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The Turn of the Screw | Context

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Ghosts and Paranormal Psychology

The late 19th century saw an increase in cultural fascination with ghosts, both in America and Europe. Spiritualism, a religious movement based on communicating with the dead, took hold in the 1850s. Books were published on the science of ghosts, including the instantly popular The Night Side of Nature Or Ghosts and Ghost Seers, written by Catherine Crowe, English novelist, playwright, and children's writer. Scientists and psychologists took ghosts seriously. Writers like William James's friend Edmund Gurney published detailed accounts of their own experiences with ghosts.

A group called the Society for Psychical Research emerged in England in 1882 to study the psychic and paranormal. An American branch was founded in 1885, with philosopher William James, Henry James's brother, as a founding member.

Both James's brother William and his father were intrigued by "spirits of the dead" as academic subjects. James's father, in particular, was a fan of Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic who believed the physical world reflected spiritual realities. Swedenborg's ideas influenced famous literary figures such as transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet William Blake, and Henry James himself.

James knew a ghost story about spiritual possession would be a relevant and intriguing topic for readers. He may have based the appearances of both ghosts in the novella, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, on ghosts he'd read about in scientific investigations.

Reality versus Hallucination

An unanswered question drives the novella. Are the ghosts real, or are they hallucinations of the governess? James never answers the question. This ambiguity allows for two separate readings of the story.

The governess is potentially an unreliable narrator, or a narrator who presents an inaccurate version of events to the reader. As her story grows increasingly bleak, she may be confronted with supernatural powers—or she may be going insane. James complicates the story by telling it from the governess's point of view and never clarifying to the reader whether Miles, Flora, or Mrs. Grose, the other main characters at Bly, see or interact with the ghosts (though the governess thinks they do). The novella becomes both a ghost story and a story about the subjective nature of reality.

The ghosts James describes are passive, not saying or doing much—similar to the ghosts depicted in the psychical research of the late 19th century. Critics such as Edmund Wilson have called the ghosts hallucinations from the mind of a sexually repressed governess.

Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories were popular when James wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1898. Much of Freud's work focused on the unconscious mind, female hysteria, and the repression of sexual urges—all ideas present in The Turn of the Screw. Freud also wrote about the "uncanny"—a feeling of unease, anxiety, or terror, which stops short of fright. Low-key "uncanny" disturbances fill The Turn of The Screw and ramp up the tension. Many readers interpret James's novella using Freudian theories, and they read the tale as a psychological case study of the young female governess.

James may not have intended to write a case study. But the novella raises the possibility that the governess is imagining ghosts based on her own fears and desires—her concern for the children's safety, her longing for a relationship with the children's uncle, her anxieties about her job, and her own love of stories and excitement.

Narrative Reliability

The Turn of the Screw contains many narrative layers. The character Douglas reads the governess's story aloud from a letter the governess sent him. The frame story—a story within a story, or a Prologue setting the stage for the main narrative—makes The Turn of the Screw more complicated than a typical novella. The characters in the Prologue have been telling ghost stories they know are invented. Within this context, Douglas presents a story that happened to someone he knew, giving the governess's tale, written "in old faded ink and in the most beautiful hand," a ring of authenticity despite its fantastic content. However, his infatuation with the woman makes his narrative reliability as suspect as the governess's.

The juxtaposition of written versus oral words also played a role in the author's creation of the novella. James, the author, did not physically write the manuscript himself. He developed severe wrist injuries (now suspected to be carpal tunnel syndrome, which results in numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness in the hand due to pressure on the median nerve), making him unable to write or type, so he dictated the novel to his secretary. Thus, the story began, like many ghost stories, in the oral tradition—a tradition that welcomes the variations or embellishments of the teller, and perhaps, in this case, the typist, too.

Ultimately James leaves the truth about the story's ghosts in the hands of the reader, making the reader's interpretation part of the story. He wrote in his preface to the 1908 edition of The Turn of the Screw:

Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
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