“The Turn of the Screw”
Henry James, the famous author of The Turn of the Screw’ was born on April 15, 1843 to his wealthy parents Henry James and Mary Walsh. His father, also called Henry James, was an Irish immigrant and by the time his own children were born he had inherited a lot of money from his father; and at this time Henry James senior and his family were living in New York.
Henry James author of The Turn Of The Screw’ was one of five children and had an older brother William who was born in 1942 he had four younger siblings also; Garth Wilkinson born 1845, Robertson born 1846 and Alice born 1848.
Henry James’ father was devoted to studying theology, philosophy and mysticism (religion) as he was keen on studying and wanted his children to get the best education he could possibly afford. He made his children’s lives very academic and all four children were taught in very unusual ways to a normal family. They never stayed in a single school ,were sometimes taught by private tutors and always had access to books. They were constantly always open to new experiences also. On many occasions, famous artists, writers and thinkers visited the children giving them views and teaching.
At the age of twelve Henry James and his family went on a three year long trip to Geneva, London and Paris, a trip that later in life would influence Henry to live and write his famous book in England, also become a British citizen, rather than a member of his home country America.
His older brother William was very intellectual and studied medicine at Harvard and spent most of his professional life there, first as a professor of psychology and later in a new department of psychology. William became renowned for his public lectures on psychology and became well known in America and Europe. Henry also attended Harvard but went to the law school for a year but withdrew to concentrate on his writing career, he was awarded an honorary degree in 1911.
Throughout Henry’s life he was always questioning things and was also brought into the world with a family that did exactly the same. The family questioned everything and were particularly intrigued in the working of the mind; his brother William, was even named the father of psychology’. Many of Henry’s books dealt with problems of hysteria and stress and how this affected his characters was a frequent theme in his writing.
Henry had always been encouraged to look into and question issues people took for granted in every day life. Maybe this was the actual start of The Turn Of The Screw’.
At the time the book was written it was the late 19th century, Victorian era; and at the time Victorians were fascinated by ghosts – a perfect reason to write a psychological ghost story.
The Victorians were convinced ghosts were dangerous though, evil spirits believed either to get them, to possess the living or to do the devil’s work. People in the 19th century were also intrigued by the after life, including what happened when you actually died. Henry James’ family was also included in this. This would give Henry James a perfect reason to write the novella aimed at a huge proportion of people who would be actually interested in reading a book involving ghosts.
As The Turn of the Screw’ was written in the 19th century when most of his family were famous and praised for their study of the mind and investigations into spirit phenomena, this could have inspired Henry to write the story. The fact that his older brother was famous and successful man when it came to psychology and physiology may have contributed to sibling rivalry. Henry had written novels that hadn’t sold well and had written plays that were far too intellectual for many of the general public to even watch. Writing a psychological ghost story in a spirit-obsessed era when his family were renowned for their knowledge seems to be best explanation as to why the novella was written.
The whereabouts of the actual tale has real evidence because in one of Henry’s notebooks he records a visit in 1895 to his friend, Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who told him the tale of young children corrupted by the ghosts of depraved servants. Another friend Edward Gurney, published an account of a woman and a child living in a house haunted by a wicked male servant and a female ghost dressed in black. Henry had obviously taken both stories and mixed them together to get the resulting: “The Turn of the Screw” .
“The Turn of the Screw” was not originally published as a book, indeed it did not become a book until 1898. It was first written as a serialised novel in Colliers Weekly’ and lasted thirteen weeks.
When the book was published the structure comprised a prologue and 12 chapters. This may seem long but it is not a long book at all and in fact, the chapters are quite short.
At the beginning of the novella comes the prologue. The prologue is used to set the scene of the story, it also gives a bit of background information and history. In that the readers learn of a manuscript written by a woman, now dead, who used to be a governess of the sister of one of the house guests who had joined together one Christmas eve..
The prologue begins when a group of friends are sitting round a fire of an old house of the 18th century, in England. They are all sharing ghost stories when a man going by the name of Douglas, proposes to tell a true story about two children. It then arises that he keeps the manuscript in a drawer locked in London. Three days later, the story has been sent by post and has arrived. Before reading the manuscript, Douglas explains, that a young woman had been interviewed for her first governess job with a gentleman on London’s Harley Street. She was quite smitten with him and because of this he was able to convince her to accept the position. I say, “convince” as her occupation and responsibilities were quite out of the ordinary. She was to be with the governess of his nephew and niece at his country house called Bly. The previous governess was now deceased but no details were given. His nephew was away at school and his niece was in the care of the housekeeper.
The only thing that could put her off the job was the condition that had put other interviewees off : she could not contact him at any point and she must deal with all problems herself. In the end she accepts the job and Chapter 1 begins with her on the way to Bly.
The plot of the story is somewhat interesting, it has a storyline full of mysteries and surprises that make the reader want to read on even more. The beginning of chapter one brings us to the scene and mind of the governess. We never actually find out the name of the governess as the account is told in the first person by the governess herself.
When she arrives at Bly, she is welcomed by the housekeeper Mrs. Grose and the young girl Flora. Flora is described by the governess as “the most beautiful child she had ever seen” later she then meets Miles as he comes home for the summer holidays but before hand she got a letter explaining Miles would not be able to go back to school as he had been discharged due to bad behaviour.
At first both children seem perfect and far too angelic for anything to be wrong, the governess starts to get suspicious about their immaculate behaviour and increasingly convinced that ghosts of two deceased employers are haunting them.
The governess believes it is her job to keep them from the evil they are encountering and sets out to keep the children away from the ghosts.
The alleged ghosts are one of the recent governess: a Miss Jessel who died of unknown causes, and Peter Quint, the ‘uncles’ valet, who apparently has led Miles astray who had died while on his way back from the village falling on ice.
The story ends with a terrifying showdown between the ghost “Peter Quint” and the governess. As the governess tries to keep Miles safe, his heart simply stops and he dies. The reader never knows if the governess suffocated the poor child or whether the ghost’ triumphed and possessed the child.
As you see, the story is very chaotic and ambiguous. The story is so well written it can be read in two possible ways and no one has ever found out the true way. One way the story can be read is as a very scary ghost story while another is as a psychological thriller of a very hysterical young woman.
We have lots of evidence showing that either the governess could be imagining things or the ghosts are indeed real.
The chapter opens with evidence of her state of mind “I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops.” This just shows she is already plagued by doubts, not quite knowing whether she is suitable for the job and she again becomes full of anxiety when she says, found myself doubtful again, felt indeed sure I had made a mistake.’ She may have already suspected she was unsuitable for the job not having experience, taking on a difficult job , but how did she know so early on things were going to be all bad? Throughout the story she thinks like this, almost sure of her self that she knows nearly everything.
Before she even gets to Bly she assumes things are going to be bad, this proves she is prone to imagining things. This is evidence also that she is a bad judge of character. When she says “I suppose I had expected , or had dreaded something so melancholy that what greeted me was a good surprise”. This does not only show she is a little unsteady but she is a very poor judge of character. At the start always thinking things are going to be bad, she is then put in her place and proved wrong with a friendly greeting and a grand house and an angelic child.
The description she gives us as Flora is somewhat unacceptable for a governess, “The most beautiful child I had ever seen” Not only does this automatically make the reader think she is unsuitable but the reader also assumes that she will use Flora’s appearance as a first off judgement of her. This is not good as she is her governess and should focus on teaching the child not mothering her or favouring her over looks. This again shows us that she is a poor judge of character judging people in a don’t judge a book by its cover way’.
As we already know the governess is a bad judge of character, we get this effect reinforced when she says to herself “I feel quite sure Flora would like me” Not only does the reader question that how does she know this early on but how could she think so highly of herself? Its almost as if she is getting above herself when she is only her governess.
We know that the story is either a psychological tale of a hysterical woman who goes over the edge or a ghost story. The evidence we have that could prove she is mad or may be going mad is when she tells the reader she had little sleep. “I slept little that night – I was much to excited” This shows the governess is lacking in sleep which has a lot of side effects on the body and in the mind. Lack of sleep or no sleep at all can cause symptoms like loss of concentration, meaning her mind could be on a lot more things. It can also make you hallucinate and imagine things which could explain the noises she heard.
The noises could also be explained by the ghost theory, but not only does the governess hear noises such as a light footstep outside her room “There had been a moment when I believed I recognised, faint and far, the cry of a child” This could establish that she is prone to imagining things or the fact the house is actually haunted and there are noises, meaning she is not mad and the ghosts must exist.
“Clustered treetops over which the rooks circled and cawed.” When this is read by the reader it brings up images of death and of a typical haunted house, as in literature rooks are associated with death. So rooks circling a house that is allegedly haunted is sort of a sign of proof that the ghosts might be real.
The rooks are mentioned is written at the very beginning of the book and in the first paragraph of the first chapter, before the reader assumes the woman is mad or is imagining things they already have an image of “death” of a haunted house. This makes the reader now think about the woman being mad and think they know that the house must be haunted.
One more reason the governess thinks the house is haunted, the reader thinks she is mad or a very poor judge of character; is she says “I’m really carried away. I was carried away in London” This not only makes her look mad but just proves she feel in love with miles and Flora’s Uncle.Which gives us another reason to believe that she is making the ghosts up. If she wrote to the uncle explaining she thought the children were in danger from ghosts, he would most definitely come from London to Bly. This makes sense of everything if it is written in that manner. It not only explains why she is “seeing ghosts” but could prove the story is a psychological story of a hysterical young woman and is unstable. She thinks he is smitten with her as well because he persuades her to take the job saying she is perfect and so on. So when she arrives she assumes she is the mistress and mother of children and the house.
The governess also thought herself above her class thinking she was higher than the maids because they curtseyed her, she just didn’t realise that they may have just been polite. Again showing her bad judge of character and proving my point of thinking she is the mistress of the house. The reader definitely feels a sense of tension, almost wincing at the governess at her immaturity, lack of experience not only in the job but as a person.
The tension makes the reader want to read on, to find out how the governess gets on to know whether she improves and what the noises are that she claims to hear.
The reader would also like to read on to know if the house is haunted and if Flora is as angelic as the governess makes out.
The book is so well written it can be read in many different ways, as I have mentioned. In the first chapter we get hints as to all of them and the ambiguity of the story starts as early as chapter 1, giving the reader different paths to read the story, in different ways.
The reader gets a very strong feeling that the governess feels she is not suitable for the job at of looking after two young vulnerable children, as she seems very young herself without any experience of this kind.
Chapter 1 is full of questions and strange issues, not only does this make the reader wants to read on to find out the answers but builds up the tension.
To conclude, the sense of ambiguity makes the story what it is: either a thrilling ghost story or a tale of the mad young woman. Henry James has written it so well that we will never know which is the real interpretation of the story and whether the evidence I have found is relevant or if there is some other reason in to the true meaning of the novella. The story will always be a mystery.