Saturday, 29 December 2018

The Turn of the Screw: the governess is an unreliable narrator

I’ve said it. 
Take this passage from chapter 14: 
““Look here, my dear, you know,” he charmingly said, “when in the world, please, am I going back to school?”
Transcribed here the speech sounds harmless enough, particularly as uttered in the sweet, high, casual pipe with which, at all interlocutors, but above all at his eternal governess, he threw off intonations as if he were tossing roses. There was something in them that always made one “catch,” and I caught, at any rate, now so effectually that I stopped as short as if one of the trees of the park had fallen across the road.” 
Now, if we ignore the fact that the governess doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t tell him anything, that doesn’t sound too bad. Then: 
There was something new, on the spot, between us, and he was perfectly aware that I recognized it, though, to enable me to do so, he had no need to look a whit less candid and charming than usual. I could feel in him how he already, from my at first finding nothing to reply, perceived the advantage he had gained. I was so slow to find anything that he had plenty of time, after a minute, to continue with his suggestive but inconclusive smile: “You know, my dear, that for a fellow to be with a lady always—!” His “my dear” was constantly on his lips for me, and nothing could have expressed more the exact shade of the sentiment with which I desired to inspire my pupils than its fond familiarity. It was so respectfully easy.” 
(emphasis mine) 
Whilst it is true that Miles sounds precocious, even flirtatious, there is something rather inappropriate in her tone. Is that how a governess write about her 10-year-old pupil? 
He asks again. 
“He resumed our walk with me, passing his hand into my arm. “Then when am I going back?”
I wore, in turning it over, my most responsible air. “Were you very happy at school?"
He just considered. “Oh, I’m happy enough anywhere!”
“Well, then,” I quavered, “if you’re just as happy here—!”…” 
Blah blah blah. 
So Miles explains “Well—I want to see more life.” and ““I want my own sort!””. That sounds perfectly fair. 
The next part: 
“He looked, while I waited, at the graves. “Well, you know what!” But he didn’t move, and he presently produced something that made me drop straight down on the stone slab, as if suddenly to rest. “Does my uncle think what you think?”
I markedly rested. “How do you know what I think?”
“Ah, well, of course I don’t; for it strikes me you never tell me. But I mean does he know?”
“Know what, Miles?”
“Why, the way I’m going on.”
I perceived quickly enough that I could make, to this inquiry, no answer that would not involve something of a sacrifice of my employer. Yet it appeared to me that we were all, at Bly, sufficiently sacrificed to make that venial. “I don’t think your uncle much cares.”
Miles, on this, stood looking at me. “Then don’t you think he can be made to?”
“In what way?”
“Why, by his coming down.”
“But who’ll get him to come down?”” 
She chooses not to contact the school and not to ask Miles about the expulsion. She chooses not to report to her employer. She chooses to withhold information, and not let Miles know that he isn’t coming back to school. In a sense, she is holding the children captives, with the excuse of protecting them. 
From what? The ghosts? But do they exist? I’m afraid she jumps to conclusions very quickly, and has assumptions or theories that I don’t know where she gets from. 
Now look at this passage from chapter 15: 
“What I said to myself above all was that Miles had got something out of me and that the proof of it, for him, would be just this awkward collapse. He had got out of me that there was something I was much afraid of and that he should probably be able to make use of my fear to gain, for his own purpose, more freedom. My fear was of having to deal with the intolerable question of the grounds of his dismissal from school, for that was really but the question of the horrors gathered behind. That his uncle should arrive to treat with me of these things was a solution that, strictly speaking, I ought now to have desired to bring on; but I could so little face the ugliness and the pain of it that I simply procrastinated and lived from hand to mouth. The boy, to my deep discomposure, was immensely in the right, was in a position to say to me: “Either you clear up with my guardian the mystery of this interruption of my studies, or you cease to expect me to lead with you a life that’s so unnatural for a boy.” What was so unnatural for the particular boy I was concerned with was this sudden revelation of a consciousness and a plan.” 
She knows that her actions are inappropriate and suspicious. 
I don’t trust her as a narrator, at all.


  1. brother, that brings back to me how weird the whole thing was.. is Miles talking about something sexual, or some other sort of blackmail, or both?? and is what the governess reports at all accurate? frankly i don't understand what James's point was in writing this story... beside the point but still apropos, is "The Golden Bowl", which i thought was a much better story, but still mildly impenetrable...

    1. Oh I do like the atmosphere and ambiguity. Himadri likes there to be ghosts and the children to be evil, because he likes traditional ghost stories.
      I myself like unreliable narrators.


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