nnocent VictimsLiterary criticism on The Turn of the Screw has been divided into 3 groups, concerning the plot. The first is to take the novel at face value, and say that it is a ghost story, that the children are possessed by the ghosts. Others have said that it is a psychological drama that plays upon some of Freuds theses – the ghosts are hallucinations of a sexually repressed girl who has been given a sudden boost in responsibility, and her madness corrupts the beautiful. The third is to say that the novel is a meta-fiction it comments on the popular gothic style of writing novels, which were often read deeply into, by repressed Victorians looking for something to be outraged by, and therefore is written to be so ambiguous that it is impossible to say if the ghosts are ghosts or not. Consider the possibility that the first two ideas are combined, perhaps the ghosts do exist but the governess is driven mad by them, and eventually kills Miles in an attempt to banish the ghosts.
Critics have taken one part of the book to be the most important in the argument for the existence of the ghosts, and this is the fact that the governess describes in great detail the appearance of a man who she has never seen before. He:has no hat…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 . This is enough evidence for Mrs. Grose to identify him as: Peter Quint – his own man, his the masters valet, when he was here! . Then Mrs. Grose informs the Governess that Peter Quint is dead, but instead of protesting that she cannot have seen a dead man she accepts the fact, maybe this means that she has seen him before, after his death, and when the governess sees Quint for the first time, Mrs. Grose is shocked to see the governess at the window. Here is more proof to back up the argument that Mrs. Grose knows about the ghosts. People have said that she may have questioned the other servants as to his appearance, but left it out of the manuscript that she wrote.
Quint’s appearance, is very devilish, a man with red hair and whiskers, and Miles in the closing chapter shouts out: Peter Quint you devil It is said that he maybe referring to the governess as the devil, or is he calling Quint a devil.
Another point is that if James had wanted to study sexual frustration in a psychological drama, he could have written a much simpler story, and made it less elaborate. So why is the story overly complex, when there could be one child and one ghost. Also, the phallic symbols would be even more prominent.
The governess quite understandably after realising that she has seen a dead man, she tries to make sense of the situation, but this causes her to patch up the story with increasingly illogical ideas. For instance when she sees Mrs. Jessel for the first time she decides that Flora can see the ghost, because she does not look at her. My heart had stood still for an instant with the wonder and terror of the question whether she, too, would see; and I held my breath while I waited for a cry from her…I waited, but nothing came . Even though Flora says nothing about the ghost, the governess tells Mrs. Grose that: They know – its too monstrous: they know, they know! and goes on to tell Mrs. Grose not to ask Flora about it because – shell lie! . She also decides that the child will keep it up… visiting Miss Jessel without my knowing it . There is no evidence that any of this is true, the Governess is deciding that it must be, because it fits with what she has seen. She decides that they are evil, because they whisper to each other, but many children whisper to their siblings, and are not possessed by ghosts. Although Miles is very intelligent, this does not mean he is bad, the governess makes out that he is supernaturally clever, because he can do mathematic feats that are quite out of my range and so is therefore evil. The question of how Flora crosses the lake is also very hard to explain as how could she row from one side of the lake to the other. This is hard to explain ,like the sighting and acurate description of Quint by the governess, and backs up the argument that the childern are possesed.
When the governess and the housekeeper find Flora with Miss Jessel the governess two potential witnesses deny that they can see anything. Mrs. Grose says, What a dreadful turn, to be sure, Miss! Where on earth do you see anything? and Flora: I dont know what you mean. I see nothing. I see nobody. I never have Strangely here we see that the situation does not call for Flora to use the past tense. Does this mean that she is lying? Mrs. Groses response sounds much more authentic, but is this because she is more practiced as a liar, or does she truly see nothing? Floras denial of seeing the ghosts brings up another question – do the children actually see the ghosts? This is a difficult question, but one can always find logical explanations. At times Miles says things to the governess that seem like things a grown man might say to a woman he was wooing. When the governess goes up to Miles room to inquire about his expulsion, and she asks what he is thinking of, he states,What in the world, my dear, but you?. Likewise, during the last confrontation with Miles: Well – so were alone!. Some believe that in these situations Quint has possessed the boy and is speaking through him to the governess, but maybe this way of speaking was learnt by Miles from Quint. Mrs. Grose says that: It was Quints own fancy. To play with him. I mean – to spoil him…Quint was much too free Mrs. Groses use of the word spoil is unclear. She may mean that Quint corrupted Miles, or that he spoiled him with toys and the like.
In the final scene with the governess and Miles we discover that he was expelled from his school because he said things to those he liked.. With the arrival of Quint the matter is dropped, but we are led to assume that the things were learnt from Quint either as a ghost or as a living human, and that they had homosexual connotations.
There is also no proof that Flora is lying when she tells the governess that she does not see Miss Jessels ghost by the lake. In fact, she seems to be frightened by the governess behavior. In her sense of triumph, the governess tells the little girl, Shes there, you little unhappy thing – there, there there, and you know it as well as you know me!. The governess frantic anger could certainly be enough to frighten a little girl who has no idea what is happening, and such a little girl would be justified in saying, I think youre cruel. I dont like you!. After all, the governess has said a cruel thing to Flora, but could her fear of the governess be so great that it makes her ill, and worry:every three minutes…if the governess is coming in. This argument however is slightly flawed, in that it would be very unlikely that Flora would become so feverish, and start saying really shocking things about the governess, even if Miss Jessel and the girl had been very close.
If we conclude there is more evidence for the childrens behavior to be explained through natural logical reasons, as opposed to supernatural ones – for instance, that Miles way with the governess is caused by exposure to Quint while he was alive or that Flora is telling the truth when the governess thinks she is lying – then the idea of Miles being dispossessed of Quints spirit would not follow our logic. If we think that the governess begins the story with some mental vulnerability brought on by her sudden boost in responsibility or her repressed feelings for the master, and that her experiences with the ghosts weaken her mental state bringing it close to madness – which we can see through the governess attempts to prove that the children see and are possessed by the ghosts, as well as the fact that she has not been sleeping well – it is logical to assume that it is the governess who kills Miles. Returning to the scene when the governess, Mrs. Grose and Flora are at the lake and the governess is the only one who sees Miss Jessel, we can say that she sees Mrs. Jessel because she needs to back up her argument, and where other apparitions had been true visitations, this is a hallucination.
When Mrs. Grose denies that she sees anything the Governess calls it a hard blow of the proof that her eyes were hopelessly sealed. The governess admits, …I felt my situation hopelessly crumble…, for in this situation Mrs. Jessel is not there, and as soon as her proof which she needed so much is not there, she is driven close to madness, she cannot stand another visitation, because she will not let herself believe that she is mad. Then when she tries to force Miles to own up and Quint appears, she goes insane, she can take no more: No more, no more, no more!, and kills the boy in an attempt to free herself of the ghosts. Therefore the governess begins as a repressed person suddenly put in a position of immense responsibility and ends up a nervous wreck partly due to the haunting of ghosts.
The middle path, is the only argument that has the best of both ways. Critics who support it can say that to any opposition, James is making the story ambiguous, and entering questions for the reader to keep him unsure. If this is so James does very well in maintaining the balance between the two sides, and the game of cat and mouse is full of ambiguity. The only flaw is that if James had wanted to write a Meta-fiction, why is the story so complex, and why is the ambiguity so slight, and not extremely obvious.
I propose therefore, that the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw are not figments of the governess imagination; but, the uncertainty brought about by her youth and the sudden increase in responsibility couple with the appearance of ghosts, and they eventually drive her to murder Miles. The Turn of the Screw, can be interpreted by fusing two existing schools of thought. It is a ghost story, but the governess insanity plays a major role in the horror of the novel.