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Ambiguity in Henry James’s Novella “The Turn of the Screw” Research Paper


On its face, Henry James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw” presents an eerie ghost story that has attracted much philosophical, ethical and literal debate since it was first published in the 19th century (Kimbrough 12). The story revolves around the experiences of an unnamed young governess.

She is taking care of two children on behalf of an unnamed young man. The children are the young man’s niece and nephew. The young man is unconcerned, leaving the young governess as the sole observer of the two children, who are apparently haunted by some spirits or ghosts in their large house of Bly.

Since James published the novella, it has become a topic argument as to whether it is a simple tale of supernatural impact on human beings or psychological disintegration. Although James has stated that he wanted to write a “purely” ghost story, evidence of psychological disintegration is presented by the author’s use of ambiguity.

Therefore, the purpose of this discussion is to determine how Henry James uses ambiguity and what ambiguity suggests in the novella. By definition, ambiguity is the art of expressing more than one meaning or interpretation using words, pictures, objects or other aspects of media. It permits specific and distinct interpretations of the subject and object (Allen 58).

Thus, it is in contrast with the use of vagueness in literature and arts. In this context, James’s story clearly indicates an organized way of presenting more than one meaning using his ghost story. In his interpretation of James’s novella, Edmund Wilson wrote an essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James” in which he presented a psychological view of the story.

According to his interpretation, James was aware that people are inclined to believe in spirituality and other supernatural concepts that are purely in disagreement with rationality (Wilson 71). The substance of ghosts in the novella was a result of James’s careful use of the people’s resistance to rational reduction, and thus be sympathetic with the issue of ghosts and haunting.

First, it is necessary to interpreted the story from a psychological perspective, which reveals the actual issues affecting James, his family and the society at the time. The story presents a number of images, characters and narrative processes. These materials, from a psychological perspective, present literal symbols the author uses to represent actual events, characters or their effects.

For instance, Henry James had a brother named William James, a pioneering psychologist. According to Allen (62), Henry James was using psychological symbolism with “ghosts” as a resemblance of his brother’s attitudes towards psychology. Secondly, according to Oliver Cargill (56) James’s use of ghosts was a disguised reflection to his sister Alice’s sickness.

Possibly, James believes that Alice’s illness was not only natural, but also a matter of spiritual haunting. Moreover, James’ previous works, including short stories and novels, were not well received in both Britain and the US. In fact, he was labouring to meet the demand of accredited literal works. It has been argued that James was probably using ghosts as a way of attracting attention of the audience.

However, it has also been argued that he was feeling depressed, a psychological aspect that may have contributed to his thinking that evil spirits, ghosts or other irrational aspects of humanity were haunting him and his family. Nevertheless, James determination is clearly indicated in his preface that he wanted “…To improvise with extreme freedom” (James 6), which is an indication that he wanted to explore a new genre of writing- the ghost world.

Nevertheless, how does he achieve this? He uses the theory that what is observable, explainable or literal is the most effective aspect of art that also attracts human attention. He attempts to show that perspective is inseparable from reality and that credibility is achieved using ambiguity.

Throughout the story, a number of key aspects retain an ambiguity that should not be dismissed in its interpretation. In particular, the governess’s encounters with Miss Jessel are shown in chapters six and fifteen, where the information she expresses to Mrs Grose in chapters sixteen and seventeen are in contrast to what she describes. For instance, the information she gives to Mrs Grose in chapter 17 appears to be of no basis in regards to what the reader can observe in her.

In fact, the reader can see that there are chains of inference based on paranoid sensitivity and preternatural sensitivities. For instance, she says “my apprehension of her actions sustained me so that… I felt I wanted more. Then I shifted my eyes and faced the ghost…” (James 141). However, the narrative then jumps to the proceeding versions of her story- where the Governess proposes different observations that seem difficult to account for.

Therefore, one of the most compelling hypothesis that have been suggested in the interpretation of the book is that all the experiences at the House of Bly are just part of the deranged imaginations of the Governess. Analysts, however, do not doubt the Governess’s presence at the House of Bly, but other characters are debatable.

For instance, James introduced the young Flora in a debatable intriguing way. James shows how the Governess met Flora and Mrs Gross when she arrived seem quite debatable. For example, Mrs Gross does not introduce Flora to the Governess, but the Governess sees Flora as a “…Creature too charming to make it a fortune to live with her…” (James 124).

In fact, this indicates that the little girl might not have been real, only existing in the governess’s imagination. Therefore, James was attempting to show the audience that the Governess was only having imaginations in her mind, which could also be reflecting her own life. Moreover, the governess’s calling for Flora represents her desire to meet a young girl, after which she appears in her mind as Flora.

Of course, this is a narrative ambiguity created by James by creating some elements of ghost genre such as flapping curtains, strange sounds and thunder ((Kimbrough 117). Yet another element of ambiguity is created in the novella when Miles is first introduced to the Governess and the audience. In this case, Miles seems to appear from nowhere because he is obscured by a woman in black clothing some few steps in front of Miles.

Probably, the woman herself is one of the ghosts in Governess’s imaginations, or she was present coincidentally. Moreover, the presence of Mrs Grose is debatable and much ambiguous. For instance, James has attempted to hide any evidence of Mrs Gross’s interaction with other characters, rather keeping it open that she was in constant contact with the Governess.

For instance, when Mrs Gross is present, other characters, such as the housekeepers, are absent. It is evident that Mrs Gross only appears when the Governess seems to have some discussion on her suspicions. In fact, James attempts to present a hidden idea that Mrs Gross is the Governess’s personal counsellor because they seem to share their thoughts on any situation affecting the Governess.

In fact, James has used the entire of chapters 5, 16 and 21 to display the conversations between the two women. Thus, the strange manner of the introduction and presentation of Mrs Gross is strange, suggesting that James was trying to express more than one meaning of her presence.

For instance, she might be an inner imagination of a good counsellor within the mind of the governess, a real nurse attending to the governess in a mental hospital or a frequent visitor at the House of Bly. The existence of the ghosts is both ambiguous and debatable. It is difficult to determine whether the ghosts of Mrs Jessel and Mr Quint, the Governess’s former employers, are real or only within the governess’s imaginations.

Using a psychological interpretation of the novella “the turn of the screw”, one would suggest that the governess, probably due to psychological stress or illness, is losing her mind. James seems to question the existence of the ghosts but in an indirect manner. For instance, the novella suggests that the governess was probably making some imaginations.

For instance, it is evident that the children and Mrs Grose cannot see the ghosts. From a psychological perspective, one would interpret the presence of the ghosts as a way of expressing the mind of the Governess because she has fears of letting the evil world corrupt the children who have been left under her care. In addition, it is evident that she is young, having just passed her adolescent stage, and thus she has no experience in childcare.

Therefore, she is afraid of losing her control over them or exposing them to the evil world. In addition, she is not sure whether she will succeed in protecting them from moral corruption. On the contrary, one would interpret the presence of the ghosts from another perspective (Kimbrough 86). For instance, James himself was reflecting on his personal experience, especially due to the failure of his previous books and short stories.

In addition, his loneliness (he never married) could have been a significant contributor to his perspectives on haunting, a clear reflection of his mind. Moreover, Alice’s illness is probably a factor that motivated James to believe in the presence of ghosts. In conclusion, Henry James novella is full of ambiguity- one can have more than one interpretation of the story and the events therein.

The use of ghosts is a prominent aspect of the book, but it can be interpreted to yield several meaning, depending on whether one perceives the story as a purely ghost story, psychological disintegration or a reflection of the real events happening to James. From the analysis, it is evident that although James has stated that he wanted to write a pure ghost story, evidence of psychological disintegration is presented by the author’s use of ambiguity.

Works Cited

Allen, James. Turn of the Screw and The Innocents: Two Types of Ambiguity. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1997. Print.

Cargill, Oliver. “The Turn of the Screw” and Alice James. Norton, New York, 2003. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Norton, New York, 1898. Print.

Kimbrough, Richard. The Turn of the Screw: A Norton Critical Edition. Norton, New York, 2006. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. The Ambiguity of Henry James. New York: Cengage, 2001. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2019, July 4). Ambiguity in Henry James’s Novella “The Turn of the Screw”. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/ambiguity-in-henry-jamess-novella-the-turn-of-the-screw/

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"Ambiguity in Henry James’s Novella “The Turn of the Screw”." IvyPanda, 4 July 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/ambiguity-in-henry-jamess-novella-the-turn-of-the-screw/.

1. IvyPanda. "Ambiguity in Henry James’s Novella “The Turn of the Screw”." July 4, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ambiguity-in-henry-jamess-novella-the-turn-of-the-screw/.


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IvyPanda. "Ambiguity in Henry James’s Novella “The Turn of the Screw”." July 4, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ambiguity-in-henry-jamess-novella-the-turn-of-the-screw/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Ambiguity in Henry James’s Novella “The Turn of the Screw”." July 4, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/ambiguity-in-henry-jamess-novella-the-turn-of-the-screw/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Ambiguity in Henry James’s Novella “The Turn of the Screw”'. 4 July.

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