Thoughts on The Turn of the Screw (by Bethany)


I don’t think I understood the concept of ‘intertextuality’ back in A.P. English. Of course I knew that authors could make allusions to other works, but I think I saw this as a relatively unusual occurrence, and I certainly didn’t understand the extent to which writers are consciously and unconsciously influenced by other writers. I should have known, considering that I spent most of the George H.W. Bush administration writing everything – short stories, history essays, lab reports, high school applications, my diary – in the voice of Holden Caulfield, but let’s just say that in some areas I am a slow learner.

When I read The Turn of the Screw this time around (that’s bookblogger code for “the only time around”), all I could think of was the way this novella talks back and forth with other texts, reaching like an octopus backwards in time and forward in time simultaneously, alluding to other nineteenth century novels and to Hamlet and to twentieth century pop culture and to my own life experiences.

Insert pretentious use of the word palimpsest here.

This is another one of those novels – like Frankenstein, like Wuthering Heights, like Lord Jim –  that sets itself up as a story-within-a-story. A bunch of people are gathered together to celebrate Christmas Eve. The narrator of this brief prologue is a young woman. One of her friends tells a story, and Douglas (who is probably the narrator’s fiancé or lover or object of flirtation to some degree) declares that he has a better story, but that he can’t tell it right now because it’s written down, and the manuscript is in a locked drawer. He taunts his friends by promising that the story is “beyond everything. Nothing I know touches it” (146). When the narrator asks, “For sheer terror?” Douglas replies, “For dreadful – dreadfulness” (146). Now, I have all kinds of respect for Henry James ever since I finally finished The Portrait of a Lady, but “dreadful dreadfulness?” Seriously?

Finally, Douglas produces the manuscript and begins reading it, and, of course, the text of the manuscript becomes the text of the novella. It’s all very Frankenstein. Calling into question the objectivity of narrative was big business in the nineteenth century, at least among people who weren’t working sixteen hour days in the coal mines when they were eight. Here are the basics: a young woman (who becomes the new narrator, the narrator of the novella proper) answers an ad about a job as a governess. She meets her prospective employer and more or less falls in love with him, although of course nothing is ever stated directly about this love. She accepts the job and agrees to her employer’s terms: that she will never, under any circumstances, bother him about anything. She will move into a country house called Bly and take care of her employer’s niece and nephew, the latter of whom will be away at school much of the time.

From this point on approximately 50% of the novella’s words are devoted to the narrator rhapsodizing about how perfect and angelic and beautiful and well-behaved the children are. It’s as if Jane Eyre mind-melded itself with the first few chapters of Frankenstein, in which everyone Victor Frankenstein meets is some kind of seraph given human form. The narrator loves these kids, but because I am not a 19th century reader but a cynical twenty-first century reader who distrusts superlatives, who knows that the Titanic will always sink, the beauty of Einstein’s equations will always lead to the atomic bomb, and that the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers will always fall in clouds of smoke, I came to the conclusion fairly quickly that there is something wrong with her love. I started hearing the voice of the Dean of Faculty at my first boarding school, addressing new faculty at a meeting about maintaining boundaries: “Think of it this way: if you need a sixteen year-old friend, what does that say about you?”

Well, Dudette here in The Turn of the Screw needs friends, period. She clearly has some gaping emotional lacunae in her own life, and she hopes that young Miles and Flora will fill them. I had her pegged as pathetic from the beginning, but it took me a while to recognize her as truly malignant. She is certainly attentive to her charges (in spite of the fact that Henry James seems not to know that children who know how to read don’t usually sit in high chairs and wear bibs, but whatever), and one of her first challenges is to figure out what to do about the fact that Miles has been expelled from school. The governess learns about this dismissal early in the novella, and she shares the news only with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who agrees that they shouldn’t tell their employer. The narrator picks Miles up at the train station and proceeds to gush for several chapters about how angelic and innocent and pure he is. She puts her worries about his schooling aside and begins to spend the long summer writing paeans of praise to her two young charges.

But wait. I forgot to tell you about the ghost. And also about the other ghost.

The narrator was prowling around the large country house one evening, after the children had gone to bed. She was thinking idly about the children and also about their uncle, her employer, with whom she is probably in love. Then she looks up and thinks she sees him, only she soon realizes that the man she saw is not her employer. She keeps the incident a secret and broods on it, responding with a certain alertness and heightening of the senses that seems to be to be consistent with the way a person reacts to a sexual encounter. Throughout her contemplations, she remains fixated on the innocence of the children, especially of Miles: “there was in this beautiful little boy something extraordinarily sensitive, yet extraordinarily happy… He had never for a second suffered. I took this as a direct disproof of his having really been chastised. If he had been wicked he would have ‘caught’ it, and I should have caught it by the rebound – I should have found the trace, should have felt the wound and the dishonor. I could reconstitute nothing at all, and he was therefore an angel” (168). This passage is only one of many like it, complete with spurious logic and gushing praise of innocence. In a way, the narrator is like Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, who seemed determined to fetishize innocence in both his wife and his daughter.

So it turns out that the man the narrator saw was Peter Quint, a former handyman on the estate, and he is later joined by a female ghost, Miss Jessel, who was the children’s former governess. All kinds of crazy things do cartwheels through the narrator’s mind, and she does end up confiding in Mrs. Grose. Nothing is ever stated outwardly, of course, but I got the impression that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were lovers. (I also got the impression at one point that Mrs. Grose killed Peter Quint, and I have no idea now why that thought even occurred to me, so you might not want to put much faith in my impressions.) I also got the sense that maybe James was hinting that Peter Quint had molested Miles – this was my impression for a while, in fact.

Of course the real story here is that the narrator and Mrs. Grose are a couple of lonely women cooped up in a creepy old house. At one point the two of them start trying to one-up the other in the area of morbid imaginations. The narrator becomes convinced that the two children are communicating with the ghosts somehow, and possibly even colluding with the ghosts against the narrator. She also starts worrying that Miles and Flora are somehow faking their sunny personalities – “that the immediate charm of my companions was a beguilement still effective even under the shadow of the possibility that it was studied” (192). She throws herself into her teaching and spews out some more page-long gush-fests about how perfect Miles and Flora are. And the ghosts come back and Miles and Flora start disappearing from their beds, and Miles sneaks outside in the middle of the night – because, he says, he is tired of the narrator thinking he is so supremely good – and at some point in here the narrator stops sleeping. Her thoughts become more and more irrational, as she imagines that the ghosts and the children are plotting together and that she is the only one who could possibly protect Miles and Flora’s innocence.

At some point it becomes clear that the narrator, not the children, is the one who is trapped in a fairy tale. I can’t say that I enjoyed this novella very much, and I’ve certainly found many things in it to mock, but I do think that this novella is a great example of how a fiction writer can deal with a character whose mind devises its own plots. Just as we do when we read Lolita – which, in my opinion, is a direct descendant of The Turn of the Screw – we have to keep our own mental record of what is really happening, a record that we scrape together from stray details that the governess lets slip as if they were irrelevant. This novella’s great strength, I think, is the fact that it’s a prototype of the idea of the unreliable narrator.

Then one morning, on the way to church, Miles asks the narrator when he will be going back to school. Miles begins by saying, “You know, my dear, that for a fellow to be with a lady always – ” (216), and then proceeds to refer to “you know…, this queer business of ours…The way you bring me up. And all the rest!” (225). When the narrator says, “What do you mean by all the rest?” Miles replies, “Oh, you know, you know!” (226), and from here on the novella moves really quickly, though still bafflingly, toward its end. Flora has a panic attack of some kind, and Mrs. Grose insists that the narrator may not come anywhere near her. Flora and Mrs. Grose leave on the first train the following morning, and while nothing is ever explicitly stated, my assumption is that Flora tells Mrs. Grose about whatever it is that the narrator has been doing to her and Miles – something sexual, I presume (hence the promise of “dreadful dreadfulness”)? It seems that James is doing more or less the same thing here that Nabokov does in Lolita: using first-person narration to obscure the reality of what the first-person narrator is doing to the children. It’s creepy. It works, I think. But I like Lolita better.

This isn’t a great book. It’s overwrought and opaque and way too dependent on interior monologue. It’s not easy to read, and I felt no joy in picking it up each day. Some of the sentences are just bad, like this one: “This was not so good a thing, I admit, as not to leave me to judge that what, essentially, made nothing else much signify was simply my charming work” (167). But even though I don’t like this novella very much, I would love to teach it. Teaching flawed books to smart students is one of the most enjoyable things a person can do in life. Some of my favorite memories of teaching high school English were the times my students and I sat around the table laughing hysterically at literature – at The Great Gatsby and The Scarlet Letter and The Grapes of Wrath and Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I revere these works, all of them, but at moments they are all ridiculous. I would love to see what a group of smart honors sophomores or juniors would make of The Turn of the Screw. In fact, I wish I remembered more about what Fr. Murphy said about it back in A.P. English. Fr. Murphy wasn’t one for mocking literature very often, but he could be wry sometimes, and I’ll bet he made a comment or two about the crazy governess in this novella that I would have enjoyed if I had bothered to pay attention and remember it.

This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Henry James, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Thoughts on The Turn of the Screw (by Bethany)

  1. Maria says:

    Great comment,”Teaching flawed books to smart students is one of the most enjoyable things a person can do in life.”

  2. badkitty1016 says:

    This book confused me a bit, and I think I need to reread it (but don’t especially care to). I knew something was going on with the narrator and the kids that was being glossed over, and i figured the governess was probably crazy, but I simply couldn’t wrap my head around it all. I couldn’t figure out if the governess was evil or if it was the kids, or if they were all putting the screws to each other, pardon the pun.

    • lfpbe says:

      I thought the ghosts were the bad guys for quite a while. Then all of a sudden, right after the governess and Miles have their little chat on the way to church, it seemed 100% clear that the governess is the one who has the creepy relationship with the kids – but I never did get a sense of what exactly she did. This is one of those books that’s not much fun to read but that’s fun to analyze and discuss.

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