The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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It seems then that Quint and Miss Jessel were bad influences on the children as the narrator has long claimed, and although that does not prove that their influence has continued after death, Flora’s odd reaction to the incident by the lake does raise that possibility and thus excuses to an extent the narrator’s persistent demonising of the couple. It comes as something of a surprise to the reader that she may actually be correct in one of her intuitions, and this implies that some of her other assertions should be taken more seriously.

The precise facts in this particular case can never be established, as Mrs Grose probably has a highly sensitised view as to what constitutes ‘appalling language’ and ‘horrors’, but that is not the point to be made here. It is rather to note how James, who has systematically destroyed his narrator’s credentials from the moment the echoes of Douglas’s encomium of her fade, is finally suggesting that, on some crucial points at least, she may be right. It is as though a melody in a minor key has suddenly been restated in a major one. The major mode is no more ‘valid’ than the minor one it follows (since neither reading can be established with any certainty) – it is merely different – and this suggests that if The Turn of the Screw is ‘about’ anything, it is ‘about’ (as its title in fact implies) the manipulation – or perhaps the gentle torture – of an audience’s expectations.

That this is so is made clear by James through the mechanism of his prologue. After finishing this most complex of novellas, it can be a surprise to turn back to the opening pages and to read the deliberately hackneyed ghost story setting that James works up in his first sentence:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be […].

He sprang to his feet again. “Yes—tomorrow. Now I must go to bed. Good night.” And quickly catching up a candlestick, he left us slightly bewildered.

His audience indeed respond to this with excitement, but, more interestingly perhaps, with speculation and, in this context, various romantic theories are proposed: the governess was in love with the master of Bly (which turns out to be true); Douglas was in love with the governess (which is hinted at, but not confirmed). In much the same way, readers can find themselves speculating on whether Miles has a prepubescent crush on the narrator, something that troubles him (and which may even, conceivably, contribute to his heart failure at the end of the story).

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Henry James