The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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Another more gentle (though complementary) interpretation of the title is to imagine the author changing the pitch of a stringed instrument by twisting its tuning pegs. One full ‘turn of the screw’, in this analogy, dramatically changes the way in which the story is ‘heard’ by its readers.

This last image – a species of ‘musical’ reading of the text – is helpful when assessing the narrator’s own status in the tale she tells. In the course of the story we learn much about her character, and although she has some admirable traits (a degree of courage, a fierce desire to protect her charges) it becomes clear quickly enough that James is determined to undermine her narration by suggesting a host of characteristics that will lead a reader to distrust what she says. This is something that is examined in detail and with proper support in the notes which follow, and it can only be sketched out here, but, to summarise: the reader learns of her egoism; of her tendency to fantasize – indeed to live in a complete fantasy world; of her life ‘starved of romance’; of her alarming idealization of her two charges (in which she is encouraged by Mrs Grose); of a set of sensibilities formed by reading too many gothic novels; of her conceit and lack of judgment in suppressing the news of Miles’s expulsion; of her belief in her own ‘mediumship’; of her overly affectionate and overly physical relations with her charges (at least to modern sensibilities), and finally of some indications that she is actually unbalanced in her mind. All of this – and there is so much, because readers have a natural tendency to trust first-person narrators and James is determined to unravel that trust – leaves us prone to discount almost everything the unnamed governess says, unless – and the description she gives of Peter Quint is a good example – we are actually compelled to believe her.

Later on in the tale, however, some of the narrator’s most unconvincing obsessions appear to have more than a grain of truth in them. Why, for example, does Flora react so violently against the narrator to the suggestion that she is haunted by the ghost of Miss Jessel? Children of Flora’s age can react in unpredictable ways, so this is not necessarily unconvincing, but arguably she protests a little too much – and then there are the ‘horrors’ she accuses her current governess of committing. Again, the reader must have had some clue of these horrors for them to ‘count’ (and there are none extant in the narrative), so where have these ‘horrors’ come from? From Flora’s imagination? From her experience of Miss Jessel and Quint? She must have learned her ‘appalling language’ somewhere, and Mrs Grose specifically refers to having heard it ‘before’ from those quarters (though whether she means one or the other or both is unclear).

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Henry James