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The Turn of the Screw: Inspirations, Interpretations, and a Deep Literary Analysis


Like the other exemplars of the five respective genres of literary horror (Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Haunting of Hill House), “The Turn of the Screw” has a fascinating genesis. Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson were both inspired by horrifying nightmares, but – typical of Henry James – the writer of the ultimate literary ghost story was motivated by a polite conversation over a crackling fire. James had suffered a staggering humiliation when one night he attended the opening of one of his plays, Guy Domville, which failed hideously. One writer calls it “the great professional trauma of James’ life.” Speechless with embarrassment, his mind went to grave places, and he only accepted an invitation to return to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rural residence for tea and warmth. E. W. Benson – the Archbishop – recognized the distress in his friend’s demeanor, and tried to relieve his malaise with light banter, but the morose atmosphere was impenetrable, and their conversation turned to ghosts and the afterlife.

Benson was an excellent man to turn to for such a topic, as he was a great lover of spook tales (ultimately three of his sons would become among the best ghost story writers of the Edwardian Era: R. H. Benson, A. C. Benson, and the most famous of the bunch, E. F. Benson). Trying to warm the January chill from their bones, the two men began to swap legends that they had heard from their acquaintances, and James wrote down a summary of one of the Archbishop’s most captivating stories:

…the story of the young children (indefinite in number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country house, through the death presumably of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad full of evil to a sinister degree. The servants die (story vague about the way of it) and the apparitions figures return to haunt the house and children to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places – so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves, by responding, getting into their power.

Three years later, he had written a reworking of the story and it became serialized in an American periodical before being published as a hardcover in a collection called The Two Magics. Contemporary praise was enormous. One reviewer called it “[one] of the most engrossing and terrifying ghost stories we have ever read… would make even Hawthorne envious on his own ground.” Another glowed that “the reader is bound to the end by the spell, and if, when the lids of the book are closed, he is not convinced as to the possibility of such horrors, he is at least sure that Mr James has produced an imaginative masterpiece,” and Oscar Wilde himself noted that “it is a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous tale, like an Elizabethan tragedy. I am greatly impressed by it.” Unlike many masterpieces that went ignored and mistreated until a more receptive generation relocated it, “The Turn of the Screw” was an instant success.

LITERARY INFLUENCES.

Other than Benson’s story, there are many discernable influences in James’ writing. It is unmistakably Gothic, for one thing, a fascinating choice for a writer of realism – a literary school which could be said to be a reaction against romanticism and Gothic fiction. Realism delights in the everyday, the mundane, the relatable. Haunted mansions are not quite on that list, but James deftly avoids sentimentalism, sensationalism, and horror, sticking to vague descriptions of the ghosts, and spurning any ghoulish details (no glowing skin, chattering skulls, or bloody sheets – just two pale-faced visitors who refuse to speak and appear at random places). And yet, both the writing and the in-text references point to James’ familiarity with the Gothic novel. The governess demonstrates a taste for 18th century fiction, and specifically alludes to works by Henry Fielding and Ann Radcliffe. One scene which describes her reading such a book is itself a pastiche of the Gothic novel:

One evening—with nothing to lead up or to prepare it—I felt the cold touch of the impression that had breathed on me the night of my arrival and which, much lighter then, as I have mentioned, I should probably have made little of in memory had my subsequent sojourn been less agitated. I had not gone to bed; I sat reading by a couple of candles. There was a roomful of old books at Bly—last-century fiction, some of it, which, to the extent of a distinctly deprecated renown, but never to so much as that of a stray specimen, had reached the sequestered home and appealed to the unavowed curiosity of my youth.

We may with great confidence wonder if this is the governess speaking, or James himself, who – for all his realist credentials, harbored a lurid taste for the romantic and Gothic. These novels (Ann Radcliffe, M. G. Lewis, and Hugh Walpole were the major authors) frequently featured innocent virgins or children who were taken to frightful, lonesome castles which housed a series of vulgar temptations (usually their lustful, aristocratic, male owners), supernatural terrors, and moral lessons. The governess certainly seems – at some points – to imagine herself in one of “Monk” Lewis’ bodice-busting, Gothic novels about terrifying ghosts, lust-crazed nobles, and positively pure virgin maids. Many commentators have also noticed the undeniable influence of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which also features a poor governess who is taken on to tend to the ward of a single, childless, eccentric aristocrat who at first seems smitten with high-society women, but ultimately makes the “right” choice and turns to his “poor Jane” for comfort and love.

While Brontë’s work is not overtly supernatural, it too features moments of great sublimity and sentiment, several of which are hinted at being genuinely preternatural – moments when the laws of nature are violated by the force of human passion. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was also highly influential to James, and while this is a Gothic satire, it nonetheless helped to shade James’ Austenean balance of the everyday and the horrible, leaving that most rare of rarieties: a work of Gothic realism. And of course, as with all of his supernatural works, we feel the purposeful hands of Nathaniel Hawthorne (particularly a la The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter) and Edgar Allan Poe (a la “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Metzengerstein,” “Ligeia,” “Morella,” “William Wilson,” and “The Oval Portrait”) steering the mood.

GHOST LITERATURE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.

Ghost stories began to enter the scholarly realm in 1820 when Washington Irving published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “The Spectre Bridegroom,” and “Rip Van Winkle” in The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. All three were essentially satires of the Gothic genre, and none were meant to be taken seriously. Irving followed this up with Tales of a Traveler which included a collection of similarly tongue-in-cheek supernatural tales, most notable amongst which are “The Adventure of the German Student” and “The Devil and Tom Walker.” The tone of Tales was notably darker, and – in spite of several stories which were clearly the results of drink, dreaming, or illusions of grandeur – worked less hard to make them ambiguous: several were clear-cut horror stories. Before Irving, the ghost story was a piece of anti-intellectual rubbish that educated men avoided like the plague, concerning themselves with witty satire and bildungsroman novels (a la Voltaire, Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, Swift, Richardson, and Washington Irving himself, a master of satire and dry humor). But Irving was a card-carrying member of the Romantic movement which was more concerned with regional folklore, rural settings, and the lower classes than the Classical mythology, urban locales, and aristocratic personae of the Enlightenment Era.

Irving was a tremendously influence on Charles Dickens (his proto-Christmas Carol story, “The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” is a pastiche of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and his scene of English Christmas celebrations in A Christmas Carol were directly lifted from The Sketch-Book), and while most of his ghost stories retained the light, satirical tone of Irving’s early work (“The Lawyer and the Ghost,” “The Bagman’s Uncle,” and “The Baron of Grogzwig” – itself a play on “The Spectre Bridegroom” – are positively Irvingian), his later tales developed a dark and existential tone that Irving used in Tales of a Traveler and Bracebridge Hall.

Dickens moved the ghost story into the mainstream by publishing them annually in his Yuletide periodicals, and while he wasn’t yet a master of the genre until he wrote the truly unnerving “The Hanged Man’s Bride,” “A Confession Found in Prison,” and “The Mother’s Eyes” (which Poe later adapted into “The Tell-Tale Heart”), he proliferated the far more ghoulish work of writers whom we today recognize as true masters of the English ghost story: Mrs Oliphant, Mrs J. H. Riddell, Rhoda Broughton, Wilkie Collins, Bulwer-Lytton, and Elizabeth Gaskell among others. Their stories reached Dickens’ middle class audience, and elevated the spook story from the realm of maids’ gossip and laborer’s legends to a respectable genre of bourgeois fiction. Dickens himself would truly come to his own when he wrote his three staggering masterpieces of supernatural fiction: “To Be Read at Dusk,” “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt (The Trial for Murder),” and “The Signal-Man.” By the 1890s, nearly every respectable writer from Kipling to Hardy, from Twain to Crane, was practicing the supernatural tale with varying degrees of seriousness. Enter Henry James.

James, as we now know if we did not already, was writing supernatural fiction almost from the very beginning. His Hawthornesque “Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is an established, if sluggish, masterpiece of the genre, and his Hoffmannesque “The Ghostly Rental” and acerbic parable “Owen Wingrave” are widely published today in high-brow anthologies of the supernatural. And yet it was “The Turn of the Screw” that made his reputation, and cemented the ghost story in the higher echelons of scholarly study – even Irving and Dickens had failed to do that. Many universities will teach “Rip Van Winkle” as a gender piece, a satire, or a piece of quaint folklore, some will study Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body-Snatcher,” and a limited number will yield attention to W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” but “The Turn of the Screw” is the only ghost story in the English language that has attracted universal acceptance by the academy (scorn unto them for it!) – even A Christmas Carol is almost entirely ignored as a piece of sentimental, politically incorrect genre fiction, but “Turn” is a staple of American literature courses, and is de rigueur for classes focused on American Realism, taught alongside Daisy Miller, “The Open Boat,” “To Build a Fire,” and Huckleberry Finn. What is so captivating about this ghost story that has allowed the prudish academe to loosen their stringent rules against supernatural fiction?

The brief answer is that “The Turn of the Screw” is deliciously ambiguous in a way that one reader can feel that their interpretation is textually supported to the point of un-deniability while another reader may easily use the same text to discredit the other’s point of view with just as much confidence. This has caused a violent reaction in the academy, whereby respectable critics have ruthlessly torn apart one another’s arguments but have never been able to decisively argue their point. One perspective is as easy to hold as another. In fact, the two dominant camps have even adopted neologisms to define their positions: apparitionists and non-apparitionists. The former have viewed the story as a supernatural narrative about evil spirits undermining a credible narrator, and find support in James’ own letters where he calls the tale a straight-forward ghost tale, while the latter have brutally argued back that the novelette features one of literature’s most incorrigibly unreliable narrators – a woman who is alternatively insane, deluded, imaginative, or even murderous. There are, of course, other, smaller camps that sit between the two dominant groups, not unlike independent political parties in the United States. Among the most interesting are those that see the tale as a blend of apparitionist and non-apparitionist beliefs – they believe the ghosts are real, but that the governess’ actions are fueled by her subjective viewpoint, and that she fatally misses the point – and those that (most controversial of all) believe that the story is an allegory written by a completely sane governess to a grown, living Miles (the character Douglas, who matches Miles’ description almost entirely) as a confession of her unrequited love.

CHARACTER ANALYSES.

The Governess

Like so many of the most interesting characters in this narrative, the governess is enigmatic and carries with her a suggestive, tantalizing, yet sparsely detailed background. We know that she is twenty, that she is the daughter of a country parson, that she has brothers whom she admires keenly, that there is (at the time of the action) trouble occurring at her home – trouble which necessitates disturbing news that she would rather not ponder – and that this is her first assignment after a respectable education. We know – after the action – that she continued to work as a governess (she wasn’t imprisoned or committed or hanged – an important detail to remember), that she may have had a love affair with the brother of one of her wards (Douglas, ten years her junior, whom some controversially identify as a grown Miles), that this young man is struck by her gentleness, intelligence, charm, beauty, and – so it would seem – pathos (although his infatuation acts as a bias), that she never married, that she died about twenty years previous to the night written about in the prologue . I will note here that – in my opinion – not nearly enough scholars, critics, etc. spend time examining her biography post-Bly, so I encourage you to mull these details over when attempting to muster a personal interpretation of the action.

The governess has – almost immediately since her inception – been a figure of great controversy. This is particular notable since it occurred in a time period where unreliable narrators were tremendously uncommon except in humor (e.g., Irving, Voltaire, Twain, etc.), and unreliable female narrators were practically unheard of, especially well-educated ladies. The scholar Raúl Valiño Siota of the University of the Basque Country succinctly describes the divisive critical reception that this character has received:

‘The main body of criticism can be divided into two groups. On the one hand, the so-called apparitionists have defended a reading in which the governess’s state of mind has little or no weight at all. They offer a more radical interpretation of the symbolism present in the characters, elements and events that take place in the story, so that the religious allegory they support is free of any inconvenient psychic references to the governess’s mind: “we can not account for the devil by treating the governess as pathological; we must seek elsewhere an explanation of the story’s hold” (Heilmann, 1960).