I absolutely adore Victorian literature. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the most famous ghost story ever written and to this day there are elements of this creepy tale woven into the framework of somany modern ghost stories in the horror genre. Suspense, intrigue, mystery, a big haunted house, an isolated woman, beautiful yet creepy children, menacing ghosts and unexplained occurrences.
This novella was published in 1898 at the very end of the Victorian era, yet the story itself is quite different to other ghost stories produced at this time. The Turn of the Screw came about at a time of enlightenment when detective fiction was the new norm and ghosts had become a faded Gothic memory. Detective fiction meant that mysteries could be explained and readers came to expect a big reveal at the end of the book that unmasked the villain and answered all of the questions raised throughout the narrative. Henry James was a cryptic genius, manipulating the mystery genre with his own agenda. Taking his reader by the hand from the very first page, he gradually builds anticipation for the final moment when the curtain is drawn and the ghosts are exposed as nothing more than… NOTHING. He gives the reader absolutely nothing. Are they real? Are they good? Are they bad? Are the children evil? Is the governess crazy? Nope, nope, nope. Henry James leaves the reader hanging with antic—ipation. The ending of The Turn of the Screw was the biggest screw you (pardon the pun) in the history of gothic literature and it was absolutely intentional, and although I will never forgive him for this, I have to admit (with gritted teeth) that Henry James is a freaking literary mastermind!
The narrative begins with the telling of a ghost story around the fire on a chilly Christmas Eve. A man named Douglas boasts that he knows a ghost story based on true events, as once told by a woman who used to work for his sister. He opens a manuscript with a story he has never shared before.
A nameless governess is hired by a handsome and charming bachelor to care for his niece and nephew who were left in his charge when their parents died in India. You get the impression that the governess may have become infatuated with the uncle during the interview process when she accepts the job even after being told that many other applicants had turned it down. The governess is given clear instructions to never contact him regarding the children and off she goes to a giant estate in the middle of England somewhere. The governess is initially empowered by her role and the possibility of her new found life at Bly Estate.
Bly is your typical dark and desolate Gothic mansion. The housekeeper and the little girl (Flora) meet the governess upon her arrival and show her around. Flora is home educated and her brother Miles is away at boarding school, until the day he is expelled from school and sent home without any kind of explanation. Both children are beautiful, charming and delightful at first glance. Henry James seems to suggest that youth and beauty may not necessarily equal goodness and innocence, but does not elaborate further or provide a definitive explanation regarding the true nature of the children.
The governess is a difficult character who comes across as quite an unreliable narrator. It is impossible to determine whether she is just a normal woman faced with the realities of a haunted house or whether she is mentally disturbed and the occurrences are merely a flirtation of her overactive imagination. Given that the previous governess died at the house and the circumstances are never disclosed, we are left to our own devices to decide whether the governess is perhaps a little crazy, or whether she just stepped foot in the wrong haunted house. Things get even creepier when the governess witnesses the figure of a man in the castle tower and again sees him staring through the dining room window. This man seems to be more preoccupied with the children than the governess, which is all the more eerie. After questioning the housekeeper, the governess assumes that the ghostly man is former servant, Peter Quint, who also mysteriously died during his employment at Bly.
A ghostly figure of a woman then appears who seems to watch over Flora. The children do not acknowledge the presence of the ghosts, but the governess believes that they are lying. The ghostly woman is Miss Jessel, the previous governess who was in a relationship with Mr Quint. This is the point where the novella really starts to mess with you. As a reader, you are completely unsure whether this is a real haunting or merely the paranoid delusions of an unsettled and isolated governess. At this point, I would be leaving those children to fend for themselves and getting myself the hell outta there!
In the dead of the night, the governess discovers Flora out of bed staring out the window at someone on the lawn. The governess expects to see Jessel or Quint, but there stands Miles. The imagery of a child standing on an empty lawn in the middle of the night is incredibly haunting, I was actually afraid to walk through the dark hallway to the bathroom before going to sleep. Understated horror gets me every time.
Flora goes missing, but the governess soon finds her by the lake where the ghost of Miss Jessel had appeared once before. The governess demands that Flora tell her the truth about Miss Jessel. Flora denies seeing anything and becomes terrified of the governess and her erratic behaviour. The housekeeper and Flora leave Bly to return to London as she no longer wishes to stay in the care of this psychotic woman. The governess had previously written to the uncle to inform him of the happenings at Bly, but Miles intercepted her letter and burned it before it was sent. Why? Was Miles protecting the ghosts or trying to avoid intervention?
At this point, I became convinced that Miles is evil. We learn that he was suspended from boarding school for saying certain things to the other boys, but left to our own imagination once again to assume what things he was talking about. The ghost of Peter Quint appears again outside the window and the governess tries to scare him away. Miles acknowledges the ghost by uttering “Peter Quint, you devil” and he dies unexpectedly in the governesses arms.
The End… WTF Henry James!
That ending! So many questions. Did Quint scare the life out of Miles? Did the governess smother him in a state of hysteria? Part of me will never recover from the feeling of unfulfilled curiosity and the other part of me enjoys the choose your own adventure element of the story inviting the reader to decide for themselves.
I have read so many conspiracy theories about this novella – pedophilia, mental illness, homosexuality, child abuse, evil. My reading is quite dark and twisted. I believe the governess is sane (at least at first) although maybe a little erratic, but who wouldn’t be in that situation? I think that Miles murdered Quint and Jessel to end some form of sexual abuse towards him or Flora. Perhaps Jessel was not a perpetrator directly, but she knew what was happening and failed to protect the children by letting it continue. I think that Flora denies the existence of the ghosts to protect Miles and that he was expelled from school for talking about what he did. Of course, there is no definitive explanation and we will live our lives never really knowing the truth.