Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"the turn of the screw" and victorian sanity

*Warning: Here be spoilers for Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw.  Do not read if you do not want the novella ruined for you.*

Out of all of the books I bought last week, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw caught my boyfriend's eager attention the most.  He insisted that I should read that book first.  I was actually going to read Salman Rushdie's short stories first, but seeing as my boyfriend wanted me to read those stories aloud to him, I chose James' book as my break time and bedtime reading.  It took me a week.
image source: Aesop to Oz

The Turn of the Screw is a psychological thriller that starts at the end the 19th century, where a group of people gathered together are treated to a written account of strange paranormal activity involving two children that occurred about 40 years earlier.  The account was written by the governess of the children, and the rest of the story is written from her point of view.

Her charges are a little girl named Flora and her 10-year-old brother Miles, who were left in the care of their uncle after their parents died.  The uncle leaves the unnamed governess in charge of Bly, the country home  where he has placed the two children and a household of servants.  He does not want to be bothered by any details of the children's lives- he just wants to be left alone.

The two children are perfect little angels, never doing any mischief as far as the governess sees.  The only blight is the fact that Miles was expelled from his boarding school shortly before the summer holidays, but with no explanation given by the headmaster.  The governess, however, proceeds to teach both children and subsequently falls until the spell of their charm.

One evening in June, however, the governess catches sight of a man on the tower at Bly, and then her troubles begin.  Upon disclosing her discovery to Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, she discovers that the man is a former servant named Peter Quint.  But Peter has been dead for several months.  When the governess sees the apparition the deceased Miss Jessel, Flora's former governess, she begins to fear for the innocent lives in her charge.

I've never read anything by Henry James before, but his style and syntax are so bizarre for Victorian writing.  They're incomplete in meaning.  As a result, the conversations between the governess and Mrs. Grose are confusing to read because they're actually a delicate dance of propriety and investigation, as only Victorians seem to know how.  The topics?  Mostly the possible relation of the two apparitions to the children.  What is not said is what is most terrifying, for it leaves the reader imagining the horrors that may have lurked, and may still exist, between the deceased servants and the little ones.  There are hints of a sexual relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel, and from the words that James chooses, it's never resolved whether this sexual impropriety was extended to Flora and Miles.

One thing is for certain to the governess- the apparitions have a hold on the children, such a hold that she is convinced that the children are being possessed by the spirits of the dead servants.  To the governess, the innocence of the children is a facade, the good behavior hides vicious plotting, and the apparitions will taint Bly with their evil presence until the children are entirely theirs.

 The end does not settle the question of what the apparitions may want, but leaves the reader with more questions.

Interestingly enough for me, when I finished the story Scott and I had completely different interpretations.  Scott thought the apparitions were real and really trying to corrupt the children.  I thought that the apparitions were a concoction of the governess, that she was attributing deviousness and an evil influence in the children to something that was not actually there, and that the entire story was actually a display of the governess having gone mad.  The points for that interpretation are that Mrs. Grose could not see the ghost of Miss Jessel when she, Flora, and the governess were confronted with it. The points against my interpretation are the fact that the governess could describe the apparitions to Mrs. Grose in a way that she immediately recognized who they were, and that it appeared that Miles could see at least one of them as well (Flora never actually seemed to see anything, which the governess attributes as the greatest sign of her confederacy with the apparitions. I think whether Flora saw anything or not neither supports nor hinders either interpretation.)

It was quite a thriller, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Overall, it was an excellent read, one that I strongly recommend to anyone who likes stories that play with the mind.


  1. Hello

    This is my first time reading your blog, but I thought it was very odd because I am currently in a course at my school called "Victorian Music and Culture" and part of our work is blogging about various Victorian topics. I wanted to write a blog entry about Turn of the Screw (because I'm playing the Governess in Britten's operatic version) and was searching online for new information. Your blog came up.

    Any way - in the operatic version it is stated that Miles and Flora were sexually abused by Quint and Jessel. I have also been struggling with whether or not the Governess is actually battling these apparitions or if she is insane. There are two interpretations of James' novella - both of these points. In the second interpretation, readers claim that the Governess actually kills Miles out of repressed rage for her father, which I really didn't understand. I also read something that said that Victorian people would have assumed that the relationship of Quint and Jessel to the children was sexual, even if it wasn't stated.

    Would you mind if I shared your blog with my class? I think it would be great for everyone to see someone blogging about the same subjects that we are.

  2. Allie- This is the second time I am attempting to answer your comment. I had a nice long response written out, but then my computer froze, crashed, and wiped it out before I could send it through cyberspace.

    First of all- Yes, please do share this blog with your class! But first check out one of the links on the right-hand side of this blog- "About this Blog." That link takes you to a series of posts that explain why I started this blog in scattered details. You'll find that we're more similar than just an interest in Victorian culture. I started this blog for a class in my final semester of college. We were instructed to make "niche" blogs- something that covered a specific topic, but not so specific that we couldn't blog about it three times a week. I picked neo-Victorian culture, something that my instructor was pretty unconvinced would fulfill the requirements of his class. It's been over one year, and I believe I am the only one still updating their blog on a regular basis.

    About The Turn of the Screw- I thought the governess had killed Miles, but I certainly never imagined such a Freudian interpretation of the story as you offer up. Hmmm.

    "I also read something that said that Victorian people would have assumed that the relationship of Quint and Jessel to the children was sexual, even if it wasn't stated."

    That certainly makes one think. I have to wonder... I grew up in a pretty Puritanical household, and often missed blatant sexual innuendos in literature. Only after rereading stories many years later did I fully comprehend some things. So maybe it was obvious to adults and not to children who may have been reading the story? Maybe sexual impropriety with children was something that was kept more behind closed doors. Where did you read that claim?

    Now I definitely need to check out your blog. Another Neo-Victorian blogger set upon the blogging world for the sake of academia. Who knew?

  3. Sadly I read that on Wikipedia. I'm still trying to find out if there's any real evidence behind that claim.

    If you haven't already, you should get the book, "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew" - it tells you more about what Victorian life was really like, from things like money to washing to food, etc.

    I'll look back through your blog - I'm excited to read more! I've also posted a link to your blog on our class site, which is