Depths Of Deception: Mrs. Grose and the Governess

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Depths Of Deception: Mrs. Grose and the Governess

Alice Bryson

"No, no -- there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it..."
The Turn Of The Screw, page 329-330

In Henry James's The Turn Of The Screw there lies the possibility of endless reexamination of the work because it doesn't offer a definite resolution--or anything even approaching a definite resolution. And every reading you enter into, you might well return with another way to explain what sketchy details we as readers allow ourselves to trust. The Governess desires the Master and invents everything; the Governess misunderstands the nature of ghosts; the children are possessed; the children are sexually abused; Douglas is Miles. Because of the depths of things left unspoken and unresolved, explanations and alternate readings abound. Here, I propose a reading of in which the Governess is not the victim of the supernatural, but of the natural; a deception on the part of Mrs. Grose. On first meeting Mrs. Grose, the Governess describes her as a "stout, simple, plain, clean, wholesome woman" (299); with what James lets the audience know later about the Governess's mental state (certainly that she jumps to conclusions, possibly that she hallucinates dead people at Bly), what basis does the audience have for trusting her assessment of Mrs. Grose?
The text, while being open to depths of interpretation, at the outset hinges on one simple question: do the ghosts exist? The main argument for the existence of the ghosts is if there are no ghosts haunting the windows and lonely places of Bly, how is it that the Governess is able to give a perfect description of both Jesssel and Quint to Mrs. Grose (333)? She has never seen either of them in life, nor has anyone told her any details about them (she had no idea of Quint's existence until Mrs. Grose mentioned him), so how can the Governess describe them? This should prove that ghosts exist, if we trusted Mrs. Grose to be honest. But if there are no ghosts, there is no other explanation for how the Governess can describe them, than that Mrs. Grose must be, in some capacity, lying.
What exactly is Mrs. Grose lying about, then? This becomes harder to tell; it might be that the Governess hallucinates or invents specters, or sees people wandering around the house, and when she describes them to Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper sees her opportunity to scare the Governess, and tells her the 'ghosts' are dead servants. (In fact, until the Governess describes the man she sees in the window to Mrs. Grose and Mrs. Grose confirms that it is the dead Peter Quint, the Governess thought he was merely a man investigating a beautiful house, or at worst some secret insane relative (312); certainly not something supernatural. Mrs. Grose suggests the supernatural to her the first time.) It's even possible that the history of Quint and Jessel is, in part or in the whole, created by Mrs. Grose, as the Governess never hears anything more than the basics about them from anyone else -- not even mention of Quint's name from any other lips until the final confrontation with Miles (402). Departing even more from the realm of what's presented as concrete in the books, might Mrs. Grose not even have hired some red headed man to stand in the tower, and look in the window, for the express purpose of scaring (or chasing off) the new governess? That would certainly explain both her slip of the tongue, saying "Oh, he did," and almost immediately qualifying it with the suspicious "I mean that's his way -- the master's" (305-6), and her surprise when the Governess sees Miss Jessel for the first time. Suppose that Mrs. Grose only intended the Governess to perceive the haunting of Peter Quint, and even at first assumed that the Governess was only talking about Quint again (329). But no matter how far her deception extends--which is easy to conjecture, but difficult to decide upon and impossible to prove--what remains is that unless we accept ghosts to be real, Mrs. Grose must be lying in some way.
Accepting that there must be deception on Mrs. Grose's part, why would Mrs. Grose sabotage and lie to the Governess? The answer is, to put it too simply, jealousy. Even though the Governess is a poor parson's daughter (295), she is of higher status than Mrs. Grose, a member of the working class. And even though Mrs. Grose is older than her and has been in the service of this one family for many years (296), upon the Governess's arrival at Bly Mrs. Grose is instantly relegated to secondary status. In the absence of a governess, Mrs. Grose is the highest ranking employee in the house, above a cook, housemaid, dairywoman, groom, gardener, and an old pony (297). But the Master promises the Governess that "the young lady who should go down as governess would be in supreme authority" (296). In addition to being in charge of the entire house in the absence of a governess, Mrs. Grose is in charge of Flora; the Master describes Mrs. Grose of being "extremely fond" of Flora (296); anxious not to lose her position of power or be displaced in Flora's affections, Mrs. Grose sabotages the Governess.
Mrs. Grose is disgusted by Quint and Jessel's relationship, most clearly because it crosses lines of class. Miss Jessel was a lady, and Mrs. Grose describes Quint as "so dreadfully below" (331). This may be the reason that she selects Quint as the figure to suggest to the Governess as a malignant ghost; she cannot accept that Quint and Jessel have had a relationship, not only extramarital and possibly resulting in a pregnancy (332) but cutting across rigid barriers of class. Is it possible that she invents or exaggerates stories of Quint being inappropriate or free with people, even extending into painting him as evil. There's no proof outside of Mrs. Grose's reports and the Governess's conjecturing that Jessel and Quint were in the least bit immoral; Douglas describes the old governess (Miss Jessel) as "a most respectable person" (296). It is worth noting that Peter Quint is the only character over the age of ten (exempting Douglas and other characters in the beginning) who is given a first name. It speaks to his social status, as it was probably considered more acceptable to call a lower class servant by his first name than a housemaid or a governess, but it raises a suspicion as well. Exactly how evil is he, if he is the only adult whose Christian name is revealed? And, when examined to another degree, the relationship between Jessel and Quint might explain some of Mrs. Grose's desire to sabotage the Governess. The Governess is clearly in love with the master, and it's suggested that she slept with her employer -- she was "carried away" in Harley Street (301). The second Governess, then, is another woman having sex outside of marriage and her social class (albeit, this time, the woman is "dreadfully below"). It's possible that Mrs. Grose views the Governess as just a repeat of Miss Jessel.
The Governess in turn views Mrs. Grose as simple, as someone not capable of deception, even when she's faced with proof that there's more to Mrs. Grose than meets the eye. Mrs. Grose, early in their acquaintance, gives the Governess "a look that [she remarks] a the moment; then, visibly, with a quick blankness, [Mrs. Grose] seem[s] to try to take it back" (303). When the Governess finds out that Mrs. Grose is illiterate (304), it only serves to further enhance her idea that Mrs. Grose is wholesome but stupid, and therefore unable to deceive. The Governess's upbringing and social status make it difficult for her to believe that someone of less education and lower status has a comparable intelligence to her own; worse, that someone like Mrs. Grose, who cannot even read, would be capable of fooling her. Possibly, the Governess also falls back on the Judeo-Christian concept of evil being tied to knowledge; with less knowledge, Mrs. Grose would have less capacity for evil. James may rely on this fallacy, that someone less educated would be less capable of trickery, to prevent his readers (at least, at first) from suspecting Mrs. Grose.
Not only is the Governess unlikely to disbelieve Mrs. Grose, but she's predisposed to believing in the ghosts that Grose suggests, and to feeding that suggestion with her own hallucinations and additions, once she truly believes that there are ghosts at Bly. One reason she would be more likely to believe in ghosts was that she desired to impress her beloved employer; to appear a heroine to him, even though she logically knew that he'd never pay her any more attention. At the beginning of her tenure at Bly, she thinks "I was giving pleasure--if he ever thought of it!--to the person to whose pressure I had responded" (309); she fantasizes about the master appearing at Bly and doing nothing more than approving of her (310). And once she believes the apparently earnest, wholesome Mrs. Grose, she begins to see more ghosts than Mrs. Grose actually suggested (or, at the worst level of suspicion, set up for her to see); it's easy to see a ghost after she believes in one, and easier still if she's on the lookout for ghosts. She buys into Mrs. Grose's story and begins seeing things that cannot be explained, like Miss Jessel appearing and vanishing at her writing table (365). As her mental state becomes more and more unbalanced, she begins to make up things and tell them to Mrs. Grose--such as a conversation that she never had with Miss Jessel (367).
Mrs. Grose can't be trusted, because she's lying; the Governess can't be trusted, because she's mad; there is hardly anything in The Turn Of The Screw that can be trusted. Not even the narration of the Governess's manuscript escapes suspicion; if the Governess lies to Mrs. Grose, or if she's insane, why wouldn't she lie in what she writes? By not ever supplying a solid resolution, or even a shaky resolution--what we're left with after the final turn of the screw resolves nearly nothing--James treats his audience as he treats the Governess. Everything is subject to doubt; every character may be lying, insane, or possessed; and that is the appeal. Because it lacks a final, absolute truth, every time we approach The Turn Of The Screw, just like the Governess does with her mystery, we stumble into some new depth.

Works Cited

James, Henry. The Turn Of The Screw And Other Short Novels. New York: Signet Classic, 1962.

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