James' The Turn of
the Screw: Models and Interpretive Schools
|Henry James' novella, The Turn of the Screw, has been
called alternatively a ghost story, a psychological study, a case of (psycho)sexual abuse
and/or perversion, and a case study in moral and ontic slippage. The following
events and moments in the story represent key interpretive points of disagreement:
- The narrative frame--the narrator (James?) and Douglas' sharing of
the story and the letter; their view of the governess' motives, the circumstances
surrounding her hire.
- The governess' initial view of Bly and her employment.; her initial
friendship/alliance with Mrs. Grose
- Miles' dismissal from school
- The governess' first and second visions of Peter Quint; Mrs. Grose' s
reactions and interpretation of the events.
- The governess' stated motives of protection and sacrifice for the
- The figure of Miss Jessel and Flora's supposed knowledge of her.
- The governess' fear of being discovered by children.
- The third appearance of Quint.
- Miles on the tower and his motives.
- The governess' growing anger towards the children.
- Miles' wish to return to school; the governess' belief that he has
some control over her.
- The vision of Miss Jessel and the governess' reactions; the parallels
- The decision to write a letter to the uncle.
- The governess' begging of Miles to confess; his response--scream and
blast of chill.
- Flora and the lake; the governess' vision; the confrontation; Grose's
- Flora's illness afterwards and suspicion surrounding the governess.
- The final confrontation and Miles' death.
Other key points of contextual and biographical difference among
- James' preface to the New York edition
- James' notebook entries, esp. the 1/12/1895 entry regarding the
Archbishop's ghost story
- James' letters to H.G. Wells & F.W.H. Myers, calling the story
- James' letters to W. D. Howells, stressing "the novel of
- James' membership with the Society for Psychical Research
- James' interest in the works of Sigmund Freud
The various approaches to The Turn of the Screw can be
divided into five broad approaches:
- The Naive or Straight-forward Reading: These approaches tend
to take the presence of evil in the story in a straight-forward manner and trust at some
level the narration of the governess. Many (if not all) the ghostly events within the
world of the story actually take place.
- The Psychoanalytical Reading: The governess is suffering
from madness and/or psychosexual hysteria. She is subject to illusions, paranoia, and
- The Real Evil Reading: This approach sees value in both the
earlier approaches, and it attempts to find a bridge between them. Evil has entered the
governess, the children, and/or Mrs. Grose. The evil is real in the story but is often
manifested in psychological madness.
- The Sexually Perverse Reading: Readings such as these tend
to look for not only psychological hysteria but real sexual abuse either between Quint and
Miles, Quint and Jessel, the governess and the children, and/or the governess and Grose.
- The Post-structuralist/Epistemic Reading: These approaches
tend to stress the textual gaps, mystery, ambiguity, and silence in the text itself, the
governess, the dialogue, and/or the critics/readers themselves .
|Some Questions for Consideration
- How much should we trust the governess, Douglas, and/or Mrs. Grose?
In particular, what is driving the governess?
- How should we respond to Miles and Flora? What do we understand about
- What kind of parallels are there between the governess and either
Quint or Jessel?
- What other symbols are the story and how do they shape our
- How does psychology and sexuality shape the characters' actions?
- Which reading do you find most convincing and why?
- What are the worldview assumptions of the text and the various
schools of interpretation? How should we respond to them?
- What is the story's message concerning evil, hysteria, and the
|Ingrid Bergman with Hayward
rehearsing Turn of the Screw
LIFE Oct. 19, 1959 (photo by Gordon Parks)