Over the years, Henry James’ short story, “The Turn of the Screw,” has provokes great discussion and debate, as it concerns the ongoing question of the existence of the supernatural. “The Turn of the Screw” relays the story of a young governess, sent to the secluded, mysterious estate of Bly to supervise two young children, Miles and Flora, her employers nephew and niece. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, seems to be the only adult the governess develops a relationship with and is used by James to create ambiguity concerning the truth of the happenings of Bly.
Having been persuaded by the charm of her employer to accept the job, the governess arrives at the house only to be greeted by the strange appearances of apparitions she concludes to be former employees of the house, Miss Jessel, the governess, and Peter Quint, the master’s valet. While the children deny the existence of such ghosts, the governess’ vivid sightings of the apparitions and the children’s development of adult-like behavior support the anti-Wisonian view that the spirits of Miss Jessel and Quint are indeed real, having returned from death to possess the souls of Miles and Flora.
The vivid sightings of the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel by the governess makes clear the reality of what she has seen. After having sighted the male apparition for the second time the governess relays both incidents to Mrs. Grose, accurate enough for the housekeeper to recognize the description. The governess recalls, “‘He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are somehow darker; they look particularly arched… is eyes are sharp, strange… his mouth’s wide, and his lips are thin, and except for his little whiskers he’s quite clean-shaven'” (29). From this sole description Mrs. Grose is able to identify the man as Peter Quint, whom she explains to the master’s former valet who has died. Since the governess has never before seen or heard of Peter Quint, the only source of her memory is the apparition itself meaning that it must in fact exist. Again when the governess sights the ghost of the former governess, Miss Jessel, across the lake she tells Mrs.
Grose it was “a figure of quite as unmistakeable horror and evil: a woman in black, pale and dreadful-with such an air also, and such a face” (37). While it was the governess who introduces the idea that the second apparition is Miss Jessel, Mrs. Grose agrees with the conclusion, displaying the ease in which the housekeeper is able to be influenced. It is for her easily persuaded character that James is able to create ambiguity through Mrs. Grose in “The Turn of the Screw. ” Upon the governess’ questioning concerning Peter Quint’s relationship with Miles, Mrs.
Grose reveals that Quint was “too free with every one” (32), especially Miles. This comment introduces the idea that his “freedom” was of a sexual manner, creating an unnatural emotional relationship between Miles and Flora and Quint. Through this relationship James establishes a connection between the innocence and corruption co-existent within Miles and Flora, previously established by his diction. Upon the governess’ first view of Flora she describes her as “a creature too charming not to make it a great fortune to have to do with her” (10), full of “angelic beauty” (10) and Miles as “incredibly beautiful’ (17).
These words are the culmination of everything appearing to be perfect and innocent, just as the governess sees the children as being. After receiving the letter from Miles school saying he has been dismissed the governess describes him in accordance with his actions as “an injury… to his poor little innocent mates” (14) and his doings at a level “to contaminate” and “corrupt” (15) others. Such words are harsh and associated with an opposite supernatural realm as “angelic,” associating the children to the corruption of adulthood, elements Mrs. Grose has already revealed were present in Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.
By possessing the elements of both themselves, childhood innocence, and Quint and Jessel, adult corruption, it is clear that the souls of Miles and Flora have been essentially taken over by those of their former guardians. As the story progresses the governess discovers an ongoing relationship between Miles and Quint, Flora and Miss Jessel, which shows the children’s apparent knowledge of the ghost’s existence. After seeing the ghost of Peter Quint at the window the governess discovers that he was intently looking for Miles. “‘He was looking for little Miles. ‘ A portentous clearness now ossessed me. ‘That’s whom he was looking for'” (31). Again upon seeing Miss Jessel’s ghost across the pond the governess tells Mrs. Grose that the apparition had “‘fixed the child… with such awful eyes… with a determination-indescribable. With a kind of fury of intention'” (38). These two incidents directly connect the children to the reason Quint and Miss Jessel have returned to Bly, to possess and live through Miles and Flora. The governess also concludes that the children are aware of their possessors and are deliberately trying to conceal Quint and Jessel’s existence.
At the pond, for instance, Flora deliberately turns her back on the apparition, consciously ignoring its existence, then later denies to the governess that it had in fact existed. It is for this reason the governess takes up her job with a new determination to save the “lost” (40) children. Again when the governess finds Flora awake late at night staring down through her window at Miles who was down on the lawn “motionless and as if fascinated… looking… at something that was apparently above me” (53). Later on Miles explains he was simply trying to cause some excitement and make the governess think him bad.
It is more accurately concluded however that he was not himself, but, in a trance communicating with Peter Quint. Even at the end, Miles ambiguously admits the existence of the apparitions as, he and the governess left alone by the other servants, the governess proclaims they were not “absolutely” (95) alone (referring to the ghosts of Quint and Jessel). In response Miles admits, “‘Of course we’ve the others'” (95) hinting that he is aware of Quint and Jessel’s supernatural existence. As time progresses however, Miles and Flora show further and more intense evidence of being possessed, the mission of the governess more dire.
Miles and Flora’s behavior in the later chapters of the story become more adult-like and hostile toward the governess as her knowledge of the apparitions expands, displaying the evident reality that they are indeed possessed by the spirit’s of Quint and Jessel whom the governess has identified. Beginning with Miles and Flora’s language toward the governess, referring to her as “dear” (76), their general behavior becomes less like their childish play and more corrupt. At the governess’ second sighting of Miss Jessel across the lake, she points out to both Flora and
Mrs. Grose the existence of the apparition. Instead Flora “without a convulsion of her small pink face, not even feign to glance in the direction of the prodigy I announced, but only, instead of that, turn[ed] at me an expression of hard still gravity, an expression absolutely new and unprecedented and that appeared to read and accuse and judge me” (84). Instead of looking to see at what the governess is pointing out, Flora turns on the governess, hysterical at her accusations, full of fear that Miss Jessel’s existence will be revealed.
At this point Flora is not the innocent, child of “angelic beauty” (10) the governess had first perceived but instead “an old, old woman” (84), possessed by the spirit of her former governess. Even Miles actions at school, the reason for his expulsion, which he later reveals was because he “said things… [to] those he liked” (101), suggesting again his words were too adult, or “corrupt” (15) for the school’s setting. At the very end of the book, following Miles’ confession of saying “these things,” comes the governess final success in dispossessing the children of Quint and Jessel’s influence.
Alone with Miles the governess points out again the ghost of Peter Quint. Miles responds, “‘Peter Quint- you devil… Where”” (103). His last word reveals to the governess that the children have been unwillingly possessed by the spirits as Miles refers to Quint as “devil” and does not recognize his presence. “He has lost you forever” (103), the governess exclaims, having dispossessed Miles by forcing his recognition of Quint. However left by the soul of Quint, Miles is overcome by his corruption and dies. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped” (103). By using the term “dispossessed” it is implied that Miles was in fact once possessed, concluding the ghosts of Quint and Jessel in fact exist and are not just imaginations of the governess. While it is true that the governess has been isolated from normal social interactions by her job at Bly, the vivid details she is able to extract from her visions without any help from those who actually knew Quint and Jessel conclude she in fact saw these apparitions. Even the children’s isturbing, adult-like behavior, especially at the mention of their former caretakers, display evidence that the souls of Quint and Jessel have indeed come back to carry out their malicious purpose through Miles and Flora. The governess, increasingly devoted to liberating the children, is overcome by the influence these spirits hold over Miles and Flora and succeeds only in driving them away and eventually killing Miles. It is through the governess’ struggle that James creates the conclusion that the power of Quint and Jessel is too strong to simply be an imagination of even a scared and delusional young girl.