Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw: Horror’s finest work of Ambiguity
Classically in many works of literature, especially in horror, one expects to find clear-cut heroes and villains, defined by the timeless juxtaposition of good and evil. Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, plays into this commonality at first. Ambiguity is perhaps this novella’s most prominent rhetorical strategy, blurring lines with the actions of the characters, as well as in the language. James’s twists on characterization, structure, and framing of his writing, leads the audience to ponder on who is really on each side of the boundary of good and evil as they dive deeper into the novella. The establishment of the unreliable narrator in conjunction with the ambiguous framing and story manipulation causes the audience to question the nature of evil in the novella.
The Turn of the Screw‘s characters contain the generic surface elements of a majority of other ghost stories, including the characterization of the heroine and the villain. The unnamed governess, the primary narrator, is inducted as the seeming good in the story. James, however, writes into her characterization, questionable behavior. Described as a young 20-year old, intelligent, charming individual to the audience, there are two opposing ways of viewing her character – either as a normal, coherent heroine or an insane anti-heroine. The repressed insane state of mind is by far the most popular interpretation of the character for most readers of this ghost story. Edmund Wilson, an influential literary critic presented this psychological perspective in his 1939 essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” In the essay, Wilson carefully lays out a multitude of examples in which he sees signs of Freudian symbolism in the story; the Governess stands out as a “neurotic, sexually repressed woman whose hidden desires drive her mad” (Shmoop: Governess).” Wilson explores more into this idea of how the Governess is telling the story; “Observe that there is never any evidence that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts. She believes that the children see them but there is never any proof that they do. The housekeeper insists that she does not see them; it is apparently the governess who frightens them.” (Wilson 170) On the other hand, the presumed and traditional way of reading the novella has the Governess be in full control of her mental state, as well as having the supernatural actually happen in reality. This portrayal of the Governess places her in the role of the classical heroine and assumes that she really has good intentions and is just looking out for the children. This view also assumes that Miles and Flora are troublesome children and are in fact, connected to the apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.
The interpretation that the Governess is a traditional heroine is counteracted in many ways in her characterization, including the fairly apparent obsession with the children, “But it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connexion with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably moreâ€¦” (James 124). The Governess acknowledging Flora as “my little girl,” as she is just meeting the children, indicates an obsession supporting the interpretation that the governess is an anti-heroine. Yet looking at the character in a practical sense that she is a traditional heroine, the governess is doing her job, looking out for Miles and Flora and combats evil apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The Governess telling us that Miss Jessel is evil, “Another person – this time; but a figure of quite as unmistakable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful – with such an air also, and such a face! – on the other side of the lake. I was there with the child – quiet for the hour; and in the midst of it she came.” (James 156) Just objectively looking at the text would indicate that the ghosts are malevolent forces in the story. While on the other side of the spectrum, Edmund convincing uses the example of the final scene where the governess confronts Miles about the ghosts, “From her point of view, we see that he must have taken her ‘There, there!’ as an answer to his own ‘Where?’ She has finally made him believe either that he has actually seen something or that he is on the point of seeing something. He gives ‘the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss’. She has literally frightened him to death.” (Wilson 172). The conflict between her actual narration of the story and her actions and dialogue observed by audience creates the two-sided characterization of the Governess that exudes the ambiguity of the true good and evil of the novella.
The governess is not the only character that has been manipulated by the hand of Henry James to produce ambiguity. The children of the Bly household, Miles and Flora, have also been in question on where they land on the good and evil spectrum. Progressively throughout the story, the children transition from sweet and innocent to being possessed and evil as described by the governess. The governess initially adored the children (obsessively perhaps), until their innocence was “corrupted” by the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel. This brings the question to the audience: are the children evil through supernatural occurrences, or if the children are just being children. Flora, at first glance of the governess, had been described as angelic, beautiful, well mannered, perfect little girl, until much later into the plot where the governess believes she has been talking to Miss Jessel, the governess accusing and her she retorts, “Take me away – oh take me away from her!’ ‘From me?’ I panted. ‘From you – from you!’ she criedâ€¦ The wretched child had spoken exactly as if she had got from some outside source each of her stabbing little wordsâ€¦ ‘Of course I’ve lost you: I’ve interfered, and you’ve seen, under her dictationâ€¦I’ve done my best, but I’ve lost you. Good-bye.'” (James 240). The governess herself describes Flora in this passage to be a “wretched child,” insinuating that she is the evil in the story. Miles as well is introduced by Mrs. Grose as good, “beautiful” child, “Oh miss, most remarkable. If you think well of this one!'” (James 125) even if a bit of a troublemaker.
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” I held [Mrs. Grose] tighter. ‘You like them with the spirit to be naughty?’ Then, keeping pace with her answer, ‘So do I!’ I eagerly brought out. ‘But not to the degree to contaminate – ‘ ‘To contaminate?’ – my big word left her at a loss. I explained it. ‘To corrupt. ‘She stared, taking my meaning in; but it produced in her an odd laugh. “Are you afraid he’ll corrupt you?'” (James 130)
The governess’s dialogue here actually makes it seem as if Miles is legitimately bad. However, this is assuming that the audience interprets the governess as the classic heroine, and many believe that both children show what is normally considered as normal childish tendencies.
The characterization of the governess and the children are effectively made ambiguous by how James frames his writing. The highly emotional, yet melodramatic narration of the governess holds the audience to her point of view allowing for some room to experience her loss of control, yet at the same time, the writing itself adds to the feeling Governess is losing her sanity. We can look at where Flora leaves after being accused by the governess, “Take me away – oh take me away from her!’ ‘From me?’ I panted. ‘From you – from you!’ she criedâ€¦ The wretched child had spoken exactly as if she had got from some outside source each of her stabbing little wordsâ€¦” (James 240). This is a good example where James frames the dialogue in a way where from the governess’s perspective that Flora is conspiring with Miss Jessel, and at the same time showing the audience the governess’s unreliability as Flora seemingly did nothing wrong. This creates the ambiguity that clouds the audience’s idea of good and evil. Another way James frames the text to convey ambiguity is Douglas’ praise that the governess “was the most agreeable woman I’ve ever known in her position;” (James 117) shining a positive light on the governess and yet frames the situation to the audience in that if she’s that agreeable, how can we as an audience, not say that this claim by Douglas is biased? This two sided interpretation of the statement is one of the many ways James produces ambiguity through framing. In the literature, the governess’ perspective of the children makes it seem as if they are corrupted by evil, but from a broader frame, her actions are shown in a different light, creating the ambiguity of whether or not the Governess is actually the body of good. In addition to James’ frame of the characters, the framing of the ending, suddenly ending and without real resolution, adds more to the ambiguity of the placement of the line between good and evil. Did the ghost just kill Miles; did the governess just kill Miles? The endings’ framing make it seem flawed and unfinished, yet it does precisely what James wants: to hold the audience in the state of ambiguous limbo.
The Turn of the Screw, as a Henry James’s piece of work, is uniquely structured to convey ambiguity over benevolence and malevolence. In Donald P. Costello’s Modern Language Notes, Costello states that there is, in fact, a two-part structure in the novel. “This double effect of The Turn of the Screw is a product of its structure, which is basically a double one: scenes in which the governess represents the action usually result in horror; scenes in which the governess interprets the action usually result in mystification.” (Costello 313). Costello is essentially telling us that there are parts of the story where the governess “reports” to us from her perspective that provides the horror of the “reality of the ghosts”, and the other part of the plot’s structure where the audience interprets that part of the story. The theme of good versus evil would be naturally deduced by the reader through interpretation. However the representation of the text through the governess’ point of view conflicts with the interpretation of the audience, producing the ambiguity. For instance, the actual literature and perspective of the narrator induces the idea that the governess is good and the horror stems from the children being possessed as well as the ghosts, while the interpretation and observation of the governess make that opposing portrayal of someone losing their mind, having hallucinations of the whole situation. This discrepancy of representation and interpretation create the blurred line of what is truly good and evil.
The creation of illusion and ambiguity are rhetorical strategies that add a unique layer to literature, making the audience take it upon themselves to assess the story determine what is actually occurring. To the Victorian audience that this was written for to the audience reading over a century later, James’s utilization of ambiguity on the timeless theme of good vs. evil. continues to mystify readers today. Deciding on the good and evil in the story stems from the reader’s analysis of James’s characterization, his framing of his text, as well as the structure of the plot. But as much as we can analyze and connect the theme back to real life Victorian age, or now, the idea of ambiguity is that it is supposed to remain that way. Whether the governess or the children are evil or what truly happened in the end, it is up to the audience to decide, and even then, the decisions might differ.
Costello, Donald P. “The Structure of The Turn of the Screw.” Modern Language Notes, vol. 75, no. 4, 1960, pp. 312-321. www.jstor.org/stable/3040418.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. Oxford World’s Classics.
Parkinson, Edward J., Dr. “The Turn of the Screw-Chapter V – The Influence of Structuralism: 1958-1969.” The Turn of the Screw. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “The Turn of the Screw.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
“The Turn of the Screw.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
Wilson, Edmund. “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” Hound and Horn Apr.-May 1934