Was James' novel an allegory for corruption of the innocent, or a straight forward ghost story?
The question of whether the ‘Bly Ghosts' existed or not in Henry James' ‘Turn of the Screw' has been a debate of literary criticism that has run on for most of the novel's existence.
The ‘first person' narration of the novel means that, apart from the prologue, we see events from the Governesses's side only, and from the beginning, we are led to believe that she has had an uneventful life without her character being called into question. On first sight then, we have no reason to believe she might be unstable or of an hysterical nature, except possibly for her own admission to Mrs Grose early on in the story, when she tells her that she is ‘easily carried away', which suggests she is very impressionable and naive.
James uses an ambiguous narrative throughout the book, particularly the conversations between the Governess and Mrs Grose, where things are continually left unsaid or their sentences are unfinished, leaving all the events open to interpretation. James uses this technique of the ‘unsaid' to mislead his characters, and readers alike, as in the scene after Quint has appeared at the dining room window:
‘Yet you didn't tell me?'
‘No - for reasons. But now that you've guessed -'
Mrs Grose's round eyes encountered this charge. ‘Ah I haven't
guessed!' she said very simply. ‘How can I if you don't imagine?'
Does Mrs Grose fuel the Governess's perhaps vivid and obsessive imagination, or does the Governess's manipulative interrogation of the housekeeper, serve only to justify her curiosity and pre-conceptions about her predecessor's unnatural, sudden departure and subseq...
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...l evidence that the ‘ghosts' exist and no other witnesses. Although we only have the governesses word, her rational account of the events is convincing, especially when she suggests herself, that her suspicious behaviour and paranoia do seem absurd, and even insane in the normal course of things. It is only as the story draws to a close and the children's disconcerting behaviour can be seen as a reaction to the governess's own actions, that her story loses conviction. There obviously were inappropriate goings on at Bly before she came, and the uncle's aversion to any involvement with the children is strange, creating a mysterious aura around the story. But it is James' clever ambiguity throughout the whole novel that makes it impossible in the end to say for sure whether the ghosts were real or whether it was an allegorical tale about the corruption of innocence.
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