Themes

In an old country house on Christmas Eve a group of people are telling ghost stories when one of them, an elderly man named Douglas, promises to read them the most horrifying story of ghostly apparitions he has ever known, a first-hand, first-person account which had been entrusted to him some forty years earlier by the woman who wrote it. He sends to London for the manuscript which arrives three days later. Before he starts reading, Douglas explains how the author of the memoir had obtained the post of governess to two orphaned children abandoned by their uncle/guardian at his country estate and how, despite her youth and lack of experience, the uncle expressly instructed her that she should take on total responsibility for the children and never involve him in her decisions. Douglas refuses to anticipate any details of the tale except to heighten his listeners' curiosity by saying that the governess was in love with the uncle. Once he begins reading, he never adds any commentary so that the whole experience is narrated from the point of view of the governess, whose name is never revealed.

As the governess recalls, at first she was enchanted by the beautiful grounds and mansion at Bly and delighted with her charming and angelic young pupils, Flora and Miles. The only disquieting factors were Miles's dismissal from school for unspecified reasons and the information provided by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that the children's former preceptors, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, each died in mysterious circumstances. Gradually, however, the governess grew convinced that the estate was haunted by the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel who wished to corrupt the children and possess their souls. The fact that no one else admitted to seeing the ghosts and that the children continued to seem very innocent did not dissuade her from waging a battle against the evil apparitions. As time passed, she became alienated from the children, who were either frightened by her strange behavior or under the influence of the spectral visitors. Finally, Flora had a hysterical crisis and was taken to her uncle while Miles remained with the governess until the climactic night when she urged him to confess and his heart stopped beating.

Having access only to the governess's version of the events and no way to verify what she says by outside reference, the reader is obliged to make preliminary decisions about her and to evaluate her subsequent behavior and speech mainly in light of those choices. Moreover, gaps in information, accompanied by a number of ambiguously suggestive details, make it virtually impossible to formulate definitive answers to the main questions the story poses: Are the ghosts real? Do the children see them? Is the governess sane? James expressed his delight at having created such an intriguing puzzle — "an amusette to catch those not easily caught" — and in his Preface to the tale he reveals his tactic for stimulating the reader's creative responses. He writes: "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."

Not surprisingly, The Turn of the Screw has provoked endless arguments among the critics, whose numerous interpretations can be loosely classified in three categories: those which accept the ghosts as apparitions; those which argue they are the governess's hallucinations; and those which assert the enigma remains unsolved. Given the conflicting nature of these different interpretations, it follows that the themes which...

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