Last Updated 13 Jan 2021

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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Henry James is well-known for crafting fine literature. One special short piece, The Turn of the Screw, taps into a topic that received great acclaim in the era it was published: ghosts. It was initially released at the tail-end of the 19th century, and followed up with 20th century critical essays regarding this saga. Turn of the Screw was first released when actual ghost-sighting incidents were so common that they became coffee-table discussion. My focus is, in fact, on the subject of ghosts.

After reading James’s work, I believe that the governess and her ghost incidents were actually a figment of her imagination, based largely on her unstable mental health. I will offer my reflections as to why our governess was tripped-up and tricked into believing she saw phantoms. The main thrust of her disillusionment came from her mental illness. The history behind The Turn of the Screw is woven to the argument between the apparition-believers and the non-apparition traditionalists. The phenomenological spirit-hunter controversy has been wide spread, even in this day and age of the 21st century.

In order to stay true to Henry James, it is important to define what I mean by apparition and non-apparition. According to James’s time period—which I will be true to in my assessment—I will clarify that an apparition refers to explanations in which ghosts are seen to be very real figures or a manifestation of paranormal activity existing in a person’s field of vision. Non-apparition, instead, infers that the explanations in which ghosts are viewed are actually hallucinations of the mind. This is the standard terminology used in The Turn of the Screw.

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From the beginning, although James has a captive means of expressing himself through story-telling, one major criticism is that the stories he creates are too far-fetched. He misses out on incorporating the essence of reality into his story, which immediately sends reads on a downward spiral away from realism. The story does not tell about life and the journals of the governess. Instead the governess and the supporting characters (which includes ghost figments) are not people we’d easily associate with in life.

James has a focus in his novella, but the thematic structure is too narrow in the sense that he ignores incorporating daily-life experience and background structure—both in characterization and scenery. Readers cannot truly take his account as a subject of realism. When we look at his characters and plot-structure, it becomes clear that James excluded huge segments of society. He was not concerned with low-class families or even the middle class. He wrote of nothing in regards to the common man.

Instead, his interest lie solely in envisioning a class of people devoted to the luxuries of high class status. So, in order to follow along with Henry James, we must pay a ticket, so-to-speak, to enter his special world of an elite cast from another planet of thinking. First, we must agree to the boundaries of his world. Then, and only then, can we consider him to be a realist. However, it’s important to point out that James is true to his characters. He never violates the laws of his reality. His is, in effect, a faithful storyteller and his characters are always understandable.

Robert Lee Wolff, for instance, in his published piece, The Genesis of The Turn of the Screw, points out that there were many skeptics who felt that readers who believed in this supernatural tale were, in effect, caught in the trap of Henry James. It was viewed as a “cold artistic calculation” on the part of its highly entertained author (Wolff p. 125). As we look at the governess in the first few turns of the story, we see how James very deliberately and carefully sets up the machinery where the governess first witnesses the ghosts.

The governess believes in these ghost-incidents but refuses to investigate the situation. It’s difficult to believe our governess would not be shaken by curiosity in hopes of validating her visions. It’s also apparent that the governess takes a liking to her employer and she wants him to go on these walks with her, in hopes of them both seeing the ghosts. But she does not. This is very uncharacteristic of a mentally stable person. James leaves room for the reader to decide whether or not it’s her infatuation or psychotic visions that has a hold of her.

It seems, to me, that her imagination, along with her mental fragility, are the keys that lead her to imagine the ghosts, instead of actually seeing them. To back up my claim, Francis Roellinger cites the following, If James emphasized the artistic limitations of the “recorded and arrested” ghosts, it is chiefly to make clear to the reader his reasons for ignoring these limitations in the construction of his own phantoms” (Roellinger 135). With working with children during the day, the governess discovers the magic within the children—and their own individual gravity toward curiosity and uncovering the truth of situations.

Yet, her state of mind seems to cloud her vision. This further strengthens my plea that these ghosts were actually figments of her imagination. The governess does spend time discussing these apparition sightings with Mrs. Grose. They learn that the man died after falling on the ice after a drunken evening at a tavern. The history of recent dead individuals includes the previous governess who died last year. Are these dead the ghosts she sees? We then discover that the children know of these ghosts, but are hiding this information from the adults.

James has a spine-tingling means of crafting his story, yet the believability fall short with his lack of realism and superficial details. Later, other critics saw his work lacking realistic integrity. Robert Lee Wolff added that Henry James created a governess that certainly suffered from mental illness. Wolff wrote, “the tortured forms and expressions, are proof positive that he regards the governess, who sees the ghosts and tells the story, as a neurotic, suffering from sex repression (Wolff p. 126).

Another critic, in the same published essay by Wolff, was cited as locating several situations that carried Freudian significance, which integrated our governess’s final pedophile passion for the young boy. The governess, in the end, scares him out-of-his-mind, frightening him to death. In reading a story so heavily laced with ghost appearances, how is it that the governess is such a stoic in regards to keeping her fear-factor at bay? This question brings to mind the notion that our governess might have some secret desire for fear or even pain.

How else could she perpetuate her relations with the young boy child to the point of utter contempt regarding sexual desire? The situation weighs too heavily in favor of the governess’s mental instability being a driving force that leads her to imagine that she sees these ghosts. As we consider it deeper, her illness can be paralleled to imagining some of the scenes where children—according to her—are chatting with an apparition. On top of this, her solitude and lack of having a lover or partner in her life further distresses her situation.

In essence, we can view this entire tale as a battle of good versus evil—not paranormal reality. The governess could also be considered a person who created this ghost scenario upon innocent children, which would be an extremely neurotic tendency on her part. She feels so alone and, when the children are in confidence with the ghosts, she creates a scenario, through her excessive imagination that holds little remorse for the repercussions that might occur to the children or other characters in the story.

In conclusion, it’s clear that this is a story of a mentally unstable woman who uses her neuroses to create this universe of ghosts. It’s her means of communicating with others, after her younger years did not lead her to love. She is a deeply unstable individual, flawed with ruin. She is not the type of person who would be able to deal with these spine-tingling events with the conviction she displayed. This character trait in the governess along with other unrealistic situations in the story, offer no other solution than to consider it as a purely fabricated and imaginary chain of events.

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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. (2017, Apr 15). Retrieved from

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