The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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And why does he take the letter? There are some obvious and less obvious reasons for this: he wants (as he later admits) ‘To see what [his governess] ha[s] said about [him]’ – and particularly, no doubt, to see if she has mentioned to his uncle anything regarding his expulsion from his old school – but it also seems likely that he wishes to delay his leaving Bly and his consequent separation from the narrator. However, if James is indeed suggesting that this last aspect is one of the things that motivates Miles (and it would be the obvious consequence of the letter not being delivered), then how is the reader to understand his earlier statement to the narrator that he will write to his uncle himself and his subsequent encouragement for her to do so? Has he had second thoughts? Was he only testing the narrator’s affection for him when he spoke before of writing to his uncle, curious as to what her reaction would be? In the light of these complexities – many of which seem unanswerable – Miles’s motivation for playing the piano as he does becomes almost impossible to define with any degree of certainty. Perhaps he simply felt like playing the piano for no particular reason at all and happened to see the letter left out on ‘the great hall table’ and took it on impulse. Given the nature of James’s narrative, there is no way to be sure.

There is more, however, in The Turn of the Screw about which a reader can be reasonably certain than is suggested by this particular set of cruces. The two ghosts of the tale, for example, are probably real ghosts, though they are likely to be visible only to the narrator and not to the children. The evidence for the first point hangs on the fact that the narrator is able to describe Peter Quint so exactly that Mrs Grose recognises him from her words. In an absolute sense, it is possible, as some have argued, that she has seen a painting of Quint at Bly or Harley Street (highly unlikely in both cases) and is describing a face she has seen and subsequently hallucinated. In a straightforward debate, such a case could be made, but it is not a literary argument. To leave the reader to imagine such a thing without any hint in the text is breaking a fundamental convention of narrative, and to do so – and for the reader to accept such a thing has been done – would lead to ridiculous absurdities. In an absolute sense, for example, the narrator could have deliberately suffocated Miles at the end of the novella and her story could be a pack of lies designed to exonerate her. If one abandons the conventions of narrative altogether then anything is possible, and though the vast majority of critical readers would surely agree that the governess is a thoroughly unreliable narrator, she is not allowed ‘by the rules’ to be an out-and-out liar, nor to deliberately and permanently suppress a crucial piece of evidence, such as having seen a picture of Quint before he appears to her.

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Henry James
the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

Available HERE where you can read the opening chapters.

The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul