Before I begin, let me say, before I’m accused of crankiness, that I admire James’s prose; let’s face it, the guy knows his way around a sentence. The book I purchased with Turn of the Screw also includes other shorter novellas (Daisy Miller and The Aspern Papers, among others), which I plan to read. I also intend to keep my promise of a Thanksgiving Readers’ Choice (if you want to weigh in, click here.)
There are so many ways to read this story, one can get lost. I choose to focus on two aspects that struck me as I read: the male/female dynamic and the recurrence of the word “innocent.”
To me, the ghosts represent corruption – the corrupt aspect of a male/female union, if you will. In James’s time, the corruption lay (by implication of the governess and Mrs. Grose) in the fact that the unmarried Miss Jessel had carnal relations with Quint—the twin sin being fornication with a man of a lower class. The children, of course, represent the uncorrupt aspect of male and female, not only by virtue of their youth but also by the fact that they are brother and sister (and therefore, a nonsexual relationship). The tension set up by this dynamic is strengthened by the representation of another type of male/female relationship, that of the governess and her employer. This relationship does not enjoy a clear role assignment, nor absolute boundaries. The master is utterly absent and disinterested; yet, he wields quite a bit of authority over the governess. The governess, on the other hand, becomes almost inexplicably devoted and loyal to her employer, even willing to put her charges at risk to please him. The master is of a higher class than his employee, which would preclude his marrying her, yet she seems content to capture his affections in the only way she knows how: by eradicating herself from his life. James further turns the screw on this dynamic by omitting from his story the most socially accepted form of male/female relationships: the married couple. The innocent children are essentially orphans, a plight which the story glosses over. These innocent, charming, beautiful creatures are forced to be parented by an absent patriarch and all-present matriarch.
Ultimately, the imbalance in the relationship between the master and the governess harms the children. The governess takes on all responsibility, and the children are at the mercy of her world-view. In her zeal to protect them, she destroys their innocence—she ruins the very thing she has sought to preserve. (Maybe George Bush could read this after he finishes The Stranger.)
One particular red herring that bothered me was the fact that that neither the governess nor Mrs. Grose queried the schoolmaster about Miles’s dismissal. The governess is spirited enough to take on ghosts; can’t she even buck authority enough to ask a lowly teacher about such an important issue? Within the convention of the story, of course, the governess couldn’t find out, so James just sidestepped the issue.
I’ll end here, and add my bit about the recurrence of the word “innocent” in the next post.