Henry James’s
The Turn of the Screw

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

The cumulative power of nuance and the search for an elusive secret – the characteristic technique and theme of much of Henry James’s work – are archetypally manifested in The Turn of the Screw (1898), a work in which the images, the actions, the intellectual preciosity of the governess, the theme, the hoped-for terror-reaction of the audience, and even the diction itself are harmoniously fitted to the deliberately calm and persevering manner in which James accumulates minute details with every inexorable turn of the screw, ultimately penetrating the secret of secrets, the coincidentia oppositorum. Although many works of art illustrate the balance, or unity, of opposites, few works successfully embody the actual union of opposites, a concept equated with the essence of art by Coleridge, with the essence of physical and metaphysical laws by Hegel, and with the essence of the Selbst by Jung. The union of the divine and the demonic in Blake’s Marriage of Heven and Hell, the union of concave and convex and sun and ice in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, the union of hot Eros and cold Thanatos in Keats’s Eve of St. Agnes, the union of life and death at the mystic Center of Updike’s The Centaur, and the numerous unions of opposites in James’s The Turn of the Screw are some of the examples of the effectively created coincidentia oppositorum in literature. And of these works none has a title which is so richly symbolic as that of James’s story, for James’s title is itself the focal point, the source, and the epitome of the most important images, the linguistic leitmotifs, the theme, and the basic symbolic actions illustrative of the union of opposites.

Unfortunately every critic of The Turn of the Screw must begin his analysis with a caveat concerning his opinion of the reliability of the governess-narrator. In my own approach I tend to de-emphasize the case-study approach of focusing upon the character of the governess and to emphasize a focus upon the strictly aesthetic principles of parallelism, systematic pattern, and symbolic analogies in the form of the artistic narrative, with the result that although I sometimes question the governess’ abhorrence of the apparitions I never question their objective existence as demons, ghosts, or fairies. As in Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of the story, the singers so obviously appear on the stage that there is no doubt about the fact that these apparitions actually exist.

Instead of the usual focus upon the governess as an hysterical neurotic, I feel that a more fruitful approach would resemble Mark Kanzer’s analysis of James’s story "The Figure in the Carpet" (American Imago, 17 (1960), pp. 339-48). The Turn of the Screw has many of the same factors that Kanzer points out in "The Figure in the Carpet" and many of the stories written during the regressive and introspective years after James’s traumatic experience as an unsuccessful playwright (1893-1898): the search for a hidden mystery, the analytical scrutiny, the negative Oedipus complex, resentment of females, strong admiration for males, narcissism, the equation of sexual knowledge and death. The story thus may embody James’s search for his lost childhood. To use this approach, we must view the significantly unnamed governess as James himself – she is after all its author. To describe the governess as a pathological liar with an unhinged fancy is to have the pragmatist’s low conception of the artistic personality, whose governess-like "infernal imagination" scrutinizes the self to create art. The sexual ambiguity of this view of the narrator would support the homoerotic interpretation I offer later in this essay, and the psychic mechanisms described by Kanzer have often been held by many Freudians to typify the latent homosexual.

The "ambiguous evil" may then be James’s fascination – simultaneous attraction and repulsion – with his frustrated childhood as portrayed by the major figures in his life which other Freudians have identified: Miles as his adolescent self, usually a loner separated from both peers and masculine company; Mrs. Grose as Aunt Kate; Flora as his recently deceased lesbian sister Alice (Flora’s literal hysteria at the end of the story more nearly parallels Alice’s hysteria than does the governess’ supposed neurosis (as suggested by Oscar Cargill, "Henry James as Freudian Pioneer," Chicago Review, 10 (1956), pp. 13-29), and especially Quint as his brother William, in whose extremely masculine presence Henry regarded himself as virtually a female (see Leon Edel, Henry James: 1895-1904: The Treacherous Years, New York, 1969, esp. pp. 208-12). (For the basic Freudian theories, see Edmund Wilson, "The Ambiguity of Henry James," The Triple Thinkers, New York, 1948; John Silver, "A Note on the Freudian Reading of `The Turn of the Screw,’" American Literature, 29 (1957), pp. 207-11; and Thomas Cranfill and Robert Clark, An Anatomy of the Turn of the Screw, Austin, 1965). Within the context of Kanzer’s analysis, the governess’ momentary self-doubt at the end of the story may be James’s epiphanical realization that his typi8cal withdrawal-escape by severely sublimating life into art inhumanely uses life as a means rather than as an end, and may ultimately destroy life. My own view, within the theoretical construct of Herbert Marcuse (Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, New York, 1955, 1962), is that the governess’ (i.e. James’s) guilt is that the scrutiny of childhood led to condemnation and further repression rather than to a celebration of the return of the repressed, to a rejection of Quint as the id rather than an acceptance of the possible joy (albeit demonic) that he may offer.

The Gothic novel, of which I consider The Turn of the Screw to be a characteristic example, depends upon a sound theological, not merely moral or psychological, concept of evil, and it is not surprising that the most fruitful apparitionist approach is Robert Heilman’s interpretation of the story as a Christian allegory ("The Turn of the Screw as Poem," The University of Kansas City Review, 14 (1948), pp. 277-89). Although Heilman’s approach is more allegorical than symbolic, his framework is the most useful device for "getting into" the story, and therefore deserves a brief synopsis:

The story is virtually a morality play, involving the typical conflict of divine and demonic agents fighting for the soul of Everyman. The garden at Bly is the Garden of Eden; Miles and Flora are Adam and Eve in a state of prelapsarian innocence; Quint corresponds to folklore descriptions of the Devil; the governess is both an angel sent from God and a Christ-like mediator. By the end of the story, the Fall has occurred, but at the last minute the governess exorcises the demon from Miles’s soul and thereby saves him. Other apparitionist critics have expanded and rounded out this interpretation; the only character left unaccounted for is Miss Jessel, who too often is seen as merely the artistic counterpart to Quint. Miss Jessel, as cohort of Satan, is probably the Lilith in the Judaeo-Kabbalistic tradition who united with Adam and brought forth the race of demons, imps, and fairies. In Greek mythology Lilith corresponds to the figure of Lamia, who has at least two characteristics in common with Miss Jessel. In a fit of jealousy Hera destroyed Lamia’s children, whereupon Lamia gained revenge by seeking to destroy others’ children in her wanderings by becoming a serpent-woman and a succubus who ate children and sucked their blood; perhaps this is why Miss Jessel in her attempt to destroy Flora is called "a pale and ravenous demon." Lamia’s continual emotional state was extreme misery, similar to that of Niobe weeping over her own children destroyed by Hera; again like her, Miss Jessel’s most noticeable characteristic is her "inutterable woe."

On the more temporal religious level, Heilman and other critics have briefly described the governess as an inquisitor as well as a priestly mediator, a father confessor, and an exorcist. This view of the governess as virtually a Grand Inquisitor, however, has not been pursued in any detail, and is more often felt than analyzed. The precisely defined three-part framework of inquisitorial torture may in fact be extremely important to an understanding of the story. James’s prefatory description of the apparitions as not so much ghosts as "goblins, elves, imps, [or] demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft" does much to mitigate the suggestion that The Turn of the Screw is merely a "ghost story" and is often cited to indicate that the apparitions are demon-spirits rather than ghosts (note, incidentally, that "imp" comes from "empusae," a category of beings which includes succubi such as Lilith, Lamia, and perhaps Miss Jessel); but the reference to the old trials for witchcraft is equally important, for it allows us to view the story as a trial at which the governess as Grand Inquisitor questions two witches, Flora and Miles, who are suspected of having attended the !inconceivable communion" of the Black Mass, and a third person, Mrs. Grose, suspected of being herself a witch or at least a conspirator.

The title of the story immediately calls to mind the thumbscrew, an unhappy instrument which effectively personifies the very concept of torture. Numerous passages in the story itself resemble verbatim transcripts of a typical inquisition conducted sometime during the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries. When the governess questions Mrs. Grose after seeing Miss Jessel across the pool, she seems to be applying the techniques of pressing and the strappedo to her unwilling victim in an effort to extract a confession: "‘You don’t believe me?’ I pressed. ... I felt that I doubtless needn’t press too hard. … [I was] pushing my colleague fairly to the wall. She had told me, bit by bit, under pressure, a great deal. … I felt like giving the last jerk to the curtain. It was a dreadfully austere inquiry, but levity was not our note, and, at any rate, before the gray dawn admonished us to separate I had got my answer. … I pressed. … I pressed again. … Lord, how I pressed, her now! … ‘I don’t know – I don’t know!’ the poor woman groaned. ‘You do know, you dear thing,’ I replied. … ‘But I shall get it out of you yet!’" Passages such as this, underscored by Mrs. Grose’s groans as an acoustical motif, can be found with little difficulty, and illustrate the cruelly obsessive nature of the governess’ endeavor, but we should suspend our judgment on whether or not she is therefore neurotic until we decide whether or not Flora and Miles hold communion with demons.

The story has a three-part division which parallels the standard three-part structure of inquisitorial torture (the source of the first-, second-, and third-degrees used in the local police interrogation). The first session of the "dreadfully austere inquiry," called the Preparatory Torture, usually involved allowing the victim to view the instruments of torture, and merely threatening their use. This stage corresponds to the prologue through the middle of chapter four, when the governess sees Quint outside the window and realizes that she must protect Miles from his influence. In this section the governess is "prepared" by omens of evil and her vision of Quint just as the reader is "prepared" by the careful build-up of the prologue.

If the Preparatory Torture fails, the inquisitor proceeds to the first part of the Final Torture, called the Ordinary Torture of question definitif, which usually involved pressing, the strappedo, and sometimes the thumbscrews. This phase corresponds to the middle of chapter four through the middle of chapter fourteen, when the governess confronts Miles outside the church and unwittingly reveals her knowledge of the situation. The question definitif, the question that defines the nature of the problem, is basically "For whom did Quint come?" The answer, "not for the governess but for someone else," is quickly refined to "for little Miles." The leitmotif of this second section, as soon in the excerpts quoted above, is pressure, which is established by the words "press" (mentioned two times), "pressed" (three times), "pressure" (four times), "pressing," "tight," "tighten," "pinch," "gripped," "squeezed," "strain," and "ache."

If the Ordinary Torture does not result in a complete confession, the inquisitor would begin the last part of the Final Torture, called the Extraordinary Torture or question extraordinaire, which usually involved squassation and the more exotic instruments that lead to death, such as the spine-screw, the neck-screw, the skull-screw, bone-splitters, the wheel, and a variety of mutilators. This phase corresponds to the middle of chapter fourteen through the end of the story, from the governess’ first real confrontation with Miles through the last scene in which she fulfills her role as confessor-exorcist. The question extraordinaire, the question that gets to the root of the problem, may be "How much do you know, Miles?" and the answer may be "Not half I want to!" Although there are several question in chapter fourteen, they all serve the same purpose of hinting at hidden knowledge, and suggest that Miles wishes to become a full-fledged demon. The leitmotif of this section is sharpness (suggesting pointed screws other than the thumbscrew), established by words such as "pierced," "piercing," "stabbing," and "sharp"; bone splitters may be suggested by "fierce split" and the wheel is indicated by reference to the "slow wheel."

The word "revolution" – the literal equivalent of "turn" in the title – is the most precise linguistic indicator of the division of these three sections, for it occurs in the middle of chapter four and the middle of chapter fourteen and no where else in the story. The governess deliberately calls attention to this term; the first growth of her perception is "an inward revolution" while the second realization leads to outward action: "the revolution unmistakeably occurred. I call it a revolution because I now see how … the curtain rose on the last act of my dreadful drama and the catastrophe was precipitated." As Heinlein suggests, the story may very well be a ritual drama or morality play, one consisting of exactly three acts. Since "revolution" is unmistakeably used to refer to an act-change upon its second occurred, it seems reasonable to assume that it is used in the same way upon its first occurrence; no other linguistic device would indicate more than three acts.

Further evidence, in addition, suggests that these two transitions are clearly set apart from the usual flow of the narrative or drama. Both revolutions occur on a Sunday, which further suggests that the story is a Christian demonic-versus-divine ritual drama. Soon after the first revolution, the governess places herself outside the window in the exact spot where Quint stood; soon after the second revolution, she places herself at the bottom of the stairs in the exact place previously occupied by Miss Jessel. The parallelism of this symbolic act suggests that the governess, in order to become a "screen" and "sacrifice" for the children, is using the most dangerous technique used by the exorcist: instead of casting out the demons upon a lower form of life such as swine, she takes them upon herself by occupying their positions in an act of imitative magic, upon the principle that her virtue is strong enough to do battle and defeat them, and thus send them back directly to hell.

But the governess’ endeavors are doomed to failure, partially because of her own inadequacies and partially because Flora and Miles are not simply unwilling victims of demoniac possession, but have willingly subjected themselves to both demonic and pagan powers. Flora and Miles are definitely preternatural in their "angelic" beauty and "blessed" innocence, but this may all be a sham to hide their true natures. Miles, like Quint, is an excellent actor. Miles is "under an interdict," perhaps has been excommunicated, because "he was a fiend at school." Both children attended the "inconceivable communion," perhaps that of the Black Mass. At one point one of the governess’ gloves requires "three stitches," perhaps because this was a common folklore protection against the evil eye. But the children’s own witches’ charms nevertheless defeat her: she is "under a charm," "under a spell," walks in a world "as charming as a charming story," "in a world of their invention," and her restlessness on the first night is caused by Flora’s "extraordinary charm," just as a "charm of stillness" is caused by the first appearances of Quint and Miss Jessel. Under Miles’s hands "the schoolroom piano broke into all gruesome fancies" which distracted or charmed the governess so that Flora could visit Miss Jessel. Neither should be overlook Mrs. Grose, who likes children "with the spirit to be naughty" and who "offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch’s broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan."

Mrs. Grose asks the governess, perhaps with conscious ridicule and irony, "Are you afraid he’ll corrupt you?" and thus is the first character to imply that Miles is a demon-lover, a phenomenon that merges Christian demonology with Celtic fairy lore. We should recall James’s prefatory remarks to the effect that the apparitions are not merely "goblins, elves, imps, and demons," but may be, "more pleasingly, fairies of the legendary order, wooing their victims forth to see them dance under the moon." How often critics have understood pejoratively James’s remark that "The exhibition involved is in other words a fairy tale pure and simple." On one level the story is a tale of fairies: Mrs. Grose says to the governess, "You will be carried away by the little gentleman!" – perhaps as fairies carry away their victims. The governess is led by Flora: "as my little conductress, with her hair of gold and her frock of blue, danced before me round corners and pattered down passages, I had the view of a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all colour out of storybooks and fairy-tales. Wasn’t it just a story-book over which I had fallen a doze and a-dream?" The house towers date from "gingerbread antiquity"; the children are "a pair of little grandees, of princes of the blood"; Miles is "a little fairy prince." The governess contends that "even while they pretend to be lost in their fairy-tale they’re steeped in their vision of the dead restored," without realizing that in a literal fairy tale the dead are restored.

For the Celtic fairy-lore we need but note the dining room like a "cold, clean temple of mahogany and brass," the great stairs made of the oak sacred to the Druids, the Druidic oracular "rooks" who "stopped cawing in the golden sky" at Quint’s appearance. Unlike a fully aware priest-exorcist, the governess fails to realize that pagan daemons are equivalent to Christian demons, and the "strange freedom" of Quint’s lack of a hat, symbol of higher thought and rational restraint, strikes the chord of her own desire for pagan pleasure rather than Christian duty and causes her ultimate downfall: "it was the first time, in a manner, that I had known space and air and freedom, all the music of summer and all the mystery of nature, … it was a trap – not designed, but deep – to my imagination." The trap is the primordial power of the moon, of lunacy, of giving oneself up to amoral pleasure rather than to Christian moral restriction, just as Flora "gave herself up" to the "great still moon" as Miles, on the lawn, stands "fascinated" by the serpentine Quint on the tower.

The common denominator of these religious themes is ambivalence and ambiguity, or more precisely a sense of two-sidedness. The governess is both a savior and a cruel inquisitor; by attempting to save the children’s souls she may have lost them. The children are pure and simple, yet may hide complex natures behind a theatrical mask of innocence; they seem angelic but are perhaps demonic. The story mixes Christian morality with pagan amorality. The technical Freudian sense of ambivalence may be seen in the governess’ view of Miles as a child yet a lover, as a reflection or displacement of the uncle with whom she is infatuated. Miles himself may be an innocent child and yet a mature demon-lover who attempts to seduce and corrupt the governess. Much of "the uncanny ugliness and horror and pain" of the story disappears if we attempt to ignore either side of these ambiguities, particularly if we view the governess as a mere neurotic.

The most disturbing ambiguity of the story is its sexual level, which is presented not merely as ambivalence but as a highly systematic rendering of the coincidentia oppositorum consisting of interrelated syzygies, or pairs of opposites. The angelic male and female (Miles and Flora) correlate to the demonic male and female (Quint and Miss Jessel). The governess offers herself as a yonic "screen" but acts like a phallic "screw." She sees Quint through the yonic window and sees Miss Jessel on the phallic stairway. The tower and Quint, whose first name is Peter and who is described as being "tall, active, erect," are obvious phallic images, while the pool associated with Miss Jessel is so closely analogous to the vagina and clitoris that it almost become embarrassingly naturalistic rather than symbolic: "The pond, oblong in shape, had a width so scant compared to its length that, with its ends out of view, it might have been taken for a scant river. … [There was] a small refuge formed by one of the recesses of the pool, an indentation masked, for the higher side, by a projection of the bank and by a clump of trees growing close to the water." These syzygies begin coalescing when the phallic Quint peers through the yonic window and the yonic Miss Jessel sits at the bottom of the phallic stairs, and find their coincidentia oppositorum in the governess, who places herself in both identical situations.

The screw is the symbolic correlative of this union of opposites. In sexual terms, although the screw can sometimes be seen as merely a phallic image, it is more correctly seen as an image of the union of male and female, as indicated by its slang usage as a verb meaning "to copulate." More importantly, a screw is a union of a yonic circle at its base and a phallic point at its tip. In geometrical terms, the screw begins as a dichotomy of center and circumference, but narrows down to the sharp tip where center and circumference, paradoxically, are identical, thus making it the geometrical image most closely analogous not only to the coincidentia oppositorum, but to the actual process whereby duality becomes unity. The dual emotive value of this dynamic representation of a complex metaphysical concept can be grasped if we recall the basic twist or spiral used in classical nude sculpture to portray both agony and ecstasy.

The turning screw, as a process rather than an image, has three basic movements – turning, pressing, and piercing, all of which feature prominently in the story.

Turning is the fundamental linguistic leitmotif of the story, for the word "turn" (with its variations "return," "turned," "turning," and "revolution") occurs more than 80 times in the text. Words containing "turn" as their root occur 4 times in the prologue, where the phrase "the turn of the screw" is introduced in its colloquial sense of "giving an added element of thrill, or power" to the story. In the first section of the tale the word is effectively used to set the stage by illustrating the screw-like structure of the mansion and the screw-like movements of the governess. She "turned into the avenue," "walked round" her new environment, took a "little tour" from the summit of the "tower" (tour, tower and turn are etymological cognates), "step by step and room by room and secret by secret" through "corridors" and down "crooked staircases" and "round corners," all of which suggest a spiraling movement to the narrative. After meeting Mrs. Grose and Flora, she goes to "take a turn into the grounds," where she imagines that someone might appear "at the turn of a path," is startled when her imagination "had, in a flash, turned real!" and she sees Quint standing in one of the "angles," passing to "the opposite corner of the platform" on the "tower." After he "turned away," she, "on her return" to the house, "turned it over" in her mind, and experienced the "inward revolution" marking the first act of her drama. Back in the house, the governess "turns" into the dining room, where she "turns cold" at seeing Quint outside the window, rushes outside and "turns the corner," but on finding no one, "instead of returning as she had come," she places herself where Quint stood and causes Mrs. Grose, upon seeing her, to "turn white."

Although the repetitive use of this term may be simply a Jamesian mannerism, after the first "revolution" occurs a strange transformation begins to take place, causing the governess to "sharpen all her senses," to "reflect acutely," to activate her intense "scrutiny" ("scrutiny" and "screw" are etymological cognates), and by the end of the story the governess has become almost identical with the screw: "It was a tighter place still than I had yet turned round in."

Although the word "turn" is associated with the governess’ actions more than two-thirds of the time, it is also associated with every character and almost every event at some point in the narrative. The house itself has two towers, turning corridors and garden paths, and the "great turn of the staircase." Mrs. Grose is full of "the quick turns of simple folk," in contrast to the deliberate turns of the governess. Quint died because of "the icy slope, the turn mistaken at night and in liquor." Flora, under Miss Jessel’s influence, "turned her back to the water" and performs the central symbolic act of screwing:

She had picked up a small flat piece of wood, which happened to have in it a little hole that had evidently suggested to her the idea of sticking in another fragment that might figure as a mast and make the thing a boat. This second morsel, as I watched her, she was very markedly and intently attempting to tighten in its place.

Whether or not James is here consciously using sexual symbolism, it is certainly an effective indicator of Flora’s precocious sexual awareness. This act, presented with an aura of uncanniness, may be an act of imitative magic whereby Flora casts a spell upon the governess, giving her the feeling of "being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship."

Using the screw as an impressionist analogy, we might feel that Mrs. Grose turns somewhere near the top, never penetrating the depths; Quint and Miss Jessel are somewhere near the bottom, trying to "return" from the dead; Miles and Flora are in the middle, drawn in both directions; the governess subsumes the entire length, moving from the top to the bottom because of her "scrutiny."

The "great turn" of the staircase may be the architectural correlative of the screw, a coital union between the phallic towers and the yonic pool. This staircase is singled out for more than ordinary treatment: it is where the governess encounters Quint for the third time and Miss Jessel for the second time; it is preternaturally long – "I saw Quint turn and go straight down the staircase and into the darkness in which the next bend was lost." The staircase is more often descended than ascended, which parallels the basic movement of the story and the frequently repeated symbolic action of "plunging into the hideous obscure": "there are depths, depths" "depths and possibilities that I lacked resolution to sound," "To gaze into the depths of blue of the child’s eyes," "I must take my plunge," "I again push my way through it to the end," "I have at last reached the heart of it," "depth of depravity," "deep design," "The shock, in truth, had sunk into me still deeper," "deeper depths of consternation … had opened beneath my feet," "a darker obscure … confounding and bottomless."

What the governess discovers at this heart of darkness and hideous obscurity is difficult to explicate, for it is the very essence of ambiguity. At the most easily understood level, it is the demonic in a religious sense – the governess grasps the full significance of Quint’s "white face of damnation." At the more human level, it is the perverse in the sexual sense. Sexual desire or libido is central to most of Henry James’s work. The Turn of the Screw shocked its contemporaries because of the sexual ambiguity and sexual perversion disturbingly hinted at throughout the story. It is not difficult to understand the governess’ love for Miles, particularly from the Freudian view-point, for as a mother-surrogate she would have the incestuous desires common to the Oedipal situation. The Oedipal situation would work both ways, and it is equally natural for Miles to love the governess, even if he were not a demon-lover. However, no matter how "distasteful" this libido content of the story may be, it is actually quite "normal," since Oedipal incest is the basis for "normal" heterosexual genitality: it is not perverse in the Freudian sense of being pregenital.

Quint’s purpose would be less perverse if he desired Flora, but he clearly desires Miles. A definite sexual aura surrounds not only Quint’s "tall, active, erect" body, but his "secret disorders, vices more than suspected," his "depravity" and "depth of depravity." The governess is convinced that what she has "to deal with is, revoltingly, against nature." A demon fighting for control of a human soul is actually quite natural within a Christian universe; Quint’s "depravity" goes beyond this, and "against nature" strongly suggests the contra naturam with which the medieval mind branded homosexuality. Several critics have detected this in the story, but have prudently suppressed it or have dismissed it as an indication of Miles’s "boyish homosexuality" supposedly common to most adolescent males.

In addition to the governess’ descriptions of Quint’s "vice," there are several indicators that Quint is an aggressive homosexual. Quint resembles a wolf insofar as he is described as a "hound" and "so hungrily hovers for Miles": a long tradition beginning with Plato’s Phaedrus identifies the wolf and werewolf with the aggressive homosexual: "As the wolf to the lamb, so lover to his lad." The reader naturally wonders about the relationship of Miles and Quint before Quint’s death, for they had "so close an alliance." "For a period of several months Quint and the boy had been perpetually together," and yet Miles, according to Mrs. Grose, "denied certain occasions … when he had gone off with the fellow … and spent hours with him." We are also perplexed as to why Miles was expelled from school. To suggest that this was because he performed a homosexual act may be rank unfounded speculation, since James has so carefully denied us this information, but there is only analogy that would support this interpretation. Flora’s major act of evil, at least the act that fills the governess with the greatest sense of uncanny horror, is her assumption of a male role by inserting a phallic stick into a yonic hold. For the sake of symmetry – and numerous patterns suggest that symmetry is an important technique in the story – Miles’s major act of evil should be the assumption of a female role, perhaps as the receptor in either fellatio or sodomy. Just as Flora’s act occurred at the first "revolution," so Miles’s act is hinted at in the second "revolution," when he tells the governess that he desires to return to school, rejects the female ("You know, my dear, that for a fellow to be with a lady always -- !"), and exclaims "I want my own sort!"

Several passages in the story suggest that the governess inadvertently accomplishes all that the demonic forces wishe to accomplish by the very act of combating these forces. This places the governess in a poor light and makes the reader regard her as an agent of evil, but we should be careful to distinguish upon what grounds we may wish to condemn her. Is the destruction of the children caused by her "infernal imagination" or by her lack of full comprehension? Is she neurotic or an inept exorcist? Her own self-doubt – "if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?" – has often been interpreted to mean that Miles was innocent and that she there was guilty, but James’s question indicates that the essence of evil is the sense of self-doubt and ambiguity arising from a blurring of the distinctions between good and evil.

At the end of the story, the factual reality of Miles’s death is difficult to explain as a consequence of a neurotic governess. The governess gripped him to her bosom for only a minute, not long enough to suffocate him. That a child with a healthy heart should be scared to death is not very realistic. The cause must be symbolic or supernatural: he died because his soul was demonic, and because the exorcism of such a soul necessarily terminates life as it expels the demon. Just as Flora at the pond had actually become Miss Jessel – "To see her … turn at me an expression of hard, still gravity … this was a stroke that somehow converted the little girl herself into the very presence that could make me quail. … she was not at these times a child, but an old, old woman" – so Miles and Quint are identical. The governess was fully justified in her correct perception that Quint’s mastery would entail Miles’s damnation, and in taking upon herself the Christian roles of expiatory sacrifice, Grand Inquisitor, father confessor, and exorcising priest. But her built lay in failing to realize the significance of the last line of the story: "his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped." However evil that heart may have been, to dispossess the body of the heart is to kill it. Miles was already irretrievably lost; had the governess let well enough alone he would have lived on, albeit in evil, at least from the Christian perspective. Had she been a pagan, she would have appreciated that there is no real dichotomy between good and evil, that if one succeeds in scrutinizing the inscrutable, one will discover that the essences of innocence and sin, of good and evil, of Flora and Miss Jessel, of Miles and Quint, are, in their extreme manifestations, identical. The governess, by a process of over-careful intellectual distinctio, or scrutiny, has discovered, to her horror, conjunctio, or the inscrutable: the "Quint-essence" of the coincidentia oppositorum.

In sum, I see the story as an attempt by James to exorcise homosexual feelings within himself, which he perceived to be sinful and which he could not bring himself to admit and to incorporate within a healthy sense of self. He constantly toys with the possibility of the return of the repressed, but ends by not allowing that possession to occur. But at the same time he recognized – and this is what we as readers feel – that the continued repression of this apparent evil was in itself destructive, and the greater evil. The ambiguity with which the story ends arises as a result of the conflict of recognizing that the "depravity" that is "against nature" really does exist and is not an apparition, but that at the same time it is the heart and soul of Miles and the main reason for living. In other words, this is a fairly typical case common to the writing of many gay men before the 1970s, in which they recognize that their sexuality is a force for good but they cannot accept it because of the stigma attached to it.


Copyright © 1971, 1999 Rictor Norton

(Parts of this article were originally published in American Imago, vol. 28, no. 4 (Winter, 1971), pp. 373-90.)


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Henry James's The Turn of the Screw", Gay History and Literature, 1971, 1999, updated 20 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/henjames.htm>.


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