Turn of the Screw (James)

Discussion Questions
1. In The Turn of the Screw, the misbehavior of the children, Miles and Flora, as the story progresses makes us suspect that they are not as innocent as they seem. And yet the source of their misbehavior is left ambiguous: Is it natural mischievousness or has it been instigated by an evil, corrupting force in the form of the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel? Trace through the story the changes in the way the governess views the children and their misbehaviors. How does the uncertainty about the children, and their possible awareness of the ghosts, intensify the governess's predicament?

2. In the beginning chapters of the story, the governess recounts several unsettling events: The children's uncle insists that he not be bothered with anything relating to the children's care; we learn of the death of the governess's predecessor, Miss Jessel; and we learn that sweet and charming Miles has been expelled from school. These are just some of the forebodings that set the stage for the supernatural events that soon follow, and so when the governess first relates the appearance of a ghost it doesn't seem entirely unexpected. To what degree is the governess a force of sense and reason in these unsettling surroundings, and to what degree does she become a destabilizing force herself as the story progresses? How does our answer to this question affect our understanding of the story's ending?

3. Any interpretation of The Turn of the Screw hinges on the question, debated vociferously by critics, of whether the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are real or whether they are figments of the governess's imagination.* What are the implications of the governess's imagining them? If we read this not as an actual ghost story but as a story about the governess's perceptions of ghosts, what sort of psychological underpinnings are suggested? Could it be in these dimensions that the real horror of the story may lie?


* James himself, as recorded in Leon Edel's comprehensive biography, Henry James: A Life (five volumes: 1953-72), said that The Turn of the Screw was a ghost story— the ghosts were to be taken as real, not imagined.

Yet "authorial intent" has been under scrutiny for some years: current criticism rarely gives credence to authors' claims about what they "meant." Memories are faulty and authors draw from a mysterious well of creativity—readers often see things in works that weren't consciously put there by the author. The Turn of the Screw is certainly ambiguous, which opens the path to numerous ways of reading.

Also, a 2009 production I saw of Benjamin Britten's opera of the same name placed the setting in a mental asylum!—a stunning interpretation that called into question whether the events of the story even took place. [LitLovers - Ed.]

(Questions issued by Random House edition.)

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