Tuesday, October 25, 2011

No Ghosts Such As These: The Uncanny Hauntings of Henry James

Whatever children go about trick or treating in their cute, perhaps zombified costumes this Halloween, they have nothing on the siblings in Henry James The Turn of the Screw. I assume that most people on their first read through would be more focused on the governess. Loonie, you might secretly say to yourself, and be done with it.

I, however, am hedging my bets. Flora and Miles aren’t monsters, mind you. I like to think of them as the Victorian version of Children of the Corn—only they’re more polite, genteel, and quiet, but you wouldn’t catch me turning my back on either. The brother and sister act “extraordinarily [as] one” (168), and are agreeable at every turn—no fighting or pinching or name calling. They also team tag quite well, keeping the governess busy while the other slips away, never quite accounting for just where it is he or she goes. Such antics would not necessarily be a cause for alarm, but it’s not just creepy children we’re dealing with.  It's ghosts, too. The governess swears she sees the figures of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel—the former valet and governess who both came to unseemly ends—haunting the premises. The fact that they want the children ups the ante in terms of what is at stake, and therein is the governess’s dilemma, for she feels an obligation to protect them even as the Quint and Miss Jessel’s appearances increase with marked familiarity. Add to this a housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who neither fully confirms nor denies the ghosts, and you have the threshold of the fantastic.

James’s writing here provides the vehicle where fantasy and psychology collide, for there are distinct gaps in what people say to each other—their sentences, the connotation of their words being misheard, or looks misread. Certainly the children’s behavior gets more erratic throughout the story, but whether it is due to the governess’s constant interrogation or something else is kept in perfect tension by the presence of that pesky Mrs. Grose. The housekeeper prepares to take away little Flora, who has gotten so distraught as to be plagued with a fever, yet tells the governess that she has heard “horrors” from the child. Even though Mrs. Grose denies seeing the spirit of Miss Jessel at the lake, she tells the governess “I believe” in “such doings” (221).

With this validation, the governess becomes determined to find the cause of Miles’s expulsion from school, to which he at last confesses he had merely “said things” (234). The last interaction between Miles and the governess only serves to send her “not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within that minute there had come to me out of my vey pity an appalling alarm that if he were innocent what then on earth was I? (234). However, there is no time to delve deeper, for she then sees Quint at the window and the final showdown begins for a poor boy’s soul.

What happens next, I’ll leave you to discover. Let me only say that this tale begins with us knowing that the governess is allowed to work again with children. She’s not kept as the “madwoman in the attic,” nor is she prosecuted as a criminal. The doubling of the original narrator, Douglas, who had this same governess as his own begs the questions of whether he was “Miles.” And these troubling questions keep us from merely damning the governess into the realm of madness or abuse. They keep those uncanny ghosts alive and kicking, for what parent hasn’t pondered the tension between their children’s innocence versus their own intentions?

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.