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  • The Reversal of Value in The Turn of the Screw
  • Mark Steensland

In 1969, Thomas J. Bontly wrote, “One hesitates to embarrass the scholarly world with yet another explication of The Turn of the Screw” (Bontly, p. 721).1 He did anyway, proving again David G. Hartwell’s assessment that James’s fiction is “consistently interpretable on many levels, no one of which exhausts the potential meaning” (p. 602). 2 But as Bontly goes on to note, even though there may be as many interpretations as there are readers, the critics ultimately divide into two camps: those who believe that the ghosts are real, and that the children have been corrupted by them (what he calls the “apparitionist” interpretation), and those who believe that the ghosts are figments of the governess’s imagination, the result of sexual repression, and that the children are innocent victims of her delusions (what he calls the “psychoanalytic” interpretation). This debate has become so well known that practically the first task of any critic is to decide which camp they will occupy: are the ghosts real, or aren’t they?

Ironically, in support of Hartwell’s statement, much of the same evidence can be used to support either reading. For example, both groups use the scene in which the governess, after having seen Quint (whom she knows only as a stranger), describes him to Mrs. Grose, whereupon Mrs. Grose promptly pronounces him to be Quint (pp. 320–21). 3 The governess then says: “If I had ‘made it up’ . . . [how was I] able to give, of each . . . a picture disclosing their special marks” (p. 333). The apparitionists claim that this means the ghosts are real. The psychoanalytics (especially Goddard) say that the evidence points another way: the “special” [End Page 457] marks are not so special; the governess and Mrs. Grose are merely playing to one another’s fears. Similarly, the apparitionists claim that the children themselves are evil. As proof, they cite scenes such as the one in which Miles and the governess are talking at night and a sudden something causes the candle to go out. The sudden something is Miles: “It was I who blew it, dear,” he says (p. 373). Later, when Flora talks “horrors” (p. 354), the implication is that she could have only learned such “horrors” from the ghosts. The psychoanalytic critics dismiss this view, arguing that the governess is merely seeing the children as evil. They say the children themselves do nothing to warrant the governess’s view; it is merely another part of her delusion.

So if the facts can point either way, what is the result of each reading? The apparitionists claim that the reality of the ghosts makes the story into a moral or religious allegory; the psychoanalytics interpret the story as essentially Freudian, as a case study of sexual neurosis, a dramatization of the progressive breakdown of a human mind; its “case study” quality is its point. I believe the former approach to be James’s true intention. The ghosts are real in The Turn of the Screw and the children have been corrupted by them. As already stated, this makes the story into an allegory. But an allegory for what?

The answer can be found in the story’s principal conflict: the battle between the governess and the ghosts over the children. In other words, the governess first accepts her position as one in which she sees a chance to raise two beautiful children. The intrusion of the ghosts, however, leads her to adopt quite a different role: that of their savior. Specifically, she seeks to take on the role of the messiah, of Jesus Christ Himself. The governess makes this quite clear when she says that “by offering myself bravely . . . I should serve as an expiatory victim . . . The children, in especial, I should . . . absolutely save” (p. 323). One requires little background in Christian theology to understand the overt reference to Christ here. He is the “expiatory victim,” offered as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, thus absolutely saving it. But the governess does not save the children at all; rather, it is she who leads them to...


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pp. 457-464
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