Read theturnofthescrew.doc text version

Who Is Who in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw by Nagy P. Kristóf Henry James's novella, The Turn of the Screw can be and has already been interpreted in many different ways. However, there seem to be two major `trends' of interpretation. One of them tends to accept that in the story the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are actually existing ones. Dr. Edward J. Parkinson prefers to call the groups of critics supporting this idea apparitionists. According to these critics the governess is a good and benevolent person, whose biggest concern is to take good care of the children. However the author emphasizes in the 1908 edition of The Turn of the Screw that his ghosts "are not ghosts as that term had come to be understood by the turn of the [19th-20th] century" (Dedeo). Henry James claims on his own confession that his ghosts would be agents of evil: "goblins, elves, imps, demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft" (James 8). Other critics ­ whom Dr. Parkinson calls non-apparitionists, such as Edmund Wilson ­ have drawn different argumentation. Wilson in his 1934 essay "The Ambiguity of Henry James" tries to prove using Freudian theory, that there are no ghosts at all in the story, but it is the "governess's sexual repression" (Dedeo) that makes her mind manifest ghosts and try to interpret them. There are critics who are on Wilson's side, however, they do not embroil the Freudian concepts into the interpretation of the story. They positively state that the governess is simply mad, and that makes her phantasmagoria understandable. These critics are of the opinion that the governess's behavior and state of mind is the responsible for the two young children's ­ Flora and Miles ­ destruction of personality, and even physical illnesses. We are unable to find out what Henry James' purpose was, which interpretation he would have preferred. "[...] his intention was to effect an unresolvable ambiguity" (Parkinson 5), perhaps he would have liked to give the reader the chance to interpret the story according to their own preference. "In nearly all writing since Wilson's landmark essay, critics have been forced to decide whether the governess is mad or if there are ghosts" (Dedeo). When I first read the novella certain parts of the story made me share the opinion of the critics who claim that the governess is to blame. I thought I was siding with the non-apparitionists. Perhaps I proceeded from the fact that ghosts do not exist and having read Henry James' biography I would have been surprised if the author of a novella like this had believed in such supernatural apparitions. But after the second reading I do not know what to think. I cannot decide for either side. Henry James does not smooth things down for us to understand the story easily, either. We can perceive the situations through the eyes of the main character, the governess. She is the narrator in the story, but since she is not omnipotent either, we do not know, whether she is mistaken by the circumstances and strongly believes what she sees, or she lies to us or the other characters in the novella. We have limited access to her mind. These facts reposition us from the role of the reader to a partaker in the story. Sometimes I had the strange feeling that we know as little about the governess' thoughts as Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper at Bly. Some other times Mrs. Grose is the one who helps us interpret the governess' thoughts and assumptions. Since "we have limited access to the main character's

mind [...] the confidant character gives us an extra chance to see what the main character is thinking" (Dedeo). I appear to be unable to escape a strange idea that the triplet of Peter Quint, Miss Jessel (the two considered as one person), the two children, Miles and Flora (taken together), and the governess can be compared to the Freudian concept of the three parts of human consciousness, in particular the id, ego and superego. Let me come up with Dr. Bannister's thoughts to try to support my feelings. (Dr. Don Bannister is a follower of George Kelly, a well-known psychologist who dealt with interpersonal theories.) "A human being is considered to be a battlefield. A human being is a dark cellar, in which a sexually overheated ape is fighting a mortal battle with a well-mannered spinster under the strict supervision of an extremely anxious bank clerk." (Bannister 14). It is not very difficult to find out that the dark cellar that represents human consciousness is the house itself in Bly, houses are usually symbols of human consciousness. Now the question is who the "sexually overheated ape" (Bannister 14) is. If we agree with the apparitionists it is very easy to answer the question. The governess is quite obviously a benevolent, well-mannered lady, who is actually a spinster regardless her age. In this sense she is the symbol of the superego. Assuming so Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, since absolutely the counterparts of the governess (according to her description of them), must be the representatives of the id, whose only drive is to fill their needs and desires. And in this case Miles and Flora must stand for the ego. They are between the upper and the nether millstone, their task is to decide which way to go, which of them they should side with. However, if we take the non-apparitionists' opinion into consideration we can come to an absolutely different conclusion. The governess, whose name we do not even know, is not benevolent at all because of her madness or sexual repression or some unknown reason; she is responsible for the children's deformation of personality ­ in a sense she is driving them crazy as well ­ and at the end she is the one who drives little Miles into death. In this case the author's depiction is deeply ironical hiding malevolence behind the mask of benevolence. In my interpretation ­ if this is the case ­ Miles and Flora are the symbols of the superego. Poor Mrs. Gross has to stand for the ego, who cannot decide who to believe, the highly respected governess or the beloved children; no wonder that sometimes she seems to be quite anxious. According to the non-apparitionists Quint and Miles are nothing more but phoney hallucinations. So The Turn of the Screw carries an ambiguous, double interpretation, in which the characters, can be perceived through different lenses. It is absolutely up to the eye of the beholder how they interpret the story and judge the different characters. Perhaps James wanted to provide the readers with one perpetual truth: we should always be skeptic, because nothing is what it looks like and we cannot take anything for granted, because everything is relative. All of the coins have two sides. There are no absolute verities.

WORKS CITED Bannister, D. "Személyközi elméletek." Szemelvénygyjtemény pszichológiából. Ed. Juhász, Márta and Takács Ildikó. Budapest: Budapesti Mszaki Egyetem, 1999. Dedeo, Carrie-Anne. Henry James: The Turn of the Screw. <>, 2000. James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. London: Heinemann, 1908. Parkinson, Edward J. The Turn of the Screw. A History of Its Critical Interpretations. 18981979. Saint Louis: 1991.



3 pages

Report File (DMCA)

Our content is added by our users. We aim to remove reported files within 1 working day. Please use this link to notify us:

Report this file as copyright or inappropriate


You might also be interested in