The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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‘the same positive fragrance of purity’ – The narrator idolises him. As she does not yet know him at all, she is judging him wholly by his appearance and, indeed, in the next sentence reveals him to be ‘incredibly beautiful’.

‘everything but a sort of passion of tenderness for him was swept away by his presence.’ – It is reasonable to suggest here that the narrator is, effectively, ‘falling in love’ with Miles – or at least so her words suggest. In our own dark and suspicious times, this raises the spectre of paedophilia which James is certainly not suggesting, but if that spectre can be dispelled, rendering it possible to read The Turn of the Screw as its author intended, the reader should still sense the dangers of too great an emotional attachment developing here. Miles is only ten, but that is not too young to form a powerful emotional bond – a prepubescent crush even – on his pretty governess, who can be no older than twenty.

‘his indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love.’ – This is a difficult phrase to pin down. Obviously, the narrator is idealising Miles to the point that he is more angel that human. However, there is, perhaps, a neediness about him (he has lost both his parents) which leads him to focus his affections on those around him: specifically the narrator. Both child and governess seem to instantly generate an ocean of affectionate feelings for one another.

‘ “[…] My dear woman, LOOK at him!”’ – appearances again.

‘ “Nothing.”’ – In the governess’s defence, she has specifically been told by the master of Bly to make such decisions, but this is still extraordinary. At ten years of age, Miles should certainly be enrolled in another school once the holidays are over. For all his determination to receive ‘not a word’, the master, too, should surely be consulted over the governess’s apparent decision here to home educate Miles. It is a huge step to take. Miles himself questions it later on in the story and it is made clear as well that the governess is not actually competent to teach him at the level of education he has already reached. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that a certain possessiveness about Miles is already developing in the governess’s heart.

‘ “To kiss me? No!”’ – The narrator and Mrs Grose form a dangerous combination. Both are rather foolish, and both encourage one another in their ‘worship’ of Miles and Flora.

‘What I look back at with amazement is the situation I accepted.’ – The ‘older’ narrator looks back here on your younger self, ‘amazed’ at the decision she has just recorded. Her (rare) comments are important for an accurate assessment of her younger self’s behaviour and they are telling: ‘I was lifted aloft on a great wave of infatuation and pity’; ‘my ignorance, my confusion, and perhaps my conceit’. She also states that she cannot even recall what she planned to do at the end of Miles’s school holidays. It is quite probable, in fact, that she didn’t have any plan at all.

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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