young woman becomes a governess to an orphaned brother and sister whose
guardian instructs her never to trouble him with anything involving the
children, who live at his country house. She finds the children,
10-year-old Miles and 8-year-old Flora, delightful. But trouble arises
in paradise when the governess sees the ghosts of two deceased
employees of the household. The ghosts want to corrupt Miles and Flora,
the governess believes, so she must be watchful and protect the
A typical Victorian ghost story? Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw can certainly be read that way, and for the few decades after its 1898 publication it was. Then in the 1930s, the critic Edmund Wilson argued that the novella was a psychological case study. The narrator is a neurotic woman, Wilson said, and the ghosts are hallucinations.
The controversy — Are the ghosts real? Is the narrator sane? — has continued down to our own day. Neither side can be proved wrong, since the text can support either interpretation. Some critics believe James intended the ambiguity, producing a psychological tale: Regardless of whether the ghosts are real or visions arising from the governess’s anxiety, she still has to manage her fears.
Though on the surface one of James’s most accessible writings, The Turn of the Screw is a masterpiece of enigma and one of the most discussed works of literature.
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