Of all the ghost stories I’ve read in my life, The Turn of the Screw is the one that seems most enigmatic, and therefore, it’s arguably the scariest. If the typical ghost story, for example Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, scares me on a physical or emotional level, Henry James’ novel scares me on a psychological level. Though its climactic scene gave me that heart-thumping scare, during most of the novel, I felt more curious than scared. What’s happening? What’s real? What are the characters implying? I’ve read The Turn of the Screw three or four times during my life—the latest time in January—and I’m no closer to answering those questions or satisfying my curiosity about it. That’s the grip this short novel has on me.
The Turn of the Screw begins with frame narration. Years after the events in the main narration, a group of friends gathered on Christmas Eve to tell each other ghost stories. After one story—alluded to but never told—involving a child protagonist, one of the listeners, Douglas, tells the others that he knows a story that adds another “turn to the screw.” In his story, not one but two children were involved. Though the others are anxious to hear the tale, Douglas tells them he has to send for the manuscript. They have to wait a few days for the manuscript to arrive, and then they gather around the fire as Douglas reads it.
Why this frame? Once Douglas starts reading, we never return to him or his friends. Since he’s not a character within the main narration, there was no apparent reason for introducing him years after its conclusion. Perhaps it’s there only to help the readers ease into their willing suspension of disbelief. Without a doubt, it achieves this purpose, but I never believed it was the main reason for the frame. James, I believe, is playing a subtle game with the readers. At the heart of that game is a question: How much of what follows can you trust?
The lady who wrote the manuscript, Douglas tells us, is twenty-years dead, and there’s a suggestion that she wrote it a long time after the events that it describes. Does she remember everything correctly? Was she in sound mind when she wrote it? When she experienced the events? Why did she write this? None of these questions are answered; in fact, they’re never explicitly stated in the novel. But they are there. They’re there in the subtext; they’re there between the lines. The heartbeat of The Turn of the Screw is that literary device we call “the unreliable narrator.”
The main narration that Douglas reads to his friends tells of a governess hired to care for two children. They’re in the care of their uncle who wants as little to do with them as possible. Though he lives in London, he has the children living at his country house, Bly. With the help of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the governess, who’s never named, cares for Flora and Miles, but they are not alone with the children. The ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel—former servants—walk the grounds and hallways of Bly. While alive, Quint and Jessel had developed strong relationships with the children; now, their ghosts seem to have a connection to the children that frightens the governess. She needs to protect them from the spirits, but how?
It produced in me, this figure, in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were, sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed. There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred…
One of the unanswered questions—perhaps the most troubling—is: Exactly what relationship did Quint and Miss Jessel have with the children before their deaths? Though the governess’ narration reads as unreliable, Mrs. Grose, who had been a servant at Bly for years, verifies that Quint was a man who was “too free” with the children. A product of my time, I interpreted that to mean he was a pedophile and that he involved his lover, Jessel, in his predatory activities. Though it’s unclear that’s what James meant to imply, it is clear that he intended the relationship between the servants and the children to be seen as abusive—if not sexually, then verbally, emotionally, or even physically.
Abuse is a theme in The Turn of the Screw. If neglect is a type of abuse—as it is—then the abuse begins with the uncle who wants nothing to do with the children in his care. He sends them to Bly to live away from him. He tells the governess he wants no updates about their welfare. When he receives a letter from the headmaster of Miles’ school, he forwards it unopened to the governess. Is it any surprise that the children are vulnerable to more direct abuse? Who’s to protect them? Before her death, Miss Jessel had been the children’s governess, but she was an accomplice of her lover, Quint, for his nefarious activities.
Perhaps Mrs. Grose could’ve protected the children, but as a servant, she was in the lowest class at Bly. Class relationship is another theme in the novel. The uncle was in the upper class (aristocrat), while the governesses, the narrator and Miss Jessel, were the middle class. Quint, Mrs. Grose, and the other servants were in the lower class. As the governess felt compelled to obey the uncle’s demand never to update him about the children’s care, Mrs. Grose felt obligated to obey Miss Jessel and never to question her. Perhaps, the class struggle forced her to turn a blind eye. Quint ignored class distinctions and roles. Maybe that alone is what Mrs. Grose meant when she told the narration that he was “too free.”
But then we turn back to that unreliable narration. How much of what the governess wrote in her manuscript should we trust? Any of it? All of it? Somewhere between, I think, but exactly where does truth end and lie or delusion begin? That’s just another unanswerable question in The Turn of the Screw. I’m not the only one asking these questions. Since its publication in 1898, scholars had been analyzing, discussing, and debating the nature of the horror in James’ novel. It’s a short novel, only 141 pages in my eReader, but it had inspired probably a hundred thousand pages from literary scholars and critics. And not one of them can say they have the definitive answers to the troubling questions The Turn of the Screw forces us to ask.
And that, my friend, is the novel’s genius.