Commentary by Karen Bernardo
The narrator of Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw” is a young governess, who has been hired to care for two enchanting children in the English countryside. Victorians saw children as representations of nature, and in this bucolic country setting we are reminded of the Garden of Eden before the Fall. However, not all is as it seems. The governess soon discovers that Flora and Miles have been profoundly influenced by two evil—and very dead—servants who once worked for the family: the late valet Peter Quint and his lover Miss Jessel, the children’s previous governess. Miss Jessel had primary care over Flora, while Peter Quint dealt primarily with Miles. The fact that Miss Jessel and Quint are dead has not lessened their hold over the children, however, and the novella deals with the narrator’s attempts to thwart the demonic possession of the children. This results in the eventual alienation of Flora and the death of Miles, who is literally torn between two worlds.
James does not attack the question of evil head-on, feeling that evil is a fruit best seen through its works—in this case, the corruption of Flora and Miles. In the preface to the novella, James himself writes: "…Make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough…and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.” In other words, by making precisely the nature of the corruptive influence nebulous, the reader is obliged to supply in his own mind the worst offenses he can possibly imagine, and thus the story becomes even more terrifying in the mind than it is on paper.
There has been a considerable amount of speculation that in writing “The Turn of the Screw,” James was playing a joke on his readers. Specifically, Freudian psychology has been used to analyze the governess-narrator, concluding that there was no evil in the children at all, and even suggesting that Miles and Flora were the narrator’s victims rather than Miss Jessel and Peter Quint’s. This type of criticism tends to view the appearances of the ghosts as hysterical or even psychotic episodes on the part of the governess, thus denying any basis for viewing the book as a ghost story. However, James himself did not seem to intend this reading. His governess is, in every way, portrayed as a woman of remarkable sense, and James does his best to keep her as objective and rational as one could possibly expect to be when confronted with such horrific supernatural events. The evil that the governess claims to perceive was deliberately, delicately, and very emphatically there.
In our very logical times, we tend to see evil as the absence of goodness. James, however, saw it as more than that; he saw it as a presence, not an absence, and if this story is any indication he believed in it with every fiber of his being. What makes “The Turn of the Screw” so fascinating is that James does not even try to describe the horror that corrupts the two children, and eventually drives little Miles to his death; he shows us only the effect it has on two children who should, in a world of goodness, be as innocent as flowers.
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