A piece of ingenuity plain and simple

I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to provide a brief synopsis of James’s “Turn of the Screw,” and so here, in greatly reduced form, are what seem to me to be the main events of the story.

In an old house on Christmas Eve, a man named Douglas tells of his sister’s governess, who had reported seeing ghosts several years ago and had recorded her experiences in a manuscript that is now in his possession. As Douglas relays the story, we learn that the governess was hired to take care of the orphaned niece and nephew of a handsome bachelor living in London. As a condition of employment, the uncle stipulated that the governess was to deal with any problems on her own and that she was never, under any circumstance, to contact him about any aspect of the children’s upbringing or education.

The governess’s story actually begins on the day she arrives at Bly, the remote country estate that will be her home. Whatever reservations she might have expressed about the enormity of her position are quickly put to rest when she meets the friendly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the helpful staff and servants, and eight-year-old Flora, whose beauty and charm completely captivate her. The next day the governess is surprised to receive a letter from her employer which contains a note from Miles’s headmaster telling of the boy’s expulsion from school. Mrs. Grose informs her that Miles may on occasion misbehave, but no more than most children his age. The governess is satisfied with this explanation, and she prepares to pick Miles up from the train station.

Despite this temporary disruption, it’s clear that the governess is adjusting nicely to the daily routine of her new surroundings, and she even fantasizes about how wonderful it would be if her employers could observe just how well she’s doing. One afternoon, while taking a casual stroll around the grounds of the estate, she spies an unidentified man standing on a tower attached to part of the house. At first she thinks this might very well be the children’s uncle, but upon further investigation, she realizes that she’s mistaken. Some time later, she spies this same individual peering in dining room window, and she runs outside to investigate. Mrs. Grose, who did not see the figure this second time, is nevertheless able to identify it from the description the governess provides—it is, she declares, Peter Quint, the uncle’s recently deceased valet.

The governess next spots the image of a woman, which Mrs. Grose subsequently determines to be that of the children’s former governess, Miss Jessel, who has been dead for about a year. Upon further questioning, the housekeeper divulges that Quint and Miss Jessel were lovers and that Flora and Miles may have been involved in some way in the relationship. The governess quickly concludes that the apparitions are interested in the children, who in turn seem to know that the spirits have returned for them, and that she must protect her young charges at all costs.

Following a confrontation with Miss Jessel in the classroom of the house, the governess catches sight of her predecessor standing on the bank of a nearby lake. When she asks Flora whether she is aware of the apparition, the young girl denies being able to make out anything. The stress of the governess’s interrogation is too much for Flora to bear. She begs to be taken back to the house, where she spends the night screaming obscenities at Mrs. Grose.

The governess decides that the housekeeper should accompany Flora to London. Left alone with Miles, she plies him for details about his unexplained activities at school and urges him to confess to stealing a letter intended for the child’s uncle. Soon, she glimpses Peter Quint staring in the window at her. Although Miles cannot see the apparition, he cries out its name, then falls lifeless into the governess’s arms.

There is, to be sure, much, much more to “Turn of the Screw” than I’ve hinted at here. The story has generated perhaps more critical discussion and debate than any other in the English language, and for good reason. It’s an amazingly rich, dense, and complex tale, one that raises all kinds of fascinating questions about interpretation, and one that continues to confound anyone who tries to come to terms with it.

I’ll talk more about some of the issues associated with the story’s critical reception in my next post.


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