An inexperienced governess detects supernatural forces preying upon the two children in her care, but are the ghosts real, or imagined?
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Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Ghost Story/Psychological Thriller
Text: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Published: United States, 1898
Audio Duration: Approximately 5.5 hours
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An inexperienced governess takes charge of two orphaned children living on a rural estate. She falls in love with them instantly. Yet, she soon detects that supernatural forces are at play in this idyllic scene. These forces seem to prey directly upon the little ones themselves; and only the governess appears to see and hear them. Real or imagined, can the governess fight these forces, or will she be overwhelmed to the point of destruction?
- Governess (protagonist)
- Mrs. Grose (housekeeper)
- Miles (the boy)
- Flora (the girl)
Duration: 00:40:09 (about 40 minutes)
File Size: 27.6 MB
Duration: 00:52:24 (about 52 minutes)
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File Size: 29.9 MB
Duration: 00:37:41 (about 38 minutes)
File Size: 25.9 MB
Duration: 00:40:19 (about 40 minutes)
File Size: 27.8 MB
Duration: 00:40:16 (about 40 minutes)
File Size: 27.7 MB
Duration: 00:40:23 (about 40 minutes)
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Duration: 00:11:10 (about 11 minutes)
File Size: 7.7 MB
The Hidden Meaning
by Nikolle Doolin
After reading The Turn of the Screw, the key point to consider is whether or not the paranormal episodes actually happened. Remember that no one else but the Governess witnesses the apparitions; and she often assigns meaning to the children’s behavior that no one else (particularly Mrs. Grose) does. While the Governess succeeds in making Mrs. Grose an ally (albeit a somewhat reluctant and confused one), she does not have any solid evidence to fully convince her. Mrs. Grose wants to believe her, on the one hand, because she’s a lovely young woman, but, on the other, she doesn’t want to believe that Flora and Miles are connected to anything sinister. Essentially, we, the readers, are like Mrs. Grose. We are left questioning the Governess’s story at times and wondering if we should believe it, at other times.
So, either you have a woman who is the only one able to see ghosts; and therefore the only who can save the children from unspeakable harm. Or, you have an inexperienced, imaginative, young woman who conjures up fantastic ideas. If the latter is true, then what’s behind her flights of fancy?
Well, in a nutshell, it is suggested that she suffers from sexual repression and/or unrequited love. Recall that she develops an intense romantic view of the children’s uncle. She takes a position that few would want based on a sense that he personally asked her as a favor. This is a rather intimate view that she assumes (stepping beyond the simple employer-employee relationship). For, in the Preface we learn, “…but what took her most of all and gave her the courage she afterward showed was that he put the whole thing to her as a kind of favor, an obligation he should gratefully incur.” He is described as a very charming man who has a way with women; and he’s had no luck in filling this vacant position, so he’s obviously bent on settling the matter. No matter how charming he may be, let’s not forget that the man states he doesn’t want to hear from her–“not a word.”
When she arrives at Bly, she is wholly unused to such a gargantuan estate, and her imagination is sparked. There is a passage in which the governess states…”it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone. Someone would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve. I didn’t ask more than that–I only asked that he should KNOW; and the only way to be sure he knew would be to see it, and the kind light of it, in his handsome face.” That’s a very pregnant statement.
She’s walking around a great estate with architecture that lends itself perfectly to ghost stories and romantic tales and she’s often thinking of this handsome, charming, refined gentleman she met briefly (and who doesn’t want to hear from her). She sees him in this place; perhaps she sees herself with him in this place. Yet, there is no real hope of that ever coming true. So, one may conclude that, because she can never be with the object of her desire, she lives a repressed life stolen away on a country estate far from any real romantic possibilities.
She then becomes quite intrigued by the story of the former and deceased governess and her lover who is also deceased. They were there at Bly apparently carrying on an affair, though Mrs. Grose is hesitant to speak ill of the dead. The children were very close to both of them. So, there’s an immediate link in the governess’ mind between the children and the deceased.
The governess surmises that the deceased Miss Jessel and Quint are using the children to assume a physical presence in the world again. This presents all sorts of dangers and gets a bit murky, when James brings the Governess to the point of associating the children with a kind of depravity.
The children are shown in a paradoxical light. They start off seeming beautiful and almost benevolent, then the Governess determines they are, in effect, possessed by these wretched spirits who conducted sinful lives. Yet, are the children ever really bad, or does the Governess just think they are at times?
Miles was dismissed from school; and they didn’t want him back again. The children keep secrets and sometimes say things one would not expect a child to say. Are the spirits manipulating them, or is the Governess imagining that they are—suffering from paranoid delusions? Or, did the children, who spent so much time with Miss Jessel and Quint, when they were alive, just pick up on words they used, as children do?
All in all, James presents us with a ghost story; and you can enjoy it for that, but you can’t ignore the fact that the governess is the only one who claims to see the spirits and is the only one who believes that they possess the children. Mrs. Grose is her friend and her subordinate. She has to go along with the Governess. The uncle is blissfully ignorant. So, it’s all in the hands of the very person who, from all we know, is the one creating the problem.
One may say it is the Governess who is possessed–not by a ghost–but rather, by a narrow, psychological view of what’s happening around her. Her own repression may have caused her to think too often of sex via the unfortunate Miss Jessel and the cruel Quint. Even their story is of a man and woman who are separated by distance (albeit a ghostly one). They seek to reunite, as they are kept apart–unable to actualize their desire, as the Governess is unable to actualize hers with the uncle. The Governess is driven to distraction, can’t get sensational thoughts out of her head; and when she looks at the children, she thinks of them. She must keep the spirits apart and thus keep in order with her own separation, which she must force herself to reconcile as right and noble, or else she negates her whole purpose.
Thus, there are two struggles presented. Firstly, there is the very real internal struggle of the governess to suppress her own natural desire—a desire which cannot be fulfilled. Secondly, there is the questionable struggle between the world of the living and the dead. If you believe that the Governess isn’t imagining it, then you have a terrible ghost story of wicked spirits possessing children. If you doubt her, then you have a terrible psychological tale of a woman driven over the edge whose wild imagination endangers the lives of the children she was hired to protect. Either way, James succeeds at giving us an intense story filled with hidden meaning.