The novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James tells the tale of a governess who’s taking care of two children and encounters what she believes are two ghosts. The ghosts of both Jessel and Quint are symbolic of the governess’ own decaying sanity between her morals and possessive obsession towards the children. From the very inception of the story, the governess “was young, untried nervous: it was a vision of serious duties and little company, of really great loneliness.
” (5). with an emphasis on loneliness as the Bly house was isolated with only servants and the two children to keep her company. The Master of the house, uncle of the two orphaned children, even instructed her to solve all affairs that may blossom with the children without his consultation – furthering her own personal isolation from those her own age and an authority figure to keep her in check. Though only briefly mentioned, the governess is noted to have had a crush on the Master and part of her positivity regarding her job is to please him; however, this sudden rebuttal and desolation leaves her grasping for company and purpose to make him notice her.
At least, that’s how it was before she met the children. From her first meeting with the young eight-year old, the governess already fell into an illusion of grandeur and possession when she thinks to herself, “so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably more than anything else to do with the restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about my room to take in the whole picture and prospect[.
]” (7). with “my little girl” becoming more commonly said than Flora’s own name.
Though they’ve only just met, the governess asserts her possession on Flora, which may in fact be true as the governess has now become the sole authority figure within the household and can lay claim to this child, projecting phantasmagoric images of innocence and beauty onto her, freely without reproach. Meaning, the governess is in possession of Flora as an adult to a child, but it’s hinted that she wants something more concrete – she wants to own Flora. In the same vein, the governess wants to own Miles’ body and even heart – to possess the children in what first could have been her devotion to her duty, but decayed into an obsession for them. Meaning, in layman’s terms, she wanted to consume them – not as a cannibal, but as their mother in order to smother them in her affections. The governess writes that, “I was in receipt in these days of disturbing letters from home, where things were not going well. But with this joy of my children what things in the world mattered?” (19). Connecting back to her pure devotion for her job, this hints at the developing obsession. Since she cannot remedy her own problems at home or help her family, she focuses on the children’s’ problems in a faux attempt to fix theirs, not realizing the ghosts of Jessel and Quint are of her own creation to combat her decaying morals and ethics regarding the children. It should be noted that this is her first job and that she’s nervous about it, being placed in absolute authority of two children, alone and likely without much confrontation with any males aside from her familial ties. Children back in the 19th century were also not regarded as children, but as smaller adults that should be behaved and well mannered if not also charming.
That in mind, the governess’ crush on the Master, a man of authority and wealth and power, could have translated to Miles, the master of the house currently. While her draw to Flora was obsessive ownership, the appeal to Miles is that of a man with authority. The governess’ own hints of affection towards the Master and Miles starts when she asks Mrs. Grose, the cook, “You like them with the spirit to be naughty?” before quickly adding “So do I!” (11). which is mirrored later in the novel when Miles asks her to think him bad rather than as a nice boy. This taboo affection inspires the two ghosts, figures who are symbols of her own internal strife with the moral ambiguity of her obsessions regarding Flora and Miles. This is strengthened by how each ghost threatens her authority and possession over the children. For Flora, Jessel is the previous governess, who holds the status of a mother-figure and formed bonds with the children that the current governess hasn’t been able to construct. Thus, Jessel embodies her jealousy and rejects her absolute authority over Flora by challenging her status as care-giver. Quint, however, is where things take a drastic turn of events.
In the words of Mrs. Grose in regards to Quint and Miles’ relationship, “It was Quint’s own fancy. To play with him – to spoil him.” (25). In light of other exchanges in the conversation, the governess responds with “Too free with my boy?” alluding to not only the pedophilic relationship between Quint and Miles, but also the homophobic nature of this relationship going on between the now-deceased butler and adolescent child. Therefore, it can be argued that Quint is the symbol of her repressed sexuality and defies her desire for Miles by rendering him another taboo she cannot reach – a homosexual. Adding to this feeling of desperation to keep Miles and Flora to herself, she works under the self assured guise of how she was “there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most loveable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only to explicit, a deep constant ache of one’s own engaged affection.” (27). and mentions how she “was in these days literally able to find a joy in the extraordinary flight of heroism the occasion demand of [her].” instead of realizing that she should be protecting the children from herself.
The objectification of the ghosts as symbols works to portray the instability within the governess’ own mind and how she is disconnected from herself. For example, while she wants to protect the children from these ghosts she deems harmful, her logic is that of a madwomen trapped between recognition of her obsession that produces conclusive statements rather than follow a logical narrative and a woman purely afraid for her young charges. This decadence of her character is likely meant to evoke sympathy as she started pure and rotted like a piece of fruit left out on the counter to spoil. When she confides in Mrs. Grose about the spectator at the pond, the governess seems to play off the cook for a description of Jessel before putting a name to her, and then conclusively states that Flora had seen the ghost. Instead of just asking the child like Mrs. Grose started to suggest, the governess becomes guarded and even goes so far as to say “No, for God’s sake don’t! She’ll say she is n’t – she’ll lie!” (30). before moving on to state that the ghost of Jessel’s plan was “To get hold of [Flora).” (31). conclusively without evidence, relying on only a feeling.
This feeling, however, may have been her own immoral obsessions being projected onto the false image of a ghost of a woman who should not still be alive. In fact, it’s never explicitly stated that Jessel had died – only that she was relieved of her title of governess at Bly. Jessel, therefore, could still be alive somewhere else – with flesh and blood. The haunting, then, falls into visual hallucinations that the governess subconsciously concocted to bring attention to her decadence. The scene where she sees the supposed ghost of Jessel “seated on one of the lower steps with her back presented to me, her body half-bowed and her head, in an attitude of woe, in her hands. I had been there but an instant, however, when she vanished without looking round at me. I knew, for all that, exactly what dreadful face she had to show[.]” (42). before she disappears never to be seen again is extremely important. Jessel, an extension of the governess’ sub-consciousness, weeps not for herself but that the obsession within the governess has rendered has taken over. At this point in the novel, the governess has descended too far into her illusive madness and no longer can return to how she once was – pure and clear of mind. In terms of Quint, the governess realizes their similarities and the representation of his pedophilic homoeroticism, stating that, “He knew me as well as I knew him; and so, in the cold faint twilight, with a glimmer in the high glass and another on the polish of the oak stair below, we faced each other in our common intensity.” (39).
Unlike Jessel, she does not deny Quint’s message and instead embraces the decadence fully almost as a challenge to overthrow the ghost’s place in Miles’ heart, which begs the question: how much did Quint mean to Miles? While the homoeroticism is only underlined and nearly confirmed with Miles explaining the real reason he was expelled from school was because “Well – I said things.” (83). heightening the homosexual undertones and adding a greater risk to the governess – sexual isolation via unavailability. Jessel she can deny and fight for possession, but Quint is a taboo challenge that already speaks to her on a pedophilic level and continuously appears to threaten her unstable relationship with Miles. At the end of the novel, when Flora rejects her and she no longer feels as obsessive over the child, her own fabricated ghost made sure to separate the two – being confirmed by Mrs. Grose and Flora who both could not see Jessel’s ghost despite her being in their vicinity – in order to save Flora from herself, the governess. This crack is also seen when the governess sends her off to be cared for rather than keeping her confined to the house. She gets Miles alone, but Quint makes a reappearance to obstruct her pedophilia. Ironically, when she sees Quint this time it only heightens her need to obtain Miles, yelling “I have you, but he has lost you forever!”” (85). and smothers him. Though the book ends on an ambiguous note with, “and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.” may not mean she literally smothered him as she later becomes a governess to another family. Instead, the governess’ obsession and the hallucinations of Quint may have spurned her into either raping Miles and caused any attachment or affection for her to die or that he lost affection for her due to her episode and maniac behaviour. The most ironic part of the two ghosts being her own subconscious, is that they doomed her to lose the two people she wanted most – Flora and Miles.