Seminar Paper, 2003
18 Pages, Grade: 1,5
2. Limited perspectives
2.1 Subjectivity and the one-sided flow of information -
2.2 Ambiguous communication
The governess: a psychotic personality?
3.1 The question of the governess´ reliability
3.2 Sexual hysteria
3.3 Ghosts or hallucinations?
4. The role of class-consciousness
The “Turn of the Screw” was originally published as a serialized novel in a magazine called Colliers Weekly. Henry James finished the work on the story in 1897 and published the text which consisted of twelve chapters plus a prologue between January and April of 1898. James agreement to publish his story in Colliers Weekly was connected to the precondition that he would publish it also as a book.
In 1908, James published his complete works under the title "The Turn of the Screw: The New York Edition."
The Turn of the Screw was published at a time during which the interest in Psychical Research and supernatural phenomena was very predominant. The Society for Psychical Research had been founded in 1882 of which James´ brother and father where both members of. Thus, James was not only familiar with the cases of ghost apparitions but used these informations for his ghost stories among which The Turn of the Screw surely became the most important to date.
In the preface of his 1908 edition he stressed however the fact that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were not ghosts in the traditional sense as the Society of Psychical Research where observing. He pointed out that
“(...) Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not “ghosts” at all, as we know the ghost, but goblins, elves, imps, demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials of witchcraft; if not, more pleasingly, fairies of the legendary order, wooing their victims forth to see them dance under the moon.”
This and other passages in the preface of his New York edition from 1908 caused great controversy over the true meaning of The Turn of the Screw:
The question was and still is: Is The Turn of the Screw a ghost story in the typical sense? Or is it on the other hand, it the story of a young, psychologically deranged and sexually repressed woman who sees the ghosts because of her inner struggles?
In my paper, I will examine some of the character traits of the main protagonist, the governess and attempt to shed some light on the conspicuous elements apparent in The Turn of The Screw.
The Turn of The Screw is told from a strictly subjective perspective. Henry James´ work of cold artistic calculation starts with a prologue in which the reader is convinced of the innocence and good-naturedness of the young governess and her flawless character. It aims to provide the reader with trustworthy background information about the governess and all other characters in the story. This is done by the character of Douglass, a man who procured the original manuscript of the story and whom the other characters themselves note, must have been in love with the governess or at least have been in a closer relationship. Douglass is the only source of information for the little group of listeners as he is the only one familiar with the content of the story. The manuscript contains the notes and accounts of the governess who functions as the real storyteller. She is the only witness and source of information for Douglass.
This one-sided flow of information from the governess through the manuscript to Douglass is perhaps the most important foundation of later ambiguities in the story.
First, he has to rely on the reports of the governess since she is the only available observer. He corresponds to the need of his listeners to present the story in a gruesome manner and combines his personal experiences and memories with the information of the manuscript. Douglass creates the image of a benevolent, inexperienced beautiful young woman and tries to convince the listeners by describing her as a charming, most agreeable person.
But because of the emotional connection between Douglass and the governess one cannot absolutely be certain either about the innocence of the governess nor about any other “fact” presented in the story.
In utilizing a character like Douglass who lets one look through his looking glass, real facts become difficult to obtain. It is even questionable if the story as a whole is fictional or at least largely rearranged by Douglass in order to make it more appealing. He tries to portray the picture of the governess as one who was taken advantage by her employer and leaves no doubt to her credibility, which in turn aims to prepare the reader to accept all comments and explanations about the ghost appearances and all other presented facts without doubt. This image later is called into question when her behaviour towards the children and Mrs. Grose shows her unlovely, darker traits of character and reveals the sharp discrepancy between the two different images of the governess. The basic problem about the limited perspective and the lack of other contributing characters is that we are prone to accept everything first hand. There is no proof, no definite fact that one can rely on but only transcribed accounts of a woman with questionable ambitions.
Already in the first chapter we find a recurring pattern of equivocal communication and assumptions. At her arrival at Bly, the governess assumes that Mrs. Grose is happy about her arrival, although this is not that much signalled by Mrs. Grose. Without any evidence or clear statement, she finds that the hesitant Mrs. Grose shares her enthusiasm and decides that she must be happy. When discussing the possible reason for Miles´ dismissal from school, Mrs. Grose remains unclear about Miles true character but makes only ambiguous statements about him: that on the one hand, he is similarly to Flora charming and beautiful but she also prefers a boy with the spirit to be “naughty” and that the governess might as well believe such things about the angelic appearing Flora. The discussion about Miles´ dismissal and Mrs. Grose equivocal statements makes the governess assume that Miles must be bad and an injury to others although there seems to be no clear evidence except for the letter from school. The confusion about Miles and Flora is in some extent caused by Mrs. Grose´s unclear statements but definitely altered through the governess perception.
The governess receives no clear information about Miles´ dismissal nor does Mrs. Grose give any details about the possible reasons for Miles´ naughtiness. The veiled communication of the women characterizes the novel as much as the narrowed perception of the governess and her assumptions. Both women do not talk straight about what happened at Bly, especially about the mysterious case of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. In this, also the children seem to follow a kind of conspiracy in not casting a light at this case; Miles avoids the topic consistently.
An argument supportive to the deceptive nature of the governess is her invented communications with the ghosts, in particular on one encounter with the ghost of Miss Jessel. When asked by Mrs. Grose the governess says that the ghost was telling her about the hell’s torments she suffered and that she wanted to take Flora with her. When asked by Mrs. Grose about the exact words, the governess replies “ It came to that.” , meaning that it expressed just that.
It can be argued of course that the governess is highly sensitive and might be able to read the horror in Miss Jessel´s face. But it could also be argued that the governess is delusional, that she invents these instances because of her inmost fear that she might end as Miss Jessel – in misery with an illegitimate child and unrequited love.
A person not present but highly communicative is the uncle who at the beginning of the story instructs the governess not to contact him at all about the children but rely on herself. He is a young and attractive man who uses his power over the governess - and other women - to get them to agree to his demands. This exertion of his influence on the governess has several effects; the governess assumes that the master has faith in her judgements and that leaves all commitment to her decisions. This ambiguity caused by the uncles orders is interpreted by the governess as meaning that under no circumstances whatsoever she is allowed to contact him which of course puts an immense pressure on her.
 Peter G. Beidler quotes from Henry James in Ghosts, Demons and Henry James: The Turn of the Screw at the Turn of the Century (University of Missoury Press, Columbia, 1989) 228
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