Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw

This week, student’s wrote their first set of monster blog posts, which you can find here. I cannot say enough good things about these posts and how impressed I am with the work students are producing this semester. Many of these posts made wonderful connections between “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and The Turn of the Screw in relation to notions of mental health and insanity, disease and physical decay, and how landscapes and settings affect and effect monsters and hauntings. I was also greatly pleased to see students veer outside the classroom and connect our readings to other cultural productions such as the children’s cartoon film, Monster House, and the newly released Steven King adaptation, ItAs the semester continues, I look forward to reading the smart discussions that take place in these spaces.

On Thursday, September 7 and Tuesday, September 12 our class discussed Henry James’ serialized novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898). As always, we began by brainstorming the major themes, motifs, and symbols:


As is evident from our whiteboard, students were greatly invested in the many paradoxes and mysteries presented in this text: light/dark; life/death (and the amorphous crossing from death into life as ghosts); good/evil; purity and innocence/corruption; seeing/seclusion. These are, of course, related to the house in which these events take place.

We began our discussion addressing the governess’s arrival at Bly in relation to the placid description of the house and the desire this instills in the governess of future freedom, control over her life (“I was at the helm”), and feverish conviction that she must protect the innocence and beauty of the children. Indeed, it is the governess’ desire to outrun her background and (perhaps) sexual repression that foments the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in the text. As the ghosts (and their backstories) fully form themselves for the governess, the narrative unravels, and it is the governess who because the haunting.

While most students agreed that the governess was mentally unstable and the ghosts were probably figments of her imagination, I demonstrated to students how the haunting (even if fictitious) has real effects in the text. “It was I who was the intruder” (57), says the governess as we slowly come to realize that she has become the haunting, frightening Flora into physical illness. Her intense desire to save Miles’s innocence––”help me to save you!” (63)––is, in fact, a desire to save her own. However, the freedom and control that initiated the governess’s ghost story is capsized by its conclusion, seen most clearly in the use of water imagery that becomes more and more chaotic. The placid uses of blues and boats at the outset of the novella, become claustrophobic, “engulfing” and “delug[ing]” the text (66)––the governess is no longer in control of the helm, but “clutching” (76) it and sees Miles as from the “bottom of the sea” (83). In effect, the governess’s transformation transforms the children as well, and the beautiful angelic appearance she desperately wanted to safeguard becomes a “small mask of disaffection” (70).

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention our class’s discussion about the mediation of information and role of writing in The Turn of the Screw. One student noted the difficulty of truly knowing “the truth” in this text as presented by the frame narrative. Mediated first through Douglas and then through the narrator, the tale of the governess, Flora, Miles, and the ghosts is mediated through various levels of narration and writing (telling, retelling, copying, recopying)–various obstacles–that make it impossible to arrive at the object (the event) itself. This makes the narrative’s ending that much more perplexing: Mile’s “confession” of “Well––I said things” to people he “liked” forces readers to project meaning into his silence. Because the text is so concerned with taboo, particularly about sex and homosexuality, Miles’s mysterious words forces us to supply an answer and imagine what he said; we are the sinful ones here and must take responsibility for seeing the lurid. Similarly, it is difficult to know how Miles died. Did he die of fright or did the governess smother him to death in her sensuous embrace?

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