Nested: Exploring the Mysteries in Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw'
by Jemima Varughese
‘The Turn of the Screw,’ a novella by Henry James, is a story of how two children, Miles and Flora, are tormented by two ghosts. The story is narrated by an anonymous male reciting a manuscript written by a governess telling the story of her employer’s niece and nephew. This type of set up is called the “nested structure,” where direct access to the speaker is withheld because it is filtered through another character’s report. This specific structure in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ creates mystery in the novel by having the governess’s story told by the anonymous male, and the children’s story told by the governess. This structure generates an ambiguous representation of Miles through the governess’s inconsistent perspective of him. James develops the tale by integrating several mysteries in the plot that he himself did not provide an answer to. The most famous uncertainty, discussed by many critics, is the governess’s sanity. Because the governess narrates the story, her state of mind determines how the characters are portrayed. Miles is a particularly mysterious character in the story, and the reader’s understanding of him completely depends on the governess’s ability to depict him appropriately according to his actual personality. Many of Miles’s actions and the events in the narrative involving him are unexplained, and most of the interpretation is left to the reader. In ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ Henry James develops the story by integrating several mysteries which are left to the reader to decipher.
The biggest mystery in the novel, which wasn’t really considered a mystery until critics started questioning it, is whether the governess who narrated the story was mentally stable. Because of the story’s nested structure, the governess’s sanity plays a huge role in the credibility of the whole story. There is no telling how trustworthy she was as a narrator because her state of mind is left in question. Endless reexamination of the text will always lead to never-ending possibilities because there is no definite answer to the question of the governess’s sanity. Her mental state can be put into question based on James’s representation of her in the literary work. James portrays her as a self righteous, arrogant, and over-dramatic young lady who is overwhelmed with her sexual obsession with her employer and her need to control every aspect of the children’s lives. This representation of the governess is depicted in the beginning of the story, during her first few days at Bly. In the narrative, her feelings change quickly and her judgments regarding the characters are made very hastily and drastically. She sees the children’s encounters with the ghost as an opportunity to show heroism, and she take up the role to protect the children and save their souls. In the manuscript, she writes, “It was an immense help to me -- I confess I rather applaud myself as I look back! -- that I saw my service so strongly and so simply. I was there to protect and defend the little creatures” (James 470). The governess sees herself as this almighty character that is solely responsible for saving the children from corruption.
The liability of the entire story, including the portrayal of the character Miles, depends on whether the governess’s representation of the events is actually legitimate. In the story, she is described as the daughter of a poor country parson. This reveals her knowledge of the biblical aspect of good and evil, and how there is evil in the world that seeks to destroy all good. Being the daughter of a clergy man, it is clear that she was raised to believe in supernatural beings, which could have resulted in her conjuring up images of ghosts. In the novella, the governess explains how the ghost of a former valet and the ghost of the governess’s predecessor haunt the niece and nephew, Miles and Flora. The authenticity of this theory would be proven if another character, such as Miles, directly identifies the ghosts, without the governess’s influence. The novella revolves around the presence of ghosts in Miles’s and Flora’s lives, but the idea of the ghosts and the events that unfold involving the ghosts are all told by the governess. Because of the controversy going on among critics concerning the sanity of the governess, the reader is left to wonder whether the ghost, Peter Quint, actually existed in Miles’s life, or if the entire predicament was conjured up by the governess. Since the story is in fact told by the governess and there is no outside evidence supporting her claims, whether or not to believe her story is left to the reader. This particular ambiguity is not obvious while reading the novella, because it is not directly stated in the text, but it becomes apparent when the reader goes back and analyzes the text. Once this anonymity is considered, the reader is urged to question to authenticity of the entire story.
One evident mystery in the novella which is immediately recognizable when the reader reads the story appears at the beginning of the book when the governess hears news of Miles being expelled from school. The cause of this expulsion is a central mystery throughout the story, and it is hinted at near the end of the book when the reader discovers that Miles got kicked out of school for merely “saying things.” Because these “things” are not specifically revealed to the reader, the reader has the freedom to explore his or her own ideas as to what happened. In ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ Miles’s character description does not depict one of a trouble maker mischievous enough to be kicked out of school indefinitely. The governess’s first impression of him, which was solely based off of his looks, was one of “a positive fragrance of purity” (James 453). There is an ironic contrast between his incredible beauty and charm and his bad behavior which is presented later in the novella. As the story goes on, the governess repeatedly changes her opinion on Miles in response to the commencement of the supernatural being present in the child’s life. She is brought to believe that Miles and the ghost he is seeing, Peter Quint, are devising an evil plot against her. Miles did many things to prove his “badness” to the governess, such as stealing her letter to his uncle. Mrs. Grose, a servant who was significant in the story in regards to the relationship between the governess and the children, suggested that Peter Quint was a bad influence on Miles, but no concrete evidence is provided to prove that this is the reason for Mile’s unacceptable behavior. Because of the governess’s shifting impression of Miles’s character and behavior, and since her depiction of Miles is the only opinion that the reader has to go on, Miles’s true character is left in question.
The biggest and most obvious mystery in the novel regarding Miles appears at the very end of the novella, when Miles utters the ghost’s name and then bafflingly dies in the governess’s arms. The reader is left at a fork in the road, with no apparent directions from the author. The cause of Miles’s death is left entirely to the reader’s imagination. This brainteaser in the novel might come off as a disappointing cliffhanger with no sequel, but Henry James probably figured that the propositions which the reader would conjure up would be far more audacious and haunting than what he could have finalized. Taking the context of the last chapter into consideration, the reader can consider many possibilities concerning the cause of the child’s death. It could be because of the departure of the evil Quint’s spirit from the little boy, it could be from shock or fear instilled in him by all this commotion, or it could even be the result of harm inflicted on him by the governess. The possibilities are endless, which is exactly what James intended with this massive mystery.
Henry James could have a number of reasons why he incorporated so many mysteries into his story. The main reason for this, in my opinion, is because of the influence that his brother William had on his writing. Before ‘The Turn of the Screw,” most of James’s literary works focused on the relationship between people, not enthralling ghost stories. His brother implored him to write a story in a more popular style, and since ghost stories were tremendously prevalent at the time, he decided to write a book that builds up suspense and tension as the storyline progresses. (Edgar 231) The stories which were popular at the time were cookie-cutter ghost stories, with definite endings and the whole unrealistic aspect. James wanted to stand out and write a book that was thrilling and realistic, with mysteries and ambiguities that kept the reader on the tip of his or her toes. (Moore 73)
‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James is a peculiar novella in itself. It is engulfed with mystery and animosity. Many conclusions are left to construct, and there are no clear answers to the many questions presented in the story. The character Miles is particularly a subject to reflect on, considering that all his actions and the events in the story regarding him do not have a clear definition. Many endings concerning this character are left to assumptions and the reader’s imagination, and this is largely due to the governess’s interpretation of his character. Henry James, by utilizing his knowledge and skill to keep the reader thinking, thought provokingly sets up ‘The Turn of the Screw’ to be one giant mystery left completely up to the reader to interpret.
Edgar, Pelham. “Henry James: man and author.” New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. Print.
James, Henry, and Leon Edel. “The ghostly tales of Henry James.” New Brunswick: Rutgers
Univ. Press, 19481949. Print.
Moore, Harry T. “Henry James and His World.” New York: The Viking Press, 1974. Print.