The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
by Henry James

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(Short Story Criticism)

The Turn of the Screw Henry James

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...

(The entire section is 161,379 words.)