A Menacing Fixation
The governess of The Turn of the Screw travels to the Bly estate with the intention of looking after the two young children. Yet it might as well have been one. While innocent Flora falls to the wayside, her brother Miles is the core of the story. Each ghostly encounter comes to revolve around him in one way or another, and the governess finds her relationship with her charge developing beyond normal boundaries. In Henry James’ novella, the governess’s delusions regarding the reality of the ghosts symbolize her fixation on having Miles to herself and fooling herself into thinking the romantic feelings are mutual.
Although the romantic undertones between adult and child characters are never outright stated, their presence lingers throughout the work. But what factors lead to such a bizarre, destructive attraction? For the governess, who is described early on as “young, untried, nervous” (James 10), it may not have started out as such. Robert Carlton Cole, in regards to the presence of the ghosts, suggests that, “…the two ghosts become the opposite of her concept of the two people who affect her most, -herself and the master- Freud’s ‘antagonistic inversion’ “ (Cole). Having come from a background that contrasts that of her master so sharply, the naïve governess enters feeling, “…almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship” (James 15). With the children’s uncle being her only link towards security, infatuation would seem inevitable. Unfortunately, her lifestyle is simply incompatible with his. One critic, Joseph J. Firebaugh, explains how the uncle, “…has a bachelor life of his own which he has no intention of modifying…he withdraws to his worldly pursuits as completely as the Old Testament God withdraws to heaven, leaving behind a state of being which seems to him satisfactory for anyone in a condition of innocence” (Firebaugh). Upon realizing this, the governess is left with her affections unrequited. So instead of surrendering them entirely, she transfers them to the closest possible candidate: Miles. The ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel eventually add the variable of jealousy to the situation. Just as the governess is feeling a certain comfort in her position and relationship with Miles, she spots a figure that challenges everything. She spots the elusive trespasser not once, but twice, when “He appeared thus again with I won’t say greater distinctness…but with a nearness that represented a forward stride in our intercourse” (James 27-28). When the man is identified as Peter Quint, and hints are dropped about his intimate connection with Miles, the heroine finds everything she strived for shaken. Considering it is early in the story, her designs towards Miles are just starting to be fully realized, as implied by her use of “intercourse”. Now she has an incentive to always have him in her possession, and a self-created threat to shield him from.
As the reoccurrence of the apparitions becomes more and more frequent, the protagonist’s idealism fades to reveal the delusion and hysteria hiding underneath. Every encounter she has with them leads her back to the mysteries of little Miles; he is like the entire works of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle put together. Her slip into paranoia is signified by her dramatization of what she knows next to nothing about. She laments to Mrs. Grose, “ ‘I don’t do it!’… ‘I don’t save or shield them! It’s far worse than I dreamed- they’re lost!’” (James 43). The woman’s feelings of failure are unjustified, having only done her job for a week and thus not having any control over previous events of the house. It is necessary to look much deeper to find a rational explanation for her dramatics. In 1934, one writer named Edmund Wilson composed an essay on Henry James’s famous work. To explain the governess’s behavior, he persuaded his readers to “Observe that there is never any evidence that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts. She believes that the children see them but there is never any proof that they do” (Wilson). Wilson’s argument proves to be accurate. When she interrogates Miles upon finding that he snuck out into the night, he readily answers her with, “ ‘Think me-for a change-bad!’’ (James 59). And when asked how he accomplished it, he again replies smoothly, saying “ ‘…she (Flora) disturbed you, and, to see what she was looking at, you also looked-you saw’”(James 59). The ambiguity of his responses would be somewhat suspicious to anyone else. But with the rapid decline of the governess’s mental state, and her burgeoning feelings towards the boy, it appears entirely plausible. Still captivated by the intrigue of this evasive child, she’s willing to let things go to keep him by her side. By doing so, she lets her hallucinations get the best of her. This allows them to not just take over her mind, but it terrifies and drives away Miles, making her quest for him even more in vain.
In the end, the governess’s devastation upon realizing that her feelings towards Miles are not mutual ultimately leads to tragedy. His previous admissions not only stray her further into denial, but it also makes her passion towards him fully realized. When he surprises her with a kiss, “It was practically the end of everything. I met his kiss and I had to make…the most stupendous effort not to cry” (James 59). This burst of emotion is the moment where the governess’s obsession with Miles is cemented. It will drive all of her actions from here until the end. Soon, though, it becomes easy to see that ghosts are not the only circumstance keeping them apart. Miles has an emotional outburst of his own, where he discloses to the governess that, “ ‘I don’t want to go back!’… ‘I want a new field!’” (James 81). His statement here combined with the implications of the bond between him and Peter Quint finally offers a lead regarding the secret he has been hiding: Miles is homosexual. Furthermore, his governess’s neurotic actions appear to have brought back unpleasant memories. Before his passing, he goes as far as referring to Peter Quint as a “devil”. And when he finally does perish, “…he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall” (James 109). The governess sees this final moment as her last chance to save Miles from something he may never have been in danger of in the first place. Sadly, a last-ditch effort on her part is hardly enough to save Miles from succumbing to the pressure and agitation she herself brought into his life.
In closing, the hallucinations of the governess were significant, but not the only element that drove everything to the brink of destruction. It began with her being denied the affections of her employer, and spiraled from that point. When replacing him with Miles proved inadequate, she was forced to use the ghosts as a crutch to keep the affections towards him alive. Pushed beyond her limits of sanity, there was no other option but to bombard Miles until he expired from the mere force of her attempts.