Turn of the Screw or Just Plain Screwy: A Pseudo-Christian Interpretation

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Turn of the Screw or Just Plain Screwy: A Pseudo-Christian Interpretation

Jillian Davis

During the course of our discussion about Turn of the Screw, the theory was presented that the ghosts who appeared to be haunting the narrator may in fact have been mere figments of her imagination. It was suggested that she might even have been completely delusional, and that all the supernatural events that she supposedly witnessed were nothing more than hallucinations. The question then became, if she were indeed mad, had she always been so, or had coming out to care for Miles and Flora somehow altered her? What exactly was she suffering from, and what had caused the condition to manifest?

A Freudian interpretation of Turn of the Screw classifies the governess's experiences with the ghosts of Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel as hallucinatory manifestations of hysteria. The hysteria itself is caused by the governess's lust for the man who has hired her (a situation which is referenced in conversation between the first narrator and Douglas, on page 293); unrequited and sexually frustrated, she falls victim to visions of the supernatural. These visions are her subconscious's attempt at providing her with a reason to write to the master and ask him to come to her, thereby enabling her to seduce him and quench her passions. However, there are other schools of thought, one of which takes a more religious or metaphysical approach; specifically, Christianity and Christian thought as a form of interpretation.

Supernatural beings have historically been strongly associated with the Christian bible, as have certain displays of psychopathy which were thought to be brought on by contact with these beings. The victims, then, fall into two categories: prophets and sinners. In the case of those considered to be prophets, visual or auditory hallucinations are thought to be the voice of G-d or his angels, communicating truth through a divine messenger in order to reach the larger community. Sinners, however, suffer from a torment that is the result of demonic control, which in turn stems from consort with the devil, or constant indulgence in sin (such as lust), which makes one vulnerable to possession or psychological torment by evil spirits. Which of these categories, then, does the governess fall under?

In my reading of the book, I found evidence to support the theory of the governess being devil influenced and mad, not in any passive way—i.e. she was not an innocent woman being taunted by spirits of the damned—but rather she herself was possessed by a demonic entity, the result, as in the Freudian theory, of an unexpressed lust for her employer (i.e. the repercussions of sinful thought). This then means that the influence she attempted to exert over the children was not to save them from some great evil, but rather to bring them into it and claim them as her own, a process which was hindered by the "ghosts" of Ms. Jessel and Peter Quint.

From the beginning, the governess is infatuated with the children, particularly the radiant beauty and innocence that emanates from them. Upon first meeting Flora, she describes the "radiant image of my little girl" as a "vision of...angelic beauty" and delights in the certainty that "to watch, teach, 'form' little Flora would...be the making of a happy and useful life" (300). Already, she has latched on to her charge, going so far as to move the child's bed into her room the night she arrives, and considering the little girl her own, to influence and mold as she desires.

Miles is a slightly different story. When the governess first learns that he has been removed from school, she seems extremely concerned, and becomes very preoccupied with the why of it all. She fears he will be belligerent or difficult, possibly even stubborn and overly assertive, things that, were she trying to seduce him into some relationship with a demonic evil, would make him less susceptible to her influence. Although at first she is distracted by his "great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity [as seen in his little sister]" (307) and his general complacence, later on Miles does assert himself. As they are approaching the church one Sunday afternoon, he brings up the subject of returning to school, a discussion which makes the governess so uncomfortable (because she cannot tell him why she must keep him by her side, and because her influence is apparently not as strong as she'd hoped) that she cannot enter the church, and has something of a break down.

While there is nothing overtly sinister in her initial extolling of the children's' virtues, it does seem strange that a woman intended as an academic teacher and nanny of sorts would fixate quite so much on those particular factors. Indeed, unlike the reader, it does not appear that Mrs. Grose is without her initial suspicions concerning the governess. When discussing the reason for Miles' dismissal from school, the governess explains to Mrs. Grose that, while she does indeed like children who have in them "the spirit to be naughty", she does not approve of it in a degree that might corrupt others. To this, Mrs. Grose promptly replies, "Are you afraid he'll corrupt you?" (305). Assuming the governess has already fallen from grace at this point, such a thing would be impossible; it is just the reverse that she intends to bring about, and wastes no time in binding the children to her exclusively.

As is the case with most valuable things, once the governess has the children under her care, she is both reluctant to part with them and, after her first encounter with the "ghosts", increasingly afraid she's going to lose them regardless. When Miles sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night, the governess, who is still awake and listening for fear he will do just that, becomes frantic in her search for him. When little Flora steals out to the lake in the middle of the day, with Miles covering for her, the governess tracks through the woods in order to find her and bring her back. In both cases, she is horrified to find that the children have, apparently, been consorting with what she deems "evil spirits".

Truly, I do not believe them to be ghosts in the traditional sense at all, but rather benevolent spirits returned to earth for the purpose of protecting the children from the governess's influence. After all, there is never any proof, apart from Mrs. Grose's word, that there was anything sinister in the relationship between Ms. Jessel, Peter Quint, Miles, and Flora. No specific examples of inappropriate or deviant behavior are ever cited, whether in relationship to the children or the rest of the household staff. In fact, the only person to whom the "ghosts" are at all unpleasant is the governess, and even then, it's nothing they do so much as the feeling she gets (which, supposing she is possessed and they are there to act against her, would make sense).

By the end of the novel, the governess has become completely paranoid and irrational; her scheme is coming undone. Flora has been saved from her influence by the ordeal with Ms. Jessel at the lake; raving about the governess's evil, she is sent away, for the governess has come to realize that the children's resistance lies not only in their connection to the "ghosts", but also their connection to each other. By getting Miles alone, she assumes she will be able to corrupt him entirely. She very nearly succeeds, but again Peter Quint intervenes, causing Miles to see clearly and truly what the governess is; he cries out against her, calling her "devil". But the struggle for his soul proves too much, for as James writes, as the governess cries "What does he [Peter Quint] matter now, my own?—what will he ever matter? I have you, but he has lost you forever!" (402), Miles cries out himself, collapsing into a heap by the window, his heart completely still. He has been saved from damnation, but at the cost of his own life.

The mystery and uncertainty surrounding Turn of the Screw is dense, and it is unlikely that any one answer will ever be specified as being correct. Were such a thing to occur, however, a demonological and Christian religious approach to the text seems to be a solid choice. Considering the social and historical context in which the book was written, as well as the abundance of suggestive imagery and dialogue in its pages, it is entirely probable that the story is being told from the perspective of a mad woman, a woman tormented by inner demons who, in her madness, seeks to destroy two innocent children, and in failing, is left with only one comfort; that "her" telling of the story will glorify her efforts as being somehow heroic, and will color the perception of the reader in her favor. In seducing readers, and in bringing them over to her side, she has still retained some small slice of victory.

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