Essay on The Governess in The Turn of the Screw

Essay on The Governess in The Turn of the Screw

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One of the most critically discussed works in twentieth-century American literature, The Turn of the Screw has inspired a variety of critical interpretations since its publication in 1898. Until 1934, the book was considered a traditional ghost story. Edmund Wilson, however, soon challenged that view with his assertions that The Turn of the Screw is a psychological study of the unstable governess whose visions of ghosts are merely delusions. Wilson’s essay initiated a critical debate concerning the interpretation of the novel, which continues even today (Poupard 313). Speculation considering the truth of the events occurring in The Turn of the Screw depends greatly on the reader’s assessment of the reliability of the governess as a narrator. According to the “apparitionist” reader, the ghosts are real, the governess is reliable and of sound mind, and the children are corrupted by the ghosts. The “hallucinationist”, on the other hand, would claim the ghosts are illusions of the governess, who is an unreliable narrator, and possibly insane, and the children are not debased by the ghosts (Poupard 314). The purpose of this essay is to explore the “hallucinationist” view in order to support the assertion that the governess is an unreliable narrator. By examining the manner in which she guesses the unseen from the seen, traces the implication of things, and judges the whole piece by the pattern and so arrives at her conclusions, I will demonstrate that the governess is an unreliable narrator. From the beginning of The Turn of the Screw, the reader quickly becomes aware that the governess has an active imagination. Her very first night at Bly, for example, “[t]here had been a moment when [she] believed [she] recognized, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when [she] found [herself] just consciously starting as at the passage, before [her] door, of a light footstep.” The governess herself acknowledges her active imagination in an early conversation with Mrs. Grose, when she discloses “how rather easily carried away” she is. Her need for visions and fantasies soon lead her to believe that apparitions are appearing to her. It is from this point on that she begins to guess the unseen from the seen, trace the implication of things, and judge the whole piece by the pattern. After the first appearance of Peter Quint, the governess begins to make infe...


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...t want to be the only one who does. It is another feeble attempt to prove her sanity to herself and to others. However, because she “is so easily carried away”, she soon believes that the children do in fact see the ghosts by reading into their every remark and behavior. By piecing all of this together, the governess proves to herself that she is not insane. The governess in The Turn of the Screw, is a highly unreliable narrator. From the beginning of the story, her energetic imagination is displayed to the reader. With this knowledge alone, it would not be irrational to conclude that she had imagined the appearances of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. However, these facts in addition to her unsubstantiated inferences allow the reader to intelligently label the governess as an unreliable narrator. Works Cited Poupard, Dennis. “Henry James.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism: Volume 24. Ed. Paula Kepos. Detroit: Gale research.; 1990. 313-315.

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Essay on The Governess in The Turn of the Screw

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