Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

Hallucinations or Realities: The Ghosts in Henry James's the Turn of the Screw

Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

Hallucinations or Realities: The Ghosts in Henry James's the Turn of the Screw

Article excerpt


The Turn of the Screw is an intense psychological tale of terror. It begins in an old house on Christmas Eve. The story focuses on a young, nai?ve governess who is confronted by a pair of ghosts that she suspects is corrupting the two young children in her charge. The apparitions are those of Peter Quint, a man formerly employed in the household, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess.

The new governess has profound suspicions that the children are involved with the ghosts; she confronts the children individually and during that inquiring one of the apparitions appears to the governess, bringing the action to a calamity. The girl, Flora, denies having seen the wraiths and, apparently hysterical, is sent to her uncle in London. The boy, Miles, dies in the governess's arms during the culmination of a psychic battle between the governess and the ghost of Peter Quint.

This paper is an analytical approach to James's The Turn of the Screw which highlights the contradictory interpretations, as well as the ambiguity of the novella. As its core, and for several reasons that will be explained in more details in this analysis of the narration and the nature of the story The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, it is clear that this story is "psychological thriller" based within the Gothic tradition. Nicole Smith (2011 Fiction) insists that if one wishes to place The Turn of the Screw in the Gothic tradition of literature, it means, by alternative, the elements of ghosts or the supernatural should be present. However, aside from being a mere ghost story or psychological thriller, the fact that the narrator might not be reliable plays into the classification of this story as well and in fact, the question of whether or not the narrator is reliable in James's story becomes of principal importance. (2011)

Key words: Apparitions; Ghosts; Governess; Psychology; Ambiguous; Reality; Hallucination


Henry James (1843-1916), whose mastery of the psychological novel influenced, to a great extent, twentieth-century literature, was born in New York City. He belonged to a very distinguished family; his father as well his older brother, William James, profoundly influenced the emerging science of psychology. The James children were educated in a variety of schools and with private tutors. In 1855 the James family began a threeyear tour of Geneva, London, and Paris, an experience that probably influenced James's later performance for Europe over his native land (

James wrote The Turn of the Screw at a low point of his life. In 1895 he had suffered a tremendous personal and professional blow when his play Guy Donville was booed offthe London stage. Deeply wounded, James retreated from London and took refuge in Sussex, eventually taking a long-term lease on a rambling mansion called Lamb House. Shortly thereafter, he began writing The Turn of the Screw, one of several works from this period that revolve around large, rambling houses (ibid). He became a British subject in 1915, a year before his death at the age of seventy-three.

The Turn of the Screw first appeared in social form in Collier's Weekly between January and April of 1898. Then, in October of 1898, it was published in both Great Britain and the United States. Accordingly, the initial reactions to be made are that they were, with very few exceptions, favorable. "Thus, the critical consensus that The Turn of the Screw is a great work of literary artistrya consensus that has persisted throughout endless debates concerning questions of interpretation- was present from the very beginning of the long critical discussion" (Parkinson, Edward).

James had written ghost stories before The Turn of the Screw. It was a popular form, especially in England where, as the prologue to The Turn of the Screw suggests, gathering for the purpose of telling ghost stories was something of a Christmas tradition.

The Turn of the Screw is of the most divisive works in literature, it has inspired a variety of critical interpretations since its publication in 1898. …

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