The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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One of the more surprising revelations of the novella, in fact, is to realise that, for the most part, it is this egocentric fantasist who is seen to do most of the ‘turning of the screw’ in the text, albeit unconsciously, and, obviously, in a manner finally orchestrated by James himself.

It is important, though, that there is a grain of truth in her gothic romance – the ghosts do seem to be real – and perhaps the most abiding impression of her character is that of a medium (she indeed describes herself as such) with a genuine sensitivity to the supernatural, but also a tendency, like many historical mediums, to amplify the genuine elements of her understanding and intuition into a large and complex web of speculation and self-deceit. It is, as noted above, she who ‘turns the screw’, and she who grows deluded enough to believe her own fantasies, until she finally causes considerable upset to one of the children in her care and then, tragically, precipitates a fatal heart attack in the other. Her personality is revealed as unwittingly and unwillingly toxic, and if the ghosts do indeed bear ill-will towards Flora and Miles (though nothing in the text particularly supports the notion that they do) then it is through the narrator that they actively harm them.

In this sense, The Turn of the Screw has an important message: straining reality on the rack; tightening a tuning peg until it deliberately distorts the ‘sound’ of that reality, can have damaging and long-lasting effects. When Douglas does this in the harmless pursuit of telling a Christmas ghost story no actual damage is done, but the nameless governess herself causes real injury by her false, though unwitting, ‘tuning up’ of what she sees and this is perhaps the reason why James chose to end his novella so suddenly, in a way that takes the reader out of the narrative frame, so that there are no reactions or responses from Douglas’s audience to be assessed – merely a shocked awareness of how damaging a final ‘turn of the screw’ can be. The young governess is, of course, not a malicious or unpleasant character, and readers would do well to consider whether they would act more rationally than she does in the circumstances in which she finds herself. The tale’s solitary allusion to Hamlet is admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek (Quint’s ghost, like Hamlet’s father, is first seen walking the battlements of the house’s faux-gothic tower), but it is nonetheless suggestive: Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy driven by the impact of a ghost on a small cast of characters – and particularly upon Hamlet himself – and in its own small way The Turn of the Screw is much more of a modern tragedy than a traditional Christmas ghost story, and its protagonist more of a flawed tragic figure at the focal point of the tale than merely the recording consciousness of a supposed supernatural occurrence.

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Henry James