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The Turn of the Screw - A Look at a Criticism
There are many different ways to interpret The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Many critics over the past century have voiced their opinions about the story. Each critical analysis of the story disagrees with the beliefs expressed in another. Robert B. Heilman is a critic who wrote in the mid-twentieth century. He interprets The Turn of the Screw to be a representation of the conflict between good and evil. Heilman's points are clear and obviously well thought out, but there are flaws in his argument that make his interpretation questionable.
In his 1948 essay, Robert Heilman explores the suggestion that The Turn of the Screw is a symbolic representation of the conflict between good and evil. Heilman interprets the apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as evil forces. He explains that the ghosts only appear to the governess because evil lurks in subtlety before it strikes. It is the duty of the governess to "detect and ward off evil." She must protect the children from the awful ghosts. The governess describes Miles and Flora as beautiful little cherubs whose only fault is their gentleness (James, 18-19). Heilman views the children's beauty as a "symbol of the spiritual perfection of which man is capable." Heilman explains the ghosts' attempts to reach the children by explaining that evil forces will always try to conquer and possess the human soul. Heilman continues to draw from the descriptions of Miles and Flora to support his theories. He points out that the two children are described as having an "angelic beauty" and a "positive fragrance of purity" (James 9, 13). The governess describes them as if they are perfect and beautiful in every way. This repeated vision of beauty, radiance, and innocence parallels the image of Eden. The house at Bly also resembles this image, "I remember the lawn and the bright flowers..." (James 7). The governess makes mention of the "golden sky" and of Flora's "hair of gold," which Heilman believes connects Bly and Flora with these images of golden hues (James 7, 9).
Robert Heilman perceives that the ghost of Peter Quint is a direct representation of the serpent that plagues the Garden of Eden. Heilman supports this with the description of Quint found in the text, "His eyes are sharp, strange- awfully; .
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The fall of innocence occurs as the seasons change from spring to autumn. On one evening, the governess notes that she "...listened to lash of the rain and the batter of the gusts" (James 60). After the storm, the weather continues to be "damp and grey" (James 65). When the governess and Mrs. Grose find Flora at the lake, Flora is playing with a piece of withered fern (James 67). At this point in the story, the governess is convinced that Flora has run off with Miss Jessel and that Miss Jessel has corrupted Flora. Heilman sees this as not only the change of season's before the end of the year, but as "the end of a cycle: the spring of gay, bright human innocence has given way to the ark autumn - or rather, as we might pun, the dark fall. The decaying foliage suggests the decay of Eden and the fall of Flora and Miles.
By the end of the story, Heilman states that the governess "emphasizes Mile's freedom and sorrowfully gives up 'the fiction that I had anything more to teach him.'" He suggests that this is because Miles has eaten from the tree of knowledge. Heilman points out that as the innocence of the children is spoiled, their health deteriorates. However, the story does not end here. The governess still adheres to her duty as protector and savior of the children. Heilman states, "The governess's priestly function is made still more explicit by the fact that she comes ultimately to act as confessor and to use every possible means to bring Miles to confession." In the ending scene, the governess must protect Miles from the evil force. However, when Miles tries to confess his sins, the horrible face of Peter Quint appears at the window. The governess ultimately fails as "Savior" and Miles is lost forever.
I find Robert Heilman's essay to be fairly convincing, but it does have its weaknesses. For example, the governess speaks of Miles's charm and angelic nature as a cover-up for the awful deed he has committed at school. Even before she meets him, she believes that Miles is "an injury to others" (James 10). How can Miles represent Adam before his fall if he is already guilty of sin? Also, Heilman states that the governess's duty is to protect Miles from evil. How can she protect him from something that she already believes has overtaken him? The question that the governess asks herself at the end of the story does not support Heilman's notions that the governess is a "savior." She asks, "It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent what then on earth was I?" (James 83). This brings to light the governess's realization that she has been at fault throughout the story. Heilman completely fails to address what the fault of the governess is. He does, however, believe that the governess failed as a Savior because Miles dies without having confessed his sins. As I stated earlier, Heilman suggests that the devil, as Peter Quint, succeeds in taken Miles when he fails to confess. However, the ending quote of the story reads, "...and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped," (James 85). If his little heart is dispossessed, then how is it possible that the devil won? The governess also declares that the monster has lost Miles forever and that she now has him (James 85). How has she failed if Peter Quint has lost Miles forever?
Robert B. Heilman's arguments are strong, but I can't fully agree with his interpretation of The Turn of the Screw. His ideas are well thought out, but the text does not always support his theories. Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw in such an ambiguous manner that it is open to many different interpretations. However, it appears that no single interpretation has the ability to cover every aspect of the story and explain it in a way that is convincing to all.
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 24
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.