31 Days of Halloween: Henry James


The Governess and the Ghosts,

The Governess and the children

Studying Character Relationships

In Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw


Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is nothing if not a study in Character as Voice, which in this short work is an idea also deeply entwined with Character as Thought. The reader is unable to get away from the Governess’ mind, and in fact we are wrapped up in her thoughts throughout the entirety of the work.

But other than POV, James uses Character as Voice to relay dialogue that can be intentionally vague, dialogue that is meant to convey subtle emotion and interaction between characters more than push plot, which good dialogue is supposed to do. What complicates the dialogue is the interjection of Character as Thought, as the Governess continuously mentally interprets for the reader what she sees and hears, how the characters around her act, or how she believes they act. A passage that illustrates the complexity of Character as Voice and the Character as Thought follows:

He stood there smiling; then at last he put into two words—“Do you?”—more discrimination than I had ever heard two words contain. Before I had time to deal with that, however, he continued as if with the sense that this was an impertinence to be softened. “Nothing could be more charming than the way you take it, for of course if we’re alone together now it’s you that are alone most. But I hope,” he threw in, “you don’t particularly mind!” (211)

Starting with Character as Voice, we are given external dialogue between the boy and the Governess, where she has just asked him if he enjoyed the freedom he was seeing at the country estate. The dialogue shows the deep wordplay of the boy, how he toys with the Governess, and is made a more complex passage by the Governess’ thoughts throughout the passage.

The closest we can get within the story to authorial interpretation of Character comes in the introduction, where a group of friends have gathered and one—Douglas—relates the story as it was told to him by his former Governess years before. Of the Governess—not only Douglas’ charge but the heroine of the tale—he says: “She was the most agreeable woman I’ve ever known in her position; she’d have been worthy of any whatever,” (116) as part of her description. We get similar descriptions from the Governess concerning the children, consistently calling them angels and beautiful and innocent, which James uses to play against the growing dread within the Governess’ mind. At one point when she confronts Miles, the author interplays adjectives of “beautiful” and “angelic” and “innocent” with the Governess’ actions and words, which convey not love but fear.

Character as Conflict enters the novel almost instantly, as the Governess’ desire to do a good job and love these children is put at odds with the sightings of the ghosts and the apparent haunting of the children whom the Governess believes are being swayed by the spirits. If the common interpretation is to be believed (that the spirits are externalizations of the Governess’ repressed psyche) then the conflict is internalized and shows the Governess’ fractured mind. But I have another interpretation that heightens the terror: The ghosts are not manifestations of hers but of the children, and represent the darkness in the children. After all, the spirits are localized to each child, Quint to the boy, Miles, and Ms. Jessel to little Flora. And only after the Governess described the man she saw, was Mrs. Grose able to identify him as Quint. How could the Governess positively identify a man whose existence she had no previous knowledge of, if the ghosts are solely in her mind? But if the ghosts are images of the darkness within the children, then the complexity of conflict is externalized and there offers up yet another turn of the screw.


James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers and Two Stories. Barnes & Noble Books. New York. 2003.

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Penguin Academics. New York. 2003


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