A friend recommended reading Henry Jame’s novella, The Turn of the Screw. It’s a psychological horror, set in Victorian times in England in Essex, specifically. Throw in an old country estate named Bly–isolated and with a large pond–a couple of potential ghosts, a country church and I’m sold. Get me a cup of tea, some caramel popcorn and away we go. Nothing better than a cozy horror snuggled up in blankets.
Expecting something like Jane Eyre, I sat and read the novella (approximately 43,000 words) over a weekend, some in the car, some in restaurants and the rest at home. It’s a quick read–I particularly loved the short, but thick chapters, that gave just enough momentum to keep the reader going. The imagery, particularly the ghost sightings I adored. James has a way with describing just enough and letting your mind fill in the rest, particularly with domestic scenes so close to our experiences.
I got to the end, eager for answers, several theories at my side I developed. I met Mr. James there, holding his white handkerchief in a tease surrender, standing next to his character’s corpse. My theories fell to the wayside. I argued, I harangued, I politely condoled. But I would get no answers, it seemed. It was up to me and all the other readers since the 1800’s.
Without giving too much away yet, you leave James’ novel without knowing what’s real and what’s not. Were the ghosts real–did the children see them too? Or was everything a figment of an overworked, an overtaxed or a possibly hysterical governess? Like an amateur attorney, you grapple with the clues scattered throughout the chapters and gather up your straws into so many listless piles of theories. Each are easily blown away by the wind. You don’t know, you won’t know and the answer is what you choose.
My theory is below. Please skip if you do not want spoilers. The reader is left to decide whether this is a simple ghost story or something more sinister with layered, terrible meanings. I am blunt with what I believe the children experienced and it’s mature and not intended for young readers. Read the book first then come back and add your thoughts if you wish, or skip this entirely. Happy reading.
Peregrine Arc’s Theory of “The Turn of the Screw” (Mature Audiences)
I personally believe there was some kind of abuse going on with the children and the two ghosts while they were alive. The two ghosts–Miss Jessel and Peter Quint–were the prior governess and a staff hand of lower class and coarse behavior, respectively. Everyone appeared well aware of their ongoing sexual affair but did or said nothing. The two children (Miles the boy and Flora the girl) spent inordinate amounts of time with the pair, Flora with the governess and Miles with the staff hand. The children act too polite, too “good” and appear too perfect throughout the entire novel. To me, this is a warning flag. At least one of the staff try to intervene, but is held back by the governess. Miles ignores such secondary requests to not spend time with Quint. The rest of the staff remain helpless and life continues on. Quint dies in a freak accident with Miss Jessel dying soon afterwards.
The uncle, I believe, is in denial of such facts as he’s a typical, rich coward consumed in maintaining his comfort. I believe some of the abuse may have been sexual in nature, but it may have been more psychological and manipulative. Either way, the children were harmed. The uncle doesn’t care and only preoccupies himself in obtaining another governess to ensure his comfort. The governess becomes enraptured by the uncle and wishes to please him and accepts the position on conditions never to bother him–ever.
The ghosts I believe were only hallucinations of the governess. She was the only person who really saw them unconditionally. When she described her visions to the head of the house (Mrs. Grose) , the hallucinations were fitted with the recent, troubled history of the mansion. The governess is seen throughout the novel as making jumps in logic and forcing conclusions. Mrs. Grose trembles under the governesses’ intellect and dares not to question her superior’s logic. As this is the governesses’ first job and her first time isolated in the countryside, it’s fair to say she’s under stress and possibly lonely for adult company of her intellectual level. Schizophrenia typically develops in the 20’s as well, so this is another possibility I’ll add to the poker pot.
Eventually, the children begin playing tricks on their governess (innocently enough) because they grow afraid of her and want time away from her smothering presence. The governess understands the ghosts to be after the children and she steps readily into the role of martyr, hero and benefactress to the highly regarded yet absent uncle.
Miles may have had weak health, something not suspected or looked into since Mrs. Grose and the governess were both consumed with the mystery of his school expulsion. I believe Miles may have re-enacted being sexually abused by Quint at his school and this escalated into this expulsion. Since this was Victorian times and everything involving sex was taboo, this issue would not have been included in the expulsion letter or discussed.
At the ending of the book, Flora was rescued from Bly by the governess directing Mrs. Grose to separate the children from seeing each other until the expulsion matter could be resolved. Miles increasingly dodges the question of expulsion and gives grainy, loose answers that could fit my theory above. The governess sees Quint peering in the window again and she grabs hold of Miles, believing the children to be possessed by the ghosts. I read a critique where the governess may have smothered the boy here in her eagerness–she continually hugs the children with force but describes it out of a motherly, protective affection. Either way, James ends the novel here suddenly and we’re left to wonder what happens next.
Spark Notes. The chapter summaries helped keep me on the right track when the language became thick or too vague. Some of the chapter analytics helped formulate my own theories or confirm some of my suspicions.