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‘He’s – God help me if I know what he is!’
Uncertainty is an important element of the Gothic genre, how do the uncertainties of “The Turn of the Screw” leave much of the story open to the interpretation?
“The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James has the potential to be interpreted as either a psychological literary masterpiece, or as a ghost story dreamed up to entertain the masses of Victorian England. Whichever way it is interpreted, it is undoubtedly a true example of the gothic genre.
“The Turn of the Screw” started its life as a ghost story told to Henry James in 1895 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. James said the Archbishop told him a “small and gruesome spectral story” that he had been told years before concerning dead servants and children. The tale told to him was not specific in its details, so already an aspect of mystery and uncertainty was introduced to the story, of which he says in his journal where he describes “the mere vague, undetailed, faint sketch of it.” The air of uncertainty that hangs over the origins of the tale is augmented by the fact that the Archbishop’s source was the friend of a friend, who had no talent for story telling,
“being all he had been told (very badly and imperfectly) by a lady who had no art of relation, and no cleverness.”
In his journal, James confirms that “The Turn of the Screw” was meant to be a ghost story, and after its publication he wrote in a letter to H.G. Wells that it was initially written as a “pot boiler”. Although these two pieces of evidence support the theory that the novel is simply a ghost story, Henry James never specifies that the ghosts in “The Turn of the Screw” are real. In fact, he is known to have accentuated in “The New York Edition of the Novels and Tales of Henry James”, in which “The Turn of the Screw” was included, that Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are,
“elves, imps and demons as loosely constructed as those of the old witch trials”
The detail that even the author doesn’t have a firm belief that the ‘ghosts’ are in fact ghosts highlights the scepticism that surrounds the novel, and intensifies the uncertainty of “The Turn of the Screw”.
“The Turn of the Screw” is undoubtedly a novel of the gothic genre, and this contributes to the sense of ambiguity of the novel. Gothic novels are generally set in a castle or grand house that was invariably haunted, and the story is normally one of dementia, horror and death. These novels use aspects of doubt and suspense to increase the tension of the story, and as a result of this, many of the novels become uncertain and misleading. This is particularly true of “The Turn of the Screw”, as throughout the novel, we are led to believe that many different things are true, only to have them dashed away as misapprehensions created by the supernatural atmosphere of the story. The first example of this is at the Governess’ first sighting of Peter Quint,
“What arrested me on the spot…was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real. He did stand there!”
The sense of dreams turning real, leaves much open to the imagination of the reader, and enhances the uncertainty of the novel. This is the Governess’ first brush with either of the ‘ghosts’ and as of yet she does not believe that the apparition is a vision of the undead. However, a further sighting of Quint prompts a discussion with Mrs Grose, which results in the first real hint that the novel is a ghost story,
“She seemed to square herself, plant herself more firmly to utter the wonder of it. ‘Yes. Mr Quint is dead.'”
The doubt that surrounds the existence of the apparitions of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint is heightened by the fact that the entire of “The Turn of the Screw” is written in the first person, on behalf of the Governess. Because of this, we have only the Governess’ word that she is actually seeing these figures. It could be argued that Flora also sees Miss Jessel,
“‘Two hours ago, in the garden…Flora saw'”
Yet again we only have the Governess’ assumption that, because of the actions of Flora when the Governess saw Miss Jessel, Flora also saw her. The issue of the specters existence is again thrown into inquest when the Governess ‘sees’ Miss Jessel again, “big as a blazing fire!” At this sighting Mrs Grose and Flora are both present, and through the presence of the older woman, the Governess hopes to find justification that “she (Miss Jessel) was there,” and that “I (the Governess) was neither cruel or mad.” However, this is not the case, as neither Mrs Grose nor Flora see, or admit to seeing, Miss Jessel. Although Mrs Grose shows her obvious disapproval and reproach of the Governess’ claims through “loud, shocked protest, a burst of high disapproval.” It is perhaps Flora’s “almost furious wail” that produces the most amount of refutation for the existence of the spirits:
” ‘I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you!’ Then after this deliverance…she hugged Mrs Grose more tightly and buried in her skirts the dreadful little face.”
Although these exchanges do very little for the credibility of the Governess’ story, if we were to believe the Governess when she says that Mrs Grose, Flora and Miles do see them, then there is evidence in the book that other people do see the spirits.
“…Mrs Grose’s dazed blink across to where I pointed struck me as a sovereign sign that she too at last saw…”
However, to believe this would be to believe the word of a young woman from a traditionally superstitious background, who is want to fantasies and who holds an unrequited love for her employer,
” ‘I’m rather easily carried away. I was carried away in London!'”
Therefore, although this self-admittance of being “rather easily carried away” throws a heavy cloud of doubt over her claims, there is still an air of uncertainty that is allowed to hover over the existence of the spirits for the entirety of the novel, due to the Governess’ certainty that “I was there – I saw with my eyes” and that “They know – it’s too monstrous: they know, they know!”
The specific language that Henry James employs when describing things that the Governess sees or hears increases the sense of uncertainty in the novel,
“…less natural, and not without, but within, that I had fancied I heard. There had been a moment when I believed I recognized, faint and far the cry of a child…”
This usage of uncertain language is obviously employed to entrap the reader into a sense of trepidation and to enhance the suspense, which, because of the genre of the novel, plays a fundamental part in the portrayal of the Governess.
An issue that is bought up by questioning the existence of the ghosts is that of the Governess’ sanity. It is possible that the infatuation that the Governess holds for the Harley Street Gentleman, and her lonely longing for companions has led to her imagining the ghosts.
“She saw him all in a glow of high fashion, of good looks, of expensive habits, of charming ways with women,”
has led to her imagining the ghosts. Although this may seem like an unlikely turn of events, it must be remembered that the Governess has had a sheltered upbringing and a result she is very naï¿½ve, and it is likely that the Harley Street Gentleman is the first man of his caliber that she has seen.
“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 in an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage.”
This infatuation may be driving the Governess to create the apparitions of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint as open representatives for her desires for her employer. We find out from Mrs Grose, that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel had a relationship whilst they were both alive,
” ‘Come, there was something between them.’ ‘There was everything.'”
Finding out about this, may have caused the Governess to speculate more upon the chance of something of a similar, but less sinister, nature happening between herself and the children’s uncle. The two cases of romance in the novel are circumstantially very similar; Miss Jessel was a lady, and Peter Quint was far below her in social standards,
” ‘She was a lady…and he so dreadfully below.'”
There is a similar set of social standings in the attraction between the Governess and her employer,
“This prospective patron proved a gentleman…”
“…A fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage.”
The Governess may have identified this coincidental comparison, and have used it to inadvertently fuel her passion to the extent that she finds an outlet for her desires in personifying them in the forms of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. However, the Governess, having had a fervently Christian upbringing,
‘… the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson…’
would identify these urges as being wrong, or even evil, and as a result would source Miss Jessel and Peter Quint as being evil for following through their desires.
At the time of its initial publication, “The Turn of the Screw” would have only been classed as a ghost story by the mass populous. This is because during the Victorian era, the vast majority of people were God-fearing Protestants, and they would be disinclined to believe that a girl with such an upbringing as the Governess would lie about the existence of the ghosts to the point of endangering the children’s lives, and in fact unintentionally killing one of them.
Although the Gothic genre was popular among many of the literate public, the preponderant sub-genre would be fictional horror, such as “Frankenstein” and therefore most people of the time would be unlikely to interpret “The Turn of the Screw” as the psychological novel that it has the potential to be. However, it is possible that although James initially wrote and published the novel as serial in a newspaper as a relatively ‘straightforward’ way to earn some income, that he spawned a masterpiece that is still being puzzled over by people a century after its original publication.
Another main point of vagueness in the novel is the identity of the narrator, and the identity of the mysterious ‘Douglas’. In the introduction to the story, we are introduced to Douglas, a man who narrates “The Turn of the Screw” to a number of people at a Christmas party. He relates the story after having heard a ghost story told by another guest about a boy receiving a visitation from a spirit,
” ‘If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children-?’ ”
He claims that the manuscript of which he speaks was given to him by “a most charming person.” He also says that she was ten years his elder and his sisters governess. This throws a lot of uncertainty upon his identity, because both of these circumstances would apply for the character of Miles. However, this can be dismissed as either pure coincidence or as Douglas making the tale more real by personalising it. This uncertainty leaves Douglas’ identity open to much speculation and personal interpretation, depending on the reader’s point of view. I believe that the introduction to “The Turn of the Screw” can be linked to the night when James first had the germ of the tale narrated to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Through this theory, the identity of the introduction’s narrator can be revealed as being Henry James, but the identity of Douglas still remains unclear.
There have been many theories as to the main uncertainty of “The Turn of the Screw”, that is the existence of the ghosts, and they all back up their conclusions with substantial evidence from the text. However, it is because of the fact that all of the critics of “The Turn of the Screw” can find evidence as to their sometimes very different theories, which makes the novel so uncertain and inconclusive. It is this ambiguity and mystery that makes “The Turn of the Screw” a principal novel of the Gothic genre.