The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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Equally, when a hint is supplied by James, it must be there for a reason. The reader learns, for example, that Miles and Flora have breakfasted together on the morning of the latter’s departure from Bly. They have been in contact (against the narrator’s express wishes) and that raises the important possibility (children being children) that Flora has told Miles about the incident at the lake and especially the particularly juicy bit of information that their new governess has claimed to see the ghost of their former one. This explains why, in the final chapter, Miles assumes the ghost the narrator refers to is Miss Jessel’s ghost – to his governess’s great surprise. He apparently knows nothing of Quint’s ghost, and is shocked and amazed to hear of his presence in the room (‘he was at me in a white rage, bewildered, glaring vainly over the place and missing wholly’), though to the narrator, caught in the snare of her own delusions, his bewilderment is ironically explained by his not seeing Quint. The balance of probabilities, therefore, weighs towards a pair of real ghosts, visible to the narrator but to no one else. Whereas readers, however, can be relatively certain that the narrator does see the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel, the possibility that the children also see them cannot be completely dismissed. This is because James is careful to include the information that when Flora and Miles are breakfasting together they are in the presence of no less than three adults – ‘a couple of the maids—with Mrs Grose’. James is stretching narrative convention here to its limits: does the reader take the hint that the presence of two maids and Mrs Grose means that Flora and Miles were unable to communicate, or is the suggestion rather that it is likely they did? A great deal hangs upon the answer to this question: if the children had the opportunity to share information then that would explain Miles’s reaction in the final chapter; however, James’s hint that they did is far from unequivocal – and so the possibility that both children have been seeing the ghosts throughout the summer is never completely confirmed or denied.

This fundamental ambiguity suggests that, while it may be satisfying to have some footholds of relative certainty in The Turn of the Screw, looking for such ‘answers’ is not the most sensible way of reading the text. Holes can be picked in any argument, and James’s novella will never give up any of its more obscure secrets, because it is not designed to do so. It is contrived rather to sway its readers’ minds and feelings one way and then another, so that they are constantly unsure of how to read what is before them, and left with nothing to do but press on to the end in the vain hope that their expectations for a ‘solution’ will finally be satisfied – something that, unsurprisingly, never happens. One way, in fact, of understanding the image of ‘turning the screw’ is not to suggest increasing suspense (of which there is remarkably little in the novella), but of actively torturing readers’ minds (as in a thumbscrew, or on the rack).

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Henry James