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The Use of Ambiguity in “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James Research Paper

“The Turn of the Screw” is a horror story in all the aspects. Henry James, its author, employs various literary styles and methods to achieve the desired chilling and devilish effect. An outstanding feature in the story is the use of ambiguity. The literary style is applied to develop various themes in the narrative. It is also used to develop the characters. The current paper explores the use of ambiguity in the story.

The author analyses the effects of this stylistic device on the reader. In addition, the impacts of the style on the general flow of the narrative are also analyzed. In “The Turn of the Screw”, Henry James uses ambiguity to make the events in the story intriguing. The style is especially evident in the analysis of the governess, one of the main characters in the book.

“The Turn of the Screw” is a narrative about a governess who is tasked with the responsibility of looking after two orphans. However, she wants nothing to do with these kids. Her reaction elicits sympathy given that the governess who used to look after the two children has died. The housekeeper of Alby, Mrs. Grose, is kind to the governess and children, Miles and Flora, who appear to be charming kids.

Miles is expelled from school after the administration wrote to the family informing of the decision to terminate his presence in the institution (James 4). A few weeks after their arrival, the governess starts noting some extraordinary happenings. She starts to see ghosts of previous servants of the estate.

For example, she sees the ghosts of a dead servant named Quint and his lover. She also sees the ghost of another female servant, who is also dead.

The governess believes that the apparitions corrupt the minors. In addition, she feels that they (the ghosts) want them to be dead. However, the children maintain that they cannot see the alleged ghosts. For example, the apparition of the former caretaker appears to the new nanny and the little girl. However, the girl insists that she cannot see it. Consequently, the girl falls sick. As a result, the nanny has to get her out of the house.

A battle ensues between the governess and the ghost of Quint. Each of them wants to keep Miles. The governess thinks that she has overcome the phantoms. However, this appears to be a false sense of hope given because Miles dies in her arms (James 5).

“The Turn of the Screw” is intricately written in a manner that leaves the reader in awe, if not lost. The events in the story are characterized by twists and turns. Apart from achieving the horror and evil objective of the author, the turns and twists arouse confusion. According to Hill, the tale is maddeningly indirect (53).

James purports clarity in the tale. However, the story appears to have a sole objective of losing and confusing the reader even more. The events in the story are very succinct in their ambiguity. Consequently, the themes of doubt and vision are brought out through these events.

A case in point is the arrival of the governess in the Bly household. On the first night, the governess claims that she can hear the whimpers of a child. She recounts that “there had been a moment when I believed I recognized, faint and far, the cry of a child” (James 14). The event is not confirmed anywhere else in the story.

Perhaps, the statement is meant to arouse the idea of looming evil in the Bly household. At this juncture, the reader is confused given that Flora is spending the night with Mrs. Grose. The governess is a stranger to her at this point. As such, Flora could be the child who was whimpering, although the event is left unclear. The governess also claims that she can hear light footsteps on the passage before her door (James 14).

The event, although questionable, effectively sets the stage for further ambiguity in the story. More vagueness is brought out through the arrival of a letter from Miles’ school. It is obvious that the uncle has seen it. However, he insists that the governess should read it and deal with the issue. The letter does not disclose the actual reason for Miles’ expulsion. The only reason given is that the school cannot take him anymore.

The reasons behind the uncle’s disassociation from all the matters to do with the children are also unclear. Even though he receives the letter first, he does not even bother to open it. In addition, he reasserts his initial directive of not to be bothered. Perhaps, this is an acknowledgement of either supernatural acts in relation to the kids or a broken and disturbed family.

James leaves the reader guessing so that they could come to their own conclusions based on how they perceive the setting and the characters in the story. Henry James tells the story of Bly bit by bit. However, “the militant ambiguity with which the characters discuss the happenings leaves readers with a lot of questions” (Dill 65). An example is the apparitions of Quint and Miss Jessel.

The reader is left wondering how these figures corrupt Flora and Miles. In addition, it is not clear what Mrs. Gross saw Quint or Miss Jessel do to the children. The beginning of the story sets the dichotomy of what is really happening at Bly. It also sets the pace for the unknown or what the governess refers to as “it all” (James 59).

Shortly after arriving in the Bly household, the governess encounters, or believes that she sees, the apparitions of two former servants who are dead. The scenario brings to the fore the theme of vision in the story. Whether the governess actually saw the ghosts or not remains ambiguous throughout the story.

The reader is reminded of the uncle’s directive that she “should never trouble him — but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything” (James 9). Whether the uncle was aware or unaware of the occurrences at Bly is unclear. However, one is led to believe so since he was very categorical while demanding not to be consulted on any matter. The governess is given absolute authority over the household.

Regarding the former dead servants, the governess deduces what she knows about them from Mrs. Grose. She is informed that Peter Quint was a manservant in charge of the house, while Miss Jessel was the former governess. According to Mrs. Grose, Miss Jessel and Quint were “infamous” (James 37).

The infamy about the two is not made clear. All that is said is that Quint did what he wished had been “too free with everyone” (James 37), including with the children. How he was free with every person is not very clear. All Henry James says is that the male servant had an intimate engagement with Jessel.

The death of the two servants is also surrounded by ambiguity. It is not a coincidence that both of them are dead. Henry James does not even link the two deaths to the Bly household in any way. However, one is convinced that their presence in the family certainly contributed to their demise, although the reasons behind the event are not clear.

It is apparent that the death of Quint is attributed to an injury on the head after a fall. However, the demise of Miss Jessel is mysterious. The cause of her death is not made clear, except that she left for holiday and never got back. Mrs. Grose confesses that she received the news of Miss Jessel’s fate from the children’s uncle, although she was never told of the exact cause of death (James 22).

The ambiguity surrounding her death shrouds the happenings in the Bly household in mystery. The fact that the children’s uncle never revealed the cause of her demise is also intriguing.

In relation to the theme of vision, “The Turn of the Screw” leaves the reader with numerous unresolved issues and events. For instance, Dill (64) describes the story as one about epistemology. The narrative is about what one sees or does not see. Literally and figuratively, the story revolves around what can and cannot be seen, especially in case of the governess.

From the beginning to the end of the narrative, the reader is uncertain whether the sightings are for real or not. The apparitions may be a figment of the governess’s creative imagination. According to Reed (413), there are two schools of thought in relation to visions experienced by the governess, leading to the development of the story. One school of thought proposes that the woman saw the ghosts.

The dead servants actually returned in preternatural evil flair to haunt the children. On the other hand, the apparitions may have been imaginary conjectures of the woman’s mind. Reed (413) proposes that the governess’s sexually frustrated mind may have generated the ghosts. Another cause of these visions may have been the corrupt atmosphere surrounding the innocent children.

In addition to her feminine intuitions, the governess exhibits nothing substantial upon which her allegations of seeing the apparitions can be based. What she visualizes is beyond perception. The reader is left grappling with the ambiguity of her sanity. Her cognitions are visible only to her.

It is not clear if Mrs. Grose trully sees the apparitions herself (James 32). It is the governess who beholds the ghosts most of the time. For instance, in her first encounter with an apparition in the Bly household, she confesses,

I stopped short on emerging from one of the plantations and coming into view of the house (…) He did stand there!—but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower to which, on that first morning, little Flora had conducted me (James 27).

The governess cannot attest with confidence to whether what she sees is actually real or a product of her imagination. Her visions are enveloped with ambiguity, leaving the readers to decide on their what is true. As Reed argues, the young governess’s story may be a neurotic case resulting from sexual repression. As such, the sightings may be part of her hallucinations (Reed 414).

She tends to attribute sinister significance to trivial events. The predisposition may add validity to the argument that she is insane. For instance, the expulsion of Miles from school is an event she colors with some sinister significance in spite of the fact that there is no evidence to support this.

More ambiguity in relation to the governess’s vision arises following her description of Quint. It is obvious that she has not seen Quint before or heard about him. However, when she describes the ghost to Mrs. Grose, it emerges that he is the deceased servant. As such, in a way, Henry James discredits the notion that the governess is mentally unstable or that the apparitions are in her imagination.

The description she gives of Quint proves the fact that she has actually seen someone. The additional description of Miss Jessel further strengthens the conviction that the apparitions are real, adding more to the ambiguity wrought in the story. Additional ambiguity in the story arises from the behavior of the children towards the governess and their stance that they have not seen the dead servants’ ghosts.

The governess concludes that the children have been exposed to the evil of the previous servants, but they seem to be conspiring with the demons. In addition, the kids seem to know more than the governess and Mrs. Grose. What is not clear, however, is why they are denying seeing the ghosts.

Vagueness in the story continues in regard to the relationship between the apparitions and the children. The governess is convinced that the ghosts want to get to the children. However, it is not made apparent why. In spite of this, Mrs. Grose informs that Miss Jessel and Quint were infamous, adding that “It was Quint’s own fancy. To play with him, I mean — to spoil him” (James 44).

By saying that he was “playing with” and “spoiling him”, perhaps, the author meant Quint molested the boy sexually (James 44). However, it is unclear if that is the reason why the ghosts wanted the children. In another instance, Mrs. Grose informs that the male servant was an easy going character.

He also had a sexual relationship with Miss Jessel. In spite of the conviction that the apparitions had a relationship with the children. In addition to being infamous, the author does not disclose their actual intentions. The reader is left with the task of imagining what the ghosts intended to do with the children though it is disclosed that the kids had known about their existence long before the governess found out.

According to Rust (444), Henry James makes the story perfectly vague by relating ambiguity to his purpose in the narrative. Throughout the narration, the story revolves around opposites. Ambiguity is further brought out in the story when one takes into consideration the concept of threshold as elaborated by Rust. Behind the scenes, the Bly household is portrayed as hideous.

However, the children are depicted as both angels and devils. On the other hand, the governess is either mad or sane. For instance, according to the governess, Flora is “… not alone, and at such times she’s not a child: she’s an old, old woman” (James 115). The differences between these depictions are not made apparent in the story. The task of come up with conclusions is left to the reader.

Davidson (462) postulates that ambiguity in the story is suggested through windows that are portrayed as glasses. The governess sees Quint through these windows. However, the structures can serve another purpose. They can be regarded as mirrors through which she sees herself.

As such, James inculcates further ambiguity into the story by merging opposites of reality and unrealism. The line between reality and conjectures is distorted since a clear distinction is difficult to establish.

Flora insists that she did not see the ghost. The denial is surrounded by ambiguity. After she is questioned relentlessly by the lake side, the girl argues,

I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you! Then, after this deliverance, which might have been that of a vulgarly pert little girl in the street, she hugged Mrs. Grose more closely and buried in her skirts the dreadful little face. In this position she produced an almost furious wail. Take me away, take me away — oh, take me away from her! (James 122).

Whether the girl really saw Miss Jessel’s apparition or not remains unclear. What is clear is that she eventually develops immense hatred towards the governess. The reason for this change is not revealed in the story.

Flora requests to be taken away from the governess, leaving the reader wondering as to why she reacted the way she did. Henry James closes “The Turn of the Screw” with more ambiguity. In the last scene, the apparition of Quint appears to the governess at the window of the room she and Miles have retreated to. The governess insists when talking to Miles that Quint is there. The boy falls after realizing that the ghost is there.

The governess catches him in his fall with “passion”. However, she finds that “his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped” (James 149). The ambiguity surrounding Miles’ death leaves one wondering if the boy died as a result of fright on seeing Quint. It is possible that the governess caused his death as she squeezed him in her “passion”.

Henry James applies ambiguity extensively throughout the story. The authenticity of the governess’s visions remains unclear. The denial by the children is also shrouded in mystery. The events surrounding Miles death are also ambiguous. As such, the reader is left wondering if the apparitions are real. They could have been the conjectures of the governess.

However, in the long run, the author’s choice for ambiguity has a significant effect on the readers. For example, the story continues in the mind of the reader even after they have finished reading it. In spite of the ambiguities, it is clear that the stylistic device adopted by Henry James may be deliberate.

For example, the author may have intended to encourage the reader to form their conclusions that should be based on the reader’s perception of the setting, themes, characters, symbols, and other aspects of the narrative. The ambiguity gives the story an intriguing angle, making it a mysterious read.

Works Cited

Davidson, Guy. “‘Almost a Sense of Property’”: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Modernism, and Commodity Culture.” Texas Studies in Literature & Language 53.4 (2011): 455-478. Print.

Dill, Elizabeth. “James’s Gothic in The Turn of the Screw.” The Explicator 69.2 (2011): 64-67. Print.

Hill, Robert. “A Counterclockwise Turn in James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’.” Twentieth Century Literature 27.1 (1981): 53-71. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. 1898. PDF file. 2 May 2014. <>.

Reed, Glenn A. “Another Turn on James ‘The Turn of the Screw’.” American Literature 20.4 (1949): 413-423. Print.

Rust, Richard Dilworth. “Liminality in the Turn of the Screw”. Studies in Short Fiction 25.4 (1988): 441-450. Print.

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IvyPanda. "The Use of Ambiguity in “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James." June 24, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-ambiguity-in-the-turn-of-the-screw-by-henry-james/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "The Use of Ambiguity in “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James." June 24, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-use-of-ambiguity-in-the-turn-of-the-screw-by-henry-james/.


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