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 children.
  • 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 between them.
  • 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 confusion
  • Flora's illness afterwards and suspicion surrounding the governess.
  • The final confrontation and Miles' death.

Other key points of contextual and biographical difference among critics include:

  • 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 "a potboiler"
  • James' letters to W. D. Howells, stressing "the novel of manners"
  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. The Psychoanalytical Reading: The governess is suffering from madness and/or psychosexual hysteria. She is subject to illusions, paranoia, and ultimate breakdown.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  1. How much should we trust the governess, Douglas, and/or Mrs. Grose? In particular, what is driving the governess?
  2. How should we respond to Miles and Flora? What do we understand about their personalities?
  3. What kind of parallels are there between the governess and either Quint or Jessel?
  4. What other symbols are the story and how do they shape our understanding?
  5. How does psychology and sexuality shape the characters' actions?
  6. Which reading do you find most convincing and why?
  7. What are the worldview assumptions of the text and the various schools of interpretation?  How should we respond to them?
  8. What is the story's message concerning evil, hysteria, and the supernatural?
Ingrid Family & Candid
Ingrid Bergman with Hayward Morse
rehearsing Turn of the Screw
LIFE Oct. 19, 1959 (photo by Gordon Parks)

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding