Ghosts in "The Turn of the Screw"

by Gayla Nelson

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Perhaps it was inevitable, this desensitization to ghost stories.  Perhaps I read too much Stephen King, Ken Grimwood, Ray Bradbury, and other writers of the mysterious and the macabre. But, whatever the cause, reading The Turn of the Screw was not like my other experiences with ghost stories and such.   It was not at all scary to me as I had thought it would be from the jacket cover information. But the one thing that did stand out superiorly from other novels of this genre was the manner in which it was written: the turn of the phrase and the psychological aspects of the writing, the ambiguity of it all.

One of the drawbacks to reading critical essays on a work is that if you are opened minded, then you tend to understand the varying points of view expressed by each critic, ultimately no longer having an opinion that is solely your own. There are so many aspects within the novel - sanity of the governess, reality of the ghosts, questions about whether Miles really even died or not, what role Mrs. Grose really played in the story, the enigmatic Uncle, the house itself – that the combinations of interpretations are simply endless. Sawyer’s focus on the title itself, and on the use of the word “turn” within the context of the novel, did little to help me gain a better understanding of this work., save from the knowledge that he did believe that Miles had died.  I had not noticed any excessive use of the word turn.  Of course, I was not looking for anything like that while reading it, either. I was so much more focused on trying to ascertain what was real and what was possibly just the result of a hysterical woman’s perspective. 

Which brings me back to my first point - the desensitization of the reader.  Weirder things have happened on Unsolved Mysteries.  Much study has been given to the possibilities of ghosts since this novel was written.  So, it is not for the story itself, or the particular ghostly images, that it is enjoyable to read in the 21st century.  It is much more basic than that.  It is for the writing alone. It is the very fact that you just don’t know one hundred percent what is real and what is not  that makes it such a great novel.  Americans are the worse in matters of over-analyzing every thing to death.  The fact that everyone is not in agreement on this novel is exactly what made it intriguing then and still does today.

One can make a great discussion of the prologue and how it sets the reader up for a ghost story, so, of course, when anything unusual occurs – the man the governess sees for the first time – we, the reader, believe him to be the ghost, even when that has yet to enter her mind as a possibility.  We are programmed from the prologue that the following is to be a ghost story, so we see ghosts whether they are there or not.  It is only when the reader starts questioning the sanity of the governess that we realize this may not really be a ghost story after all.  That is when the real intrigue hit me.  I found that I had to decide for myself whether or not the governess was sane or unstable, if Flora and Miles were possessed or not, and what possible role Mrs.Grose might play in the entire thing. If anyone would keep the secret of the possible demonic possession of these children, it would be her.

Even the fact that the Uncle stays away from the children and his own home makes you wonder if he had dealt with hauntings as a way of explaining his total lack of  direct involvement with their lives.  There are  many factors at play in this novel,  many possibilities, and  many interpretations.  It is for those very reasons that I found it to be such a remarkable book – it is timeless in its own way.  Man has seen ghosts and has dealt with madness since his beginnings in this world, and tales of this nature never lose their allure for that very reason.  It is yet another aspect to the human condition.

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