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Written in 1898, The Turn of the Screw is a tour de farce notwithstanding the many criticisms it received later in the 20th Century. For long, this story has appeared like a story of ghosts and wickedness with the governess on a mission to save children.
However, critics like Edmund Wilson and Harold Goddard gave another version of interpretation where they paint the governess as a sexually stifled creature who tries to imagine presence of ghosts while in reality there are no ghosts. Regardless of the interpretation, ambiguity comes out clearly in this novel.
The greatest question remains, is this governess a gutsy woman who is out to save children from botheration or she is just a fanatic who hallucinates presence of ghosts. This paper tries to give insight to these issues surrounding the governess to establish her reliability as a narrator.
The governess is only a fanatic who lets her emotions drive her crazy and assumes presence of ghosts that are not present. She is romantically empty, she does not know how to love, and she is looking for love in the wrong places. It is important to note that she accepted this job not because she loved it; but because she had feelings for her the employer, Mr. Douglas.
Before analyzing three incidents where the governess purports to see ghosts; that is, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, it is good to give an overview of the story. The Turn of the Screw revolves around few characters including the governess, two kids, Flora and Miles and Mrs. Grose among others.
Governess is supposed to take care of Flora and Miles after the former governess, Miss Jessel died. These people are living in Bly, a country home separated from other homes. One day as the governess walks around, she encounters a strange man but they do not speak neither did she tell Mrs. Grose of the encounter. On another occasion, the governess saw the same man standing outside of dining room’s window. This terrifies the governess who rushes out to see the man; unfortunately, the man vanishes.
The governess explains the incidences to Mrs. Grose who identifies the man as Peter Quint, a maidservant who had died. The governess assumes that this man should be concerned about Miles and she vows to keep a close eye to the kids. On another occasion, whilst strolling around a lake with Flora, she identifies a woman appareled in black apparels. She is quick to conclude that she must be Miss Jessel but she does not inform Flora.
That evening, the governess discusses these incidences with Mrs. Grose who reveals that, the late Peter Quint was close to Miles while Miss Jessel was so close to Flora. This drives the governess to conclude that what she sees are ghosts after Flora and Miles. What follows is a sequence of events where the governess has several encounters with these ghosts until Miles finally dies in her arms after seeing Quint one night. Are these ghosts true or they are just but governess’ hallucinations?
Starting with chapter III, governess’ strange love feelings come out clearly. In this incidence, the governess goes to pick Miles from an inn. When she sees Miles, his beauty mesmerizes her. She questions Mrs. Grose whether Miles had any record of being bad to which Mrs. Grose says that it has happened in the past; however, this is normal for boys as they grow. Interestingly, after seeing how handsome Miles was, the governess dismisses any claims that Miles is a bad boy.
This is gullibility resulting from being hypnotized by the thoughts of being in love with a handsome man. This is to show just how the governess was gullible and susceptible to hallucinations. She does not want to get the facts leading to Miles expulsion because she does not want to appear incompetent to her employer. As long as she can cover up the children, it is well with her. Now the first encounter with the ghosts comes.
The governess chooses to stroll around in the evening. In her walk, she is engrossed in thoughts as she tries to fantasize her dream meeting with her employer. As aforementioned, the governess took this job because she wanted her employer’s love. When she comes back into the house in the evening, she sees a man staring her from one of the towers of the house.
After a long stare, the man vanishes; however, the governess realizes that the man had not broken his stare for the entire period they stared at each other. The fact that during her walk the governess was fantasizing meeting her employer, there is a high probability that she had a mental picture of a man and this probably made her assume there was someone staring her.
The second instance takes place on the stairs of the house as the governess comes down to go to church. She sees a perturbing physiognomy by the window. She runs out to see him clearly but unfortunately, the man vanishes. She stands at the exact point where the ghost was standing.
Mrs. Grose moves in and catches the terrifying figure of the governess as she stands outside the window. The governess then refuses to go to church and offers to take care of the house as Mrs. Grose goes to church. This time the governess is sure of what she had seen and she describes the ghost perfectly until Mrs. Grose identifies him as Peter Quint.
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Even though the reader may think, this ghost is real, it is also important to look into some suggestions here. The governess describes the ‘ghost’ as “tall, active, and erect” (James 65). From this, we can conclude that the governess is trying to substitute her master with this ghost.
Going back to the conditions of this job, the governess had to run this house without contacting the employer to gain his approval. Therefore, there is a probability that this governess is trying to create a mental picture about her employer. This is because she is frustrated to see him; remember she loves her employer.
However, why should she be terrified? Engaging in sexual relationship with a person of her employer’s status is unheard of in the society. This fact makes her be terrified as she imagines what will happen to her once the society realizes she is in love with such a person.
Finally, the governess leaves the kids and Mrs. Grose in the church and moves back to the house. After entering the house, she unknowingly sits at a position where Miss Jessel was sitting the last time they met. Upon realizing this, she jumps up and heads straight to the schoolroom where she finds Miss Jewel.
The governess is terrified and she calls the ghost, “a terrible, miserable woman” (James 89). Unluckily, the ghost disappears before the governess can say anything more. Fears of the governess come out when the children return in the house that evening and are not concerned about her absence.
She confronts Mrs. Grose and accuses her of bribing the children not to speak to her. As aforementioned, the governess does not want to look incapable of managing the children on her own for this will automatically disapprove her from her employer. She is in great frustration and she wants someone to talk to her. She starts to identify herself with Miss Jessel.
The governor is guilt and even though she loathes Miss Jessel, she is identifying with her. First, she realizes that Miss Jewel had sex before she died. This something the governess would want to do but she cannot make it. In the schoolroom, she finds Miss Jessel seated on her tables writing what she suspects to be love letters. This is an illusion; the governess would really love to write these love letters; however, she cannot.
She finally concludes that Miss Jessel has the right to be in that house; after all, she was a servant there and therefore, she can come when she wants. This is the height of the governess’ hallucinations. Miss Jessel becomes a scapegoat of her feelings. The governess would want to have sex, something that Miss Jessel did, but she cannot make it. Again, she would want to write love letters but she cannot; therefore, she fantasizes of Miss Jessel doing it on her behalf.
The governess in this story is just empty shell void of love for she has never experienced it. She is out to please her employer and therefore she will do anything to gain his approval. The fact that she fantasizes about meeting with her employer poses a possibility of her creating a mental picture of him. This comes inform of Quint whom she uses as a substitute of her employer. According to her description, Quint is “unusually” handsome.
However, she is terrified by Quint because he represents her employer and the thought of being in a sexual relationship with a man of such high status is tantamount to committing a crime. Finally, the governess uses Miss Jessel as a scapegoat to express her desires. After seeing that person around the lake, she was quick to conclude that she was Miss Jessel though she had not met her. These are all hallucinations for they cannot be validated.
James, Henry. “The Turn of the Screw.” Toronto: General Publishing Co. Ltd. 1991.