The Turn of the Screw
Warning: Spoilers abound.
The first time I read this short novel I was in college; it was on my own volition, not associated with any class. I remember sitting on the floor next to my bookshelf, covered in a blanket wearing my IU sweatshirt, finishing it and thinking “What the hell?” In the cafeteria I sat in a daze, listlessly spooning my chili with a furrowed brow. Truth be told, I don’t think anyone knows exactly what Henry James meant by The Turn of the Screw, not even Henry James. Few people have ventured to say it’s a story of child abuse, of child neglect, of malevolent children, or a tale warning against overindulgence. Others considered the story to be a straightforward ghost story.
Written in 1898, Screw tells the story of a governess who gets more than she bargained for. When she goes to meet with a man, who has been handed guardianship of his niece and nephew after they were orphaned in India, she is so overcome by his physical attractiveness that she feels compelled to take the job. The uncle strikes up a pretty sweet deal for her with one condition: that she must handle any issues that come up with the children -- that he is not to be bothered under any circumstances. This seems extreme, but I guess this dude must look like Don Draper or something because the governess heads off into the middle of nowhere to take care of Flora and Miles.
Upon arrival, the governess finds the house haunted by two ghosts who turn out to be Ms. Jessel, the children’s last governess and Peter Quint, a former servant of the uncle’s. In life they were a couple and cared for Miles and Flora. Both died under mysterious circumstances. Ms. Jessel’s cause of death is unknown, and Quint was found dead on the side of the road from a blow to head, perhaps from slipping on the ice. Convinced that the ghosts are a threat to the children, the governess sends Flora away with Mrs. Grose when she comes down with a fever, leaving her and Miles alone in the house.
When Peter Quint reappears, the governess immediately starts screaming for him to leave Miles alone, that the children are hers and that he must stop tormenting them. Miles, seemingly unaware of Quint’s presence asks “Quint? Quint?” and then responds, “Oh Quint, you devil!” As he rushes to the window to confront him, the governess pulls him back, holding him and telling him everything will be alright. As Quint falls away from view, the governess realizes that the child she’s holding in her arms is dead -- his heart stopped; dispossessed.
As Henry James said, “there is really too much to say” specifically about this ending. Obviously its shock value is paramount. Perhaps Quint is really a threat -- perhaps he lures Miles to the window in order to kill him and take him back into the spirit realm. Or, perhaps he kills Miles because he can’t have him, and when he loses control he goes all O.J. Maybe Ms. Jessel and Miles really want the children because they love them, or loved them in life. Or all of the above. Or maybe this is just what happens when you’re orphaned in India in 1898 and no one loves you but a bunch of mean ghosts.
Upon my second reading, here’s what I found strange: Neither Mrs. Grose, nor Miles, nor Flora ever admit to seeing Peter Quint or Ms. Jessel. The governess is really the only person who claims to see them and reacts to their presence in the house. This strikes me as odd. In most interpretations, Miles and Flora are characterized as evil children who see the ghosts but pretend like they don’t -- but what if they really don’t see anything? What if the governess is just freaking them out with all of her wiggins? Could Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel simply be manifestations of a perceived threat?
In this case, Miles’s heart could have stopped from fright or from suffocation by the governess, not from a supernatural cause.
From the beginning, the governess claims ownership of the children, calling them “my children,” or “my Miles,” etc. She claims she’s “dazzled by their loveliness” and makes a commitment that she will charm their uncle into coming back through her dedication. She hints that if she can control the children for long enough perhaps she can insinuate herself into the family. We know very little of the governess’s background aside from the fact that she’s desperate for work and willing to do anything to impress the uncle. She falls in love with Miles and Flora so quickly that it seems as if she’s replacing a missing child with them. Could the governess be a victim of a miscarriage, or an unwanted pregnancy? As a single woman, did she have to give up a child? Could this have driven her to madness? It’s entirely possible. Perhaps James was anticipating postpartum depression before we knew how to classify this behavior.
Another popular interpretation is that Quint was perhaps sexually abusive to Miles in life, and has come back from the dead to claim him once again. Benjamin Britten’s operetta adaptation of the same name certainly suggests this reading. Unfortunately this interpretation doesn’t explain Ms. Jessel’s interest in Flora, or her relationship with Quint.
Any way you cut it, James has taken the haunted English mansion ghost story to the next level in emphasizing the class conflicts within it -- Quint and Jessel’s roles as servants and unexplained deaths could result in their aggressive spirits’ desperate maneuver to take hold of the children. They are pitted against the governess’s same desperation to find purpose in life as Miles and Flora’s caregiver. Miles and Flora are victims of imperialism, their parents having died in India, without a family member to care for them. All parties are orphans, their fate dictated by their situation in life. In death, Quint and Jessel make a play for power. The governess, then, in destroying what she hoped to live for, is left alone. Without the children she has no livelihood. And thus continues the turn of the screw -- the tragedy of the working class.