by a reading that did not occur to the governess. We might call this the “possessed-children” reading. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are, to the governess, what she thinks they are: ghosts, and evil. To Miles and Flora, however, they are something different, and a great deal more dangerous. Whereas they appear merely to the governess, they appear through the children. They are diabolical presences who have taken advantage of two love-starved orphans and have tempted them into an early experience of evil. They are demonic forces that can supplant the children's own spirits and coerce them into doing and saying things they would not normally think of doing or saying. Although the governess does not understand all this, she observes the phenomena and reports them carefully enough so that readers aware of the concept of demon possession and of certain ancient and modern instances of it can read past her ignorance to a finer understanding than she has of what goes on in the story she tells. One of the purposes of my book has been to acquaint modern readers with that concept and with some of those instances so that they can more fully understand The Turn of the Screw as Henry James seems to have meant for them to understand it.

In 1889 Henry James wrote an introduction to a translation of The Odd Number, a collection of thirteen tales by Guy de Maupassant. Although one of the tales is of more than passing interest to us because it is about a ghost (see “A Ghost”), my primary concern here is with certain remarks that James made in his introduction. James talked about the difficulty readers of one nation have in understanding the writers of another nation:

It is so embarrassing to speak of the writers of one country to the readers of another that I sometimes wonder at the complacency with which the delicate task is entered upon. These are cases in which the difficult art of criticism becomes doubly difficult, inasmuch as they compel the critic to forfeit what I may call his natural advantages. The first of these natural advantages is that those who read him shall help him by taking a great many things for granted; shall allow him his general point of view and his terms—terms which he is not obliged to define. The relation of the American reader to the French writer, for instance, is, on the contrary, so indirect that it gives him who proposes to mediate between them a great deal more to do. Here he has in a manner to define his terms and establish his point of view.11

The same might be said for writers of one generation reading a work written for another generation. A special understanding, a special definition of terms, a special point of view is needed. As Henry James attempted to “mediate” between English-speaking audiences and Guy de Maupassant, so have I attempted in this book to “mediate” between readers of my own generation and Henry James. By ferreting out and reproducing for modern eyes some documents that help us understand Henry James's terms and his point of view, I have tried to aid readers in discovering the story Henry James wrote at the end of the nineteenth century as distinct from the one readers may think they read at the end of the twentieth.

The task I set for myself was to show how The Turn of the Screw, fiction though it is, derives from factual traditions about ghosts and demons. We cannot fully understand James's story without knowing some of the reported cases upon which he based it. If I have succeeded, then I have shown that almost every characteristic associated with Peter Quint and Miss Jessel—every detail of appearance, every action, every motive—was derived directly or indirectly from some “factual” tradition.

It may seem quixotic to suggest, after so much has been said by so many distinguished critics, that there is a correct way to read a work as rich and as ambiguous as The Turn of the Screw. Certainly I have no delusions that this will be the final word on the story, or that many readers who have grown to like the story another way will be swayed by what I have said and will now read it my way.

I am fully aware that many readers simply will not accept from Henry James a Gothic story about evil ghosts and demons tormenting innocent women and threatening innocent children. For such readers I have nothing more to say. I am fully aware that for some readers my insistence on taking the focus of the story off the governess and placing it on two corrupt servants and two corruptible children will seem like an attempt to steal away much of the pleasure they have taken in the story. For such readers I have nothing more to say. I am fully aware that for some readers my interpretation will seem to reduce the rich story they have been enjoying into an unimaginative account based on contemporary psychical theory. For such readers I do have a little more to say.

I do not view The Turn of the Screw as in any sense unimaginative. It is obvious that although Henry James drew from contemporary “factual” accounts, we no longer read those accounts—whereas we still read, and with renewed interest, The Turn of the Screw. The factual accounts focus on event, James's story on character. They focus on fact, this on theme. They are boring, this gripping. They are earthbound, this soars. If, by attempting to direct readers' attention to the factual sources from which Henry James drew some of his material, I have given the impression that Henry James's story is unoriginal, then I have done him a great disservice. I consider The Turn of the Screw to be amazingly original.

Surely it is wrong to call unoriginal a work that combines elements from so many traditions into something so unique, a piece of fiction so distinctive and so rich in texture that readers are still having difficulty naming its genre. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are so strikingly original that readers have seen no precedent, in either fact or fiction, for such ghost-demons. Surely it is wrong to call unoriginal an author who channeled three streams into a single new river, an author who took some old-style ghosts of romance, gave them the visual appearance and demeanor of the new-style ghosts of psychical research, then gave them power by allowing them to take possession of the bodies of the living. The result is an ambiguity bordering on confusion. It may seem improbable that the spirits of dead persons can be visible to one person and at the same time be taking demonic possession of another, but it is surely not unoriginal. I am aware of no other narrative—factual or fictional—in which visible ghosts were also possessing demons. Indeed, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are so strikingly original, so strikingly ambiguous, that many readers, unaware of the three separate traditions—the romantic, the scientific, and the demonic—that made them, have decided that the real ambiguity lies less in these strange ghost-demons than in the character of the young woman who, not quite understanding them herself, describes them.

And surely it is wrong to call unimaginative a work that incorporates such a wealth of gentle ambiguity, a work in which ghosts are also demons, in which their victims are both innocent and corrupt, in which the narrator is both accurate in her descriptions and inaccurate in her explanations. And surely there is nothing fact-bound or slavishly unoriginal in the way Henry James satisfied both the demands of an audience familiar with the facts of ghostly and demonic phenomena, and the demands of an audience that sensed that the best fiction—even the best realistic fiction—needed an element of the mysterious, the unspecified, the unexplained.


  1. James, Letters, ed. Edel, 4:86.

  2. James, The Turn of the Screw (New York: 1908), 120–21.

  3. Ibid., 123.

  4. Ibid., 122.

  5. Ibid., 121.

  6. Ibid., 122.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid., 117–18.

  10. See, for example, Paul N. Siegel, “Miss Jessel: Mirror Image of the Governess,” 30, and Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal, 229.

  11. Henry James, Introduction to Guy de Maupassant, The Odd Number, vii-viii.

Terry Heller (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6279

SOURCE: “Reading the Unreadable: Meaning in The Turn of the Screw,” in The Turn of the Screw: Bewildered Vision, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 123–40.

[In the following essay, Heller utilizes the device of the implied reader to explore the ambiguity of the ending of James's novella and explores the roles of meaning and ideology in the narrative.]


In his preface to the New York Edition, James characterized The Turn of the Screw as a piece of “cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught, … the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious” (NCE 120). It appears as a toy, a minor amusement like telling ghost stories before the fire at Christmas, but at its end The Turn of the Screw returns upon itself, refusing to end in the customary way. The tale insists upon its own unresolved ambiguity. We do not know what Miles's death means. Upon rereading, we discover depths of beauty and uncertainty in the governess that leave our attitude toward her changed, but provide no escape from ambiguity. The jaded think this just another easy thriller. The disillusioned, perhaps, find ghost stories boring. The fastidious expect to be able to spot weaknesses that will reveal the story's utter fictionality. James, however, breaks out somewhere else, by forcing our attention away from reading the ghosts and the children with the governess to reading the governess herself. Having made this move, he has caught his readers. We are caught in the ambiguous, double view of the governess and the children.

This view is like the optical illusion of a drawing that could be either two heads profiled and facing each other or a vase. Try as we might from our normal visual perspectives and assumptions, we cannot see both the faces and the vase at once. Likewise, we cannot accept both readings simultaneously, because they are mutually exclusive. There is no compromise reading in which the governess is both right and wrong about whether she saved Miles.

In The Delights of Terror I call this feature of the tale anticlosure, the refusal of the work to produce or directly suggest its own ending.1 We saw upon completing the rereading that we were not finished, that even after a second examination, the last events lead us again to the prologue, which contains an implicit epilogue, but which still insists upon becoming a prologue again.

In American and European literature different kinds of fiction have tended to produce their own particular kinds of closure. In general, those not structured as apologues or fables present us with characters about whom we are made to care and with alternative fates for those characters, some of which we come to prefer. The work ends when the characters come to or fail to achieve the preferred fate—“the prince carried her off to his land.” The ending may be signaled as well by a tying up of loose ends that projects the fates or life experiences of various characters—“and they lived happily ever after.” Perhaps the most familiar form is the quest for a valuable object, marriage, or—what the governess wants—knowledge. From the moment she first sees Quint, she pursues sufficient knowledge to be certain how she should act, but she never learns enough. For the rest of her life she remains anxious to know and passes her doubt through Douglas to us.

Having no solution to its central enigma, The Turn of the Screw refuses to be read, provides no internal means of knowing when we have finished. Once we have absorbed this dilemma, our reading can continue unconsciously even when the text is in the garbage and we are in our showers. Neither of the two main ways of responding to it is satisfactory. The evidence for each undercuts the evidence favoring the other.

This ambiguity is uncomfortable, perhaps to the point of being terrifying. It is usually disturbing to desire certainty that cannot be had. The discomfort is greater if the issues are made to seem important: the sanity of the governess, the fate of a child's soul, whether there has been a murder. To explain the deeper and more formidable causes of terror in this tale, we need to resurrect the implied reader.

The implied reader is a version of myself I create in response to the elements of the tale as I gradually take in pieces of information and attempt to imagine wholes into which they fit. Upon first reading The Turn of the Screw, we are likely to create an implied reader appropriate to a popular horror thriller, an amusette. This reader tends to accept the governess's account uncritically. But when Miles dies and she asserts he is saved, we begin the reconstruction of the implied reader, for we have been trapped. We should have paid more attention to the governess as a character. We imagine a new whole in which the governess may or may not be responsible for Miles's death and in which all facts and interpretations become questionable. We find out they are, indeed, questionable, but we also learn that we cannot construct a reading of the governess that has any greater authority than her reading of herself. This leaves us with two implied readers. We are split between one reader who condemns the governess as mistaken and irresponsible and another reader who sees her as brilliant and heroic.

Unable to choose which of these readers to authorize, we are trapped in a dilemma precisely parallel to the governess's. She wants to read the children, but discovers two readings. She never has adequate information to choose between these readings. Because she loves the children, her problem is most intense. She cannot bear to think of hurting them, yet an incorrect choice must positively harm them. In this way she is different from us. She must act, and so she must choose, at the risk of harming those she loves. We cannot literally hurt the governess, and, theoretically at least, we can continue not choosing how to read her for as long as we can bear it.

Our desire for integrity in the construction of an implied reader requires that we remain true to our conceptions and attachments. We cannot deny the power of either reading of the governess without depriving her of her own integrity. As Felman argues, to condemn the governess as a madwoman is to do to her exactly what we would then be accusing her of doing to the children.2 To condemn her is to condemn ourselves; to absolve her is to deny her request for a true mirroring.

Responding to this tale as it requires becomes increasingly terrifying for the reader. We expect fictions to produce endings for themselves. We enter into the game of creating an implied reader in the faith that the role will close itself. James has created a fiction in which the role closes in on us. The implied reader splits into a vibration between two roles, a vibration that cannot end by itself as long as the reader continues to contemplate the work. Clearly the only ordinary means of escaping this entrapment is to actively forget the experience. This, however, is not very satisfying. Good readers often feel something is unfinished and find themselves returning to read and think again. The more we struggle with this split, the more we feel ourselves under the control of an external force. One way of putting it is that we feel the work controlling us.

We usually begin reading with a willing surrender of control, trusting the story to lift us out of ourselves to a more concentrated and significant level of experience than normal living provides. For many reasons we take pleasure in becoming another self at least slightly different from the self that does the laundry, attends committee meetings, and writes reports. James violates this trust. By splitting the implied reader into incompatible roles, he takes control of the real reader, the one who creates the implied reader, and forces the endless repetition of the tale in its various versions. The real reader is left at the end to find his or her own way—if there is one—of ceasing to vibrate between the split implied reader. If there is no way, the real reader is threatened with permanent transformation into this split implied reader, in perpetual colloquy about the governess and the children.

By violating the reader's expectation of a normal reading game, James makes the tale into an alien force that poses serious psychological danger. Expecting a work of art, I encounter a fictional mad scientist intent upon altering my personality. The work holds my mental being in its claws and tinkers with my sense of who I am. I know I can run screaming from this dark laboratory, but that only postpones what I really must do. I must find a way of regaining control over the situation, a way of closing the work myself.

The means of escape from James's trap is fairly easy to accomplish and to understand, though for most readers, judging from my personal experience as a reader and teacher, it is difficult to discover. The trap is made to hold us. But, by describing it, we have moved toward escaping it. To see how one is entangled is to begin to make possible the loosening of knots. This happens because we have found a perspective not directly available in the text.

We have been doing more than simply rereading the text. We have also constructed the “implied rereader” as a double, entrapped, implied reader. The implied reader is a concept, a name we have given to a dynamic element we can point to and describe in the experience of reading fiction. It is important to notice that we are describing processes of which we are normally unconscious. Only rather an odd reader would maintain an awareness of the implied reader. Instead, normal readers simply become that reader, because it is a necessary part of the reading process. By trying to articulate a particular implied reader, we have been observing ourselves as we read. In this way we mirror the governess's attempt to capture herself in her writing.

But also—and this is quite important—in attempting to read ourselves as we read, we have been following instructions implicit in James's text. On multiple levels James has been calling attention to the fictionality of the self. The governess invents selves for the ghosts and the children, eventually arriving at two versions for the children, and choosing one. She also presents different versions of her own self. Such multiple constructions of the self on the narrative level are repeated on the level of our self-creating activity, the making of implied readers. We make at least two and probably more implied readers.

James encourages awareness of the process of self-creation. He implies in the governess's activities that creating real selves is essentially similar to creating selves in reading fiction. By means of interacting with the symbol systems (culture/novella) into which we enter (birth/reading), we unconsciously build ideas of who we are. James shows this process in the narrative, and he catches us up in its limitations and terrors in the way he organizes the tale. Calling attention to the fictionality of the self hints at how one can successfully “escape” James's trap.

The Turn of the Screw offers perspective after perspective on the characters and events, yet none proves authoritative. This implies there is no authoritative perspective. The events at Bly cannot be read. If there is no master perspective, there is no master self that can see all. If there is no master self, then all selves are exposed as fictional. There is no model of the self to which we should all aspire. Rather, each self is its own fictional construct, belonging to its creator, the invisible awareness at the center of each of us.

This is an intellectual statement of what the reader who locates the main escape route from The Turn of the Screw discovers. This enlightenment happens when real readers find they can retreat to their own unique perspectives.

We think of ourselves as the self we are trying to be. But there is another entity that does this thinking, who participates in creating the idea of the self. Contemporary psychoanalysis sometimes calls this entity the subject. We can, for example, speak of the governess as trying to view herself as subject by means of the children. The occupation of the subject is normally to conform to its idea of itself. When reading fiction, however, it is freed temporarily from this work and allowed to play at creating selves.

James captures the self-creating activity of the subject, not allowing it simply to return to self-maintenance, but riveting its attention on the dilemma of the split implied reader. To flee from this dilemma accomplishes the return to normal activity, but with the permanent disturbance of those feuding selves pushed into the background.

The more satisfying solution is to occupy freely the position of subject, to move not back to the activity of maintaining my own self, but rather to the contemplation of the selves among which I can choose, the two before me being the split implied reader and my normal, familiar self. This is a revolutionary step, for it places the real reader in a psychological position that human beings occupy only in their highest moments of contemplation.

In normal life the process of self-creation is largely unconscious and unchosen. Culture lays out paths and often determines rather precisely which a person will follow. Only rarely, often in moments of resistance, does one discover that one has freedom to make oneself. For example, the governess undergoes a revolution of this sort when she accepts that being amused is a good thing and begins to learn how to be amused. Her education and her fate as a governess do not normally offer amusement as a legitimate expectation. Her discovery of the capacity and her willingness to nurture it lead her to a greater freedom of self-creation than her culture would usually allow.

In this novella James has made a moment of conscious self-creation necessary to completing the reading. To escape James's trap the reader must occupy a perspective from which all selves are fictional, the normal self as well as the implied reader. From this perspective all selves are chosen roles. To complete the reading I need only realize (but not necessarily articulate) that the role of split implied reader in The Turn of the Screw belongs to the book and not to me.

When I become conscious of the implied reader as a fiction born out of my interaction with the tale, then I know my center of awareness as separate from that self and from all selves I as subject might create. When I surrender this self to the work that stimulated it, I am liberated. I become free of the trap and momentarily free of mere, unconscious conformity to my idea of myself.

From this perspective the implied reader becomes a part of the tale. The tale closes in one sense, though not in another. It closes in that I can stop reading it, for now it is contained within my consciousness, and it no longer threatens to overwhelm me. But it remains open in that our questions about the governess, the children, and the ghosts are still unanswered.

We can see how taking a critical stance by observing ourselves as we read helps to uncover this means of reading the unreadable. That critical stance is an attempt to move outside the hunt for perspectives and thereby to see that search as part of the meaning of the tale. The critical attempt mimics what the successful reader can accomplish without necessarily being able to explain what he or she has done.

Norman Holland describes an analogous solution to the face/vase problem with the optical illusion. It is true that we cannot normally see both faces and vase simultaneously. This happens because we move from general to specific when we encounter a perceptual problem, returning to the details rather than looking for an alternate perspective. Similarly, once The Turn of the Screw catches us in the cycle of rereading, we continue to examine the details for a confirmation of one of the competing readings. According to Holland, we can solve the optical illusion by adopting another perspective, by imagining two faces pressed up against the vase. If we construct this new whole of which the conflicting images are parts, then we can see the illusion as a closed whole rather than two mutually exclusive wholes.3

The novella, though whole, remains as silent as ever. The governess's unspeakable secret is never spoken with authority. Why Miles died and in what spiritual state remain mysterious. What things he said no one can say. But now each silence is an acknowledged part of the wholenesses of the tale, of the governess, and of Miles, to name the most important. This is possible because James has forced the reader to occupy the perspective from which the self becomes visible as a fictional creation, delicately balanced over and against one's own silence.


The Turn of the Screw reflects a worldview quite similar to the one Nina Baym attributes to Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter: A Reading.4 At the center of this view is a problem that arose in the Enlightenment and became increasingly troubling to the Victorians, the absence of an authoritative reading of the cosmos.

In Western civilization for about a millennium, Christianity successfully claimed to have interpreted the cosmos, to know the meaning and purpose of human life. Though there were competing views, these remained in the minority and were strictly controlled politically and militarily. But following the intellectual and political revolutions of the Enlightenment, the authority of Christianity faded. Religious institutions, already divided by intellectual as well as political strife, lost the power to coerce belief. For James as for Hawthorne the meanings human beings found in life were made by people, not revealed by church or scripture. Their power to compel belief depended upon the power of those who believed, not on the authority of a divine source. Their value was in their utility, in their ability to promote material welfare, social harmony, and individual happiness, rather than in their being true by an objective standard.

The decline of the authority of Christianity is reflected directly in the way critics have read the tale. The governess reads herself through a version of Christianity, but early Freudian readings rejected her theological interpretation in favor of a secular, determinist reading.

Part of the governess's problem is that she feels forced to make final judgments about meaning. This proves virtually impossible because her world is split into apparently contradictory parts, into polar or binary oppositions of presence and absence.

Oppositions of Presence and Absence—Set One

Governess Uncle
Ghosts Hallucinations
Corrupt children Innocent children
Visionary governess Mad governess

These are oppositions that become visible to the governess when she sees the invisible. The uncle is absent, but were he present, he would see the surface or what is present: innocent children and a mad governess. The governess is present, but she sees what is absent, the dead. Her privileged glimpses make her aware of the world as including the invisible. She sees her once fairly simple, narrow world double itself. There is a visible surface of great beauty, and there is a shadowy subsurface, filled with secrets only pointed at by troubling manifestations.

She deals with this enlarged vision of her world just as the theology of her culture would suggest; that is, she constructs a more or less Christian religious explanation. The shadow world of which she sees signs is the realm of evil. The children's souls are at stake. Her duty is to “justify” her view and, if it can be justified, to “save” the children. She is victorious because her theology tells her that confession shows the will to choose good.

Psychoanalytic critics tend to adopt the story she attributes to the absent uncle. For them the split she sees in the world is really a split in the governess that shows she is mad. Like her, they impose an ideology upon the polar oppositions in order to resolve them. Her ideology derives from Christian theology; theirs imposes a belief in psychological determinism. Each approach exposes the inadequacy of comprehensive views that attempt to eliminate rather than accept this split in human perception.

Nevertheless, psychoanalysis is the source of the insight that the split the governess discovers in the world is in herself as well, that it is a product of the mind's attempt to grasp itself and the world. A human mind is indefinitely greater than the self it shows to the world, for each mind contains the potential for becoming untold numbers of selves. The major Freudian readings of The Turn of the Screw remind us forcefully of the impossibility of the governess's theological attempt at healing her divided vision. Her assertions that she has saved Miles and is whole demonstrate not the discovery of truth, but the will to believe. The revisions of Freud offered by Lacan, among others, reveal that the traditional Freudian readings, such as those by Edmund Wilson and Oscar Cargill, were also products of a will to believe. They willed to believe not in Christian theology, but in psychoanalytic ideology. Neither approach could heal the split the governess discovered.

This healing cannot take place because the split is fundamental. As contemporary theorists of language and psychology have argued, experience divides when we represent it. What we can represent becomes visible; what we cannot or do not represent remains invisible and silent. Our consciousness consists of what we represent ourselves to be; our unconscious consists in part of whatever remains in ourselves that we fail or refuse to represent.

When we escape James's trap, we do not mend our own conscious/unconscious split, nor do we discover language to resolve any of the text's ambiguities. Instead, we temporarily become conscious of occupying the perspective from which the self is represented. In other words, our escape from The Turn of the Screw involves momentarily restraining the usually continuous act of self-creation in order to contemplate that act. In doing so I see that although the self I create is a container of my ideas of who I would be, it does not contain me. Rather, I contain it. I am a “subject” and my identity is an object, the distinct, visible objectification or representation that allows me to act purposefully in the world.

Readings of The Turn of the Screw reflect intellectual history. Early readings tended to resolve ambiguity in favor of the governess's Christian view. Later readings tended to favor the approach she thinks the absent uncle would take. Our reading attempts to transcend ideology, to seek out the artistic unity of a literary work that acknowledges and preserves its irresolvable ambiguity. This reading affirms the permanence for human consciousness of the division the governess discovers in her world.

Part of the governess's problem in dealing with the division she discovers is her relation to authority. In the absence of certainty the power of interpretations to compel belief derives from the political/social power of the interpreters. In most areas of Victorian life a young woman would accept and conform to male authority in interpreting. The absence of male authority at Bly makes the governess's situation unique. She is required to become the master in the master's absence. The governess's plight as she attempts to be a master illuminates several aspects of the position of women in her society, a subject that concerned James in most of his fiction. He once said, “Half of life is a sealed book to young unmarried ladies.”5 To get at this subject, it may be helpful to present more oppositions of presence and absence.

Oppositions of Presence and Absence—Set Two

Authority Conformity
Conscious Unconscious
Language Reality
Figure Meaning
Male Female
Master Servant
Uncle Governess
Governess Children

This list can lead in many directions, not all of which are articulated here. We follow it mainly into the exploration of the governess's position as a woman. Doing so reveals meanings related to gender and class roles in the tale.

This list of oppositions could include another label in each column. At the top of the left column we could have put presence, at the top of the right absence. To the Victorian mind, for social order to be sustained, each entity in the right column was to be subordinated to its opposite in the left, as is indicated by the labels authority and conformity. This means that in several important senses, those entities on the right were to be silent. The woman, the servant, the governess, the children—these were not to have wills of their own, but to conform to the male will—the master, the uncle, the governess.

In the last two pairs, however, we see an anomaly. In this tale the uncle is absent and the governess present. She has been delegated his authority over Bly. His absence deprives her of what her society routinely supplies its respectable women, the sustaining authority of the male master. The uncle turns over his authority to his opposite, a young, inexperienced female of significantly lower social standing. By doing so, he creates what might be seen as an aberration from Victorian culture, though in fact gentry commonly turned virtually the whole care of their children over to servants.

Because she loves the uncle, the governess's response to his abdication is to become his agent. She behaves as a daughter or wife would be expected to. She willingly subordinates herself to him, but in his absence this proves difficult. She needs his approving look. Her longing to see and be seen is answered by the ghosts. In seeing them, whether or not they are real, she achieves a view of herself that he will not give her. Once she has achieved this view, she feels independent of his authority, which now threatens the authority of her vision of the children and even the children themselves. But when her view prevails, it also fails to be comprehensive. Certainty eludes her; hence her repeating her story to Douglas.

The absence of the uncle displaces the governess from the position she would normally occupy, making her sole rather than subordinate authority at Bly. His absence betrays her legitimate expectations, but it also liberates her to develop and exercise mastery usually held only by males. But in successfully developing and exercising this mastery, she exposes its fictionality, its failure to cover reality.

Her escape from authority releases her vision and shows her the world divided. Her attempt to stitch this rent reveals that she has been seduced. The uncle is not really a master at all. Rather, he has pretended to be master by ordering her to be his agent. He had the power to give that order, but not the control of the situation he implied she would receive by obeying.

In ideologies, such as many forms of Christianity and psychoanalysis, a language claims to contain reality; it asserts the mastery of meaning. Language and the portentous figure have authority in human discourse, but reality and meaning elude them. When the governess finally grasped Miles, he was dead. When she saw it all, it was nothing. When she told the whole story, she evoked silence. The figure or letter is portentous, but the letter itself is the only means by which we can indicate the portent. We cannot touch meaning itself as a way of confirming the reading we have attached to the figure.

In the world James creates no one can achieve certainty. In Victorian society men claimed this power and denied it to women. Victorians worried about maintaining order in a time of fairly rapid change. Their instinctive response to disorder was to repress it.

The uncle shows one way of repressing one's fear of loss of control over society. If he feels inadequate to raise children, then he assumes it can be done and delegates his authority and responsibility to the governess. A good Victorian girl, she believes in his authority and tries to exercise it on his behalf. This situation reflects the archetypal, middle-class, Victorian household, where the man, dirtied and worn by contact with the vicious world, delegates the moral education of himself and his children to the wife who has been shielded as much as possible from knowledge of that world. The master's inadequacy is thus hidden behind his designation of another in his place. That the other is an innocent sets her up for many possible disasters of which we can read in the history of Victorian marriage. One kind of disaster is acted out by the governess.

In this tale, then, the power to define reality is essentially political. It belongs to people who are able by some means to achieve the authority to compel the acceptance of their interpretations. We see this when we reflect that a man in the governess's position would normally have other resources upon which to draw to bolster his authority, such as friends from the university. He would have no hesitations about dealing with the headmaster. He would occupy a position of authority with more comfort because he would not be intellectually isolated and because his whole life experience would have prepared him to command a certain authority.

The governess, however, is much more tentative than a man would be, isolated from intellectual peers and not used to exercising authority. This makes her especially sensitive to the fictionality of mastery. Because a man could so much more easily establish his authority, he would be less likely to discover the degree to which his confidence in his judgments derives from his political power.

Because she is a woman in a male-dominated society, the governess is “privileged” in the sense that she has access to what her society declares invisible, her own individuality and whatever seeks to be known by putting forth appearances of the supernatural. Observing her dilemma and how she handles it reveals her position as one normally without authority in a time when authority is the source of meaning. She is especially able to point toward aspects of reality that disappear from within the Victorian perspective, thus exposing the illusion that it includes all reality.


To reread The Turn of the Screw as we have done is an education for the imagination. That Western civilization lost a unified, shared religious view of the meaning of the universe did not lead to a unified, shared secular view of that meaning. Not in James's time nor since has there been agreement concerning how individuals and societies should adjust to the relativism implicit in the likelihood that there is no single, absolute perspective on meaning available to humanity. A number of major American writers including James's older contemporaries Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne and the greatest of the next generation, such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, have represented the world as without a knowable meaning, and all of these have suggested in varying ways that happiness grows out of creating an admirable self while sustaining the deepest possible communion with others. Implicit in such an idea is an ideal that sheds light from two directions upon how this tale educates the imagination. The ideal is of a community that supports all individuals and of individuals who never sever themselves from that community.

One way this tale communicates this ideal is by criticizing ideology. Ideology means the belief that one's chosen way of organizing reality is absolute and supercedes all others. To complete The Turn of the Screw one must at least momentarily act as if one believes that all perspectives are fictional and therefore that any attempt to organize reality must leave silences and omissions. This realization does not preclude organizing reality. In James one has no choice but to impose meanings upon the world, and which meanings one chooses makes a difference. To decide what to do about the apparently endangered children, the governess must authorize an interpretation. Reading this tale encourages us to recognize that our meanings are partial and provisional.

Because her society imposes absolute repressions—do not talk to the master; do not speak of ghosts or sex to the children—the governess is trapped in ideologies. Her society forbids options she needs, confining her to her solo reading. Though she is aware of the partiality of her reading, she must act anyway. When Flora rises the first time in the night, the governess longs to talk frankly with her. She has a similar feeling when she goes to Miles's room on the night after he opens the subject of school. It seems clear that in their last interview Miles wants to speak frankly with her, but he too is hedged about with inhibitions and prohibitions. Only in telling her story does the governess approach her idea of frankness. These traps seem to originate in the totalitarian nature of social ideology. If ideologies tend to insist upon their comprehensiveness in any age, this novella points at their limitations.

By criticizing ideology the tale also implies a kind of etiquette of imposing meaning. The ideals of the individual and society implicit in James's worldview suggest that an individual's insistence upon a meaning is limited by the community's need to sustain love, the primary social bond. Likewise, the community's need to preserve the secondary institutions that support love (for example, marriage, family, and education) is limited by the individual's need to maintain an admirable self.

The tale points to this etiquette when it makes us care for the governess. To care for her involves refusing to force one meaning upon her to the exclusion of other real possibilities. The crisis comes precisely when she is unfairly coerced to impose a meaning upon the children without their voluntary assent. That she is most a victim when she makes the children into possible victims shows the failure of her community both to let her truly be an individual and to recognize the limits of its own ideology.

At the center of this complex of meanings is the failure to love. We create ourselves out of the images of the lovable our society offers us. We seem to want those images to be uniquely our own and yet to be loved by those close to us. We make ourselves for communion. And community seems to be that sense of wholeness we share with those who were the sources and become the reflections of those lovable images.

When Western culture lost the grand unity of the Christian worldview, it gradually reformed into the present uneasy pluralism of multiple competing ideologies. Often ferocious and bloody, this competition fosters authoritarian thought. Western European and American societies have tended to resist the dominance of a single ideology, but the resulting pluralism intensifies the tension in normal people who frequently long for certainty about life's meaning. We observe daily the invective of communities of belief attempting to assert their unique possession of the Truth. Such behavior demonstrates a failure to love, to consider the perspective of the stranger as valid.

The governess fails to love the children, for she never successfully discovers or constructs their perspective. Yet she, like the children, seems uniquely formed for loving, for her powers of constructing the perspectives of others are formidable. Her community fails to love her, for it excludes her perspective and condemns her to function in comparative silence and isolation. If we judge her reading as either correct or incorrect, we fail to love her by excluding part of her perspective. These failures are all unconscious and unintentional. Her rationale for her choices is that she loves the children. Her society's rationale for “protecting” her would be stated in terms of its special care for women. Our choice of one of her readings would be justified by our care either for her or for the children. Each failure stems not from deliberate choices to be criminal, but from the limitations of the perspectives we adopt. Without an appreciation of the limits of our perspectives, we cannot discover the proper etiquette, and we cannot love or be loved successfully.

The Turn of the Screw educates the imagination for a moral life in a world where meanings are provisional and limited. By leading the reader into rereading, this story provides more than the usual practice in the construction of others' perspectives. By forcing the reader to take the perspective from which the self and all possible selves are fictional, this tale stimulates an awareness of meanings as constructs rather than givens. By placing the reader in the position of judging the governess as a loved one, the novella points to the limits of constructed meanings and to the etiquette of dealing with the constructions of others. By showing ideology to be one cause of failures to love, this work challenges us to subordinate the imposition of meaning to the ultimate goal of loving communion.


  1. Terry Heller, The Delights of Terror (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 170.

  2. Felman, “Turning the Screw,” esp. 190.

  3. Norman Holland, The I (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985), 124.

  4. Baym, “The Scarlet Letter,” esp. chaps. 4 and 5.

  5. James E. Miller, Theory of Fiction: Henry James (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), 135.

Vincent P. Pecora (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15990

SOURCE: “Reflection Rendered: James's The Turn of the Screw,” in Self & Form in Modern Narrative, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 176–213.

[In the following excerpt, Pecora places The Turn of the Screw within its literary and cultural context.]

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.

—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil


To write, once again, of The Turn of the Screw as if anything still depended on that narrative or on any discussion of it is surely an act of presumption, perhaps even of the most wishful fantasy. For, perhaps more than any single piece of literature from the modern period, The Turn of the Screw has at this point been so overtaken by the commentary it has spawned that the “question” of the narrative has now become almost completely metacritical: one can hardly see the text except through the nearly opaque screen of more than half a century of professional critical argument. Various techniques have arisen for dealing with this situation, ranging from making the solution of the debate over the etiology of the ghosts the primary goal of increasingly rigorous and sophisticated close readings, to more recent attempts at evaluating James's structural and linguistic strategies as if they were in the end the true subject matter of this self-referential “exercise of the imagination unassisted,” as James called it in the New York preface (TS, 118). But beyond the sense that one is at this point doomed to repeat certain metacritical maneuvers, or to languish in an even more confining willful ignorance, is the feeling that the endless rehearsal and critique of positions has in fact codified a certain kind of devaluation and insignificance through familiarization. To presume that one can surmount this devaluation and provide something that is not simply one more turn of the critical screw would border on fantasy. But I would also suggest that it is precisely this loss of significance, this disappearance of the sense that anything about The Turn of the Screw matters at all, that should concern us most poignantly in a time of far more general kinds of devaluation within increasingly professionalized humanistic disciplines.

The endless, calculated ambiguities of The Turn of the Screw have been recognized for some time now; I will not be particularly interested in this [essay] to reopen or analyze the debate over the ghosts and the governess's “sanity.” In many ways, of course, such debate is intrinsic to gothic elements in fiction from the start, since one of their effects has always been to question individual perceptual authority. In the course of tracing the “beauty of the Horrid” in Gothic romance through eighteenth-century society and the aesthetics of the sublime, Mario Praz quotes the Marquis de Sade's appraisal of writers like Matthew Lewis and Anne Radcliffe:

The genre was the inevitable product of the revolutionary shocks with which the whole of Europe resounded. … it was necessary to call upon hell for aid in order to arouse interest, and to find in the land of fantasies what was common knowledge from historical observation of man in this iron age. But this way of writing presented so many inconveniencies! The author of the Moine failed to avoid them no less than Mrs. Radcliffe; either of these two alternatives was unavoidable; either to explain away all the magic elements, and from then on to be interesting no longer, or never raise the curtain, and there you are in the most horrible unreality.1

Sade's reflections on this distinctly “popular” literary form already raise issues addressed by James's preface to The Turn of the Screw, and one could imagine James's ambiguous amusette being written, as popular entertainment, in direct response to the “unavoidable” dilemma Sade defines here. If a purely generic recuperation of the text is thus required, Tzveton Todorov's notion of the “fantastic” is perhaps as descriptively adequate a category as one may be able to produce; in any case, much work in this area has already been done.2

James's text can in fact be placed in a long line of gothic fiction, much of it not necessarily less self-conscious than his own, stretching from Walpole, Radcliffe, and Shelley to Poe, Hawthorne, the Brontës, and Stevenson. Praz himself attempts “to recapitulate the principal traits of the tale of terror,” many of which serve to underscore the obvious generic coding of James's ghost story:

An introductory story in order to produce an old manuscript where the happenings are written down, a Gothic castle forming a gloomy background with its secret corridors and labyrinthine network of subterranean passages, a mysterious crime frequently connected with illicit or incestuous love, and perpetrated by a person in holy orders, a villain (as a rule an Italian or a Spaniard) who has pledged himself to the devil, who finally hurls him into the abyss; ghosts, witches and sorcerers, nature conspiring to effects of terror and wonder, portraits endowed with a mysterious life, statues which suddenly are seen to bleed.3


I would suggest, then, that James's interest in ghost stories and fairy tales needs to be read not only in the context of a popular literary tradition that allows him the opportunity for a display of controlled technical “improvisation,” as he describes it in the preface, but in relation to James's rationalizing approach to the elements of narrative art itself (TS, 119). On the one hand, the confrontation with the irrational that such stories represent provides James with what may be the paradigmatic instance of human guile and ingenuity turning a threatening nature to its own purposes. For Benjamin, the fairy tale fulfills its traditional role precisely as a liberation achieved by enlightened reason over mythic fears:

The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. The need was the need created by the myth. … The wisest thing—so the fairy tale taught mankind in older times, and teaches children to this day—is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits. … The liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man.4

On the other hand, James's demystifying exploitation of the fairy tale's “liberating magic” reveals the degree to which the “cunning” it teaches inevitably returns to the conditions of myth; like so many of James's reflecting observers, the governess ends up producing the mythic terror she had sought to resist, ends up achieving what Peter Quint could not. But the dialectic of enlightenment James's narrative embodies cannot go beyond a Nietzschean pragmatism. In an age and to an audience simply embarrassed by a notion like “good counsel,” the cunning wisdom of James's ironic circumscription of the governess's ordeal is indistinguishable from an instrumental consciousness for whom the questions of myth, nature, and liberation are always already elements of technical, textual administration.

My purpose in what follows is thus not to provide another specific “reading” of a text which has, perhaps not accidentally, triggered a drive toward interpretative mastery second only to the governess's own (an issue that Shoshana Felman has addressed directly and that I will return to later), still less to put forth any new resolution to the earlier critical debate. Rather, I would like to locate this “fairy tale” both within the context of James's later technique and that of the processes of social and cultural rationalization which, I would claim, it inevitably furthers, even as it defamiliarizes a well-worn generic convention in the name of a more sentient, less reified, individual consciousness.


In an essay, published a year after The Turn of the Screw, James again addressed the fate of the novel as high art at a time that, to use Adorno and Horkheimer's terms, is marked by the beginnings of a “culture industry”—and one should remember here that The Turn of the Screw was itself commissioned by a popular magazine, Collier's Weekly. “The Future of the Novel” takes a somewhat harsher view of the predicament than James's earlier criticism had. There is a new “flood” of literary products on the market, filling the demands of the increasing “multitude” able to acquire “the book” (LC, 100). Ironically perhaps, given James's prescriptions for a fully aware consciousness, it is this “immense … inarticulate, but abysmally absorbent” public that is responsible for the transformation of literary taste into “an obscure, confused, immediate instinct” and for James's uneasiness (LC, 101). Further, James would appear to have a theory about the social forces behind this cultural development, and one of the main forces at this time is simply the spread of popular education: “the diffusion of the rudiments, the multiplication of common schools, has had more and more the effect of making readers of women and of the very young” (LC, 100). Indeed, were not such notions mitigated by contradictory assertions later in this essay and in others, one would assume that for James it is precisely the growing presence of women and children among his reading public that is the leading cause of the novel's decline: “The high prosperity of fiction has marched, very directly, with another ‘sign of the times,’ the demoralisation, the vulgarisation of literature in general, the increasing familiarity of all such methods of communication, the making itself supremely felt, as it were, of the presence of the ladies and children—by whom I mean, in other words, the reader irreflective and uncritical” (LC, 103). James's overt point, of course, is that the novel's “soul” is itself the freedom of individual, critical intelligence, its “scene” “the most immediate and, as it were, admirably treacherous picture of actual manners” (LC, 107); to forsake that intelligence in order to meet the expectations of an irreflective multitude, increasingly comprised of half-educated “ladies and children” as well as of those men devoted to traveling, shooting, trade, and football, would be to forsake the form itself.

From one perspective, of course, James's diatribe against popular culture is ironically rooted in the “common” beginnings of the English novel and in eighteenth-century resistance to the new genre as abetting the commercializing effects of the booksellers. As Ian Watt notes, “the novel was widely regarded as a typical example of the debased kind of writing by which the booksellers pandered to the reading public.”5 The irony is only compounded by the fact that, as Watt and others have shown, women were a substantial part not only of the novel's new audience but of its creative force.6 James's cultural criticism here is thus in part itself a rhetorical game, cannily turning precisely those objections earlier raised against the novel to the “art” novel's own advantage. But, especially in the context of The Turn of the Screw, a piece designed a year earlier specifically for a popular medium and containing, unsurprisingly in the present light, half-educated women (or would-be “ladies” like the governess) and seemingly uneducable children (Miles is dismissed from school, Flora plays as if in a trance) more or less neglected by critical authority, James's concerns begin to take on other dimensions. Indeed, read against the analysis of “The Future of the Novel,” his little “fairy tale” soon becomes an allegorized struggle against the forces of an increasingly rationalized culture industry that intelligent critique has all but abandoned to commercial interests.

James's focus at the end of the essay on the novel's duty to meet the needs of those children and women and to recuperate them as effective readers would seem to underscore the point. The complaint he imagines the young would voice if given the chance is especially pertinent: “‘You have kindly taken,’ they seem to say to the fiction-mongers, ‘our education off the hands of our parents and pastors, and that, doubtless, has been very convenient for them, and left them free to amuse themselves. But what, all the while, pray, if it is a question of education, have you done with your own? There are directions in which you seem dreadfully untrained, and in which can it be as vain as it appears to apply to you for information?”’ (LC, 108). James holds that the “ready-made” fiction now being consumed by the young allows “whole categories of manners, whole corpuscular classes and provinces, museums of character and condition” to go “unvisited” (LC, 109). Though he “could not imagine Dickens or Scott without the ‘love-making’ left, as the phrase is, out,” James discreetly observes that the young, like the novel, are clearly older now, and part of their “education” must address, however obliquely, such matters. At the same time, The Turn of the Screw would almost appear designed to parody these youthful demands: a ghost story about the ghostly social forces haunting the society of “ladies” (the poor daughters of pastors) and children (altogether parentless) and the debased, popular entertainment they sustain. One of Douglas's female listeners even cries, “Oh how delicious!” when Douglas first mentions the governess's tale. It would appear, on one level at least, that James would like to “turn the screw” on the “uncritical” female and youthful readers of the popular medium in which he publishes by devising a haunting, unresolvable, and hence mocking narrative about, precisely, women and children forsaken by stronger, paternal, and cultured voices. As the governess tells Miles when he asks whether his uncle knows about the way he is “going on”: “I don't think your uncle much cares” (TS, 57). If any of his more reflective male readers should put themselves in the absent Master's place, so much the better, for such “jaded” and “disillusioned” sensibilities, in James's view, need to be awakened to the decline of the culture around them. The compromised and possessed narrative agents of James's ghost story—“ladies and children”—are themselves reflections of a compromised, “ready-made” consciousness James's work as a whole demystifies; but the rationalized narrative “education” James provides can only further integrate such already tenuous subjectivities in the pragmatic social conditions they are alienated from.

The attempt to prevent the exposure of a “pure and trusting” innocence, as James refers to the children in the preface, to the “defilement” of worldly knowledge is of course a theme that undergoes various permutations in James's work, beginning perhaps with Lavinia Penniman's struggle to protect Catherine Sloper in Washington Square; at the same time, childhood will begin to pose larger ideological problems for a bourgeois culture centered around the family. Freud's reinterpretation of sexuality in children at the end of the nineteenth century yields diagnostic and therapeutic techniques of psychoanalysis that depend on stored yet unavailable experiences from childhood, experiences that, as much recent study of Freud's rejection of the primary of actual childhood trauma has tried to show, threaten the authority of Victorian familial institutions. Not quite two years after the first publication of The Turn of the Screw, The Interpretation of Dreams began a discussion of sexuality in children that would create controversy throughout Freud's career. What is at stake here, however, is clearly much more than simply a shift in medical opinion on childhood development: it is one aspect of a more general disintegration of the sociocultural assumptions supporting what Marlow would have called the individual's “moral identity”—that sense of an abstract, surplus humanity that is the contradictory substance of the bourgeois self—as such identity is produced within the family. As the governess in the The Turn of the Screw notes near the end of her ordeal: “Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature” (TS, 80). It is precisely such a disintegration that Steven Marcus describes in terms of Freud's role in teaching the modern world “to suspect the claim to, or the appearance of, innocence of any kind.”7The Turn of the Screw can be seen as a story inextricably entangled with a host of assumptions defining the social status of children and with the assumed significance of childhood as the distilled essence of all that must be somehow preserved within the family against an increasingly commodified world: an absolute innocence, a freedom from implication in the contradictory choices and knowledge that constitute adult life in an age that had itself begun to call the moral prerogatives of bourgeois society into question, a temporal contiguity to the presumably pure, untainted, Edenic origins of human life itself.8

That the young of James's ghost story, complete with their own ambiguous and haunting set of demands (“‘Oh you know what a boy wants,”’ Miles tells the governess [TS, 63]), should be orphans only intensifies the issue of a social group whose “education” has been neglected by an authoritative critical voice. Very much like the text of the governess's story, which has been handed down in succession, a literary orphan, upon the deaths of its respective caretakers (from the governess, to Douglas, and then to our narrator), these children are quite literally homeless, not only physically but morally and socially as well.9 If they have the power to “contaminate,” as the governess wonders, it is not only because of some ghostly manipulation; in a sense, it is just because they represent a gap, an aporia in social relations, that illicit “possession” seems so likely. When the governess decides finally to write to the Master in spite of his wishes and lay the matter of Miles's expulsion from school before him, Mrs. Grose protests that they do not yet know the causes behind his dismissal. The governess's reasoning, however, is clear and it is grounded on her perception of the children's upbringing: “‘For wickedness. For what else—when he's so clever and beautiful and perfect? Is he stupid? Is he untidy? Is he infirm? Is he ill-natured? He's so exquisite—so it can be only that; and that would open up the whole thing. After all,’ I said, ‘it's their uncle's fault. If he left here such people—!”’ (TS, 61). Emerging parentless from an “exotic,” colonized India, these children are as homeless and wandering as the alien presences who would try, as it were, to repossess them, are as detached as the Master himself. The governess attempts to “piece it all together” for Mrs. Grose: “‘They haven't been good—they've only been absent. It has been easy to live with them because they're simply leading a life of their own. They're not mine—they're not ours. They're his and they're hers!”’ (TS, 49). It is as if the children's distinctly unpossessed status invites such interest, not only from the ghosts but from the governess as well.

James himself would later provide some biographical evidence for seeing the orphaned Miles in the light of an exotic, restless ex-colonial whose displaced social origins are central to James's own fascination with him. In A Small Boy and Others, James mentions his short career as a schoolboy at a collège in Boulogne-sur-Mer and in passing suggests a source for Miles that has rarely been noted. At the collège James meets a “brownish, black-eyed youth” about his own age who tells him “of an awful Mutiny in India, where his military parents, who had not so long before sent him over thence … were in mortal danger of their lives; so that news of their having been killed would perhaps be already on the way.”10 This boy, called Napier or Nappié, was far harder to “place” for James than were any of his English or American companions; indeed, even his race and moral character were somehow in flux, somehow threatening.

Behind this more mixed and, as we have learnt to say, evolved companion (his very simplicities, his gaps of possibility, being still evolved), there massed itself I couldn't have said what protective social order, what tangled creative complexity. Why I should have thought him almost Indian of stamp and hue because his English parents were of the so general Indian peril is more than I can say; yet I have his exotic and above all his bold, his imaginably even “bad,” young face, finely unacquainted with law, before me at this hour quite undimmed—announcing, as I conceived it, and quite as a shock, any awful adventure one would, as well as something that I must even at the time have vaguely taken as the play of the “passions.”11

Miles will also of course be understood as capable of “any awful adventure” and will boldly declare himself “bad.” But the important point here is that, as in the mysteries of Conan Doyle or the tales of Kipling, the restless and threatening boundaries of imperial power suddenly appear in the great imperial capitals themselves. The contamination James's orphans bring with them is then not simply their lack of acquaintance with law or the difficulty of placing them firmly within established social structures; rather, it is the unlawfulness of the imperial project itself, the “awful adventure” out of which these children emerge in the first place. Behind the ghostly play of passions which James, like his governess, will read on an orphan's face is the political dilemma of the “Indian peril” that haunts the nervous ironies of James's amusette.

Orphans are of course nothing new to the novel. Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Oliver Twist all revolve around nominally orphaned children who grow up implicitly challenging the authority of a society that has no legitimate home for them—orphanages were widely reputed to be breeding grounds of crime, and Dickens for one documents this perception over and over again. But the connection between the novel and its orphans is perhaps more inherent: in general, the orphan represents that condition of rootless, transient, decentered existence that the rapidly expanding but still tenuous bourgeois society of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would find most unsettling, but that is in fact one of the closest allegories of the alienated, often uprooted existence of much of the working population and of the fragmented quality of bourgeois consciousness itself. Whether intentionally or accidentally transgressive, the orphan was the perfect device by which the writer could examine safely, yet frankly, the less edifying social conditions of his or her time: orphans often owed no “natural” allegiances and in the poorer cases could be subject only to public, institutional processes of control and education; in certain ways a mirror of increasingly dispossessed labor, they yet represented a hidden instability the bourgeois ideology of the family hoped to contain. Furthermore, the overwhelming tendency, until the later nineteenth century, was for the orphan—like the picaro or classical comic hero—to be reintegrated with his or her society in institutionally sanctioned ways: repentance, discovery of a real father and family, adoption by a suitable substitute. Jane Eyre, in many ways a crucial antecedent for James's governess, is also an orphan who, through a sober Protestant faith and good luck, manages to escape the corruption of an illicit marriage and is rewarded with family, upward social mobility, love, and a clear conscience, even if this was after all a rare occurrence for a nineteenth-century governess. Thus, not only did orphans allow the writer a relatively uncensored view of the cracks and folds in the veneer of the idealized family unit, but they often provided a perfect tool for reinforcing the ideological tenability and continuity of that veneer.

It is thus not only the sexual or Oedipal character of the children that is made problematic in James's narrative: it is the entire structure of familial hierarchy lying at the roots of the internalized, self-monitoring authority of bourgeois society. In “Authority and the Family,” Max Horkheimer draws a fundamental connection between structures of authority within the family and the “praise of authority, obedience, self-sacrifice, and the hard fulfillment of duty” which fills the liberal politics, Protestantism, and philosophy of the post-Enlightenment period.12 It is a connection, focusing on the paternal domination of economic need and personal rights within the family, that had earlier been made by J. S. Mill's “The Subjection of Women” (1869) and Friedrich Engles's The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1844). For Horkheimer, “the family, as one of the most important formative agencies, sees to it that the kind of human character emerges which social life requires, and gives this human being in great measure the indispensible adaptability for a specific authority-oriented conduct on which the existence of the bourgeois order largely depends” (CT, 98). But in the period of liberal capitalism, the absolutist paternal authority of ancient or feudal social orders gives way to a new kind of habituation: “No longer is it obedience that is immediately demanded, but, on the contrary, the application of reason” (CT, 100). The father's superiority thus takes on the character of a rational determination, one that ironically further naturalizes the unjust relations that exist within the family and that moreover may no longer even be justified by the father's diminishing economic autonomy in the external society. In Horkheimer's view, throughout history the decline of paternal authority has been understood to presage the disintegration of social structure. Following Max Weber's elaboration of the increased power of charisma in modern bureaucratic societies, the emphasis placed by twentieth-century totalitarian politics on the unique quality of paternal authority, as if it were somehow the proprietas of a superior being, is for Horkheimer only the latest, and perhaps most dangerous, flowering of this ideological link.

At the same time, however, Horkheimer is fully aware of the profoundly disruptive effect modern rationalized authoritarianism has had on more traditional family structures. The roots of this development lie in the degree to which, throughout the growth of large-scale capital and increasing fluctuations in employment, family life has been slowly breaking up. Indeed, the appropriation of education in the nineteenth century by state institutions is seen by Horkheimer as a hedge against this familial dissolution on the part of social interests which need to maintain, albeit in an increasingly rigid way, the social authority preserved by traditional family values. But, as Hegel had shown with Antigone, the role of an individual within the family was also intrinsically opposed to that individual's role in the communal order represented by the state. Though Hegel had celebrated bourgeois society and the bourgeois state, Horkheimer emphasizes the importance of this family-state distinction in the analysis of the modern social organization to which bourgeois relations lead, where “the reduction of the individual to nothing but the representative of an economic function is philosophically canonized and made permanent” (CT, 116). The family may in fact provide, through maternal difference from paternal domination, a base of resistance to inhuman social organization: “Because it still fosters human relations which are determined by the woman, the present-day family is a source of strength to resist the total dehumanization of the world and contains an element of antiauthoritarianism” (CT, 118). It is the ability to cultivate “the dream of a better condition for mankind” in the care extended to the whole, developing life of the child that finds almost no other place to survive but the bourgeois family (CT, 114).

Nevertheless, Horkheimer concludes by showing that, in the end, the continued subservience of the woman within the family cannot help but serve the prevailing social order, and that only with a less privatized, less possessive “community of spouses and children,” where children will not be regarded merely as “one's own,” will the authoritarian mentality fostered by the bourgeois family cease to exist (CT, 124). Under the conditions of modern social rationalization, the effort to stabilize familial authority—“grounded in the free vocational activity of the male”—will take on an ever more artificial and regulated character (CT, 128). James's ironic literary exercise exploits the “absence” of the children's orphaned status that makes them prime targets for the corrupt power of the ghosts and simultaneously participates in the ambiguity surrounding an increasingly decentered familial authority itself. If the governess were to save the children from the illegitimate power of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, she would only reinforce an avuncular authority she knows to be uncaring. But to demystify the governess's naive attachment to her accepted duty, to the maternal obedience and self-sacrifice of bourgeois family life, as James's parodic technique also does, only reinforces the authority of the impersonal, pragmatic relations James's ideals of reflective intelligence and felt life would seem implicitly to denounce.

But, of course, if an “absent” childhood and a disintegrating family structure are duplicitous issues in The Turn of the Screw, James's attitude toward women as percipient subjectivities, whether as “subject matter” or as authors, is hardly any more straightforward. “The Future of the Novel” concludes with a reference to “the revolution taking place in the position and outlook of women—and taking place much more deeply in the quiet than even the noise on the surface demonstrates—so we may very well yet see the female elbow itself, kept in increasing activity by the play of the pen, smash with final resonance the window all this time most superstitiously closed” (LC, 109). James's curious imagery weirdly forecasts the rise of a more than noisy militancy among women a decade later, when in 1911 the Women's Social and Political Union abandoned debate and, with stones and hammers concealed in handbags, smashed windows in the Home Office, the War Office, the Foreign Office, and a host of other government buildings, only to repeat the gesture several months later for the benefit of shopkeepers in the West End.13 As Emmeline Pankhurst would point out in 1912, “The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics.”15 Broken panes of glass were of course nothing new for revolutionary political action; but as the symbol of a militant suffrage movement they also suggest the shattering of those imprisoning, yet invisible, barriers that had kept women within the home and off the streets for so long, windows through which the reflective gaze would be directed in vain, windows that the writer's elbow in James's essay shatters, as it were, avant la lettre. At the same time, James's allusions to superstition and the play of the pen clearly also recall his popular amusette of the year before. When the governess finally confronts Flora with the name of the ghostly Miss Jessel, the child's reaction, like so many other unspoken signals in this narrative, speaks to her noisily: “Much as I had made of the fact that this name had never once, between us, been sounded, the quick smitten glare with which the child's face now received it fairly likened my breach of the silence to the smash of a pane of glass” (TS, 71). Given the obsessive focus on windows throughout the governess's narrative in The Turn of the Screw, through which Peter Quint is glimpsed and imitated, out of which Flora stares at Miles in the night, and from which the governess tries to avert Miles's gaze at the end, the governess's own “play of the pen” is both an account of and itself a metaphor for the breaking of the spell of those “superstitutiously” oppressive panes of glass.

Moreover, James's relationship to “the feminine mind” would seem to exceed the mere notion of increasing activity on the part of female writers, for, as he had written earlier in “Mrs. Humphrey Ward” (1892), if they should come to appear as the male writer's equal, “it is because they have been remarkably clever … and they may justly pretend that they have made the English novel speak their language” (LC, 1372). It is precisely the sharpened power of “the critical faculty in women” that James seems to have discovered in Ward's Robert Elsmere: “The whole complicated picture is a slow, expansive evocation, bathed in the air of reflection, infinitely thought out and constructed, not a flash of perception nor an arrested impression” (LC, 1372). Indeed, James implies right at the beginning of this essay that, for the modern “observer of manners,” there is an inherent link between the growing popularity of the novel and the “immensely greater conspicuity of the attitude of women. He might perhaps be supposed even to go on to add that the attitude of women is the novel, in England and America, and that these signs of the times have therefore a practical unity” (LC, 371). James's novels obviously bear out his sentiment, for the majority of his most critical, reflective, “sentient creatures” are women, as if he designs his own novels to “speak their language,” as if modern women had become the paradigmatic bourgeois examples of subjectivities on whom nothing would be lost (LC, 1373).

And yet what complicates the nature of this “language” is precisely the manifold ironies of James's administration of it. The ambiguities of the language of The Turn of the Screw are thus in many ways reflections of an almost unresolvable tension between James's increasingly “professionalized” status as a male writer attempting to claim the authority of high art in opposition to the popular, amateur, “ready-made” fiction of “ladies and children,” and his only half-articulated sense that, amid the growing reification of modern consciousness, sentient reflection (“the life of the thinking”), having been abandoned or taken for granted by men, has itself become the province of women. James's ghost story is simultaneously a professional's parody of women's writing—of novels like Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, the only specific literary allusions, beside scripture, that the governess makes—and an implicit elaboration of female subjectivity under glass, as it were, as the only truly reflective, sufficiently “treacherous” medium that remains viable for the professional “observer of manners” in modern society.

Indeed, James's choice of a governess for the reflecting center of The Turn of the Screw clearly reproduces this tension between on the one hand an embattled sentience able “to guess the unseen from the seen” and struggling to resist both mystical terrors and the “sealed eyes” of supposedly irreflective minds like Mrs. Grose, and the already socially stereotyped, hothouse consciousness of neurotic, fallen, or would-be “ladies” on the other. The role of governess is itself trapped between such social ambiguities. As Mrs. Grose notes, Miss Jessel had occupied a social rank far above Quint: “‘She was a lady”’ (TS, 33), reduced in economic status to the private schoolroom and now morally fallen, perhaps, through an illicit pregnancy (“‘She couldn't have stayed. Fancy it here—for a governess!”’ remarks Mrs. Grose). And the present governess, having taken service “for the first time” (TS, 4) and being the youngest daughter of a “poor country parson,” obviously aspires to a status she has never had: though she claims to have “no pretensions,” she admits that she “was carried away” (TS, 9) in Harley Street. It is partly because she fears that the Master would deride “the fine machinery I had set in motion to attract his attention to my slighted charms” that the governess is committed to “stick to our terms” (TS, 50) of noncommunication. At the same time, it is the governess more than anyone else in this narrative who, as James remarks in the preface, has been given “authority,” and not only through the injunction of the children's uncle—she is the one consciousness here on whom nothing would be lost, and she possesses to a high degree James's ideal “cluster of gifts” of the sensitive intelligence that is the novel's soul.

For the nineteenth century, the very role of governess had become a curious and contradictory locus standi for the most elevated bourgeois values associated with women—home, education of the young, moral rectitude, and sensitivity—and for the illusion-shattering entry of women (that is, “ladies,” as opposed to lower-class factory hands or servants) on the free market as commodified labor. Further, such contradictions were themselves made increasingly irrelevant by the growing professionalization of the governess's position. It is not merely inexperience or a set of obviously “literary” metaphors that structures her limited point of view; it is the socially confused character of her status itself that makes for the anomaly. James provides a representation of the Victorian governess that would elicit a knowing response from his readers in terms of her moral righteousness, her sexual naiveté and prudery, even her tendency for mental instability. M. Jeanne Peterson evokes a number of these stereotypical elements in her discussion of the Victorian governess. A governess was expected not only to educate but to protect her children and young women from an immorality supposedly stimulated by a lack of supervision; but her lack of real authority in the home often also elicited “mistreatment and disrespect” of her on the part of her charges.15 Even if she were fortunate enough to find a pleasant position, her employment was never secure, since “inadequate preparation for teaching and faulty placement practices” led to frequent dismissals.

But for Peterson, it is the larger question of the “status incongruence” of the governess in Victorian society that is the determining issue: Peterson cites Elizabeth Missing Sewell's Principles of Education (1865) to illustrate the point: “the real discomfort of a governess's position in a private family arises from the fact that it is undefined. She is not a relation, not a guest, not a mistress, not a servant—but something made up of all. No one knows exactly how to treat her.”16 While the governess was often a “lady” of birth and education who, because of financial distress and economic instability, was compelled to find work, such occupations could also be filled from the propertyless classes. In the course of the nineteenth century, it is just the professionalization of the role that removes it from earlier familial patterns, where a widowed aunt, for example, would be taken in by a family with young children: Lavinia Penniman, Austen Sloper's widowed (from a clergyman) sister in Washington Square, becomes the de facto governess for his motherless daughter. Though Mr. Sloper asks her to “make a clever woman” of his child, she responds with the primary contradiction that would face governesses themselves—half idealized creatures of fragile spirit, and half employees relying on their marketable wits to survive: “‘Do you think it is better to be clever than to be good?”’ Mr. Sloper's reply—“‘Good for what? … You are good for nothing unless you are clever”’—is, precisely, the market's instrumental response.17

In time, however, governessing became one of the first organized occupations promising, however tenuously, either a safety net or upward social mobility for women—even if, as in the case of Thackeray's Becky Sharp, humble origins were often associated with immorality. “The job of paid governess may be seen as an institutionalization and movement out of the family of two functions originally performed by the older ‘extended’ family—the education of children, and the support of orphaned or impoverished relatives.”18 In either case, the position of governess would be occupied within the home, where the traditional values of virtuous bourgeois womanhood would be uneasily melded with the competitive, mercenary conditions of the open market. Advertisements emphasized not the quantitative aspects of pay or experience but the qualitative aspects of a “comfortable home”: “the employer tried, in his home, to preserve her gentlewoman's position.”19 As Douglas's introduction informs us, the Master of The Turn of the Screw also observes such proprieties in hiring his governess: “He struck her, inevitably, as gallant and splendid, but what took her most of all and gave her the courage she afterwards showed was that he put the whole thing to her as a favour, an obligation he should gratefully incur” (TS, 4). But the instability of a governess's economic status was only reproduced on a domestic scale. As an educated “lady,” the governess should have shared the status of the wife and daughters of the household, but as an employee she actually possessed only the authority of a servant; that her role could be comprehended by neither of these categories produced the confusions of her situation. “Given the inconsistent behavior of others toward her and her own confused self-estimate, it would not be surprising if Harriet Martineau was correct when she said that the governess formed one of the largest single occupational groups to be found in insane asylums.”20

It is precisely this incongruence that James cleverly exploits in a narrative that, as his own prefatory remarks imply, revolves around the instability—economic, social, hermeneutic—of personal authority. By removing, and subtly undermining as a careless dandy, the economically and socially legitimated “Master,” James is able simultaneously to use the governess as a model of reflective intelligence in an otherwise “ready-made” world and to use the governess's story as a parodic example of precisely that popular culture of “ladies and children” that James himself decried. Hence, his narrative can be, as he notes in the preface, a “game,” an imaginative “exercise,” a “fairy-tale pure and simple,” and at the same time “an excursion into chaos” that yet returns upon itself, a “crystalline … record of so many intense anomalies and obscurities” kept by an individual whose authoritative “character” is constituted precisely by the fact that “she is able to make her particular credible statement of such strange matters” (TS, 118–121). In a sense, that is, the governess is trapped in James's text by the same reflective record that gives her authority, a record whose expressive power is “clear and fine” (TS, 120) but whose “mystification” is thickly kneaded by James's technically rigorous, gothic “labyrinth.” Ironically—and irony is James's badge of honor—the “play of the pen” signifies her authority, her reflective intelligence, but only at the cost of memorializing its inadequacy. The undefined social status of the governess in The Turn of the Screw thus comes to represent even more than the discrepancies (or injustice) of class structure and social consciousness, as it might have done in earlier “governess” literature.21 Rather, as James's narrative turns the screw on the governess's story itself, her unstable situation becomes representative of the larger decay of legitimate bourgeois authority (within the family, on the market), a decay that James attempts to forestall by denouncing the vulgarization of the literary artwork but in the end only furthers by technically administering “reflection” as if it were the dearest commodity in the professional writer's inventory, as if, like the governess clutching at the dead body of Miles, James had rescued his form precisely by “rendering” its substance.


It could be said, perhaps, that in coming to focus more systematically and with greater technical concentration on the problem of a “reflecting consciousness” throughout the course of his career James was merely making theoretically as well as narratively explicit what had been a fundamental category for the novel all along: independent bourgeois subjectivity as the only form-giving principle to which the genre would have to be obedient. Especially in those large, complex analytical machines that appear immediately after The Turn of the Screw (The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl), the very idea of a narrative “reflector” is given a carefully doubled significance. It is at once a reflector of experience and a reflector upon that reflection; a bounded, delimited consciousness that can be shown to exist in increasingly precise detail both as subjected by and as the subject of its own history. In this process, James's work also makes explicit one of the main issues of the present book: that the novel, as the primary literary mode of representation of enlightened bourgeois thought, engages itself in a process of ideological demystification that ultimately works to subvert the presumed autonomy of the bourgeois consciousness that is its necessary ground; and that such a process is inseparable from an ongoing social rationalization which reproduces the subject both in more technically precise and in more socially administrable structures. If James, in “The Art of Fiction,” sees the novelist as a historian, the real matter of that history is the invention of a narrative that can accommodate itself to a subjective authority that is apparently more open-ended, intensely aware of its own processes of thought, and self-determining than any the novel had seen previously and yet somehow more “produced,” determined by, and ultimately dissolved into precisely those devices that would appear to guarantee its autonomy.

James himself, in his later preface to The Portrait of a Lady, refers to the paradoxical focus of his work when he notes that an individual consciousness will only become an “identity” when it is placed, “confined by the conditions,” and that for him to explain its vividness before such narrative placement would require “so subtle, if not so monstrous, a thing as to write the history of one's imagination” (LC, 1076). Nevertheless, it is just such history, subtle and monstrous, that one could claim James writes. It is a history—unlike that of Conrad, for whom the placement of the subject within ambiguous, deceptive conditions is itself a matter of some (however ironic) anxiety—in which the entire drama of consciousness, and of conscience (terms almost indistinguishable for James), has been transformed into reified components that can be managed by a narrative art. In this sense, James's work finds an accommodation with the particular problematic of a late bourgeois sensibility, one for whom the administration of the bourgeois self is perhaps in the end more acceptable than the abstract commodification of the “surplus value” at its core. If Conrad would appear to display the potential for despair within a subjectivity confronted with the pragmatic demands of an imperial order, James has found a potential solution in a literary form that strives to appropriate and manage those demands with a technique even more efficient than Conrad's in Heart of Darkness.

In The Portrait's preface, James indeed emphasizes that his work begins not with plot or fable but with the notion of isolated agency: “the stray figure, the unattached character, the image en disponibilité” (LC, 1073). The articulated “subject” matter of James's writing is that knowing subject itself, and the constant translation of the latter into the former is basic to his technique. James of course insists upon the “felt life” that grounds the moral sensibility of his novels and out of which his individuals spring, the “sincere experience,” the “enveloping air of the artist's humanity—which gives the last touch to the worth of the work” (LC, 1074); but as many have pointed out, as James's work progresses, the whole concept of “sincere experience” is put radically into question. James himself notes “the high price of the novel as a literary form,” since its true nature would seem to reside precisely in its ability to strain, “with a latent extravagance,” its formal limits, to explore the “disposition to reflect and project” that differs not only from subject to subject but increasingly within the reflecting consciousness itself (LC, 1074–75). But I am most interested here in the degree to which, filtered through James's ever present irony, all of the above issues—character, subject matter, “felt life,” “sincere experience,” and, above all, “worth,” “value,” “price”—become in the course of his career largely components of a rationally differentiated and systematized organization of expression. James's famous image of the “house of fiction” is a figure for his technical concerns that in fact reproduces the rationalized administration of the individual consciousness, guaranteeing each pair of eyes behind the windows a unique “point of view” determined only by the “need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will” (LC, 1076) yet efficiently subsuming the whole in a Cartesian grid of passive perception always already managed by the fact of a “human scene” that is effectively out of reach:

These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected. … But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other.

(LC, 1075)

In this conceit, the “choice of subject [matter]” is the human scene, the “pierced aperture” is the “literary form”; but all are nothing without the presence of “the watcher,” the “consciousness of the artist” who makes use of these instruments, whether eyes or field glasses, and who finds his artistic freedom therein.

Mark Seltzer provides a complementary analysis of James's technique, and realism in general, based on Foucault's elaboration of surveillance and panopticism in a text like Discipline and Punish. Seltzer focuses on the sense of a “life under scrutiny”: “Is it not possible to discover in this fantasy of surveillance a point of intersection between the realist text and a society increasingly dominated by institutions of discipline, regularization, and supervision—by the dispersed networks of the police?”22 His reading of The Princess Casamassima aims to uncover not only the presence of such institutions within, and governing, James's narrative, but also the degree to which James uses his aestheticization of the techniques of surveillance to “extricate himself from the charge of participating in the spy mania” of the novel, only to reproduce that mania in the “haunting and perpetual prowling” of his own disguised literary authority.23 I am in general agreement with Seltzer's analysis here, except for one troubling issue, an issue that I have tried to elaborate more fully in earlier chapters: that the novel's form, however much it may be structured by demystifying strategies of rationalization and surveillance, is in turn dependent on the “deep-seated” bourgeois consciousness who, like James's “artistic consciousness,” provides the authority for those strategies. James's authority and independence are themselves structured by an “enlightened,” rationally differentiated gaze. That such enlightenment should turn upon itself, subjectively participating in the dissolution and consequent administration of its own autonomy, is from this vantage a dialectical mechanism within rationalized capitalist relations rather than an equivocating phenomenological link between knowledge and power. Further, the duplicity of such a mechanism will not leave James's artistic authority untouched. Seltzer's claim that James surreptitiously recovers an authoritative perspective, whether identified with the “revolutionaries” of The Princess Casamassima or not, is itself undone by the emptiness of his ironic distance, by his own inevitable re-placement in the strategies he creates.

The problem created for James here is thus not so different, in spite of Jameson's observations, from the dilemma caused by an increasingly reified bourgeois consciousness in Conrad's work. Irony is a necessary tool in establishing some distance from the obviously limited or determined subjectivities of the narrative, but that irony, in the deconstructive power of its analysis, subverts subjective autonomy altogether, merely reinscribing the narrative's sublating power into already thoroughly ironic, pragmatic, social consciousness. The commodity character of James's thinking permeates—and I would claim consciously, ironically permeates—the rhetoric of his preface to The Portrait. James's “grasp of a single character” is “an acquisition I had made” (LC, 1075); he is first aware of his “placed” figures “in the dusky, crowded, heterogenous back-shop of the mind very much as a wary dealer in precious odds and ends … is conscious of the rare little ‘piece’ left him in deposit.” The “value” that he finds in the “young feminine nature” that will be the central figure of The Portrait—a figure who early in the novel is found quite self-consciously “trudging over the sandy plains of German Thought,” like so much of American Transcendentalism24—is itself a reified “treasure” that he is somewhat unwilling to liquidate in narrative: “I quite remind myself thus of the dealer resigned not to ‘realize,’ resigned to keeping the precious object locked up indefinitely rather than commit it, at no matter what price, to vulgar hands” (LC, 1076).

And what, precisely, is the “treasure” that seems of such importance in the figure of Isabel Archer “and even much smaller female fry”? “George Eliot has admirably noted it—‘In these frail vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection”’ (LC, 1077). James is of course overtly commenting here on the reluctance of some earlier novelists—Dickens and Scott among them—to attempt the sustained representation of these “frail vessels,” a reluctance that does not for him make such objects less valuable, either to the human scene or to the artist's efforts. But the point I wish to emphasize, however unironic James may be when he refers to “female fry” or to “the mere young thing” that he imaginatively possesses, is that the “value” for James of this independent consciousness, and of the hidden treasure of its surplus humanness, is already “commodified” by existing social relations before James ever appropriates it; for James, such “treasure” already has invisible quotation marks around it. If it consequently presents possibilities of “treatment,” if it presents James with the challenge of really “doing” his reflecting consciousness with unmatched “technical rigour,” James is only reproducing within his narrative the pragmatic “irony” of existing social relations (LC, 1080). Indeed, one could claim that his work at its most self-conscious constitutes, in ways not so unlike Nietzsche's, a parody of that pragmatism. Isabel Archer's history, along with the various attached elements of James's literary possessions, could thus be recognized for the ironic subversion it represents: “They were the numbered pieces of my puzzle” (LC, 1081). But, of course, within the social context surrounding James's work, such parody of an already rationalized environment can only reinforce its authority—James's irony is itself a surplus technique.

The issue that I am concerned with here is not simply the technological organization of written, as opposed to spoken, narrative that Hugh Kenner, among others, has emphasized; I am more or less assuming the pressure toward such technification within the genre as a whole and not simply as a product of graphic or printed modes of composition. (James has of course long been known to have produced his later works “orally” for a secretary.) Rather, the issue here is simultaneously the rhetorical coding of James's criticism and James's implicit, ironic willingness to put such rhetoric to use as a means of describing his own process of composition. Of course, James appropriated any number of such verbal conceits in the course of writing his prefaces; but the advantage this particular one presents is that it elaborates both his concern to “produce” a vivid, reflecting, moral center of consciousness as the sine qua non of his literary form and the fundamentally rationalized ground (or, rather, “house”) within which that consciousness must stand and through which “fiction” and “imagination” themselves come to exist—a dual focus that in its immanently projected normative ideal would reveal no contradiction at all. That is, James is perfectly aware of the commodified terms of his diction, of the necessity to invoke notions like “treasure” to indicate his own knowing distance from the tenuousness of those “human” sentiments bourgeois subjectivity defers within itself. But his work is at the same time committed to a notion of “subjectivity administered by subjectivity” that, as a normative ideal, effectively comes to supplant the surplus humanness that earlier narrative implicitly depended upon. That James should conceive of himself here as a “dealer”—even one given to irrational hoarding in a dusty pawnshop—is at the heart of his narrative form: the instrumentally defined terms of the organization of his “innocent” moral agents will represent both the worldly conditions which circumscribe their identities and against which they struggle and, “ironically,” the immanent ideal projected by the form itself. Irony in James will come to signify not, as in Lukács, “the lost, utopian home of the idea that has become an ideal,” not, as in much earlier bourgeois narrative, a locus of deep-seated humanness that remains always just out of reach given the contradictions of the narrative itself. Irony in James will always point back to a “house” of determined, if functionally differentiated, social relations within which the pluralistic “freedom” of the bourgeois subject will henceforth be confined.

The much discussed preoccupation in James's work, especially in the later narratives, with the epistemological limitations of any perceiving subject must be placed in the light of this larger problematic of rationalized organization. For it is precisely the increasing social demand for subjectivity administered by subjectivity that depends upon the deconstruction of the bourgeois subject's autonomy—a deconstruction which, as I have claimed, the novel as a demystifying genre cannot help but pursue. Both on the level of his mature technique and on the level of his most mature characters' constant attempts to contain, to know, and to manage the contents of their experiences, even to the point of parody, as in Fanny Assingham of The Golden Bowl, James reveals simultaneously the inevitable dissolution of experience itself in the very language of the reflecting mind and the concomitant subsumption of reflection by administration, of awareness by instrumental effectiveness, of self-knowledge by self-manipulation. Indeed, it could be said that it is the widening gap in late capitalist relations—which the capitalist in no way personally transcends—between the Hegelian “in-itself” (or “for us”) and the “for-itself” that is the crux here: a gap between a formal rationality that both posits things-in-themselves as inherently unknowable and analytically objectifies and controls their phenomenal appearance, and a transpersonal reason through which the subject may come into more human existence by the free, social determination of its proper ends.25 In James's earlier work, the distinction is usually clarified by irony. Madame Merle, in The Portrait of a Lady, already ironically coded as a manipulative figure, is told by Osmond that Isabel Archer may deserve better than him: “‘I don't pretend to know what people are meant for,’ said Madame Merle. ‘I only know what I can do with them.”’26 But, as Ruth Yeazell has pointed out, such clear distinctions rarely obtain later; in a character like Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove or Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, the pretenses of knowing a purposiveness within people or events, or even one's own perceptions, and of knowing what one “can do with them” are nearly inextricable. The result leads in fact to a narrative dissolution of the assumed coherence and stability of any “autonomous” point of view. “Conscious pretense and innocent self-deception, fact and desire, the situation that Charlotte knows to exist and the situation she wishes to create—all merge in the elusive movements of James's prose. And that prose shapes our response in ways of which even we ourselves may be far from fully conscious.”27 I would add only that such responses, both within and external to James's writing, are always circumscribed by the peculiarly analytic context created by James's work here, one which ultimately rehearses the needs of a rationalized social apparatus for manipulatable, adaptable subjectivity.

Perhaps another way of describing this situation is through a terminology that Max Weber was working out during the period in which James's later work was written. It is as if James were interested in constructing a more or less value-neutral perspective on various kinds of social action, the most rationalized of which would amount to a perfect reproduction of his own rigorous technique, but a perspective which would at the same time be implicitly rejected by the bourgeois values of his protagonists. Weber describes four ideal “types” of social action, value-orientations of thought, motivation, and activity that, while rarely apparent in anything like a pure state, would nevertheless give the sociologist a way of organizing “meaningful” human behavior.28 For Weber, meaningful social action occurs when an individual consciously ascribes a subjective meaning to his or her action (the “objective” meaning itself being as irrecoverable as Kant's ding-an-sich) that is oriented to the actions of others. While purely imitative or habitual or instrumental acts having no intended purpose would admittedly often be hard to distinguish from Weber's “meaningful” categories, his ideal types are designed nevertheless to form both a synchronic matrix of possible value-orientations and a diachronic scheme of dominant social behavior ending in modern capitalist relations. Social action may thus be traditionally oriented, “through the habituation of long practice”; affectually or emotionally oriented, “determined by the specific affects and state of feeling of the actor”; rationally oriented in terms of some absolute value (wertrational, or value-rational), “involving a conscious belief in the absolute value of ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, entirely for its own sake and independently of any prospects of external success”; and, finally, rationally oriented “to a system of discrete individual ends” (zweckrational, or purpose-rational), using one's expectations in the behavior of others “as ‘conditions’ or ‘means’ for the successful attainment of the actor's own rationally chosen ends.”29 In general, the first two types are in fact borderline examples of meaningful action for Weber; only the last two constitute models of human activity which could be called sociologically significant.

There are of course numerous difficulties with Weber's eminently zweckrational typology, principal among which is the already reified nature of his categories. This is not the place to open a larger critique of his work; clearly his “types” are fundamental to long traditions of European political science and social thought, beginning perhaps with Machiavelli and the larger elaboration of autonomous personhood in the Renaissance. My claim is simply that James's work is structured, however implicitly, by the theoretical limits afforded by such analyses; by, that is, the differentiation of value specific to late capitalist social relations. James's writing is superficially concerned with conflicts, both seen and unseen, between the reified forms of traditional or wertrational social action on one side and affective value, or what he calls “sincere experience” and “felt life,” on the other; in that sense, his work is true to the dialectically progressive norms of bourgeois consciousness and its surplus of humanity upon which the novel as a genre, like James's “house” of fiction, is constructed. But it is one of the central “ironies” of James's work that the means of preserving the increasingly commodified innocence and authenticity of his central reflectors must itself be a function of zweckrational thought; like the ability of the culture industry in late capitalism to put the autonomy and “purposelessness” of its works of art to use as psychic recreation, as an administered element of the work environment, the innocence of “sincere” affective experience in James is, quite overtly and ironically in narratives after The Turn of the Screw, a function of design.

His work thus demands our attention, I would claim, not only because the generic conflicts within it between reified custom and open-ended consciousness are themselves betrayed by what Jameson called the “perpetuation of an increasingly subjectivized and psychologized world” in James's formalization of point of view. Rather, I would also emphasize the degree to which James's reflectors, in their attempt to meet the more traditional narrative contradictions between custom or law and felt life, would be able to achieve success only through the efficient application of a zweckrational mode of thought that effectively usurped the affective “treasure” they were defending. Moreover, James's own ironic sublation of this situation cannot do otherwise than reproduce the pragmatic implications of such a resolution. The Master is himself bound, both in theory and practice, to an instrumentalization of narrative elements that is an aesthetic reflection of an increasingly rationalized capitalist environment. As Weber himself pointed out in discussing the paradoxes of the free-market “dealers,” “the more strictly rational their action is, the more will they tend to react similarly to the same situation. … This phenomenon—the fact that orientation to the situation in terms of pure self-interest of the individual and of others to whom he is related can bring about results which are very similar to those which an authoritarian agency, very often in vain, has attempted to obtain by coercion—has aroused a lively interest, especially in economic affairs.”30 James's preoccupation with the morals and manners of the wealthier bourgeoisie, designed perhaps to insulate his subjective centers from the overt social conflicts that would otherwise determine their lives, paradoxically reinvests his narratives with an “authority” that is itself already organized by the zweckrational ironies of the environment he dissects. Indeed, like Weber, James cannot help but privilege zweckrational behavior within his texts, even as he elaborates the emptiness of the instrumental reason, like Madame Merle's, that achieves, without in many cases even a revelation of desire or demand, an order and rigor matched only by his own: Maggie Verver's eminently pragmatic “victory” in The Golden Bowl is perhaps the paradigmatic example of “sincere experience” and affective innocence preserved only through the ruthlessness of a means-ends rationality. The truly pragmatic society can turn any of Weber's four types of social action to its own ends, demonstrating to each in turn that to survive, to resist the stigma of irrationality, it must at least imitate the instrumental consciousness of the marketplace. Of course, whenever the “autonomous” individual does achieve such a “victory,” the power of commodity thinking is only solidified; individual “dealers” may win or lose, but the stock exchange itself only grows in validity.

Obviously, then, James's narratives are “about” a great deal more than a technical refinement in the art of the novel. They are in large part set in the world of a privileged class whose “moral” conflicts can thus be circumscribed within the autonomous boundaries of “individual vision” and “the pressure of the individual will,” boundaries whose “other” sides are often, if never completely, suppressed by James's formal constraints. It is for this reason that The Turn of the Screw, otherwise a slight product of James's voluminous output, can be seen as an exemplary text for the purpose of the present study. For it is this slim, puzzling ghost story, written by a governess, handed down to and preserved by one of her former charges, handed down again and rerecorded by the narrator of James's text, that invites us to read in it so much that would otherwise be adequately contained and managed by the sophisticated bourgeois subjects of James's other works—imagining all the while, of course, that Douglas is reading the manuscript in the governess's hand. It is the particular “extravagance” of James's writing here that has made this narrative of such interest: in terms of the endless deferral of the spoken word itself and of the narrative's ironically “contained” mimicking of a narrative voice; in terms of a decentered, unstable subjective center—a governess, a servant with an undefined “authority,” the daughter of a parson with latent attachments to a wertrational moral code and with an extreme, even naive, sensitivity to the affective dimensions of “sincere experience” who finds herself caught in the most zweckrational of narrative machinery; and in terms of the fragmented, deliberately mystified quality of the social relations that are the narrative's “human scene”—broken families, nonexistent mothers, absent uncles, orphaned children, sexually questionable caretakers, the return of the dead. Indeed, one could claim that The Turn of the Screw represents, precisely, an eminently managed and controlled return of the repressed for James's work. Like that “house of fiction” with eyes behind every window and a “human scene” out front that is finally always the ambiguous product of an inherently limited human perspective, Bly is the allegorical locus—the ghostly “house” behind the house of fiction—within which all those issues haunting the absent Master's own haunting technique are waiting to be discovered: class, sexuality (hetero- and homoerotic, pedophilic, incestuous), repression, violence. But its voice is also that of a narrative consciousness who vitiates the “enveloping air of the artist's humanity” by giving expression not to the conundrums of a threatened moral identity but to the endlessly vibrating, yet hauntingly static, nature of James's narrative forms. James perhaps reveals himself most fully in the governess's own hermeneutic dilemmas—but then, this is only a generic exercise, “a piece of … cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught, … the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious” (TS, 120).


If The Turn of the Screw thus reveals the haunted side of James's fictional house, it is largely because instead of a house of many windows it turns out to be a house of mirrors. The governess's first vision of Bly indeed recalls James's metaphor for fictional perspective itself: “I remember as a thoroughly pleasant impression the broad clear front, its open windows and fresh curtains and the pair of maids looking out” (TS, 7). But the governess responds to her own position at these windows, to the charming beauty of Flora, and to the “long glasses in which, for the first time, I could see myself from head to foot” (TS, 7) with a mistrust of precisely that which seems so clear, open, and fully present. It is as though, in his amusette, James had provided a microcosm of administered subjectivity constantly afraid of all that it does not, that it perhaps cannot, know; almost, that is, a precursor to Kafka's narrators, lost amid circumstances outside their control yet uncannily implicated in the machinery of manipulation. The endless doubling and duplicity of the narrative has often been noted, beginning with the nature of its genre—a ghost story whose teller is dimly aware that she may be as “haunted” as her tale, a story that implicates its readers in producing the horror it conceals. There are two children, providing two turns of the screw of “terror,” rather than one as in Griffin's story; two governesses; two returning ghosts; two present guardians in the house at Bly; the children have been orphaned twice, once by the death of their father, again by the death of their grandparents; the text of the story has itself been handed down twice, once by the governess to Douglas, again by Douglas to James's narrator. Such doubling and repetition is in fact basic to the action of the story, as if James were making narratively explicit the connection between the duplicitous subjective “reflections” of an observing consciousness and the equally duplicitous process of reflection inherent to narrative representation itself. When Peter Quint first appears at the dining room window, the governess “instinctively” replicates what she has seen in an attempt to understand: “I applied my face to the pane and looked, as he had looked, into the room. As if, at this moment, to show me exactly what his range had been, Mrs. Grose, as I had done for himself just before, came in from the hall. With this I had the full image of a repetition of what had already occurred” (TS, 21). Mrs. Grose is then frightened exactly as the governess had been, and since the governess is clearly not an apparition, an interesting question is raised concerning the nature of the mysteries at Bly: “I wondered why she should be scared.” By duplicating the guile of Peter Quint's appearance, the governess elicits—however inadvertently this time—from Mrs. Grose an anxiety that she may, or may not, be trying to hide. But it is also as if the governess were straining against the perspectival limitations James's text imposes upon her, against being “placed” at the appropriate fictional window.

This element of duplicitous reflection is even more deeply rooted in the rhetorical conventions of James's language itself. There are always at least two possible metaphorical conventions that govern the governess's interpretation. The governess several times refers to Bly, for example, not as a mansion but as a ship on which she is at the helm—“It was in short by just clutching the helm that I avoided total wreck” (TS, 79)—and even before any mysteries occur this ship is socially marked, just as are the children, by its homelessness, by its unanchored wandering. The governess's first tour of the house, led by Flora, also ends in a rhetorical doubling of her understanding of Bly, a doubling that is due both to the calculated literary conventions structuring James's amusette (like the gothic castle Praz isolates or the magical castles of fable, of which the governess herself seems to be aware, and to what she might have expected, given the refusal of earlier applicants for the position, the situation to suggest:

As my little conductress, with her hair of gold and her frock of blue, danced before me round corners and pattered down passages, I had the view of a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all colour out of story-books and fairy-tales. Wasn't it just a story-book over which I had fallen a-doze and a-dream? No; it was a big ugly antique but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-displaced and half-utilised, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was strangely at the helm!

(TS, 10)

Clearly, given the governess's limited personal knowledge of the world, and her dependence on literary accounts of that world (her sense of herself as a kind of latter-day Jane Eyre, for example, or the allusions in the passage above to Dodgson's Alice), it is precisely as a “castle of romance” more striking than those in “story-books and fairy-tales” that Bly would initially appear to her. After her first glimpse of Peter Quint, the governess reinforces the “literary” quality, the already textualized nature, of her experience “on taking service for the first time in the schoolroom” (TS, 4): “Was there a ‘secret’ at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?” (TS, 17); the choice between Radcliffe's gothic mysteries and Brontë's “realistic” solution is very much the choice facing James's heroine. At the same time, however, this “antique but convenient house” is itself the product of a metaphorical conversion or substitution—a “great drifting ship”—that further extends the semantic slide and deferral of meaning running throughout the governess's narrative. The ambiguous transmutation of abodes is thus one more trope of the actual displacement of the children as orphans, a reflection of the rhetorical slippage from “castle of romance,” to “antique … house,” to “great drifting ship.” That the passengers on this ship should appear “lost” to the governess, that the ship itself, though great, should appear to be “drifting,” and that the governess, of all people, should be “strangely at the helm” are the concrete elaborations of the indeterminate, unanchored quality of the governess' “anxieties and inductions” (TS, 121), as James refers to them in the preface, of the potentially unlimited slide of her interpretations from one turn of suspicion to another.31 “‘There are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don't know what I don't see, what I don't fear!”’ (TS, 31). The governess thus becomes the distilled, concentrated, yet even more rigorously contained version of all James's reflecting minds, from Frederick Winterbourne in Daisy Miller to The Golden Bowl's Maggie Verver.

In this context, one of the more significant rereadings of James's narrative must be Shoshana Felman's “Turning the Screw of Interpretation.” The main problematic in her essay is the relationship between literary interpretation and psychoanalytic interpretation, a relationship based on a kind of “madness” at the heart of authority that is inherent to the act of interpretation itself. Relying heavily on Lacan and Derrida's deconstruction of the Cartesian self and Paul de Man's reflections on the necessary “blindness” of the interpretative act, Felman shows how every attempt to demystify James's “fairy-tale,” especially a psychoanalytic attempt like Edmund Wilson's, effectively reinscribes the interpreter in another kind of literary mystification, actually repeating precisely those gestures so well rehearsed by the governess's own interpretative struggle:

If the literary mystification is, in James's terms, “exquisite,” it is indeed because it constitutes a source of pleasure. The mystification is a game, a joke; to play is to be played; to comprehend mystification is to be comprehended in it; entering into the game, we ourselves become fair game for the very “joke” of meaning. The joke is that, by meaning, everyone is fooled. If the “joke” is nonetheless also a “worry,” if, “exquisite” as it may be, mystification is also “tragic,” it is because the “error” (the madness of the interpreter) is the error of life itself. “Life is the condition of knowledge,” writes Nietzsche; “Error is the condition of life—I mean, ineradicable and fundamental error. The knowledge that one errs does not eliminate the error.”32

For Felman, interpretation is fundamentally an Oedipal drama, and this is what specifically links the reader of texts simultaneously to the analyst and the analysand: Oedipus becomes the identity he searches for and also takes the place of his victim; the interrogation of a suspect actually comes to constitute the crime.33 James's literary “identity” is thus always already produced by his relation to the text as an address to the other: “James's very mastery consists in the denial and in the deconstruction of his own mastery. Like the Master in his story with respect to the children at Bly, James assumes this role of Master only through the act of claiming, with respect to his literary ‘property,’ the ‘license,’ as he puts it, ‘of disconnexion and disavowal.”’35 Felman is thus able to link a constant, maddening slide or deferral of unified meaning within the governess's ordeal at Bly with the transference and substitution of the various “texts” of her story contained by the narrative, with James's own reflective technique, with the reader's anxious struggle to produce an authoritative explanation of events, and with an irreducible différance within signification, the “infliction … of an added split or distance” that castrates any authoritative grasp of the sign. “Meaning's possession is itself ironically transformed into the radical dispossession of its possessor.”36 When the governess seizes Miles and his confession, his recognition, of what had been repressed at Bly, her demystifying victory over ghostly possession is thus immediately fractured by the child's death and she is left, as is the reader, with the echoing hollowness of her own mastery.

Felman's analysis clearly raises any number of problems, from the hypostatization, following de Man, of “error” in Nietzsche as an irreducible rhetorical phenomenon to the volatilization of nearly all substantive difference between the various kinds of actual, worldly “authority” in which James's narrative might be implicated. …

My claim throughout this book has been that it is precisely the notion of independent bourgeois agency itself that is at stake in modernist narrative—that the importance of criticism like Lukács's meditation on “reification” is that it emphasizes the systematic, differentiated, rationalized character of fully developed capitalist relations. As I tried to show earlier, this does not at all imply that institutions and ideology do not express tendencies, in Adorno's words, “through which the most powerful interests realize themselves,” but merely that “ideology is not simply reducible to a partial interest. It is, as it were, equally near the centre in all its pieces.”36 Lukács had of course already made the crucial point:

Marx repeatedly emphasized that the capitalist (and when we speak of “industry” in the past or present we can only mean the capitalist) is nothing but a puppet. And when, for example, he compares his instinct to enrich himself with that of the miser, he stresses the fact that “what in the miser is a mere idiosyncrasy, is, in the capitalist, the effect of the social mechanism, of which he is but one of the wheels. Moreover, the development of capitalist production makes it constantly necessary to keep increasing the amount of the capital invested in a given industrial undertaking, and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt as external coercive laws by each individual capitalist.” The fact, therefore, that “industry,” i.e. the capitalist as the incarnation of economic and technical progress, does not act but is acted upon and that his “activity” goes no further than the correct observation and calculation of the objective working out of the natural laws of society, is a truism for Marxism.37

The development of modern, administered, large-capital “competition” that Adorno and Horkheimer analyze hardly alters Lukács's point here, since the introduction of political bureaucracy into the “social mechanism” only serves further to justify the “immanent laws” of production within which the bourgeoisie must operate in order to maintain their position. It is the increasingly rationalized character of that mechanism, and its permeation throughout cultural reproduction, with which I am most concerned. From this perspective, the absent Master—and this includes James—participates in a systematic disarticulation of “subjective” authority, not only, as both Felman and Rowe would have it, because the deferral of authority is the essence of maintaining authority (whether fictional or real), but because a disseminated, deconstructed subjectivity is fundamental to a rationalized social order. That the absent aristocrat's “art of life,” the orphaned children's “trusting innocence,” and the governess's “ordinary human virtue” are all shown by James's technique to be the inescapable effects of a textual machinery—social as well as literary—is precisely the conceit that provides James's work with a static, frozen quality behind all its deceptive openness and ambiguity; a distant uncle, or a rivalry among inheritors, will not define the ground of this dilemma. Indeed, from a larger historical vantage, it is precisely the inevitable dissolution of the autonomy of the big bourgeoisie, and not simply of working-class or petit bourgeois resistance, that actually solidifies totalitarian domination in the twentieth century.

It is for this reason that James's deconstruction of “ordinary human virtue” in The Turn of the Screw is important, especially given the instrumental quality of individual subjectivity in much of James's later work. By making the Master's (James's, the uncle's) absence the defining circumstance of necessarily errant, illegitimate mastery in the text, whether interpretative or social, Felman and Rowe also reveal the implicit, immanently projected link in James's writing between any possible authority—legitimacy itself having become a moot point—and zweckrational thinking, instrumental rationality. That is, if all interpretation or personal authority that defers its ground to a necessarily hidden locus of meaning, of right, of “surplus humanness”—from a Harley Street address to “ordinary” virtue—is demonstrated only to be the product of an irreducible, always errant will to power within reason itself, then the only adaptable, functioning form of subjectivity made available by James's narrative is a thoroughly pragmatic understanding which fully accepts domination as an irreducible element of social relations. From this perspective, the governess is indeed trapped by the hopelessly contradictory wertrational character of her vision at Bly; but her transcendence of those limitations would of course only mean that she adapt herself in order to manipulate her moral vision better than anyone else. Moreover, it is the Master himself who is the most pragmatic, instrumental consciousness of all in this narrative. The dissolution of the governess's illusory autonomy only further inscribes her in the only conditions within which “mastery” in James's world can exist, both for governesses and readers, a world in which innocence suddenly appears to recover a simulacral existence behind the bureaucratic impassiveness of the managerial gaze.

It is precisely this static, trapped quality of James's narrator in The Turn of the Screw, in spite of the apparent authority and independence of this rigorously “placed” reflecting consciousness, that would seem to be overcome by James's irony, by the constant deferrals of her story itself within the manifold containers of James's narrative framing; but it is that same ironic subversion that in fact finally stifles an immanent critical response. Like so many of James's subjective centers, the governess is a pair of eyes struggling with the boundaries of her limited window frame, not content to peer through the pane of her perceptions only from one side, as it were, but determined to peer around it, to gaze back in, and to “feel” her “certainties” rather than rely only on positivistic observation—to “reflect” upon and expand the dimensions of her perception. But just as clearly, James's technical rigor deconstructs the universal, or comprehensive, power of