The ghost story is a long standing tradition in many cultures dating back thousands of years. Still to this day, people gather around camp fires or in dark rooms with flash lights and try to tell the scariest and creepiest ghost stories just for the thrill of the fright. However, sometimes we may wonder if the stories are really about the ghosts themselves, or the insanity of the characters. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James is a story that has raised that very question by many of its readers.
Some believe that the ghosts are all a figment of the governess’s imagination, while others believe that the ghosts are real and are there to continue their duties they had in life and protect the children. We never know for sure which angle is true, for Henry James took all the answers with him to the grave. The twists and turns throughout the whole story leave us guessing right up until the end. Opinions differ on whether the governess is really seeing ghosts, or has completely lost her mind. I believe that both interpretations are correct in their own ways.
The readers of “The Turn of the Screw” have interpreted this story in many different ways. One of the popular theories is that the ghosts are all in the Governess’s head. Of all the characters in the story, she is the only one we know for certain can see the ghosts. She explains the sighting to Mrs. Grose who seems to believe her at first; however, after the episode at the lake with Flora, she appears to have changed her opinion and fears for the safety of the children; not from the ghosts, but from the Governess. No matter how many times the Governess asks, the children claim to not see them.
Throughout the story it is never mentioned that the children make eye contact with the ghosts, regardless of how many times they are mentioned. The most critical of these sightings would be the one at the very end. The Governess claims to see Peter Quint standing outside the window and goes into hysterics. Confused and frightened, Miles asks her if she sees Miss Jessel again. He thinks first of Miss Jessel because Flora told him about what happened at the lake the day before. The Governess corrects him, “…but he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day” (87).
Even though the Governess is convinced that Miles can see Quint, it’s obvious that he cannot. After Miles falls into her arms and she realizes that he’s dead, the governess believes it is because Quint no longer has control over him. One explanation for the governess’ insanity can be explained by the fact that throughout her life she has repressed any sexual desire and has reached her breaking point. She has heard stories about the former employees of Bly—now ghosts, and is seeing the things she secretly desires through them.
She subconsciously envies the supposed love that Miss Jessel and Peter Quint shared in life and wishes she could experience something like that with the children’s uncle. Why else would Peter Quint appear right as the governess is fantasizing about the uncle? Another way to interpret the story is that the ghosts are real, but the reason that only the Governess can see them is because they are there to continue their protection of Flora and Miles. After all, the Governess provides scarily accurate descriptions of both Quint and Miss Jessel, even though she was never met them or seen what they look like.
She’d never even heard of Peter Quint until she described him to Mrs. Grose. She says, “He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight, good features and little, rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are, somehow darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal. His eyes are sharp, strange—awfully, but I only know clearly that they’re rather small and fixed. His mouth’s wide, and his lips are thin, and except for his little whiskers he’s quite clean shaven” (23). Once hearing this description, Mrs. Grose instantly connects in to Peter Quint.
The ghosts are always seen from afar and are either watching the children or staring at the Governess, giving the impression that they are there to watch over the children. When the ghosts were alive, they had close relationships with the children and the responsibility and need to keep them safe seems to have followed them into the afterlife. Because the children were orphaned, it seemed that Miss Jessel was like a mother to Flora, while Peter Quint was like a father to Miles. When the governess is at the lake with Flora, Miss Jessel appears at the other side and just watches, as if it is still her duty to look after Flora.
When the Governess runs home from church and is confronted by the ghost of Miss Jessel in the classroom, Miss Jessel stares at her as if she were an intruder. Another fact that supports this theory is that the Governess only sees the ghosts when she is by herself, or alone with the children, with exception to finding Flora alone at the lake. This could be explained by the fact that Flora was alone before the Governess and Mrs. Grose found her, so Miss Jessel was watching over the child. The ghosts do not believe that the Governess belongs there and fear for the children’s safety from her.
The ghosts believe something will happen to the children, and they are proved correct with Miles’ death at the end of the story. The reason that Quint disappears could be because he failed in protecting Miles. Everyone loves a good ghost story, no matter how old it may be. Henry James brought us a story that, when taken literally without interpretation is chilling and frightening. However, when you unfold the story, it could be interpreted as the ramblings of a crazy woman. No matter how you interpret the story, the flowing words and old language make it a challenging but enjoyable read.