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The Turn of the Screw - Henry James Now you see me,
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...now you don’t..
What the...

Meaning, understanding and certainty all become elusive chimera in this ambiguous game of hide-and-seek that Henry James plays with us. Have you ever been in one of those weird situations where you wondered if you were losing your mind, doubting whether what you were seeing was real? And... what it was that you were seeing?


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This is one of those "what the heck??" novels that you often find in the modernist genre. Not originally classed as a modernist novel, by now it is viewed as one by many modern critics because of the ambiguity and ‘layers’ that James managed to capture.

It is just as slippery and ambiguous and as "what on earth is happening here?" as the most obfuscating of the modernist novels; - one tends to struggle with trying to figure out what is going on like with Virginia Woolf’s [b:The Waves|46114|The Waves|Virginia Woolf|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328875073s/46114.jpg|6057263] , William Faulkner’s [b:The Sound and the Fury|10975|The Sound and the Fury|William Faulkner|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1375233340s/10975.jpg|1168289], Thomas Pynchon’s [b:Gravity's Rainbow|415|Gravity's Rainbow|Thomas Pynchon|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327868134s/415.jpg|866393].

Henry James might not be playing around as much as ‘true’ modernists do with narrative voice although he built three layers into his narrative viewpoint, and the story is certainly a metatext.

Like most modernists, he does play around to some extent with temporality, but only to a small extent, and only slightly with structure.

However, it is the play with meaning, the : “what the heck actually happened here?” that lends so much ambiguity and scope for interpretation that makes this novella shine.

Part of what points to our narration being unreliable, is the fact that the novella is a metatext (being a story someone is telling about a story that someone else told him about a story that someone else told him).

The fun is that it reads like a Gothic novel, and for all intents and purposes, would be a Gothic novel, were it not for the subtleties in meaning and content & context leaping out at the reader; especially the modern, sophisticated reader who doesn’t actually believe in, you know, ghosts.

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Though the story isn't really creepy in the way that conventional ghost stories are.

Well it is, sort of.

But it's also like when you walk into your house at night and the lights are dimmed and there's this hat-and-coat stand at the end of the passage, and in the shadows, it looks like there's a person there, watching.. and waiting... and you wonder: “IS THAT….????! Or no, surely it’s just my imagination playing tricks on me?! "

Yet, you take our time, all the time eyeing that shadowy figure,
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...and you quickly walk to the light switch, and flick it on.

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(Though the governess’s shadowman had no hat… - therefore, not a gentleman.)

Have you ever had a dream in which you vaguely become aware of the presence of someone you feel you know? You seem to know him well from some other dreamscape, and yet you cannot place your finger on who he is, yet his presence seems so sinister.

If someone were to ask you who the shadowy man at the edge of your vision was, you might reply: “Why, Nobody!” ...and yet you fear him, but don't know why. You know the reason is sitting just at the tip of your consciousness, but it’s all cast in shadow, and yet, it makes you feel so terribly uneasy.

You may even wonder, in such a dream, if that shadowy image could somehow be you yourself, but the thought of that, -the very idea, makes your hair stand on end; gives you a leaden pith of dread that sinks into your stomach and grips your insides with discomfort.

Dream analysts would say that that strangely familiar figure is a projection of the part of your own self that you find unacceptable. This other 'self' can even appear threatening because often our aggressive impulses have to be suppressed as much as, or even more than, our sexual impulses. If that 'self' came loose from under our control, it could be a dangerous thing, and therefore, we fear it, albeit on a subconscious level.

Have you ever had a dream like that? This novella was reminiscent of such a dream; made me feel like I was reading about such a dream.

Some people read this as a ghost story, some as a horror story, and some as a psychological thriller or study.

`... there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don't know what I don't see, that I don't fear!'

I must mention that I got most of the detail about the different types of analyses from the Beidler critical edition of [b:The Turn of the Screw|12954|The Turn of the Screw|Peter G. Beidler|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1311981774s/12954.jpg|21372018] that is full of background material: cultural context, history, critical essays and interpretations of the text.

There are Marxist interpretations of this story, Jungian interpretations, Freudian ones, Reader-response analyses, Post-modern, Modern, New Criticism, New Historicism views of the story, you name it.

Oh, and of course, there are those among some of the abovementioned, who take a gay view as well. There is no real evidence for or against the direction(s) James's orientation leaned, though I have read some excerpts of his letters to young men that would incline me to agree that there's a strong possibility that he was gay.

Among the 'gay' proponents, are those who say that the governess is a subconscious projection by James of himself and his repressed urges. (Whatever other conclusions one might come to, you have to admit that the governess is one tight little ball of repressed urges. )

I see her as being under a lot of pressure from various origins. One of the pressures she has, is an urge to gain more power. If you think about it, the governess is actually a nobody. One of the younger children of an obscure country preacher, and a female to boot.. not much going for her, beyond some homeschooling (privately bred) is there? ..and now she is suddenly 'at the helm' of an entire household, and quite a wealthy one at that. ..but her charming, seductive employer wants no contact with her. She is "at the helm" all on her ownsome. Quite a situation for an inexperienced young country girl to find herself in.

Wayne C. Booth, a well-known lit crit has said:
In English alone I have counted, before I got too bored to go on, more than five hundred titles of books and articles about [The Turn of the Screw], and since it has been translated and discussed in dozens of other languages the total must yield more than a lifetime's possible reading.

..so yeah.. there's been a lot of gabble about this little story, and the interesting part is that hardly anyone seems able to agree on what the story actually says. James has been very subtle and clever. Even in his preface, and in his responses to readers of the story, he did not give the game away. Indeed, he says in his preface, that the reader's "own imagination, his own sympathy and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. "

Ha, and so it has proved to be.

Start of SPOILER section:
Here are some of the variations on interpretations of how the screw really turns:


1) A "straight" Ghost story reading. In this version, the ghosts are real ghosts, and everything the governess says is reliable and true.

2) A variety of 'ironic' readings. According to the most cynical versions, the governess is cruel and egocentric; she either made the whole thing up to get attention, or used a fiction of seeing ghosts to try and gain the status of a heroine and to make the master of Bly (whom she is in love with) take notice of her.


Other readings are cynical of actual ghosts, but sympathetic towards the governess in interpreting the ghosts as illusions seen by the governess. Some feel that these illusions are the product of a diseased mind, or of a madwoman, some feel that they are the products of her hysteria, brought on by her sexual longing for the master of Bly.

Some of the ironic readings are mixed. Some people say that the whole thing was a prank by the children, or the servants, or even an attempt by Mrs. Grose to drive the governess mad, so that Mrs. Grose could have her position back as head of the Bly household.

In any case, this was my first take on the story, before I had read all the hundreds of interpretations out there:

My impression of the children's uncle, the governesses' charming, extravagant, seductive employer was; - what a douchebag. The typical tycoon who extricates himself from his interpersonal responsibilities with cash. Set the poor little orphans up in a nice comfortable mansion with a string of servants, and he doesn't have to know that they exist.
(I quite enjoyed the Marxist critique of the story, and of course, no Marxist would have any charitable feelings towards our dashing rich aristocrat who so blithely consigns people to nothingness, banishing them from his sphere of consciousness, like ants. )

At first I was entirely sympathetic towards the governess. With her first sighting of Quint, although I thought the whole set-up of how she spotted him was eerie and strange, I initially suspected that Quint might be a ghost, though one isn't entirely sure - this is how subtle James is. I thought he might possibly be a person lurking around the place in a sinister way.

The thing that caught me there, was that she was walking around thinking and daydreaming about her employer and wishing he would appear - and lo! A man did appear.
However, like the governess says - not quite the man she had wanted to appear.

Those who argue in favor of actual ghosts, say that the fact that Mrs Grose could identify him, proves that he was really the ghost of Quint.
However, recall the governess's initial vagueness about how he looked. When first asked to describe him, she says that he looks like "nobody". That rather shook me in a weird way. It was my first indication that all might not be quite right with the governess's mind.

The second sighting at the dining room really impressed me. Wow. One of the best and weirdest pieces of fiction I had read in a long, long time. There's so much in that little scene. First, the way she sees him suddenly through the window, looking in.
Even if he were a 'real' person, coming suddenly upon a stranger looking in on your privacy like that must give anybody quite a turn. Note, that she then realizes that he is not looking for her. She sounds almost a bit disappointed about that.. but.. how does she know that? How does she 'know' who he is looking for?

Then the next part is so well done. I read governess's problem as being one of ego and narcissism. Like we've said, nobody ever takes any notice of her; even the children don't take much notice of her; they merely seem to humor her while they’re actually living in their own little world. But the children had adored Quint and Jessel, as we have heard by now.

So what does she do? Just like a jealous stepmother, she goes out and puts herself in her predecessor's place. She literally replaces her predecessor's image and position with her own, by going around to where he had stood, and she literally says in the story: " It was confusedly present to me that I ought to place myself where he had stood. I did so; I applied my face to the pane and looked, as he had looked, into the room. As if, at this moment, to show me exactly what his range had been, Mrs. Grose, as I had done for himself just before, came in from the hall.

This dreamscape-like scenario lends itself to some very interesting Freudian and Jungian interpretations indeed. In the Freudian view, (ok, there are a few, actually) Quint and Jessel's relationship forms an inversion of the governess and her employer's relationship. Jessel (and this is also part of the Marxist interpretation) had taken a step down when she fell in love with a mere servant, whereas the governess's ambition goes upward, towards her employer.

This 'replacement' theme features very strongly in the story; note the schoolroom scene where Jessel 'replaces' the governess by sitting in her chair at her desk.
I quote: "..she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers. While these instants lasted, indeed, I had the extraordinary chill of feeling that it was I who was the intruder.

To me the scary part is the implication that both Quint and Jessel are projections by the governess of repressed aspects of her own psyche.

But the scariest interpretation is reading the governess as a psychotic paranoid schizophrenic. If one reads the story as if this was a given, it’s very, very creepy, with the governesses’ psychosis gradually growing to such huge proportions that even the long-suffering Mrs Grose takes fright and removes little Flora as quickly as she can.

There are some people who feel that the governess murdered Miles on purpose, but my personal reading was more sympathetic towards her. I thought that she had perhaps only smothered Miles in her zealous embrace. Note that she does say:” I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion;”
So.. she wasn’t just giving him a friendly light quick little hug there. She was squeeezing the poor tyke.

I had more of a feeling that she was a person whose mind was slowly coming apart. I felt she was a person who clung to the children as being her only justification for being ‘someone’ in the world; they gave her life meaning, and it is via being their governess that she is ‘at the helm’ of the household at Bly. I felt her worst fault was a histrionic narcissistic type of problem.

Note her panic at Miles’s requests to be returned to school; how she fences with him. She seems terrified of him leaving Bly, of him escaping from her grasp, because surely then her status, part of her whole reason for being, would be diminished.

I also found that the governess kept seeming to read Mrs Grose's reaction incorrectly. Did Mrs Grose really want to kiss her? And all along, didn't the poor Mrs Grose simply comply with whatever ridiculous claims the governess came up with, just so that she wouldn't anger this madwoman, and/or wouldn't run the risk of losing her position at Bly?
After all, the governess was put in charge of the household, and therefore she might have the power to fire Mrs Grose, or at least have her fired.

It's only at the end, after Flora couldn't take the governess' excesses anymore, that Mrs Grose managed to scrape together enough guts to stand up to the governess in trying to protect poor Flora.

There are those who see a lot of pederasty in the story; between Quint and Miles, and some people even between Jessel and Flora. I must admit that I originally also thought that there was at least more than friendship between Quint and Miles, because that would fit in nicely with the reason why Miles was expelled.

It would then make sense that he probably said to "those that he liked" either that he likes them or loves them, or even that he would like to, to put in Victorian language, 'try out a bit of buggery' with them.
James had put Miles's reaction so beautifully:
"He looked in vague pain all round the top of the room and drew his breath, two or three times over, as if with difficulty. He might have been standing at the bottom of the sea and raising his eyes to some faint green twilight. "Well— I said things."

Later on I was not so sure anymore.

As for pederasty between the governess and the children, some have suggested that she felt a pederastic passion for Miles, and I must admit that the lines: "We continued silent while the maid was with us—as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter. He turned round only when the waiter had left us. "Well— so we're alone!" do seem rather suggestive of this. Though I feel one can't be certain...

The fireside narrator from the intro to the story, Douglas, was, I think, a poor fool who was taken in by the governess and believed her stories.

That's more or less how I saw the thing fitting together, but of course, there are a many other interpretations.

In the Marxist interpretation, class differences are explored. The children are scorned by their upper class peers, because they dared to lower themselves by mixing with the servants, as represented especially by Quint. The governess sees Quint as ‘a horror’ because he is of the lower classes, and Jessel as an evil woman because she lowered herself by falling in love with a servant.

In the Freudian interpretation, you can of course expect it to be all about sex and repressed, subconscious desires. I must admit that James either consciously or subconsciously used some sexual imagery – Quint is associated with the tower, (obviously phallic) and Jessel is spotted by the lake, the latter of which is often see as a symbol for the womb. Also, while Jessell appears to the governess at the lake, Flora is engaged in sticking a phallic piece of wood into a hole in another piece of wood. Heh.


[END of spoiler section]


Suffice it to say here, that the particular brilliance of his story is for me, that whatever interpretation you make, the story can work for you on that level, and arguments against a particular view can always be refuted by calling foul as an unreliable narrator on any of the three narrator levels. (The governess who wrote the story, Douglas, or Douglas's friend who is telling us the story).

In fact, you can even call upon the fourth narrator, Henry James himself, as having written a story that unconsciously brought out some of his subconscious issues and desires.

Of course James could have consciously written this as a Freudian allegory, but I doubt it, since this novel was published in 1898 and Freud's the Ego and The Id was only published in 1923. However, it may well be that James was influenced by his brother William's interpretations of psychological phenomena.

However you look at it, James knitted the seams of this story so finely, he weaved his web so delicately, that there is no way to tell any which way for certain.

What do YOU think?