Interpreting the plot of Henry James novel The turn of the screw
The Crossroads Between Reason and Insanity
Henry James’s novel, The Turn of the Screw, presents a plot that can be interpreted several different ways depending on how the reader wishes to interpret it. Many readers believe the governess is really seeing the ghosts of Peter Quint and his mistress as well as the former governess, Ms. Jessel. However, another set of readers and critics believe that the governess obsesses over the children and their former governess that she drives herself to mental insanity, leading her to hallucinate. In my own opinion, I think the governess may have seen the ghosts of Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel but the circumstances may not have been as extreme as she made them seem. Considering the governess had never met Quint and Jessel when they were alive, it is almost impossible that she could have seen their ghosts without knowing what they looked like. However, I believe that seeing the apparitions slowly drove the new governess to insanity as her mind was consumed by theories that the ghosts were trying to corrupt the children and maybe even herself.
As the new governess began her job working with two children, Flora and Miles, she seemed to be in a sound state of mind, eager to begin working at the Bly estate. Nonetheless, within the first few days that the governess had been working with Flora, she experienced occurrences that most people would deem peculiar. She began to see a ghost-like man, who she later discovered was the ghost of Peter Quint, a former valet at Bly. The governess finds out that Flora’s brother, Miles, was permanently dismissed from school for unknown reasons. She tried to make sense of the situation as everyone at the Bly estate believed Miles to be a well-behaved, well-mannered young man. As more time passed, the governess also began to see the ghost of the previous governess, Ms. Jessel. She started to believe that she children were communicating with the ghosts, almost as a type of possession. When Flora suddenly falls ill, she talks to Mrs. Grose, a servant at Bly, she uses language that shocks Mrs. Grose as she has no idea where she could have learned that language. “‘From that child – horrors! There!’ she sighed with tragic relief. ‘On my honour, Miss, she says things-! But at this evocation she dropped down; she dropped with a sudden cry upon my sofa” (109). Considering the amount of time that Ms. Grose has spent with the children, which is far longer than the governess has, she still deems it extremely out of character for Flora to be acting this way. This goes to show that there’s something causing the children to act like this, qualifying the governess’s theory that the children are conspiring with ghosts.
The other interpretation of the plot of the story is that the governess is mentally unsound, which is the belief that I have come to accept. When the governess first arrives at Bly, she doesn’t show any signs of instability as her stability seems to progress into a downward spiral throughout her time there. As she begins to learn more about the previous governess, Ms. Jessel, and her lover, Peter Quint, she begins to obsess over their history. The more she thought about them, the further she developed her theory that the children were conspiring with the two ghosts. “But even while they pretend to be lost in their fairy-tale they’re steeped in their vision of the dead restored to them.”… “they’re talking of them – they’re talking horrors!” (69). The governess explains to Ms. Grose that the children have deceived everyone at Bly, creating the facade of being well-behaved and obedient children. She believes that she observed the true nature and devious ways of the children as they pretend they have not seen what she has. However, these suspicions only escalate as the governess continues to obsess over the ghosts and their control over the children. When she decides that the Bly estate is no longer safe for the children, she sends Ms. Grose, Flora and the rest of the staff away so that she is alone in the house with Miles, who she plans to have confront the ghost of Peter Quint to finally be free from his presence and influence. “I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. ‘Whom do you mean by ‘he’?’ ‘Peter Quint—you devil!’” (124). At the peak of her insanity, the governess tries to coax a confession out of Miles, to get him to admit that he, too, sees the ghost of Peter Quint and that he has been communicating with him the whole time. When Miles says “you devil”, he could either be referring to the governess or the ghost of Peter Quint. However, I choose to believe that Miles is addressing the governess, and that his sudden death that follows is caused by the madness of the governess. Throughout the story, we see her identity transform as she’s consumed by the idea of needing to save the children from a greater evil, driving her to insanity. Her mental fragility only led her to put Miles in a situation that could only result in him being mentally scarred. By the end of the story, it is clear that the governess feels as though she has completed her mission of saving the children, even though Miles died. She was able to convince herself that she only did what was necessary, seeing his death as a victory over the greater evil that had only existed in her mind.
Overall, the horror story The Turn of the Screw has left readers to interpret whether or not the governess is truly insane or if she had actually experienced paranormal activity. By leaving this up for interpretation, Henry James sparked controversy among literary critics, never commenting on what he believed was the true reason behind what happened at Bly. While the belief that the governess and the children were being haunted by the ghosts of Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel would justify much of what happened in the story, the same events can be justified by the potential mental insanity of the governess. In my own opinion, the governess drove herself to the madness that eventually consumed her, leaving her and others scarred for life. Her paranoia that the children were conspiring against her with ghosts was her way of coping with the fact that the children were not as pure and innocent as everyone had told her. These suspicions only grew as more incidents occured, where her perceptions became her reality.
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