Henry James. The Turn of the Screw

Ghost story, or study in libidinal repression?

By Sumia S. Abdul Hafidh
Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw shows a labyrinth of complex interactions between the living and the dead, and has given rise to debate about whether it is merely a ghost story, or a study in sexual repression. The plot revolves around the psychological state of the central character, the governess, who apparently sees ghosts, but only when she is alone or preoccupied by fantasies.  

In actual life Henry James (1843-1916) was reported to be a loner despite the many friends around him. He was a reserved person who loved to keep his distance from people. Throughout his biography there is no mention of him getting married or even being involved in any romantic encounters. Some critics, therefore, picture him as a repressed or clandestine homosexual.

James wrote The Turn of the Screw at a time when there was a prevalent fondness for ghost stories. James's interest, however, was not in the stereotypical ghost stories. He was not attracted to those ghosts who appear in white sheets frightening those around. Rather, he was more interested in real ghosts, "the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy," as he put it in the preface to the New York Edition of his final ghost story, The Jolly Corner.

Being a popular form in England and America, James had written ghost stories before The Turn of the Screw. It was the fashion of the day to tell frightening ghost stories on Christmas Eve. In his preface to the 1908 edition, James mentions the source of his story:

The germ of the story had been a half-remembered anecdote told to him by Edward White Benson, the archbishop of Canterbury: a story of small children haunted by the ghosts of a pair of servants who wish them ill. (James vii).

In the story Miss Giddens, a governess agrees to take a position at the estates of Bly. The position requires taking care of two young children, the advertisement having been posted by the uncle, who asks not to be disturbed, even under the most serious of circumstances. The governess meets with her master only twice, but these two occasions seem to have a tremendous effect upon her emotions. Apparently, she becomes attracted to her employer, even to the extent of being infatuated by him. She thinks of him constantly, but adheres to his request not to be disturbed even when she feels things are getting out of control.

She takes the coach to the estate and is welcomed there by the children and their housekeeper. All seems idyllic to start with, but it is not long before things start to go awry. One afternoon, as the daylight fades, the governess is sitting in her room alone pondering on the possibility of meeting her employer. She wishes that:

Someone would appear there at the turn of the path and would stand before and smile and approve. I didn't ask more than that - I only asked that he should know.

As she amuses herself with the idea that he might show up just to please her, she is suddenly amazed that:

He did stand there! - but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower to which . . . little Flora had conducted me.

At this point the governess awakes from her daydream and recognizes that "the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed." The figure before her is unknown to her. She is frightened and startled. The whole atmosphere becomes dead cold as he stares at her. The apparition she is seeing is that of Peter Quint, a former employee. It seems significant that the apparition appeared only to the governess and at a time when she was wishing to see her employer. This suggests that the governess is sexually repressed and that the ghosts might be figments of her excitable imagination (Samuels 56). In Freudian terms the governess can be seen as sexually repressed, hence she starts to interpret the ghost according to her neurotic visions as actual ghosts not mere hallucinations. So the question is raised: is she having delusions, or does she genuinely need to save the children from something evil that threatens them?

The governess continues to experience odd things. She next sees the ghost of another figure, this time a woman. She is informed by Mrs. Grose that what she saw was the apparition of her predecessor along with her lover Peter Quint, himself a former servant. They both died under extraordinary circumstances. The governess starts to believe that the two are connected to each other. She thinks that through some evil means they are using the children to continue their relationship and have evil intentions. Having discovered the history of the couple she decides to be vigilant lest the children come to harm.

One Sunday afternoon, the ghost of Peter Quint reappears to the governess, and this time she has the feeling that he is looking for someone. Sitting in the dining room she glimpses the figure outside the window. She sees the mysterious man again:

with I won't say with greater distinctness, for that was impossible, but with a nearness that represented a forward stride in our intercourse and made me . . . catch my breath and turn cold.

She realizes he is the same person who appeared earlier on the tower. She describes him to Mrs. Grose, saying, "He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor". Then she declares that she hasn't seen an actor before in her life. She says he had no hat on, had curly red hair and queer red whiskers, and his face was pale with arched eyebrows. Finally, he had a big, thin-lipped mouth. The description could hardly be more detailed, enabling Mrs. Grose to identify him as Quint.

Now first, she saw him at night and second he was up on the tower miles away. Then how can she be so sure? She only saw him twice and on both occasions not for very long. It could be, then, another figment of her imagination. Mrs. Grose asks the governess whether he was "nobody from the village?" The governess assures her that he is, "Nobody-nobody. I didn't tell you, but I made sure." The governess has recognised a resemblance between Quint and her Harley Street employer and this is why she remembers his features well.

Happy days pass with the governess taking care of the children. She is relieved to see that no harm has come to them. Yet their happiness is doomed to come to an end. One night, by candle-light, she sits to read Henry Fielding's Amelia. The use of Fielding's novel is symbolic, foreshadowing of the governess's neurotic mind, who like the heroine suffers a spiritual calamity. The governess finds herself on similar grounds to the heroine, who, likewise, is a protector of two children. The heroine awaits her imprisoned husband, and the governess waits for her master too.

The governess starts to feel drowsy and as she is about to put down her book she has a strange feeling that something is astir in the house. She immediately takes her candle and goes down towards "the tall window that presided over the great turn of the staircase". To her surprise she sees the ghost of Quint who according to her "was absolutely . . . a living, detestable, dangerous presence". She is able to identify this evil presence as "we face each other in our common intensity." Their eyes meet, and in silence their gaze lasts for few minutes. At last the figure turns its "villainous back" and disappears into the dark. The governess believes that if she gathers her strength she can stand up to Quint. The appearance of the apparitions was because she believed in them and now she is full of "a fierce rigour of confidence". She is without fear and this will make him leave "for the time, at least."

Chapter 24, the last chapter of the novella, shows the last encounter between the governess and Peter Quint. Mrs. Grose takes Flora to her uncle's house; meanwhile the governess and Miles stay in the house alone. They sit to have a meal which is dominated by silence, the maid cleaning the dishes being the only sound heard. It is an awkward situation and, perhaps as a result of her sexually repressed state of mind, she compares the scene to a newly married couple being embarrassed at the presence of the maid.

When the governess and Miles discuss the matter of whether he took a letter she had written the day before from the hall table, she feels an impulse to protect Miles. It was Quint who appeared in "his white face of damnation", looking intently at her like "a sentential before a prison". Her main concern at this moment is to protect the boy; it was like "fighting with a demon for a human soul".

The apparition still has his eyes fixed on the governess and the boy, lurking like "a baffled beast." But the governess gathers her strength and is determined to face it. He suddenly disappears. She then asks Miles about what he did to result in his being expelled from school, and they have a very long conversation. Eventually she is able to get the truth out of him. At this point, again, she embraces Miles as she sees "the hideous author of our woe", Quint, at the window. The significance of the appearance of Quint at this particular point is because of the analogy made with the newly married couple at dinner. The governess was fantasizing about her master and was probably wishing it was the two of them sharing a meal together as a married couple.

To sum up, it was the governess's own sexual desires which resulted in the appearance of Quint. Every time she imagines, or hopes, that she and her master can be together, she finds the apparition in front of her. It was her own wish-fulfilment, her desires that appeared in the form of apparitions.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw: And Other Short Novels. New York: New American Library, 1962
Samuels, Charles T. The Ambiguity of Henry James. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

© Sumia S. Abdul Hafidh Ph.D., September 2006

See also: American and Canadian Books on Film >

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