“The Turn of the Screw”: Sex, Ghosts, and… Feminism?

If you haven’t read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, there’s a quick fix. Do you remember that Halloween episode of The Office where Pam insists that she saw a ghost at a past job but Jim thinks she’s making it up for attention and is worried about the effect such beliefs will have on their two young children. Yes? Then you’ve read The Turn of the Screw.

Just in case your memory of both Henry James and The Office is fuzzy, though, I can recap. The novella is narrated by the new governess of Miles and Flora, two wealthy children living in their absent (but omnipresent) uncle’s country estate. As happens in empty country estates, the governess begins to see the ghosts of two former servants stalking the grounds. Increasingly obsessed with the lives and deaths of these servants, the governess begins to fabricate an intricate narrative in which the children are in league with the ghosts and must be saved. The “Jim” in this situation, unfortunately, is the reader. 

The book ends in genre-appropriate chaos. Young Flora has gone to stay with her uncle after being driven to a nervous break by her governess. Miles and the governess are alone together in a room which has already been subject to multiple ghost attacks. Our narrator begins trying to force a confession of ghostly scheming out of the boy when one of the ghosts appears to her in the window. She spins Miles to face the ghost while screaming, and he faints, and the governess realizes that his heart has stopped beating.

James infamously refused to clarify whether the ghosts are real or the products of the governess’s increasing psychosis. Yes, the ending is ambiguous—did the ghosts, the governess, or fear kill Miles?—but every minuscule detail can be read two ways. When the governess says that Miles “fairly glittered in the gloom” is she referring to the glitter of his childlike goodness? Or the glitter of an evil, supernatural force lurking in the gloom? Glitters are famously disingenuous.

…did the ghosts, the governess, or fear kill Miles?

The feminist in me wants to believe that the ghosts are real. In fact, despite James’s genius phrasing, a part of me is enraged that we question her at all. The male heroes of gothic literature have never been subjected to such scrutiny. We believe Robert Walton and we do not doubt the veracity of Jonathan Harker’s diary accounts, despite the fact that both of those men also presented us with subjective first person accounts. Their stories are much more dangerous, if false, since they both boast much higher body counts than The Turn of the Screw

The first Victorian readers of the book were generally distrusting of the governess. A governess, in general, was a job that elicited a certain amount of suspicion. A good Victorian governess was necessarily unmarried, and hence childless. She either chose or was forced to choose a career over a family—and because a career was usually a financial necessity, dislike of governesses was also often rooted in classism. So, add together a distrust of women, a distrust of working women, a distrust of unmarried women, a distrust of childless women and a distrust of the poor and we will have some idea of the situation this governess finds herself in. 

If we are to believe that James was a raging feminist—which is not necessarily a stretch—then we have a reason to believe the ghosts are real. Perhaps the ambiguity of the narration is a statement on society’s urge to discredit women’s stories. Maybe James was setting an adept sociological trap for his readers. That’s not… unlike him. 

Perhaps the ambiguity of the narration is a statement on society’s urge to discredit women’s stories.

I want to believe the ghosts are real, but that requires a certain amount of conjecture. I, unfortunately, do not have an intimate or expert knowledge of the machinations of Henry James’s mind. I can only interpret the book how I interpret it.

So what does it mean if the ghosts aren’t real? If the ghosts aren’t real, then the governess is experiencing hallucinations. She is possibly schizophrenic, but that was not a term commonly used in Victorian literature. Readers understood that she was mad and immediately began to search for the cause of her madness. In history and in literature, you used to have a reason to break down. 

The general assumption is that the governess is sexually repressed. She has no lover, but describes her employer as attractive. The ghosts she fears are former servants who had an illicit affair with each other. All around, she does seem to associate sex with vulgarity at best and at worst satanism. However, this does not explain her obsession with the children—unless you suggest, as some have tried to do, that the governess is sexually attracted to the children. 

I believe this analysis is flawed. The assumption that a woman cannot live a life without romantic relationships and remain sane is inherently sexist. Yes, the governess is troubled, but her troubles could hardly be solved by a boyfriend.

Yes, the governess is troubled, but her troubles could hardly be solved by a boyfriend.

Instead, I think we can safely argue that the governess is socially, not sexually repressed. Because she is a woman, readers hyper focus on the fact that she doesn’t have a husband or children and ignore the fact that she doesn’t have friends in general. At one point the governess gets into an argument with Miles while they are walking to church. Frustrated she leaves and goes back to the house. When the housekeeper asks her where she went, the governess says “I only went with you for the walk. I had then to come back to meet a friend.” The housekeeper replies “A friend—you?”

In fact, much of the governess’s preoccupation with the children focuses on their friendliness with her. When she meets the timid Flora she writes “I felt quite sure [Flora] would presently like me”, and she often refers to the children as her companions rather than her pupils. Yes, she obsesses over a dead couple, but she obsesses over the love that the children had for these servants as well as the connection the servants had with each other. She fears that the children are in league with the ghosts—that they secretly are better friends with the ghosts than they are with her. The argument she has with Miles on the way to the church was caused because he wanted to go back to boarding school and she didn’t want him to. The governess is terrified of being abandoned, but that fear drives away anyone who is kind to her. 

It is true that she has a crush on the children’s uncle, and it is further true that she reviles the relationship between the ghosts. But her romantic failings are not her defining quality. Her inability to connect with those around her in any way is a much stronger force. The ghost hallucinations are not the embodiment of her sexual inadequacy as much as they are the embodiment of her own self-destructive tendencies—unseen forces that ruin her relationships. 

The governess is terrified of being abandoned, but that fear drives away anyone who is kind to her. 

There’s no real answer though, of course. The book is scary because of its ambiguity, because it makes us face the fact that no horror and no story exists in unequivocal terms. Like in The Office, we may never know what our female narrators really saw and the question is one that will keep the great thinkers of the world debating for centuries to come. We will never have an answer until Henry James comes back from the dead and tells us by possessing a small child. 

There you have it. The Turn of the Screw is an excellent book to read if you enjoy feeling confused and upset: for a comparable experience you can take LSD or sit in a tub of spiders. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

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