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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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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.


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 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.


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).

Thus, the archetypal struggle between Good and Evil fits this theory better. On the other hand, the so-called non-apparitionists have defended another reading in which the governess’s mental state seems to be the only meaningful aspect of the whole work. They rationalise the governess’s sexuality in excess by focusing on the psychoanalytic evidence “washed clean of all queerness as by exposure to a flowing laboratory tap” (Goddard, 1960), so that all the supernatural phenomena vanish into thin air. Under their shadow there lies a broad array of different theories, ranging from the governess’s Marxism theory to sex-related theories that include homosexuality, bisexuality, or paedophilic attitudes towards the children. According to one theory Henry James is even accused of being a misogynist.’

As such, the governess has alternatively been described as a protective and maternal woman beset by supernatural saboteurs, a sexually frustrated, deeply repressed nymphomaniac who conjures the spirits in a fit of psychological constipation, or a mentally diseased madwoman who is plagued by hereditary, degenerative insanity. The ghosts are thus real, inventions, psychological symbols, or the hallucinations of madness. Her approach to the children can also be seen in a variety of ways – she is insightful (picking up on subtle deceits, hidden behavior, and carefully crafted personae), she is paranoid (falsely inventing motives, backstories, and corruptions through a series of dearly-held delusional fantasies and illusions of grandeur), or she is insane (confused by the imaginary visions of a diseased mind).

James brilliantly fills her narrative with ambiguity, coming to conclusions that can be supported by the text, but are never proven by the text – she reads into behaviors that may or may not be accurately interpreted, supposes motives that are never explicitly expressed, appears to tell lies, and omits scenes of action which could cooberate her theories. All in all, she could be entirely harmless, deeply conflicted, or violently homicidal, and the text both supports and discourages all three-plus readings. She is ultimately a fascinating character who will in one stretch of action attract tremendous ire and annoyance (her illusions of grandeur, hopeless crush, and moral convictions have particularly earned the vitriol of critics), and in the next be either vindicated (as she is when Grose witnesses Flora fly into an unexpected fit of abusive, vulgar language) or at the very least earn our heartfelt sympathy (as when she all but admits that her love for the Master is hopeless).

Her relationship with Miles is perhaps the most interesting of the book: he seems to represent something to her, and both appear to be oddly attracted to the other. Many have read her affection towards him as having a pedophilic origin, and have interpreted it as the projection of her repressed sexuality (towards the Master, towards her handsome brothers, towards Quint, towards Mrs Grose, towards Miss Jessel, towards her father) onto a vulnerable subordinate. This reading views their relationship as a struggle between class, power, gender, and rank: Miles – unlike the Master – is her inferior, but his is destined to surpass her when he comes of age (he is a male, an aristocrat, and better educated), so while he is unable to deny her, while he is still her inferior, she takes advantage of their relationship and forms an affection for him that has a better chance of being paid notice than that formed towards the Master. Because of the various readings of this relationship, she has been seen as a maternal protectress, a frustrated nympho, a murderous psychopath, or an oppressed, poor female eking out a life in a world dominated by rich men. As in all things with this character, vagueness and ambiguity have caused her to be the epicenter of critical debate.


Miles is one of the most complex characters in the story, if not the most complex. Is he a libidinous, sexually awakened child, a traumatized survivor of child molestation, an innocent boy who simply wants to enter manhood and be taken seriously, or a combination of these theories? Some up-play the abuse theory while others see this as a projection of the governess’ lust and argue that Miles was never even abused to begin with. At any rate, Miles certainly is straddling boyhood and manhood, and certainly seems to be flirtatious in a way that is concerning for a boy of his age (nine or ten) – he uses belittling sweet-nothings like “my dear” and “darling” to demean or flatter the governess, kisses her indiscreetly on the mouth, and is suspected of coming on to his male schoolmates in a sexual manner (although this is never clarified, we again suspect him of flirtations, sweet-nothings, and physical contact, but we certainly have no idea how far this went – pecks on the cheek, kisses on the mouth, or genital stimulation).

Grose often confuses him with the Master and Quint, and her confusion is rarely clarified, leaving her comments ambiguous: in one instance, the governess notes that the Master “seems to like us young and pretty,” and Grose concurs, thinking that she means Miles or Quint (it is never clarified whom she had in mind), blurring the three males together; in another instance, Grose is terrified of being left alone with “him,” but it is unclear who “he” is: Quint, whom she hasn’t seen, or Miles, which would imply that she is afraid of what he would do to her – what he has learned to do from Quint, who is suggested to have assaulted Grose. Miles was chummy with Quint, who had a reputation as a rogue, and the governess fears that Miles was molested by the valet, or at least tutored in carnal knowledge. The governess pitches back and forth in her interpretation of Miles’ modesty, initially finding him blooming with the “positive fragrance of purity,” but later fearing and resenting his apparent loss of innocence.

Many critics have argued that it is the governess’ unrealistic expectations that cause him to appear monstrous to her, and that had she been more worldly or cynical, his acting out would have raised no red flags, but her worldview is black and white, and when Miles admits that he is not always good (“when I’m bad, I AM bad!”), she takes him to be wholly corrupted, even possessed demonically. Mil Miles’ name recalls the symbolism of “Owen Wingrave,” whose first name is Welsh for “young soldier” – Miles is Latin for “soldier”. Like Owen, Miles is a young, male orphan filled with promise – an unquestionable prodigy – who nonetheless brings trouble to his family name. Also similarly, Miles had a father in the military who died in Asia (we are not sure whether – like the Wingraves – it was a bloody death), and he is (spoilers) mysteriously killed in a nondescript way during a confrontation with ghosts that may or may not exist.


Flora is eight years old, a charming girl who has far less of a personality than Miles, and – like Hawthorne’s Pearl – is something of a child of caprice: often fascinated by nature, and given to emotional outbursts of rage when confronted with what she considers hypocrisy (Pearl was outraged at Dimmesdale’s private acceptance of her as his bastard child but his public discretion. Flora is enraged when the governess implies that Jessel, whom Flora knows to be dead, is really alive). This strange range in emotion (from angelic to demonic, from young to “an old, old woman”) make her hard to peg. She seems to be the very soul of innocence, but – in one of the most notable events in the novel – she is last seen raging unspeakable curses and insults at the governess for accusing her of seeing Jessel. This causes us to wonder if her angelic persona is a carefully controlled act, and if she is not a more richly complexioned character than her cherubic appearance would suggest.

Flora’s most sinister moments involve deceit and hidden knowledge: she colludes with Miles to trick the governess into witness Miles “being bad,” steals away into the woods (where Quint and Jessel are implied to have conducted their affair) without her hat (the sign of a prostitute), preternaturally seems to age into a crone during her rage (a suggestion of demonic possession), and demonstrates her understanding of the physics of lovemaking by impaling a yonic boat with a phallic mast (the governess’ claims of “she KNOWS!” and “she SAW” would have been perfectly understood by Victorians, and the seemingly harmless construction of the boat is about as graphic as James could get about the molestation of a little girl before censors would shut him down). But the novel remains vague: is Flora a bad, conniving girl, or is it merely the governess’ interpretation of a child’s natural acting out? Flora, incidentally, was the goddess of flowers and springtime, obviously (shall we call this the Conscious meaning behind her name – one that evokes girlhood, rebirth, and youth?), but she was also a fertility goddess, a goddess of sex, and a symbol of love, lust, and eroticism; in some stories Flora is a courtesan (shall we call this the Unconscious meaning behind her name – one that evokes suspicion, corruption, and carnal knowledge?)

Mrs Grose

Mrs Grose (whose name is homophone for “gross” as in earthy, great, common – the salt of the earth, the every-woman of the common people) is the illiterate housekeeper who is at the mercy of the Quint during his reign and the governess during hers. Grose, fittingly, has learned to be adaptive, and much of her personality could be interpreted as a frightened woman’s attempt to keep her superior happy and calm. Grose is implied to have been sexually harassed or even assaulted by Quint, and has a great pity for Jessel whom she supposes to have been damned along with him. Grose is constantly berated, underutilized, and spoken down to by the governess who views her illiteracy and lack of education as a character flaw (in her mind, Grose is loyal like a dog, but – like a dog – she requires a tight leash, constant monitoring, and discipline). The governess sometimes suspects Grose (whom she calls “a receptacle of lurid things”) and views her protectiveness of the children as a hindrance to her spiritual mission, but ultimately finds her to be a loyal ally and an attentive (if gently skeptical) sounding board.

As one reviewer puts it, “The governess frequently attempts to seize moments alone with Mrs. Grose so that she can try out her latest speculations. Mrs. Grose is usually skeptical of these speculations, but the governess takes Mrs. Grose’s incredulity for astonished belief. Like the reader, Mrs. Grose is willing to hear the governess out but doesn’t necessarily agree with her logic or conclusions.” Grose is her chief source of information (which should cause us to deeply scrutinize her potentially biased interpretations of Quint, Jessel, the Master, and the children – none of which are ever independently verified), and though she is less apt to leap to conclusions, she is not nearly as dim as the governess supposes – perhaps just prudent (as we mentioned, she has learned not to rock the boat, and to be adaptable).

Peter Quint

We know surprisingly little about the novel’s chief antagonist, the valet (a man’s personal, attending servant) Peter Quint. Though a menial (low ranking servant), he has a shocking amount of authority in the house, and while uneducated, is massively charismatic. He was awkwardly close to the Master (some have implied that the two shared a homosexual relationship, or even Miss Jessel), wearing his clothes in the Master’s absence, and refusing to wear a hat out of doors (a symbol of shamelessness and a lack of gentility since hats were worn out of doors by men and women of all social classes as a sign of respectability). Quint was known to have seduced, harassed, or assaulted many members of the household (it is implied of both genders), but had a special relationship with Miss Jessel, whom he may have impregnated. Quint is the best described character in the story: he has a satyr-like face and curly red hair (which both symbolize lust and rapaciousness), androgynous features and expressive, penetrating eyes.

He dies in a mysterious manner, falling on the ice after walking home one night in liquor, but foul play is implied since the fatal injury is described as a “blow to the head.” Some have inferred that Quint was expanding his sexual territory to the nearby village and that he was killed by a jealous husband or lover. He appears to the governess as a ghost in a variety of suggestive manners: from the top of a phallic tower, peering voyeuristically in through the schoolroom window, and creeping up the stairs out of the shadows (symbolic of lustful urges emerging from the unconscious mind into consciousness – manifesting in sexual action). I argue throughout the notes that Quint -- ghost or not – can be seen as a symbol of the governess’ repressed Animus or Id – her stereotypically “masculine” sexual appetite, and that his appearances can be timed with her lust for the Master or Miles.

Miss Jessel

Like Quint, Miss Jessel is poorly sketched in (intentionally, it should be noted), leaving us with a great deal of speculation and theorizing rather than a substantial body of biographical information. What we do know is this: she was a veritable lady (probably higher ranking than the governess, herself – a country parson’s daughter), a beautiful woman like the governess, and one who unfortunately was involved in a scandal with the lascivious Quint. At some point she was said to have left Bly to return to her home and died before returning. While this is Grose’s report, we have several literary clues to piece together the omitted details. Jessel is called “infamous,” and her sex acts with Quint were apparently witnessed by several servants, he ultimate death is strongly implied to have either been suicide or murder, and to have occurred not at her family home, but in Lake Bly where her spirit is wont to haunt (most film versions have played along with this idea, depicting her with wet, stringy hair, overtly describing her suicide, or having her rise from the lake). The implication is that Jessel was impregnated by Quint during a romp in the woods near the lake, and that she either killed herself out of shame or was killed by Quint during a midnight assignation.

Some have also argued that she died from a failed abortion (the real reason for her “return home”), or killed herself out of despair after the abortion. While James is vague about her fate, British folk songs, legends, and fiction have long featured the trope of the woman impregnated out of wedlock who is either drowned by an nervous lover or drowns herself in shame (even the Decemberists song “The Bachelor and the Bride” describes such a tragedy). Most British readers would immediately catch the scent of this popular cautionary tale. Aside from theories, Jessel’s ghost is pale, miserable, and tragic – not sinister or demonic like the governess so clearly wishes her to be – and is seen weeping and looking forlorn. Jessel is often interpreted as a warning to the governess (“but for the grace of God, there too go I,” sort of warning about her love of the Master, who may or may not have been in cahoots with Quint), and her curse of “you terrible, miserable woman!” has often been seen as ambiguous (possibly referring to herself when looking at Jessel). The name “Jessel” evokes “Jezebel,” the name of the wicked Biblical queen who worshiped Baal, a god to whom children were slain as sacrifices by their own parents. Jezebel has become a name synonymous with wicked, unnatural women, especially those who are cruel to children and those with rampant, inappropriate sexual appetites.

The Master

The Master is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the characters, a man who is barely seen, yet whose absence inversely dominates the plot (he is defined by his absence in the way that most characters are defined by their presence). Uncle to Flora and Miles, he was given control of them when they were orphaned in India. He is charming, attractive, and has a charismatic personality, but his request never to be bothered on any account starts the novel on a sinister note: the request is, all things aside, illegal, and we know from the preface that he was never seen again by the governess (meaning that even Miles’ death wasn’t enough to lure him away from his cosmopolitan activities). He is strongly hinted at being a rogue and a lady-killer, sharing with Quint (and Miles, apparently) a taste for pretty, young women, and being very adroit at attracting women’s infatuation.

He appears to have had an odd relationship with Quint (many have suggested that the two were lovers, some that they covered up Jessel’s suicide/murder, and others that Quint, Jessel, and the Master shared a ménage a trois), wherewith Quint shares his clothes, has a strange amount of power over the other servants, and rejects social norms with impunity. This reminds me of the relationship between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and other critics have noticed this as well, claiming that Quint is the Master’s symbolic alter ego – his lower-born evil twin. The Master’s sexual attractiveness obsesses the governess who accepts the nerve-wracking assignment mostly due to her infatuation, and constantly daydreams about his approval. In this manner, the Master is a Freudian symbol of the Electra Complex – what we today term “daddy issues” – with his flirtatious-but-withholding personality, and his mixture of affection and indifference. Withal, some have noted his resemblance to an eligible, divorced father who chooses to lavish time on his girlfriends while diplomatically spurning his daughter with facile excuses, feigned attentiveness, and empty promises.


Douglas presents the governess’ narrative in the framing story, claiming that it was written by his sister’s governess, a woman whom he found mentally sound and physically attractive. While several of the characters in the opening infer that Douglas was in love with her, I believe there is sufficient evidence that the two had openly and unambiguously exchanged vows of love, and I would even argue that Victorian euphemisms are present which imply that the two consummated a love affair, likely the first of Douglas (or the governess’) life: “I was much there that year—it was a beautiful one; and we had, in her off-hours, some strolls and talks in the garden—talks in which she struck me as awfully clever and nice. Oh yes; don't grin: I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me, too. If she hadn't she wouldn't have told me. She had never told anyone.”

Douglas receives the manuscript of “The Turn of the Screw” from her, holds onto it until he is forty, then presents it to his friends as a curious ghost story. Douglas later dies, and the unnamed narrator writes the framing story as its preface creating a “telescopic” effect which slowly draws us into an event that seems to have taken place forty years or more before the narrative was produced (a technique favored by M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft among others).

Douglas is highly defensive of the governess, calling her a lovely woman, and his emotions are very protective and tender towards her. He and others remark on her excellent penmanship (an indication of mental rigor and education), and yet he never claims that it is a genuine ghost story, remaining fairly neutral on all points other than her sanity. This has led some critics (most influentially, Louis D. Rubin) to argue the most controversial theory in this very controversial book: Douglas is the grown Miles (the ages and C.V. match perfectly, even down to the younger sister), and that the story is an allegory written by the governess to explain her love for him (the ghosts are the manifestations of his lust and her pedophilic desire, which both must reject) – a love that was socially impossible. The governess dies a spinster, and if this is an accurate reading, then “Miles Douglas” is probably so tender towards her because he realizes that she hopelessly pined after him for the rest of her life.




Critics who fall into this camp point to James’ own characterization of the story as a straight-forward ghost tale, give the governess the benefit of the doubt, and read it as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil. If there is any reason that this approach seems naïve, delusional, or unsophisticated, it is only because the non-apparitionist approach has been dominant in literary circles until quite recently: even high school students are taught to look for symptoms of the governess’s mental instability and sexual frustration. An apparitionist reading views the governess as a beleaguered heroine, doomed to failure because of the ineptitude of her social supports – namely the master – which lends itself to Marxist and feminist interpretations. They view the ghosts as genuine, and use several famous moments in the text to support this claim. It is often assumed that the apparitionists then believe everything the governess says, accepting her as a reliable narrator, but this is not the case.

Many apparitionists share beliefs with non-apparitionists, namely that the governess is allowing her lust for the master to cloud her judgment, that she may suffer from mental illness, and that her actions and commentary are deeply colored to favor her. Apparitionists may believe that the ghosts are real (not hallucinations, metaphors, or fictions), but that they are neutral catalysts – that the governess is responsible for her overreactions and violent interpretations of their meaning. For instance, her worldview (and romantic sense of heroism and self-importance) cause her to view the ghosts as a demonic evil come to possess the children – a force to be resisted. Some apparitionists believe that Quint and Jessel are trying to warn the governess of herself – this is why she so frequently mirrors them, and why they so frequently seem to be extensions of herself (see: structuralism). There are, of course, still those that read the story as entirely straight – word for word – but those apparitionists are quite rare in this century.


Non-apparitionists view the governess as quintessentially unreliable narrator – for a wide variety of reasons. They derive the name “Wilsonians,” as well as their overall rationale, from a 1934 essay by the critic Edmund Wilson entitled “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” In it, Wilson argued that "the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess's hallucinations." It’s worth noting that this argument was made well before 1934, but Wilson was a famous and influential literati, and it was his name that sold this interpretation to the academy. Wilson took a strictly Freudian line of interpretation that is not mutually exclusive from the apparitionist camp, and which we will review independently, but suffice it to say, he saw the governess as a deeply disturbed woman who invented the ghosts (whether consciously or unconsciously is itself a matter of debate amongst Wilsonians; Wilson himself thought it was a sick delusion) in order to ingratiate herself to the master – an attempt to prove her worth, moral superiority, and trustworthiness.


Structuralists are interested in the ways that characters, places, themes, and plots interact with one another like the corresponding gears of machinery or the symmetries of architecture. They primarily focus on the reactions that juxtaposition causes and the way that characters, places, etc. mirror one another. In Turn, their primary interest will naturally be the way that the three couples – Miles/Flora, Quint/Jessel, Governess/Master – act both as reflections of one another, and as different sides (or binaries) to the same personality. Miles is essentially Flora’s masculine Animus, Jessel is the female side of a disastrous affair (possibly ending in pregnancy, shame, and suicide) while Quint is its male side (relatively untouched by the event), and there is almost no clearer binary than the governess and the master: one is our narrator, the other relatively unseen, one is female, the other male, one powerful, the other powerless, one epicurean, the other conservative, one aristocratic, the other one from a poor family, one seems to cloak himself in intrigue, scandal, and seduction, the other strives to exemplify decorum, propriety, and chastity. There are so many instances where the plot, characters, or themes mirror one another, that an entire book could be written over the structuralism of the story: how the governess mirrors Quint by peeking in, how Jessel is essentially her doppelganger (crying on the stairs, meeting her in the classroom, the ambiguity of her shout of “miserable woman”), how Miles may be a mini-master (a consummate flirt – Mrs Grose confuses the two) or a mini-Quint (a danger to women – Mrs Grose fears him when alone), how the master and Quint seem to be almost the same man (sharing clothes, women, authority), and so on.


In the first thirty years since its emergence in the early 1960s, the feminist school of criticism was primarily focused on “women’s issues” with a special focus on the subjugation of women by men and the subversion of men by women. Beginning in the mid-1980s – with a particular surge in the mid-1990s – the literary school that had been shaped by second wave feminism (primarily focused on the concerns of white, educated women in the middle-class) was taken over by third wave feminism which took up the banner of racial and sexual minorities, the lower classes, and any group – regardless of gender – which could claim to be marginalized. Feminists studying Turn today will likely be more interested in the way that non-apparitionists marginalize the governess’ narrative, belittle her in ways that could be considered misogynistic (for being too hysterical, too emotional, too under-sexed, or too irrational), than in the way that in her gender binary with the master (this is more the concern of gender theorists today).

Often maligned – sometimes brutally – the governess truly attracts sympathy as a woman caught in a patriarchal system where genuine concerns are laughed off as woman’s nonsense. Feminist critics are largely drawn to this and other scenes that suggest that the governess’s lack of self-awareness, self-absorption, and mania with purity are not her fault, but the fault of her society which has forced her to repress her energies, hide her sexuality, and perform socially. Feminist critics also point to her subservient acceptance of the master’s terms (never to contact him, even in an emergency) to demonstrate how the governess has been beaten into accepting ludicrous logic like this in order to engender obedience. Essentially she argues that because she prevents him from being bothered, he must value her. Critics will also be drawn to the character of Miss Grose (see: Marxism), the decision to deceive/exclude Flora and Miles, leaving them vulnerable and marginalized, and the mistreatment of Miss Jessel, who frequently appears to be more of a victim than a devil.


Freudian critics were the first to leap onto “The Turn of the Screw,” challenging the absolutely straight reading that apparitionists at the time desired. As such, they were the vanguard of the non-apparitionist movement, and the early critics who challenged the governess’ sanity were mostly Freudians. Sigmund Freud revolutionized both psychology and literature: before his theories of the unconscious (namely, that our conscious minds were a guard that kept detestable, but nonetheless real, feelings and desires dammed up in our unconscious, and that those repressed feelings spoke to us through the coded form of visual symbols), stories were critiqued merely by their finesse, their structural flow, and the quality of the prose. When Freud announced that dreams had meanings, that our body-language, humor, and “Freudian slips” all bespoke an unspoken reality, adherents began searching through literature to find the code. Freud was not entirely obsessed with sex, but – and understandably for his time – he did focus a great deal on repressed lust. Freudian critics are apt to study the subtext of the governess’ language, habits, and rhetorical emphases for clues to her unspoken thoughts. And James has beautifully supplied us with a novelette that is sopping wet with mystery and subtext.

Several things have fascinated critics of all stripes: the nature of the master’s feelings for the governess (does he even notice her?), the nature of her feelings for Miles and vice-versa (many Freudians accuse her of paedophilia), the nature of her family troubles, her father’s influence, and her childhood (mental illness has been suspected of her father, a parson, and incest of her brothers), the nature of Quint’s relationship with Jessel, the nature of Quint’s influence on Miles, Flora, and Grose (he is suspected of molesting them all, tutoring the children in sex, and using BDSM violence), the nature of Jessel’s death, the nature of the master’s awareness of this supposed misconduct (is he aware of it? Ambivalent? Ashamed? Supportive?) and the nature of the master’s relationship with Quint and Jessel respectively (some accuse them of harboring a love triangle or even a ménage-a-trois). Quite a lot to ponder. Freudians also seek the prose for symbolic evidence of the truth behind James’ polite narrative: Quint appears atop a phallic tower, Jessel beside a vaginal pond (“oblong in shape, had a width so scant compared to its length that, with its ends out of view, it might have been taken for a scant river”), and Flora is seen imitating the sex act by affixing a mast to a socket in a toy boat (causing the governess to exclaim that Flora now “KNOWS” and speculates that she “SAW” something), Quint is called “tall, active, and erect,” and so on.

Freudian theorists are also fascinated by the way that Freud’s model of the unconscious is reflected in the characters and setting: the governess represents the Super-Ego (the internal parent; the psychological mechanism of moral regulation) while Quint represents the Id (the internal animal; the psychological energy of desire). The faceless master could easily represent either: the paternal authority or the epicurean monster. Likewise, the Gothic walls of Bly can be seen as symbolic of the conscious self (the realm of the present, the Super-Ego, and the senses) while the pond (possible location of Jessel’s suicide) and the woods (possible location of Quint and Jessel’s copulations) represent the unconscious self (the realm of the past, the Id, and repressed feelings). When Miles wanders out of Bly and into the park, or when Flora leaves the house to play by the pond and woods, it is symbolic of their flight from moral control to the locus of primal appetites.


Carl Jung founded his school of psychoanalysis on principles that were particularly sensitive to the archetypes that people carry with them, the way that these archetypes interact, and the way that the person views themselves. Many of these archetypes were drawn from ancient human mythology – the wise old man, the seductive whore, the regal king, the brave hero, the crafty deceiver – others from history, religion, and literature – Napoleon complex, Jocasta complex, Cleopatra complex, God complex – and others from the deepest reaches of human understanding – the Ego, the Shadow, the Anima, the Animus. The Ego is our selfhood – our executive personality – the Shadow is our hungry, dark nature – the animal side of our nature which is both creative (if embraced and accepted) or destructive (if rejected and repressed) – and the Anima/Animus is “the mirror image of our biological sex, that is, the unconscious feminine side in males and the masculine tendencies in women.” Jungians see literary works as dreamlike metaphors for how these archetypes interact, the dilemmas caused by complexes, and the power of these mythic ideals that have developed alongside humanity since the advent of imagination. They may interpret the ghosts as the Anima and Animus of the governess’s repressed Ego, who have been banished into the Shadow-land: the Anima (feminine sexuality represented in Jessel) and the Animus (masculine aggression represented by Quint) have been lurking in the shadowy periphery of the governess’s unconscious, but they are beating their way forward to her conscious life: becoming aware of her anger, vulnerability, lust, and selfishness, and then acting – perhaps violently – on that realization.

There is an element of great sensuality in the form of Jessel: the elegant, graceful, sexualized, fully developed feminine power in her – the seductive, empowered goddess that seems so far from the meek governess, while it is certainly possible to interpret Quint – ghost or imagined – as a symbol of the governess’s repressed Id or male Animus (the lustful, aggressive, masculine part of her character that has been subdued in favor of her genteel, mannerly persona). To illustrate this, allow me to sample from a note written at the scene where the governess encounters Quint on the staircase, stares him down, and watches him descend into the Shadows: “The governess views this moment as one of victory of Quint; I feel as though it is a moment of Quint’s victory over her: assuming, if we do, that Quint – whether ghost or not – represents, to the governess, her repressed Id or Animus, then this confrontation – occurring as it does in the indistinct light of morning (the unconscious – the vague beginning of all things) without the aid of candlelight (reason, self-awareness, truth), then this is my conclusion – this scene symbolizes the moment that the governess admits, unconsciously if nothing else, that Quint is a part of her – that she is his match and equal, not just intellectually, by in his character, appetites, and lusts as well. The governess meets Quint on a stair (a symbol of change and development) and descends to his level, greeting the Animus within her, and becoming further acquainted with some of the most aggressive parts of her balkanized personality.”


Marxist critics are famously concerned with the balance between social classes, acts of defiance or subversion on the part of the lower classes, and acts of oppression or subjugation on the part of the bourgeoisie. The clearest Marxist issue in Turn is the character of the master, an irresponsible, disinterested, emotionally distant aristocrat whose negligence and self-involvement endanger the lives of his wards and leave his domestic staff unsupported when his leadership is most required. He is the posterboy for the decadent bourgeois who is so infantile and corrupt that his disregard for his dependents leads to calamity. His treatment of the governess, a girl from a poor but respectable family (hinted at suffering from both financial strains and mental illness) could be viewed as a metaphor for the way that the upper classes tempt the lower-middle classes with empty promises in return for good service: for instance, the way that the governess works to attract his attention, love, and approval while (we suspect) he is off gallivanting with society women, probably not remembering her name, can be read as a symbol for the way that the rich tempt the ambitious lower classes into performing for them with promises of increased status and wealth without ever paying them mind.

The governess, then, is like a dutiful footman who will always be a footman, but believes that his good service to a lord might allow him to one day be a butler, and then to own his own pub. There are class issues with Quint as well – a low-born man who subverts social rank by adopting his master’s clothes, bedding higher ranking servants (at least Jessel, possibly Grose), and refusing to wear a hat outdoors – a symbol of cultivation and gentility. Lower-ranking persons wore hats as a sign of respect for the gentry (doffing them in their presence), and higher-ranking persons wore them as a symbol of their gentility, but Quint rejects status and becomes his own man: authoritatively walking the ramparts, peering into rooms, and stalking of the stairs, head-bare, face remarkably defiant and rebellious.

Jessel, too, has her own class issues: she appears to have been higher ranking than even the governess – a lady – and was stigmatized for her affair (and presumed pregnancy/abortion and suicide) with Quint, a charismatic but plebeian menial. Lastly, Grose is the object of much scorn, ridicule, and mistreatment by the governess, who – herself a poor woman from a poor family – leaps at the opportunity to have an inferior, and constantly mocks her illiteracy, implies that she has low intelligence, and resents her hysterics. And yet, Grose seems to be the most knowing member of the household, the savviest, and the most diplomatic. Depending on how you interpret the governess’ mental health, Grose may have quickly become aware that she is under the authority of a madwoman, and have feigned compliance in order to keep the governess calm and docile, all the while aware of her danger: an act which may have saved Flora’s life.


From the very beginning, the latent sexuality of “The Turn of the Screw” attracted commentary about the gender dynamics of the characters, but it wasn’t until gender/queer theory emerged as a school of criticism in the 1980s and ‘90s that critics began focusing on these issues. Gender, or Queer theory is primarily interested in describing the ways that gender roles and sexuality are depicted and treated in a text. Homoerotic content is rife in Turn, sometimes in ways that are not first apparent. The most obvious example is Miles’ admission to having – as it is implied – parroted inappropriate words or phrases to his schoolmates. The governess first expects this to have been a hostile act, but is hopelessly confused when he declares that he only did this to boys he “liked,” and supposes that they must have repeated this in turn to boys whom they “liked.” Queer theorists may view Miles as a homosexual boy trying to pass as straight, using belittling language towards the governess and arguably sexualizing her in order to mask the real reason of his expulsion – homoerotic interactions with the other boys.

This explains why his expulsion went unexplained: such an accusation in a little, well-bred boy was unthinkable and terrible to imagine for Victorians. The further implication is that Quint, a pansexual predator, molested Miles, and there is a hint that Jessel herself may have molested Flora. Gender theorists, naturally, are displeased with the association of homosexuality with paedophilia, but others focus on the governess’ sometimes homoerotic treatment of Grose (kissing her, hugging her, forcing her to submit to her physical power) and the gender roles that she sublimates in the absence of the deeply erotic master: one could, for instance, argue that she is forcing Grose to be “the woman” as a means of wish fulfilment and fantasy. Sadism and masochism are also largely acknowledged as existing in the subtext, and featured prominently in the film prequel The Nightcomers, which depicted Quint (Marlon Brando) and Jessel as participating in a consensual BDSM relationship which the children witness and copy.


“The Turn of the Screw” continues to fascinate and allure us – perhaps even more as time goes on and as our discourse on sexuality becomes increasingly public. We seem to simultaneously bridle against the idea of a society that is so naïve and repressed, and charmed by – even nostalgic for – the sort of Edenic innocence that the governess expects for her wards. Today we know that child abuse is rampant, not a rarity, that children view pornography at shockingly early ages (a study by the London School of Economics reported that 90% of children 8-16 have viewed pornography; the average age of first viewing pornography is 11; 20-30% of pornography consumption is done by children), and that sex has become a commonplace trope in the vast majority of television shows, movies, and video games targeted at teens. Sex has become cheap, common, and accessible. We consume it tangentially on a regular basis while we multi-task, when we’re bored, or when we need to relax. This is not to place a value judgment on the instant availability of sex culture, but to note that perhaps the reason that the first adaptation of Turn wasn’t made until 1960, and that there have been increasing numbers of film and television adaptations with each successive decade, is that we are nostalgic for what the story represents: that period in the first third of the book where an adult woman has no reason to suspect children of being worldly, because the suggestion is ridiculous.

Of course, James’ world is ultimately just as corrupt as today’s, but it is the great denial, the great innocence of a period when adults (however erroneously) could blissfully afford to trust that children were safe from predators, unexposed to erotica, and ignorant of the sexual politics that cause us to feel worthless, defeated, commodified, objectified, and humiliated once we enter puberty. For all the triumph and expression of sexuality, there is an unquestionable trade off – of dignity, self-acceptance, and love – for many people, especially during the opening salvos of our teen years when we realize, for the first time, that we are being monitored by our peers, and that it is important that we are attractive, popular, and desirable. Children are supposed to be immune to this understanding, but many are not: those who have been abused, mistreated, neglected, or molested have experienced the self-aware jolt of puberty before their natural time, and are rocketed ahead of their peers into the world of vulnerability and cynicism that we hope will be warded off for the first 12 years of life at least.

“The Turn of the Screw” has staying power. It sticks with us and haunts our imaginations. It is a great drama of vulnerability – of Flora and Miles, at the mercy of abusive demons and/or a mad governess, of the governess, barely an adult yet left responsible for the salvation of two children who may or may not be themselves evil, and of Mrs Grose, who may suspect her superior of being mad, but is illiterate, and would never be believed. We care for and worry over the decisions that these characters make, wonder if they chose correctly, bristle when they miscommunicate, and moan when they overreact or underreact to the challenging circumstances that restrict them. We understand the governess’ situation: it is scary, even if we think her mad. To be left alone in charge of another man’s wards, and to never be able to contact him for advice – to be saddled with the responsibility of making decisions that could have bearing on those children’s social prospects, mental health, and very souls. And we identify, even if we scorn her, with her ludicrous, unrequited love. Most readers will be able to remember a foolish and miscalculated crush that left them embarrassed, and most will feel either sympathy or disgust for the governess’ slavish attachment to a disinterested grandee – to the popular kid, to the rich girl, to the cool guy – that is more founded in self-reflection and bad memories than any objective consideration of her romantic life.

In fact, the great appeal of “The Turn of the Screw” is the way in which it is so easy to want to rip the wheel out of the governess’ hands – to take over and make her decisions for her. We want to yell at her “give up on him!” and to shake her when she imagines herself an angelic heroine sent to deliver two innocents from “the others,” because we know that she is too late, and that her efforts are naïve and doomed. We have a love-hate relationship with this girl, sympathizing with her vulnerability and stress, but resenting her silliness and submission. When you sit down to read “The Turn of the Screw,” that is perhaps the greatest “turn” that it takes: our yearning to turn the tables, to take over, to make the decisions, to take on the responsibility, to ask questions frankly, to tell the master to be damned, to rid the story of innuendo and suggestions, to ask the questions that an adult should ask: “did Quint ever touch you in your private area?” “Did you ever see him alone with Miss Jessel?” “What did he do with you when he took you to the woods?” – frank, mature questions that grab the bull by the horns and reject stuffy propriety. We want to turn her out, to trade place, to at the very least advise. But we can’t, and thank goodness, because for all of our frustration, we know in the deepest recesses of our gut that we would never want to be in the same terrifying, lonely, vulnerable position of the characters in “The Turn of the Screw.”

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