“Henry James was born at two Washington Place in New York City on April 15,1843. He was the second son to Henry James, Sr., an independently wealthy intellectual, and Mary Robertson James. From 1843 to 1845, James took his first trip to Europe. He lived in New York City with his family at 58 West 14th Street. James was educated privately by governess and tutors in New York and Albany. In 1855, he traveled to Europe with his family and attended schools in Switzerland and France.
In 1860, with the outbreak of the Civil War, The James family moved back to the United States and settled in Newport. James was unable to enlist in the Union army with his two younger brothers due to a back injury he received when putting out a fire. In 1863, James and his older brother William attended Harvard. James did not complete his studies to pursue his writing career. William graduated from Harvard and became one of the most prominent American philosophers and psychologists of his time.
James began his professional writing career with book reviews for the North American Review. His first short story, “The Story of the Year,” appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1865. In 1866, the James family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. James had his first novel, Watch and Ward serialized in Atlantic Monthly in 1871. In 1877, James wrote The American, while visiting Paris and Rome. In 1878, The Watch and Ward appeared in book form, and James wrote French Poets and Novelists (criticism), and The Europeans (novel). While visiting Paris and Italy in 1879, he wrote Daisy Miller (novella), An International Episode; the critical biography, Hawthorne; and The Madonna of the Future and Other Tales. The following year, he wrote the novel, Confidence, while traveling in Italy. In 1881, James wrote the novels, Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady. He traveled back to the United States due to his mother’s weakening health. James’s mother died in February of 1882. His father died shortly after in December of the same year. He returned to the United States for a short period to settle family matters before leaving to establish permanent residence in England.
In 1883, James published his first collected edition of novels and tales in fourteen volumes in The Siege of London (tales) and Portraits of Places (travel). In 1886, James published the novels The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima. In the same year, he leased a flat in Kensington, England. In 1887, James traveled around Switzerland and Italy in the company of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a novelist, and grandniece to James Fenimore Cooper. In 1888, he published Partial Portraits (criticism), The Aspern Papers (tales), and The Reverbrator (novel). James published A London Life (tales) in 1889 and the following year published The Tragic Muse (novel). James wrote two unproduced plays called Theatricals. In 1898, James’s The Turn of the Screw was serialized in Collier’s Weekly January through April and was also published in book form.
Between the years of 1899 and 1910, James published The Awkward Age (1899 novel), The Soft Side (1900 tales), The Sacred Front (1901 supernatural novel), The Wings of the Dove (1902 novel), The Ambassadors (1903 novel), William Wetmore and his Friends (1903 biography), The Better Sort (1903 tales), The Golden Bowl (1904 novel), The English Hours (1905 travel), The American Scene (1907 travel), The High Bid (1908 drama), Views and Reviews (1908 criticism), Julia Bride (1909 novella), Italian hours (1909 travel), and The Finer Grain (1910 tales).
In 1904, James visited the United States for the first time since 1883. He suffered from a nervous disease in 1909. In 1911, James received an honorary degree from Harvard and returned to England. The following year, he earned one from Oxford University. In 1913, James wrote his autobiography entitled A Small Boy and Others. The following year, he wrote Notes on Novelists with Some Other Notes (criticism) and another autobiography entitled Notes of a Son and Brother.
Deeply disturbed by World War I, as James was with all wars, James did refugee and hospital work during the war. In 1915, James became a citizen of Great Britain. On December 2nd of the same year, James suffered from a stroke. After receiving the Order of Merit from King George V, the following year, James died in Chelsea on the 28th of February. His ashes are buried with his family’s in Cambridge Massachusetts. In 1917, an unfinished autobiography was published entitled, The Middle Years.” (Heller)
The Turn of the Screw is a story related by a young governess, who describes the haunting events that took place while she was caring for two children in an English country house during the 1840s. The Turn of the Screw can be divided into main parts: “a short prologue by an unnamed narrator and an autobiographical narrative by an unnamed governess.” (Heller p.8) In the prologue, a group gathered for Christmas is telling stories. One of the people tells a ghost story about the experiences of his sister’s governess. He was a friend of the governess, and she had given him her written documentation about the events, which he read to the group.
“The governess’s story concerns her first job. When she is about twenty, she accepts the position of governess to a pair of orphans, ten-year-old Miles and eight-year-old Flora.”(Heller p.9) Their uncle gives the governess specific instructions never to bother him, no matter how big the problem might be. At first his unusual wish makes her doubtful about taking the position, but becomes infatuated with him and accepts in an effort to please him. While the first impression of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose; the house; and the children are all delightful, she eventually, discovers that two ghosts are haunting the children. From the governess’s descriptions of the apparitions, Mrs. Grose identifies them as two deceased employees, Miss Jessel, the former nanny; and Peter Quint, the valet of the children’s uncle. Mrs. Grose suspects that they had been lovers and that the “children were in some undefined ways participants in this illicit relationship” (Heller p. 9) The governess believes that the spirits have returned to haunt and posses the children in order to continue their wicked deeds. “For the love of all evil that, in those dreadful days, the pair put into them the children. And to ply them with that evil still, to keep up the work of demons, is that what brings the others back.” (James p. 47)
The governess tries to protect her charges, but it is difficult to find a way to discuss the situation with them, because she suspects the children are willingly receptive to the ghosts. “Furthermore, despite much circumstantial and inferential evidence, she is never perfectly sure that the children communicate with the ghosts. She loves Miles and Flora dearly and is unwilling to introduce them to thoughts of evil if she is mistaken in her interpretation of what she has seen.”
Finally convinced that the children see the apparitions, the governess confronts each child. She feels that if the children confess, it will free them from the ghosts’ influence. Both children deny ever seeing the ghosts. Flora becomes feverish and the governess sends her away with Mrs. Grose. She remains with Miles, and will not let him leave her until he confesses that he sees the ghosts also. The governess forced Miles to admit that he saw Quint in the window and he died suddenly and mysteriously. It is left to the reader to decide whether the governess scared Miles to death, or if he was overtaken by the evil ways of the ghosts.
There are two different interpretations of The Turn of the Screw. One interprets the novel as a legitimate and very literary ghost story. The other theory says that James meant to create a psychological thriller, and that the governess was insane, the apparitions being only figments of her imagination.
Krishna Baldev Vaid is one of the critics who believe that James wrote The Turn of the Screw, as a great ghost story, and that the governess is a truthful and reliable narrator. Vaid notes that “James’s narrators, as a rule, are endowed with a fine intuitive awareness” He also notes that “James repeatedly employs the intuitions of the governess to maintain suspense and to deepen the mystery.”
Other critics believe that the governess is mentally disturbed, which causes her to see the ghosts. For Edmund Wilson “there is never any evidence that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts. She believes that the children see them but there is never any proof that they do. The housekeeper insists that she does not see them; it is apparently the governess who frightens her. The children, too, become hysterical; but this is evidently the governess’s doing too.” Wilson concluded that “the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghost are not real ghosts at all but merely hallucinations of the governess.” The ghost are also thought of as imagined evils on the part of the governess whose inappropriate sexual attraction for her employer is repressed, and who requires some melodramatic situation which will allow her to act out a heroic service to him. (Tompkins p.66)
The theory that states that James intended The Turn of the Screw to be a great ghost story seems to be the most reasonable. When the governess described the ghosts to Mrs. Grose, she recognized the immediately. How else would the governess have known what they looked like if she hadn’t really seen them? Both of them had been dead one year before the governess’s arrival.
The theme of the novel, as well as the meaning of its title, depends on its interpretation. As a ghost story, its pessimistic and tragic theme focuses on the battle of good intentions versus evil forces (Vaid p.118), with evil evidently triumphing, since the governess is unable to save either of the children. (Vaid p.121) As the governess gradually recognizes the depth and intent of the evil forces surrounding the children and struggles to protect them, every event in the novel becomes another turn of the screw in the intensifying horror.
If read as a psychological analysis, The Turn of the Screw has a social theme. According to Goddard, “The reaction upon a sensitive and romantic nature of the narrowness of English middle-class life in the last century: that from the social angle, is the theme of the story. The sudden change of scene, the sudden immense responsibility placed on unaccustomed shoulders, the shock of unrequited affection— all of these together— were too much. The brain gives way. And what follows is a masterly tracing of the effects of repressed love and thwarted material affection.” (Tompkins p.85) Each stage of the governess’s lapse into hysteria or insanity becomes another turn of the psychological screw.
The governess, who is the main narrator of the story, is an easy character with whom to identify. She is described very positively by the first narrator, Douglas, in the prologue of the novel as “a most charming person the most agreeable person I’ve ever known in her position; she’d have been worthy of any whatever.” (James p.2) James give the reader a sympathetic understanding of the governess’s background and current situation, when Douglas describes her further as “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson at the age of twenty taking service for the first time in the schoolroom.” (James p.4) In this way, James presents the governess as a person of good character, although young and inexperienced. The reader does not resist empathizing and identifying with the governess while she tells her story throughout the remainder of the novel.
The Turn of the Screw is a gothic thriller, which has inspired different levels of interpretation. It would be interesting to read various works by Edgar Allan Poe as well as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and compare the authors’ techniques, style, and possible social and psychological themes.
The most memorable part of the story was the conversation between the governess and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, in which they first discuss the first ghost, which the governess has seen. The governess gives a detailed description of the stranger she had seen outside the window. “He has red hair, very red close-curling, and a pale face with straight good features and rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair His eyes are rather sharp, strange— awfully” “My companion’s face blanched as I went on; her round eyes started and her mild mouth gaped” The housekeeper identified the apparition as Peter Quint, the deceased valet of the children’s uncle. (James p.23)
“And became of him?’
She hung fire so long that I was still more mystified. He went too’ she brought out at last.
Her expression, at this, became extraordinary. God knows where! He died.’
Died?’ I almost shrieked.
She seemed fairly to square herself, plant herself more firmly to express the wonder of it. Yes. Mr. Quint’s dead.'”
The Turn of the Screw is enjoyable and highly recommendable reading because of the author’s ability to build suspense through scenes like the one above, and through his effective use of irony in contrasting apparent goodness with actual evil. The governess’s first impression of the children made her later discovery of their deception and evil especially shocking. Flora seemed “the most beautiful child I had ever seen a beautific radiant angelic beauty” (James p.7) When she met Miles, she felt she “had seen him on the instant, without and within, in the great gloss of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had from the first moment seen his little sister everything but a sort of passion of tenderness for him was swept away by his presence. What I had then and there took him to heart for was something divine his indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love.” James p.13)
Gradually, she accepts the fact that evil forces have corrupted the children. She realizes that “their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness” is only “a game a policy and a fraud.” (James p.47) As Vaid points out “the contrast between the apparent innocence and the real contamination of the children is the keynote of the terror produced by The Turn of the Screw.”