The Turn of the Screw: Essay Q&A

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1. Can we trust the narrator?
Henry James often toys with his readers by giving them a narrator who is not wholly reliable. What Maisie Knew, for example, is told from the point of view of a child too small to really understand what is going on around her. Perhaps his most famously unreliable narrator is the governess in Turn of the Screw. He presents her as trustworthy and then undercuts this portrayal of her.
James initially puts us completely in the governess's hands and sets our expectations that she will deliver a true story. Douglas knew the governess, and he proclaims her to have been a lovely, agreeable woman. Moreover, he sends for the manuscript because he wishes to get the story just right. Before he reads the tale, he relates several facts about the young lady. However, despite all these assurances that the story comes from someone to be trusted, it is told around the fire to entertain people, which makes it more an entertainment than a restatement of facts.
Once we meet the governess, we slowly come to realize she is really not all that reliable. At first, there are only hints that she cannot be trusted. She explains that she heard a few mysterious sounds, "but these fancies were not marked enough not to be thrown off, and it is only in the light, or the gloom, I should rather say, of other and subsequent matters that they now come back to me" (13). Not only does she fancy she hears things, but she also is telling a tale that is colored by her experiences. Even her early moments cannot be trusted because what happened later affects how she tells the story. Nor is her description of the children even remotely reliable. Whereas early on she is "dazzled by their loveliness" (27), she later becomes obsessed with thinking them evil. And even her telling of her obsession is a bit unreliable. "How can I retrace to-day the strange steps of my obsession?" (68) she asks. She has gone from being unreliable because she is infatuated with the children to being unreliable because she wants them to be evil and is having a hard time recalling exactly how that desire formed.
Even the governess herself admits to the activity of her own imagination. While she insists that her suspicion of the children "was not, I am as sure to-day as I was sure then, my mere infernal imagination" (66), she is in that moment admitting that she does indeed have a very active imagination. She admits to an "endless obsession" (80) near the end, just as at the beginning she acknowledges "I am rather easily carried away" (14). Alongside all her references to imagination, obsession, and fancy, is her insistence that she knows things by intuition to be as they are. So, she is insistent that she and Mrs. Grose know their "duty of resistance to extravagant fancies" (45) right after she sees Miss Jessel for the first time and says she knows that Flora saw her because she could tell by looking at Flora. Given that she has no proof and has admitted to being easily swayed, it is hard to take her intuitions at face value. She drops hints to her active imagination yet expects the reader to trust her that this is all true and that her intuition could not guide her astray.
Ultimately, the contrast between her fantasies and her insistence that she is being absolutely accurate make her seem all the more unreliable. At moments, however, she is correct, such as when she assumes Flora has taken the boat across the pond. At this point, the reader is left to wonder if the story is true after all, if it is James who is unreliable, if the governess is changing the facts to suit her own hindsight, or if the entire story is the raving of a madwoman.
2. How does Turn of the Screw present writers and writing?
When he wrote The Turn of the Screw, Henry James had just emerged from a mortifying experience as a playwright and returned to the novel form. He was defensive about the novel form being the most artistic type of writing and was cynical about popular forms such as plays. Perhaps because of this, The Turn of the Screw portrays writers as controlling and demonstrates that storytellers have the power to create reality.
Mrs. Grose is unable to read or write and is therefore reliant upon the governess, who has power over the older woman because she is creating the story. The governess is well aware of this power. "I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority. . . 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 saucepan" (60). Here, the governess has revealed that she knows she is pouring inappropriate ideas into Mrs. Grose's head and that she could abuse this power. On numerous occasions, she insists she is careful not to take this liberty. However, when she does not want Mrs. Grose to contact the master, she reminds Mrs. Grose that she cannot write and asks if her friend really wants the bailiff to tell their story (80). She is asserting her superiority in order to get her way and is defensively protecting the story as her own to tell.
Like Mrs. Grose, the reader is reliant upon the governess for facts, and James underscores this reliance upon someone the reader cannot trust to show how readers are at the mercy of their storyteller. The governess often asserts her authority to write the thoughts of the children or her co-workers, yet she is also in charge of the reality that the reader is allowed to see. When she describes seeing Miss Jessel, she explains, "There was no ambiguity in anything" (39), and the reader is forced to take her at her word until she begins to contradict herself and invent details. Only when the reader finds her clearly fabricating a conversation with Miss Jessel when speaking with Mrs. Grose can the reader be assured that she is abusing her storytelling power. However, she is still the only storyteller presenting the tale, so readers are forced to continue listening to her.
However, the governess does not retain the power of telling because her story is co-opted by several males. Douglas has taken her manuscript and presents it to the group, with his own facts added. Then, the nameless narrator tells the story of Douglas telling the governess's tale, so he is the one with the power to distort facts as he sees fit. Finally, as he is underscoring just how reliant readers are on their storytellers, Henry James is claiming his own authority. After all, he is the one writing the story and giving it to the readers.
After a disastrous experience in the theater, Henry James turned back to novels and proclaimed his authority and power as an artist within that form. When he gives one narrator the power and then gives it to another, he is amassing authority of his own. Ultimately, he as the novelist pulls all the strings.
3. How does Henry James build up a sense of mystery in this text?
The Turn of the Screw differs from most of Henry James's writing. His books tend to be about the relationships between people, not suspense-filled ghost stories. However, his brother, William, implored him to write one book in a more popular style. Finally, he agreed and wrote The Turn of the Screw, a book that builds up tension and suspense as the story progresses.
The prologue, which precedes the governess's tale, sets up this feeling of suspense. The reader is forced to wait for the story, just like the people who are gathered around to hear it. Like the ladies who must leave before the tale begins, the readers are "in a rage of curiosity . . . produced by the touches with which he had already worked us up" (7). One of those touches is the numerous mysteriously dead people. The children's parents, their grandparents, and their governess all died before the new governess was hired. Plus, the reader knows that this new governess is also now dead. All those dead people set the reader up for a disturbing tale, the telling of which is delayed to add to the suspense, and the addition of a dead caretaker means there are more dead characters than living ones.
The governess's tale, of course, builds greatly on this sense of mystery. She is continually viewing ghosts through windows, around corners, and from afar. These distanced views make them seem all the more ghostly. When she sees Quint for the second time, she is startled to see him staring through a window at her, and she gets a sense that she "had been looking at him for years and had known him always" (28). It is terrifying to see a mysterious man looking though a window, but the reader's curiosity is even more piqued by her feeling that she knows him when she clearly does not. Her manner of describing these interactions with the ghosts heightens the sense of suspense because the encounters are always paired with intimations of some sort of mystical knowledge of the ghosts.
James has used all of the traditional means of telling a ghost story-ghosts seen fleetingly around corners, someone with a sixth sense about things, delayed details-to put together a text that is very clearly in a ghost story mode. There is never a name ascribed to the governess, which makes the tale seem all the more a standard ghost story. He references a famous story about the supernatural, The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, to underscore that this is also a ghost story, but also to poke fun at the form he is using-while he builds up suspense throughout, his governess is ultimately untrustworthy and probably rather daffy. James, himself, never liked The Turn of the Screw much because all that mystery made people read it simply as a tale of the supernatural.
4. How is sexuality portrayed in Turn of the Screw?
Like so many other Victorian novels, The Turn of the Screw has sexuality everywhere and nowhere. There are no frank descriptions of sexual activity or even sexual attractiveness. Yet, even though sexuality is not spoken of directly, there are undercurrents of sexuality throughout the text.
Despite her prudishness and respectability, the governess demonstrates a keen interest in sexuality, and it is unclear whether she has been sexually active or if she is repressing her desires. She is in love with the master, and Douglas indicates that he seduced her, but it is unclear whether this was a consummated seduction or if the master just got her to take the job by working his charms. What is clear is that she desires more of him than she gets and that she frames his neglect as her own devotion to him. For example, she interprets his failure to write to the children as flattery to herself because "the way in which a man pays his highest tribute to a woman is apt to be but by the more festal celebration of one of the sacred laws of his comfort" (70). In other words, she serves him by letting him ignore her.
Perhaps because she is so ignored by the object of her desire, the governess takes a great deal of interest in the sexuality of others. She dwells on Miss Jessel's and Quint's sexual relationship. She is intrigued by the idea of a relationship between a woman of higher class and a menial man because it is so sordid. She is especially interested in the fact that Miss Jessel was a fallen woman who now "suffers the torments . . . of the damned" (78). This can be read two ways. Perhaps the governess is also a fallen woman, having given herself to the master, and she is tormented by her guilt and fear. Or, perhaps she is envious of a woman who did give in to her desires, and that is why she fixates on the ghosts.
Miles's homosexuality is even more subtle yet is also clearly alluded to within the text. The first hint is that "for a period of several months Quint and the boy had been perpetually together" (47), but, of course, that could be for any number of reasons. Later, when Miles indicates he wants to return to school, he asks whether his uncle thinks what his governess thinks (74). Again, that he could be homosexual is not clearly laid out, but we do know that Miles has some shame that is connected with returning to school. Then, in the next chapter, the governess repeats the phrase "unnatural for a boy" twice in connection with Miles (75). Finally, at the end of the text, he admits he was dismissed from school for saying terrible things to boys that he liked. This is the final indication that he learned sexual language from Quint and repeated it to the other boys. If it was terrible enough to get him removed from school and was said as a sign of affection, it was undoubtedly homosexual, which was an offense that could lead to jail in Victorian England. In fact, James's rival in the theater, Oscar Wilde, did go to jail for homosexual activity and James himself quite possibly was a closeted homosexual.
Like so many of his contemporaries, James skirts the issue of sexuality yet portrays it as controlling his characters' lives. Like his governess, he is reticent about the sexual yet is intrigued by it. So, sexuality becomes a taboo that nonetheless takes hold of people's lives in this book.
5. Who has the power in Turn of the Screw?
Throughout The Turn of the Screw, the governess is aquiver with desire to gain the upper hand over other characters. If she is to be believed, she is successful in this attempt, as she bends Miles to her will and vanquishes the ghosts. However, authority in The Turn of the Screw is subtle and ever-shifting, and the master is the only character who can claim to consistently hold onto power.
The governess is hampered in her attempts by her age, class, and gender. She is young and female, so she is uncomfortable with the authority she has over the household. When she compares Bly to a ship adrift, she adds, "I was strangely at the helm!" (15). Her awkwardness with her authority causes her to assert her class and her education. Even as she speaks of Mrs. Grose as a confidant and support, she takes comfort in subtle insults, such as "she was a magnificent monument to the blessing of a want of imagination" (59). Over the children, she can assert the authority of age and responsibility, but she also never forgets their higher station. She has a great deal of control over them, which is appropriate, given her job. Yet, she also feels deferential towards them, such as when she notes that she cannot mention the ghosts because it would show she was not as well bred of the children. "They have the manners to be silent," she admonishes herself, "and you, trusted as you are, the baseness to speak!" (69). She is proud of her station and desirous of power, but she is also insecure that she is middle-class and could be lumped in with lower-class people instead of upper-class people.
Because of her insecurity, the governess turns her relationship with the children into a power play. For example, when she returns to her room after believing she has caught Flora out and about with the ghosts, Flora asks where she has been. "I had never had such a sense of losing an advantage acquired (the thrill of which had been so prodigious" (55) the governess laments. She wants to catch the children misbehaving because then she can assert her authority as a governess, and it becomes more and more of a game for her. She is even somewhat pleased when she catches Miles out of his room because it gives her a "curious thrill of triumph" (61). Unfortunately, the children keep turning these triumphs against her, in part because they really aren't seeing ghosts and in part because they truly do have the upper hand. All Miles has to do is point out that he is male, and the governess collapses in agitation over his "revolution" (chapter 14).
Although the governess has some power because she is the storyteller, even that clout is dampened. She can tell Mrs. Grose stories because she is not educated and cannot read, but she cannot tell the master stories because he refuses to read. She will not write to him because she does not want to face that he will not read her letters, and he has asserted the ultimate authority by refusing to be involved. This makes him more in control than anyone at Bly, because he has the position to say he will not take part.
Of course, Henry James holds the ultimate power, as he is telling the story. However, he has given considerable power to the other adult, upper-class male in the text and has written the governess as virtually hysterical because she dares to try for power as a young, middle-class female. He both asserts the rightness of the power structure and reminds his readers that they hold power over him, because they, too, can always refuse to read.

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