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The Turn of the Screw | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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How does The Turn of the Screw make use of the conventions and motifs of gothic fiction?

The Turn of the Screw uses several motifs found in the literary tradition of gothic novels, which were popular in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. The motifs include Remote and mysterious places: Bly, a country estate far from the city, is strange and different to the governess when she first arrives. Haunted castles: Bly's ornate architecture includes towers, battlements, and crenellations (notches often seen in the walls at the tops of towers and used to fire weapons through), all features of castles. The governess soon becomes convinced Bly is haunted. A young woman in danger and distress: In many gothic novels, the young woman is threatened by a powerful, horrifying male presence, such as Peter Quint or the uncle. Highly sentimental narration: The governess narrates with overwrought metaphors and, at first, a naive sense of Bly's appeal. Constraint, entrapment, and claustrophobia: Characters within the house feel trapped by the ghosts just outside. Unrequited romance: The governess's unreturned love for the uncle convinces her to fight the ghosts at Bly. The uncanny, or familiar-yet-unfamiliar phenomena: The ghosts are more frightening because of their human appearance.

What does Flora mean when she tells the governess, "I don't like to frighten you!" in Chapter 10 of The Turn of the Screw?

When the governess catches Flora out of bed and looking at the window, she is terrified the child is looking for a ghost outside, but her fears subside when Flora tells the governess she woke up and the governess was gone, so Flora looked for her out of the window. However, the governess sees quickly Flora has arranged her bed to make it appear she is in it, which makes her suspicious all over again. When the governess asks why Flora would pull the curtain over the bed and conceal herself, Flora responds, "Because I don't like to frighten you!" If Flora is innocent, meaning she doesn't know anything about the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and is only playing a harmless game with Miles for instance, she's reminding the governess she's well-behaved, and she is genuinely concerned about her caretaker's distress. Flora's lighted "wonderful little face," from the candle flame in this scene, implies she is still associated with light and knowledge. However, if Flora knows about the ghosts, she is lying, and she may be making a threat. She doesn't want to frighten the governess, so she will lie to her instead. The governess is already certain Flora has seen a ghost, and beginning to think Flora and Miss Jessel are working together against her. Flora's childish logic—making it look like she's in the bed—is peculiar enough to make the reader suspicious, yet childish enough to make the reader doubt that Flora is guilty.

Why do the children use the word dear to address the governess in The Turn of the Screw, and what effect does it have?

The term dear, as the children use it, makes the governess feel she's close to the children. She thinks this informal address is a "respectfully easy" way for them to let her know they are on her side. The children use the term to show kindness and gratitude while talking about or hiding their true intentions, since they know the governess can be distracted by outward affection. Miles and Flora grow more physically affectionate and work harder in school when they sense the governess is distressed or tense. Miles says "my dear" throughout his dialogue in Chapter 14 to get the governess to do what he wants. When he blows out the candle in Chapter 16 he reassures the governess by saying, "It was I who blew it, dear!" Flora reassures and misleads her similarly in Chapter 10, saying to the governess, "Oh but you know ... that you might come back, you dear, and that you have!" The term of affection is meant to convince the governess Flora has total innocent faith in her care and nothing is amiss. Since the governess is letting the reader in on her secret fear of the children—the fear they may be aligned with evil instead of being the outward angels they appear to be—their use of the word dear sounds creepy. It also makes them sound older, and, by doing so, supports the idea of the children being possessed by adult spirits.

What is the significance of the governess's impoverished upbringing in The Turn of the Screw?

Douglas says the governess has reservations about the isolation of the job, but takes it for the high salary. She's easily impressed by the uncle's wealth. She "saw him all in a glow of high fashion, of good looks, of expensive habits" and trusted him more than she otherwise would have. Her desire to do her job well is motivated by her awe at the uncle's (perceived) interest in her, because she's not a woman of means. The job symbolizes promise and upward mobility as well as romance. But the governess realizes she'll lose her financial stability, as well as the uncle's affection, if she fails to care for the children. She's portrayed as vulnerable from the beginning. James uses these details to show how much pressure the governess is under, having never been isolated with children or in a position of authority over servants, and how it could reasonably cause her to buckle. Bly itself dazzles her in contrast to the "disturbing letters from home" she receives in Chapter 4. She's enjoying herself so much with the children her old troubles don't seem to matter. She later thinks this joy allowed her to miss early signs of Bly's corruption. Since the children have been well-educated due to their wealth, the governess holds them in high esteem and realizes immediately they have a power she does not, and she loses her way at times and treats the children as though they are adults. She allows their higher social status to interfere with her authority over them. The children strike her as "little grandees" or "princes of the blood," and she thinks "a bad governess, a parson's daughter" can't spoil Miles. Her inexperience plays a factor here too. The governess's astonishment with how imaginative the children are shows how little she understands Flora and Miles's perspective, leading her to be suspicious of their high level of game playing and communication with each other.

How are religion and churches important in The Turn of the Screw?

The governess is the "daughter of a poor country parson." She's been raised in religious faith and has strong ideas about good and evil. She associates goodness with the angelic and Christian, comparing Flora to "one of Raphael's holy infants." Mrs. Grose finds power in religion when she's faced with an unnamed, demonic evil. When Mrs. Grose first hears from the governess about the Peter Quint sighting, Mrs. Grose's first instinct is to hurry to church, which is the reason she has been looking for the governess anyway: "Won't it do you good?" Mrs. Grose asks the governess. As religious as the governess is, she refuses to go to church throughout the novella. James perhaps implies something is off with respect to the governess's religious beliefs, since she cannot or will not go into a church. When Miles begins to directly question the governess for the first time, the two of them are on their way to church. The conversation represents Miles's fall from innocence to knowledge—a Judeo-Christian idea that originates with Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden into the human world. The governess refers to Miles as having "fallen," in Chapter 24, when she wants to know what he did at school: "the very distance of his fall in the world." Adam and Eve are tempted as the ghosts tempt the children. The ghosts have arrived to "keep up the work of demons" and to "ply [the children] with that evil still" as they did when they were alive. The ghosts are associated with forces of the devil and damnation, implying a Christian version of hell. The fact that the governess can see the ghosts implies that she has fallen from grace and is in a state of sin. However, the governess feels she is struggling on behalf of the children, "fighting with a demon for a human soul." The children are about to leave their idyllic lives to consort with what the governess believes is evil. But Miles makes it into church and the governess doesn't, implying she has fallen from innocence too.

How do characters in The Turn of the Screw seduce other characters, and what effect does seduction have in the novella?

The governess embodies a character type James frequently used: a young, optimistic woman away from home and vulnerable to seduction or powerful attraction. Seduction is not strictly sexual; it's presented as an overpowering influence which leads to compromising decisions. The anonymous narrator thinks the "moral of the story" is the governess falling for the uncle's seduction (which has sexual overtones but is described simply as admiration and faithfulness). The narrator puts a positive spin on the seduction; her never seeing the uncle again is "the beauty of her passion." Douglas, who knows the story, has a more pessimistic outlook. Douglas says the seduction served to put the governess in a job others had feared, and he later reveals she had reason to be afraid. She "succumbed" to the uncle, implying the decision wasn't entirely hers; the uncle manipulated her with his charm and wealth. Mrs. Grose and Miss Jessel may have succumbed to this same attraction. In Chapter 1 Mrs. Grose says the governess will be "carried away" by Miles as she was "carried away" by the uncle. And when the governess does meet Miles in Chapter 3 she's "swept away by his presence." The words imply physical motion or force. Soon she's so "dazzled" by the loveliness of the children their light seems blinding and keeps her from seeing events clearly. Peter Quint, the "hound" of the story, may also have seduced Miss Jessel into an affair, which ruined her career and possibly ended her life. The effects of this seduction don't stop when Miss Jessel dies. She returns in her ghostly form as a reminder of seduction's power.

What role does the audience of houseguests in the Prologue play in The Turn of the Screw?

James gives the novella a built-in imaginary audience, beginning in the Prologue with playful dialogue among friends. He raises tension when the story switches from a lighter tone to a darker one once the houseguests realize the stakes of the story. The houseguests serve as audience surrogates for the reader; they ask the same questions a reader might. The guests aren't named, and only a few are described—they could be anyone. The reader approaches the story, like the houseguests, excited to hear a macabre tale. But Douglas, the reader of the tale, almost has "a tone of hope" when he hears the guests may not stay for his story. He reminds the reader audiences don't always have a positive impact on their storytellers, who, like the governess, may have to relive dreadful things. The guests are willing to be emotionally manipulated, like the audience in a horror movie (safely removed from the action). They hope Douglas's reading the story late at night will produce "the kind of emotion on which our hopes were fixed." When the point of view switches to the story's protagonist, the action begins to close in on the reader.

Why is the governess alarmed by Peter Quint's appearance when she sees him for the third time—on the staircase—in Chapter 9 of The Turn of the Screw?

Quint fits Freud's definition of the uncanny (unnerving but not frightening). He is familiar because he looks like a human, but unfamiliar because he appears as a spirit. The spirit is "hideous just because it was human." The governess first describes him as "like nobody" in Chapter 5, since she has no basis of comparison for him—he may look like a man, but he isn't a man. His lack of a hat indicates his unusual habits right away. But what is most frightening about this appearance is Quint's silence. No communication, even nonverbal, passes between Quint and the governess. He represents forces she doesn't understand and that threaten her very existence as the author of her own narrative. After staring at Quint the governess begins to "doubt if even I were in life."

How are the towers at Bly significant in The Turn of the Screw?

The towers at first make the governess dizzy when she walks up with Flora. She's overwhelmed and already out of her element, while Flora is right at home, signifying their differing social statuses. The governess realizes the towers are impractical architecture and views them through the lens of her education as a nod to a "respectable past." The governess represents the new and hopeful, while Bly and its towers represents the old, including the dead. Later she realizes the towers give visibility over the entire estate of Bly. Visibility is power, as the governess knows from her "power" to see the ghosts. Peter Quint views her from a position of authority emphasized by literal height. His hands even move from one crenellation to the next, showing his freedom to move as he pleases. In Chapter 10 the governess is able to locate Miles on the lawn at night by looking through the tower's window. The distance of the towers can also obscure vision and blur reality. Peter Quint seems like "a picture in a frame" in the tower. Miles is "diminished by distance" when the governess looks down. She puts herself in the spot where Quint stood, trying to achieve the all-knowing visibility and power of the ghosts, as she did when she went outside to the window on her second Quint sighting.

How does The Turn of the Screw approach the topic of sexual abuse and child molestation?

The novella alludes to but never confirms Peter Quint's molestation of Miles. Both of the children are victims of neglect, since the uncle left them under the care of the incompetent Quint. But the governess can instantly recognize Quint as a threat specifically to Miles, who is 10 and beginning to go through puberty or sexual maturation. That fact itself confirms the governess's awareness of Miles as a sexual creature and makes her likewise suspect in a potentially inappropriate relationship with the boy. As Mrs. Grose reveals the relationship between Quint and Miles, she leaves the true threat unspoken and the details open to interpretation, which frustrates the governess. The details add up to a shameful, hidden secret, which can't be openly discussed. But James drops hints. Quint and Miles were "great friends" who spent hours together; Quint was "too free" with every member of the staff; Miles has never talked about Quint with the governess, despite the servant's important role in the boy's life, and Mrs. Grose urges the governess not to mention Quint to Miles; Miles lied about how much time he spent with Quint, suggesting shame and guilt on the part of the child. When the governess recounts when Mrs. Grose describes Quint's closeness to Miles, she says Mrs. Grose asked Miss Jessel about the "incongruity" of the friendship. Miss Jessel told Mrs. Grose to "mind her business." This detail may imply Miss Jessel knew about the abuse and covered it up to protect Quint—proving the governess's theory of the two working in tandem to destroy the children, and the neglectful uncle allowing the abuse to proceed.

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