Why The Turn of the Screw Haunts Us 125 Years Later

Why The Turn of the Screw Haunts Us 125 Years Later

This year marks the 125th anniversary of one of the most influential ghost stories ever written. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a of shadows, lurking dread and psychological menace. The story is deceptively simple: a vulnerable, highly sensitive young woman takes the position of governess at Bly, a remote manor house. The children she is employed to care for, Miles and Flora, are delightful, and at first Bly seems to be a place of sun-dappled sanctuary. That idyll is soon shattered. The (unnamed) governess's pleasure in the role swiftly turns to terror when she becomes convinced that the manor, and particularly the children, are haunted by the ghosts of former servants Peter Quint and their previous governess, Miss Jessel. The spirits—visible only to the governess narrator—have something of the damned them. It is implied, but never made explicit, that they corrupted the children in some unspeakable, possibly sexual, way. But is the governess a reliable narrator? Is she even sane? Is it possible that these ghostly fiends are an outward manifestation of her own repression and thwarted desire? James's leisurely, labyrinthine never quite takes us to an answer to those very modern questions This Victorian ghost story was written the year after Sigmund Freud began to analyze himself—a process that led to the birth of modern psychoanalysis. It's tempting to speculate that in 1898 James made some liminal connection with the zeitgeist. One reading of The Turn of the Screw could suggest that the governess—whose life to date has been that of a sheltered vicar's daughter—is not battling external demons, but instead is transferring deeply buried, but deeply shocking, desires to the environment around her. It is clear from the outset—where she is interviewed in Harley Street for the position at Bly by an attractive young gentleman— that she is imaginative and romantic. While her prospective employer emphasizes that he wants nothing to do with the lives and affairs of his orphaned nephew and niece (even going as far as forbidding her to contact him), the governess allows herself to dwell upon […]

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