Catch up with past entries:
- “The Turn of the Screw” — Introduction through Chapter 2
- Steve’s Response: “The Turn of the Screw” — Introduction through Chapter 2
- “The Turn of the Screw” — Chapters 3 – 5
- Steve’s Response: “The Turn of the Screw” — Chapters 3 – 5
- “The Turn of the Screw” — Chapters 6 – 7
Let me just confine myself to Mrs. Grose for this installment, since Mike is like a dog with a bone, all over every exchange to prove that the narrator is forcing her impressions on the poor old housekeeper, who is clearly reluctant to endorse the narrator’s wilder surmises.
I can’t call Mike a Johnny-One-Note, because he has more than one note that he runs into the ground. He has the aforementioned note about how the governess puts words in Mrs. Grose’s mouth, converts the merest shrug of acquiescence into grand spates of further conjecture, and so on. He has another note that goes like this: Only the governess sees the ghost. So maybe there’s no ghost.
Or maybe there’s a ghost and only the governess can see it. Ultimately, “what really happens” isn’t determined by statistical probability or what the explanation would be “in real life” or anything other than what the author says, and the point here may be that the improbable is precisely what came down. Especially in a ghost story.
I have been reflecting on my esteemed colleague’s insistence that a writer like James is going to be up to something riskier and more provocative than the same ol’ same-ol’. I think he’s right. But he puts his money on the mad governess who is an unreliable narrator. I put my money on The Turn of the Screw being less about ghosts than about evil–an especially disturbing take on evil. What is daring is the assertion that children can not only be corrupted by evil adults, but that their own evil can be carried off with cunning and elan.
Yes, only the governess sees their evil, so maybe they aren’t evil – the governess is evil. But maybe they are evil and ghost-ridden and only the governess sees it. Maybe the governess is Thoreau’s “majority of one.” This too makes sense of the text, and explains much of the evidence that Mike uses against her. The governess is certain that Flora is aware of Miss Jessel across the lake. It seems to be mostly an intuition, but I think readers may not be as skeptical as Mike about her ability to sense that the child is playing a part. In subsequent chapters, the governess will impute to both children an uncanny ability to play-act innocence and goodness without a single slip. Certainly the mad-governess theorist can convert this to his use: the ostensible behavior of the children can be explained by theirreally being innocent and good. But what if James’s audacity runs the other way? Wily children taught by monsters and hardened in evil can put on an act that will fool everybody except a person with preternatural intuition and sensibility – their governess.
Admittedly, the governess is perpetually keyed up, even manic. She says as much, speaking of her obsession, saying she skirted the precincts of madness. (This, incidentally, is a touch that enhances rather than undermines her reliability. Seriously deranged people write obviously deranged texts. One element sure to be missing from their accounts is self-questioning of this sort. It is now part of folk wisdom to state that all sane people wonder sometimes about their sanity, while the sign of a madman is his absolute certainty that he is sane.) I find that James does a good job of characterizing a person who is altogether alone in a terrifying situation that is beyond anything her education and knowledge can guide her through. Often the governess indulges a turn for macabre comedy, speaking with brazen familiarity about the two demons and leaving Mrs. Grose speechless. I might ask, in the governess’s circumstances, who wouldn’t do this?
Mike is right that Mrs. Grose, in these middle chapters, becomes more and more resistant to the governess’s interpretations. She is the epitome of decency and common sense, a stolid presence grounding us in ordinary reality. But reality hereabouts is no longer ordinary. And Mike’s heavy-handed advocacy for Mrs. Grose as the sane party will turn against him in Chapter 21, when Mrs. Grose, having just previously reached such a degree of skepticism as to have effectively turned against the governess, capitulates entirely and pronounces herself convinced of every particle of the governess’s case. James has merely made her the perfect foil for the governess – her very resistance causes their conversations to crackle, and her eventual endorsement of the governess will be all the more impressive for being long delayed. Trustworthy feet-on-the-ground Mrs. Grose will put the last nail in the coffin of the mad-governess hypothesis.