A Ghost Story by Henry James

by on December 27th, 2014
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Long ago I yawned through two short stories of Henry James. Later I read somewhere that H. G. Wells had compared the typical James production to the clumsy efforts of a hippopotamus that was trying to pick up a pea with his nose. I heartily concurred.

Recently I decided to tackle James once more. A local bookstore offered a small volume of his works at a cheap price, and I decided to buy it. The chief selection in this volume was a ghost story entitled “The Turn of the Screw.”

The bulk of the story is the written narrative of the chief character: a governess in charge of two children named Miles and Flora. The story takes place in England. The scene of the action is a residence called Bly. Besides the governess and the children, only the housekeeper (Mrs. Grose) and other servants were present at Bly. The parents of the children had passed away, and their uncle, who resided in London, gave the governess strict orders to attend to any problems herself without troubling him.

When the governess arrived, she was favorably impressed with the children. Flora was a charming girl; and Miles, who returned from school not long after the arrival of the governess, was equally polite and well-behaved. Mrs. Grose testified to the excellence of their character.

The only fly in the ointment was a letter from the headmaster of the school that Miles had attended the previous school year. It stated that Miles was not to return to the school the following year because he caused injury to the other children. However, the letter was not taken seriously at first. Mrs. Grose considered the charge ridiculous, and the governess initially believed that the good conduct of Miles proved that the accusation was false.

The plot soon began to thicken. Late one afternoon, the governess saw a sinister-looking man standing on the top of one of the two towers that adorned the architecture of the Bly residence. She did not tell anyone what she had seen, but she casually examined the features of all the servants at Bly and satisfied herself that none of them resembled the man she had seen on the tower.

Later she saw the same man peering through a window. She tried to accost him; but by the time she reached the place where he had been standing, he was gone.

Mrs. Grose arrived in time to witness the extreme agitation of the governess. When the governess described the man she had seen, Mrs. Grose replied that he was a servant named Quint, who had formerly enjoyed an influential position at Bly. He had died before the arrival of the governess.

The two ladies had several discussions concerning this servant. Mrs. Grose revealed that he was an evil character. When he was still alive, Mrs. Grose feared that he had an evil effect on the children, especially Miles. His death had resulted from an accident while he was drunk.

Throughout her narration, the governess shows a tendency to jump to conclusions for which she has no proof. In this case, she got the idea that Quint was looking for Miles when he was peering into the window.

The governess endeavored to protect the children from the apparition. She watched them closely. The children were apparently unaware of the sinister apparitions and endeavored to please the governess in any way that they could.

One day, when the governess and Flora were by a lake, the governess saw a sinister female figure on the other side of the lake. She was dressed in black. There was no evidence that Flora saw this figure, but the governess jumped to the conclusion that she was pretending not to see her. From that moment on, the governess became more and more convinced that the children were not as innocent as they appeared to be.

The governess and Mrs. Grose concluded that the sinister woman was Miss Jessel, the former governess of the children who had died. Mrs. Grose described her as an infamously evil character. For a time, she resisted the governess’ suspicion that the children welcomed the appearance of Miss Jessel and Quint.

The children continued to behave well except for a prank they played on the governess. Flora and the governess were accustomed to sleep in the same room. Flora and Miles had agreed that Miles would stand outside at night in plain sight. Flora would then peer out the window to arouse the suspicions of the governess.

When the governess was trying to find out what Flora was looking at, she expected to see a sinister apparition. When she saw Miles instead, she was appalled. She quickly went out and brought him back inside. This incident confirmed the governess in her suspicions that the children were not as innocent as they pretended to be.

Eventually the story reached its climax. While Miles diverted the governess, Flora sneaked away to the lake where Miss Jessel had previously appeared. When Mrs. Grose and the governess found her, the governess saw Miss Jessel, but Mrs. Grose could not see the apparition. As a result of this scene, Flora formed an aversion to the governess and asked Mrs. Grose to take her home.

Although Mrs. Grose had not seen the apparition, she professed to be convinced that the governess was telling the truth. She said that Flora spoke some evil words after the incident at the lake. The two decided that Mrs. Grose would take Flora to her uncle in London to get her away from the evil environment. The governess would remain and try to help Miles.

Miles had previously expressed a desire to return to school. This had led to a discussion of the letter the headmaster had sent. In response to the prompting of the governess, Miles was beginning to confess what had happened. He had spoken bad words to some of his friends, and these words reached the ears of the faculty. Before he could elaborate, the governess saw Quint.

Miles seemed to be ill, probably as a result of the interrogation; but the governess failed to treat him with the gentleness normally accorded to a sick child. When the governess pointed to the place where Quint was supposed to be standing, Miles could not see him.

The governess was under the impression that she was saving Miles from Quint. However, the end result of her clumsy efforts was the death of the boy.

According to T. J. Lustig, a contemporary newspaper called this short novel “the most hopelessly evil story we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern.” However, while evil seems to pervade the very atmosphere at Bly, I fail to find any wicked acts comparable to the murder of Duncan or the adultery of Madam Bovary. Evil is hinted at rather than spelled out.

Quint and Miss Jessel are described as “infamous.” However, the only evil deed ascribed to them is the drunkenness of Quint that led to his accidental death. Besides, their evil reputation rests on the gossip of an acquaintance with whom they were probably not on good terms. Even their ghosts did not do anything evil. They only appeared to the governess.

The evil attributed to the children rests on an even shakier foundation. Miles apparently said something bad at school and the children did trick the governess on two occasions. That seems to be the extent of their evil.

I think that James was playing with the tendency of the human mind to put the worst construction on a questionable situation. He mystifies people, leading them to suspect that the children are having evil meetings with the two specters.

Some critics believe that the ghosts were merely hallucinations. At least, no one else seemed to see them besides the governess.


“The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories” by Henry James; T.J. Lustig, editor

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