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The Turn of the Screw | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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In The Turn of the Screw how do class distinctions affect the characters and plot?

The scandal of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel stems from the difference in their social classes, though other factors, such as their status as servants and as caretakers of the children, are also at play. Quint, as a "base menial" or lower-class man, takes advantage of Miss Jessel. The governess, in Miss Jessel's old job, feels vulnerable. Miss Jessel is described as a "most respectable person"—someone who, by virtue of her upbringing, doesn't deserve what happens to her. The mystery surrounding her death makes Miss Jessel the more tragic of the ghosts. It is unclear whether she died of childbirth, complications from an abortion, or some other cause. Class differences are used to protect, divide, and manipulate. Mrs. Grose tries to protect Miles from Quint, when Quint is alive, by telling Miles she doesn't want the young man to forget his station. Instead, Miles uses his station to assert authority over Mrs. Grose and Miss Jessel uses her station to block Mrs. Grose from protecting Miles. The governess's education is a class distinction that gives her authority over Mrs. Grose. But the children, who are born into wealth, have authority over both their adult protectors. Also, the governess isn't rich herself, a fact which sets the whole plot in motion. In the Prologue, Douglas explains she took the position for the high promised salary (perhaps part of the uncle's seduction technique) despite her concerns, lack of experience, and the uncle's demand she handle every aspect of the children's lives without his support—all factors in her failure to handle the children and the frightening situation.

How does The Turn of the Screw emphasize the difference between hearing spoken words and reading written words?

The layers of narrative in the frame story ask the reader to consider the different impacts of spoken or written storytelling. The governess's written account is filtered through Douglas's performance, and by the anonymous narrator's transcription. The spoken account draws an eager audience, but the written story has a greater sense of suspense and secrecy. The governess focuses on the intonation of the children's voices to determine whether or not they are lying. In Chapter 9 Flora answers "no" when the governess asks if she saw anyone at the window. The answer comes with "a long sweetness in her little drawl." This exaggerated tone tips the governess off to her possible lie. When she finds Miles on the lawn he admits he's been "bad" with "sweetness and gaiety," using the same trick Flora did. She can also tell he's scripted his answers to her questions by the way he speaks—"his answers rang out with a readiness." In Chapter 14 Miles asks when he's going back to school. The governess admits the question sounds "harmless enough" written down. But aloud, Miles's intonations sound like he is "tossing roses" and something in his "sweet, high, casual pipe" gives her pause. His Chapter 24 confession seems to the governess like a contradiction—"such a speech by such a speaker"—emphasizing how Miles's speech and demeanor still make her want to trust him, even if she's not certain he is telling the truth. These passages can be usefully contrasted with the governess's retelling of her daily experiences to the housekeeper. Mrs. Grose cannot read, so the governess is restricted to conversation in her communication with the housekeeper. But Mrs. Grose does not narrate the story, so the reader has no independent way of assessing the vocal characteristics on which she places so much emphasis in the governess's communications with the children.

How does The Turn of the Screw employ references to locks, enclosures, and traps?

The governess's letter is in a locked drawer; it's a secret kept for a reason. Douglas "unlocks" the story in a gesture of release and revelation. The story's characters find themselves in various enclosures, psychological and physical. By Chapter 12 the governess is convinced Miles "had" her "in a cleft stick"—a trapped position. Miles knew she couldn't confront him about the ghosts without appearing to introduce evil elements into his life, since he'd never referenced the evil himself. Until Chapter 23 she has been "barred" from knowing the truth, but senses she is no longer barred since Miles is about to disclose information. The boy himself is staring outside the window, "shut in or shut out" of the house; he's in a physical trap. The governess also traps the children. She compares herself to a gaoler (jailer) "with an eye to possible surprises and escapes." The children are surrendering to her by choice. Miles's surrender to her will eventually means his death. The governess "grasps" him or holds him in her grasp in an attempt to save him, while actually increasing his confinement. The ghosts trap everyone. Peter Quint appears at the window like a "sentinel before a prison"—a prison guard, keeping watch over both the governess and Miles. Bly's many windows give its residents a sense of always being seen, and being stuck within an enclosure.

How does Chapter 24 of The Turn of the Screw use bestial metaphors to heighten the story's tension?

Peter Quint had recognizable human features at first. Now the descriptions James uses are more vague and the verbs more aggressive. Quint's turning at the window is like "the prowl of a baffled beast." His head moves like a "baffled dog's." The governess is now convinced she's fighting something closer to animal than human—something she can't define or describe—and eventually stops referring to Quint by his human name. She calls him "the beast." The words emphasize the strength and depravity of the forces she defends Miles from. They also reinforce the idea the governess is losing her mind. The more afraid she is the more evil the ghost seems. Miles too becomes less than human as he dies. His last breath is "the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss." She realizes "what it was that I held" rather than who, implying Miles is no longer a person but an entity.

How does The Turn of the Screw explore the idea of repression through the governess and the children?

The governess doesn't feel repressed by her longing for the uncle; he's made her feel rewarded for her sacrifice already. But she can't tell him her true feelings. She's discouraged from communicating with him at all. Her worries, fears, and desires manifest themselves in the sighting of her "young and pretty" predecessor Miss Jessel and the other masculine force at Bly, Peter Quint. Miles's references to "getting on," his desire for the governess "to let me alone" and his longing for freedom indicate repression at Bly. His adult minders want to preserve his innocence to protect him from ghosts, although he's already seen more than they have, either through his ghostly visions or through his companionship with Quint. He's maturing into a young man and is outwardly compliant but inwardly resistant to the governess. Her insistence on the children's childishness and innocence is itself a type of repression, particularly for Miles, and may indicate some conflict in her emotions toward the boy.

How does The Turn of the Screw explore the idea of the unconscious mind through the governess?

In Chapter 7 the governess recognizes there are "depths, depths" to what she's seeing and what she isn't seeing. She's more afraid of "what I don't see, what I don't fear!"—what she can't possibly know or harness in words, and what's waiting in the darkness but may never emerge. To see the ghosts, she taps into her unconscious mind, which affects her perception of the real "natural" world. The words "natural" and "unnatural" are contrasted frequently in the text. The clearly visible world is "natural" and the spiritual, unconscious world "unnatural." The governess can see an "unnatural" world where others cannot. The unconscious mind provides a vision the conscious mind can't. The governess thinks she can't help seeing the ghosts. Not even shrubberies or big trees can conceal Peter Quint if he wants to appear. She says, "He was there or was not there: not there if I didn't see him," which may imply she imagined the ghosts into being. She attributes the ghost sightings to a "power" she has, and throughout the novella she grows into consciousness of this power.

For what purpose does The Turn of the Screw never clearly explain the cause of Miles's death?

James needed ambiguity to tell an effective ghost story. In his preface to the 1908 edition of The Turn of the Screw, he said his "hovering prowling blighting presences ... would have to depart altogether from the rules." He wrote a plot which seems simple on the surface but has layers of complexity. James wanted to make the reader "think" or interpret the evil for themselves. Miles is "dispossessed" at the end of the narrative after the governess's attempted exorcism. Is he finally left alone by Peter Quint, or is he left by the governess's own possession of him through her telling of the story? If the governess is right and the evil spirits are real, she too is in danger—no one is safe. If Miles dies for reasons unrelated to the ghosts, the story is still tragic. If the governess herself kills Miles, the story is deeply unsettling; a woman's delusions lead her to kill the child she claims to protect. The nature of the evil is left to the reader's mind. The story doesn't clarify the nature of the governess's reality, and the reason for Miles's death hinges on the reliability of her narration, which is deliberately left unclear. To make one interpretation more definite would annihilate other possible ways to analyze the story. Miles's death cannot be explained, which heightens the terror of the tale.

How does the scientific study of ghosts in the 19th century impact The Turn of the Screw?

Ghosts were treated as genuine scientific phenomena. Ghost sighters in the 19th century, such as the Fox sisters, were objects of curiosity and fame. James could research "real" ghost cases and lend an air of authenticity to his narrative by having Peter Quint and Miss Jessel behave like "real" ghosts—passive and inactive—only significant because of where and to whom they appear and how they acted in life. The living characters are given all the agency, choices, and dialogue in the story, allowing the ghosts to become projections. The readers at the time would have taken the story seriously and perhaps imagined similar sightings happening to them. The characters operate under the same beliefs. Mrs. Grose, for instance, does not immediately dismiss the governess as mad but listens to her concerns. The governess considers other accounts of ghosts when she reflects on her first sighting of Peter Quint. She refers in Chapter 4 to "the great question" of how long the apparition remained. This question was commonly asked of those who claimed to see ghosts.

How is the word bad contrasted with the word evil in The Turn of the Screw, and why is the difference significant?

At first when the governess learns Miles has been expelled, she wonders if he's been "bad." Bad falls into the realm of ordinary misbehavior—pranks, foul language, or bad manners. The governess and Mrs. Grose both think any boy of Miles's age will be bad from time to time. However, the governess wonders if he can "contaminate" or "corrupt." These words are associated with evil, a corrosive force influencing others, and one too strong to punish in the way a governess might punish "bad" behavior. Contrasted with evil, bad behavior seems innocent. Miles takes advantage of this distinction when he goes out onto the lawn in Chapter 10, presumably to communicate with the ghosts. He wants the governess to "think me—for a change—bad!" If he is only bad, he cannot be evil. The governess acknowledges his attempt is "charming," particularly his waiting till the symbolically eerie hour of midnight. Flora's own disappearance from her bed is similarly bad but not evil on the surface, just a prank played on the governess. Evil is associated with darkness. When the children blow out the candles or turn off the lights, the change in atmosphere indicates evil intent. Likewise, when the governess says she's "in the dark" about Miles's expulsion, she suspects evil. By Chapter 16 the governess is convinced Miles has been expelled for "wickedness"—for evil which is deliberate and conscious, whether on the part of Miles or Peter Quint working through him. The children on their own can be bad, but they need outside help to be evil.

Why does the governess compare Miles and Flora to fairies and otherworldly creatures, and how does her viewpoint affect her character in The Turn of the Screw?

Flora has "angelic beauty" and her presence helps Bly "take all the colour out of story-books and fairy-tales"—at least at first. She dances through Bly like a "rosy sprite." When the governess imagines the children's lives as adults, she can only picture "a romantic, a really royal extension of the garden and the park." They are so wealthy and isolated they might as well be living in a book. For the governess, who comes from a more realistic and impoverished world, the children can easily charm her. The governess believes Miles has an unusual air of "knowing nothing in the world but love." Though he's neglected and possibly abused, he behaves beautifully. This perception makes his fall from innocence even more heartbreaking for the governess. Flora appears "luminously" in the candle light in Chapter 10. Her questions make the governess feel as if she, the adult, has misbehaved. The children's air of authority makes them seem like powerful citizens of another world—they can control human behavior without appearing to do so. Flora, for instance, can "accompany ... without appearing to oppress." The awe the governess has for the children takes a turn and makes the governess feel powerless even though she has created her own sense of powerlessness without realizing it. Miles appears in the moonlight like a "fairy prince." His "brightness" (the children are frequently associated with light) makes the governess think he won't tell her anything awful. But Miles "bloomed" and "fairly glittered" like a celestial being, indicating otherworldly power. These contradictions bewilder the governess; they lead her only to be suspicious of both children. In Chapter 23 when Miles twirls his hat, she sees him as mortal, a "small helpless creature." The shine begins to fall off him and she feels more compelled to protect him.

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