Contents
  Notes &
Permissions
  Preface & Acknowledg-
ments
1:
Introduction
2: Horror in Literature and the Literature of Horror
3: The Marvelous Horror Thriller
4:  The Fantastic/Uncanny Horror Thriller
5: The Aesthetics of the Horror Thriller: Stoker's Dracula
6: The Pure Fantastic Tale of Terror
7:  Anticlosure: Poe's "Ligeia"
8: The Entrapped Critic:
Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"
9: The Master's Trap:
James's The Turn of the Screw 
10: Escape: An Aesthetics of Terror Fantasy
11: Terror and the Sublime
Sources
Index

 
Chapter Nine
The Master's Trap:
Henry James's The Turn of the Screw
 

 
     Henry James's The Turn of the Screw has a deceptively simple plot. Douglas presents to the narrator a first-person account by a now dead governess of the strange events of her first job. The governess tells the story of how she took care of two young children, Miles and Flora, during one summer and autumn and discovered that they were haunted by vicious ghosts, Quint and Jessel, who were attempting to "get" the children. She tells of her efforts to combat the ghosts and of her "success" in separating the ghosts from the children, though this success consists of rather equivocal facts, the death of Miles and the illness of Flora. No one familiar with the critical history of this tale would argue that this plot is anything like simple, for it, too, has generated many times its length in passionate critical controversy. The center of the conflict has been between Freudians and anti-Freudians and mirrors the conflicts over the narrators of the Poe tales. Is the governess what she says she is, a good young woman doing her best in a battle against evil, later confessing that her best was not good enough? Or is she a sexually repressed neurotic, who hallucinates ghostly projections of her repressions and harms the children in working out her internal psychodrama? Around these poles of interpretation, many ingenious but secondary interpretations have gathered, prompting minds of the caliber of Wayne Booth to throw up their ghostly hands in despair (284-301). Brenda Murphy has argued that interpretations of this tale provide a model of the inescapableness of the hermeneutical circle, and Booth has attempted to reduce the number of necessary stopping points on that circle, yet the ambiguity of the tale persists in obsessing its real readers.

     Clearly, then, the effect of The Turn of the Screw on real readers is similar to the effects of "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." It leaves readers desiring closure, yet unable to find it within the tale. The refusal of closure arises from doubts about the governess.

     Like "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," this tale offers three modes of response: acceptance of the narrator's account; doubt about that account accompanied by the construction of possible explanations of what she reports; and, finally, a suspension between these first two modes of response. The general intention of the text seems to be for the reader to move through these modes in this order, but it is perfectly possible for a reader to actualize on first reading the various signals of the narrator's uncertainty in the present of the telling, including the weaknesses she reports of herself. Should this implied reader develop on first reading, the order of development would be different from that which I shall present, but the final effect of suspension remains inevitable.

     By means of the opening frame, which presents the origin of the governess's narrative, James establishes the governess as an admirable character. Douglas has known her and loved her. He affirms that she was agreeable, clever, and nice, worthy of any position of trust with children. She shared her narrative with him in part because she liked him. His sharing it with his friends may be because he likes them, but deeper reasons are hinted. He has held back, but apparently this particular holiday (perhaps the ghost story he had just heard) has "broken the ice," which seems connected with his sympathy for the governess. He acts as if he has loved her, as if he has felt deeply the "general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain" that she has suffered (2). The special understanding that appears between Douglas and the frame narrator makes it appear that the frame narrator is Douglas's specific intended audience for his repetition of the governess's tale. Indeed, the final passing of that narrative in its original handwritten form to the frame narrator at Douglas's death seems to define a role for the implied reader. The frame asks for a sympathetic and concerned auditor, who will listen for the throbs of love in the tale, not the delicious morsels of holiday horrors around a country house hearth. The governess's narrative offers considerable support for continuing the co-creation of this sympathetic implied reader, though before the tale can be read, this sympathy must rise to a higher level. The governess's text draws the implied reader close to her on first reading by emphasizing her admirable intellectual and emotional powers, by making the children special, and by stressing the degree and the effects of her isolation in her troubles.

     The governess is unlike any narrator at whom we have looked so far in that her mental powers appear to be at least equal to the reader's. If we assume, as we must in this part of the argument, the accuracy of her perceptions, she makes extraordinarily complex inferences. She is not always correct, but she is rarely far off the mark. She believes after Quint's second appearance that she can protect the children, but after Miss Jessel's first appearance, she sees that she cannot protect, only try to defend. She believes that Flora, when confronted with evidence of her communicatin with Jessel, will confess and that Miles, if he confesses, will be saved. These are, perhaps, her most serious errors, and it is not perfectly clear that they are errors. Most of her mistakes are less serious, and she rather easily takes them in stride. She is also very perceptive. She successfully sees into Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, feeling with accuracy how much relevant information she can provide. She usually reads the children's behavior well enough to predict their reactions. Given what she believes she is doing, she is also extraordinarily courageous to face such terrors on behalf of a stranger's children. Of course, the stranger and the children are special, and she loves them on sight.

     The children are gifted orphans who charm the sensitive and intelligent governess with their goodness, beauty, intelligence, and manners. They are the sources of the richest experience of her young life. The emergence of a suspected dark underside to their Edenic life is horrifying, for it appears to the implied reader, who is closely identified with the troubled narrator, that something is eating away at their bliss. Holes appear in it, first, in the form of a letter announcing Miles's explusion from school, hinting at an unknown and unnamed dimension of Miles. Then, figures appear who have no place in the home. These apparitions are associated with the unknown and unnamed sides of the children's lives and with an unspecified and illicit sexual relationship between a "lady" and a "servant." These manifestations of a world beyond or outside of Victorian reality seem to the governess -- and to the implied reader -- to center on the children. The implied reader is expected to move with the governess in sympathetic horror through this thriller plot. Each manifestation leads to a discovery; each discovery escalates the danger to the children and the urgency that the governess act in an effective way.

     The extraordinary limits imposed by the governess's isolation further enhance the implied reader's closeness to her. Not only is she forbidden to "bother" the master by his own command, but also she is forbidden to appeal to authority higher than her own by the peculiar circumstances of her situation. Any major action to bring in experts must pass the guardian who wants to hear nothing. She is distinguished from most Gothic heroines by Providence's lack of interest in her as well; no God or thought of God comes to her aid. Her social and intellectual milieu prevents her from communicating her concerns either to the children or to outsiders. She can confide only in Mrs. Grose. She cannot frankly ask the children about Quint and Jessel, and since, for whatever reason, the children avoid mention of the infamous pair, her hands are tied. No one, not even the local clergyman is going to believe that preadolescent children are haunted by ghosts. If no one in authority is disposed to believe such a tale, no one will forgive her if she herself exposes the children to these superstitions, to ideas of evil and, perhaps, of sex from which it is her duty to shield them. The governess believes that the forbidden is becoming manifest, but she is forbidden to speak of it. As the urgency for action increases, the demand that she violate the silence of taboo also increases. The implied reader's sympathy for the plight of the governess and the children demands that the governess act. When she does act, when she breaks her silence, the consequences are so terrible and equivocal that they send the reader back to the governess's perceptions and reasoning to discover what it means.

     The two final confrontations, first with Flora and then with Miles, threaten to undermine the implied reader's confidence in the governess. It is a severe blow to read her account of the discovery of Flora by the lake. The governess sees Jessel's apparition across the water, big as a blazing fire. In her mistaken relief that she is finally less alone in her position and that now she may be able to settle part of what has haunted her, the governess assumes too much. Certain that Mrs. Grose will back her, she deepens her own defeat. Mrs. Grose cannot see, and Flora insists when she is confronted that she also does not see. As the governess recalls how she felt her position crumble in the past, the implied reader may feel the pressure of a split in which his position also crumbles or at least [or least] vibrates ominously. Mrs. Grose images this split. She has stood "shoulder to shoulder" with the governess, but now the denying little girl suffers, and there is nothing visible. Mrs. Grose's loyalties are divided, and the implied reader is temporarily cut loose. The vertigo is temporary, for next morning she and Mrs. Grose are again shoulder to shoulder. Mrs. Grose has seen such a transformation in Flora as to be convinced that Flora has been influenced by an unseen force that she can only associate with Quint and Jessel. The implied reader may, but need not, abandon the governess at this point. The final scene of the story induces a more permanent disturbance in the relations between the governess and the implied reader.

     In the final scene Miles confesses that he stole the governess's recent letter to his uncle and that he said "things" to those he liked at school, which were repeated from friend to friend until they came to the masters. And he seems to confess that he has seen the ghosts of Jessel and Quint. According to the governess, this confession frees him finally from the ghosts, blinding him to their presence. When he discovers that though Quint is present, he is invisible, Miles dies. This event is extraordinary, for it demands the turnabout in how this narrative is to be taken of which the confrontation with Flora gave warning.

     How can Miles be saved if he is dead? How does the governess know if he is saved? These questions are hard to avoid. Once they are asked, the whole tale reopens, and just at the point where the reader expects closure. The readings to which this anticlosure points are prodigious. I use that word with care, for the discovery forced upon the reader by Miles's death is parallel to several discoveries made by characters in the tale. Quint's second appearance drops the governess beneath the surface of the quotidian at Bly, pointing at something hidden, perhaps the same thing at which the headmaster's mysterious letter expelling Miles points. Douglas's hearing of this narrative freezes him into a forty-year silence, and his release of the story points to depths in him. Each of these characters has passed on something heard from someone he or she liked to someone else he or she likes. From whom has this message originally come? For whom is it destined? The reader enters deeply into these questions when the governess again shows a hidden side of herself, becoming also the bearer of something hidden. What is perhaps most remarkable about the governess, of all the levels upon which this "message" is expressed, is her self-awareness. When one goes back over her narrative in search of that hidden side of her, one discovers that the governess has already been there.

     Why does the governess write the narrative? This question is unlikely to insist upon itself on the first reading. The frame, of course, has implied as a motive that this was a terrible experience and that she recorded it because of its interest. This implication and the questions it might well raise are obscured in the frame, however, by the more explicit appeal to the reader's expectations for a horror thriller. The frame narrator and the eager ladies at the country house anticipate a thriller from Douglas; they are not inclined to look deeply at the governess. It is hard to avoid appreciating the tale, at first, as a sophisticated thriller. Being forced back over the tale by the revelation of an underside of the narrative brings to the fore the governess's personal motives for telling her story. The implied reader can no longer settle for the cozy pretense that the governess exists only to convey this chilling tale to a reader who seeks thrills. The governess is implicated. What she desires is suddenly crucial to understanding.

     But what does the governess desire? In telling her tale to Douglas, she seems to want the confirmation that she has done the right thing. Upon rereading, the implied reader is likely to be struck by the degree to which her narration is a retelling, a search for the meaning of her experience. The cleverness and the niceness of the governess receive a new turn when they are shown to operate in her narration as well as in her handling of affairs at Bly. Her telling amounts to a "nice" moral review of her actions. A leading characteristic of her manner of telling is her maintenance of a certain objectivity toward her past experiences. She does not tell her story in the mode of a flashback in which the past is made present. The past does not overwhelm her as it does Poe's narrators in "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." Her procedure is more rational, more meditative. She repeatedly refers to her present obligations to remember precisely, to be clear, to use appropriate language, and to judge herself. From her first sentence, she promises to try to give a complete account starting with the whole beginning. She meticulously recounts her past judgments and past errors, judging them again in the present of her telling. When the reader moves back to judge the governess, he finds his role again defined by her actions, for the tale has been, in part, her attempt to reach a judgment of her acts and perceptions.

     The final pair of confrontations -- with Flora at the pond and with Miles in the house -- emphasizes the duality of the implied reader's role. On the one hand, these two manifestations are nearly overwhelming. The governess tells them more in the mode of flashback with relatively little commentary, but when she thinks about them, her judgments are nice. She thinks it strange that her first feeling upon seeing Miss Jessel in the company of Flora and Mrs. Grose was the joy that she was no longer to be thought cruel or mad now that others see (71). In the final confrontation with Miles, she judges her actions more harshly: "I ought to have left it there. But I was infatuated -- I was blind with victory" (87). The governess, though she believes she has acted in the best way she could conceive, nevertheless remains concerned about her own motives, just as she is not perfectly sure what she has done. This uncertainty is reflected throughout her narrative. She comments on the oddness that her fear began with "an instinct of sparing" Mrs. Grose (18). She is acutely and continuously aware of the "queerness" of her position as the only one who admits seeing the ghosts (e.g., 25, 52). She is aware that, unawares, she came close to madness and was "saved" by the second appearance of Jessel (28). She knows that all her perceptions of hidden depths in the children can be questioned (50). She emphasizes often how trapped she was by social injunctions against speaking of the return of the dead with the children and against speaking about the children's predicament with any authority. To do either is to lose her chance to save them. She is aware that her moral position is extremely vulnerable. For example, to allow Flora to convince the master that the governess is depraved will not only ruin the governess professionally, but it will result in the moral ruin of the children. Flora makes this clear to the governess in her choice of Miss Jessel over the governess at the pond. We can see how this uncertainty comes to tell on the governess in the way she addresses Douglas.

     The governess implicitly promises to tell Douglas the whole story as accurately as she can remember it. In the present, she judges her past predicament. This promise and this judgment are part of her request for Douglas's sympathetic understanding of the importance of this telling to her. Her request is not an easy one; her telling comes at a cost: "I find that I really hang back; but I must take my horrid plunge. In going on with the record of what was hideous at Bly I not only challenge the most liberal faith -- for which I little care; but (and this is another matter) I renew what I myself suffered, I again push my dreadful way through it to the end" (40). And as she enters into the heart of the matter, Flora's predawn watching from her window while Quint walks the stairs, she turns directly to Douglas with an appeal. At that manifestation the governess first felt the longing to "break out at" Flora, to speak frankly: "This solicitation dropped, alas, as it came: if I could immediately have succumbed to it, I might have spared myself -- well, you'll see what" (42-43). A few sentences later, she again asks directly for Douglas's sympathy: "You may imagine the general complexion, from that moment, of my nights" (43). The governess seems to be unsure of her actions, and she seems to want Douglas to evaluate them sympathetically.

     This desire is not surprising in the context of her character, but it is easily ignored. This desire repeats a pattern that is crucial to the governess's original acts. She wishes to speak to the master. As Christine Brooke-Rose points out, one simple way of understanding the structure of the tale is as a violation of an injunction (175-87). In the frame is revealed the master's injunction never to contact him about the children. Within her narrative is a specific instance of this injunction, the letter from the master that contains the unread letter from the headmaster. This instance is double and contradictory. The two messages, in effect, cancel each other, for while the master commands her to deal with the headmaster's letter, the governess cannot deal with Miles's dismissal from school without calling upon the master to find a new school. Since she cannot deal with the headmaster without bothering the master, she decides to do neither, to obey by disobeying. She obeys the command not to bother the master, but she "represses" the headmaster to do so: she ignores his message. As Brooke-Rose notes the governess is gradually forced to attend to the headmaster's message and to break the original injunction by sending Flora to town to her uncle and by presiding over the death of Miles. The text ends with this violation, but information in the frame indicates that there are two main consequences of her transgression. First, she goes on working as a governess, which seems to mean that she is not held responsible for events at Bly. Second, she tells her story to Douglas, reliving her pain, which suggests that she continues to feel responsible.

     The governess's desire to speak to a master appears on two levels in the tale. As soon as she receives the letter from the headmaster, she needs to speak to the uncle. In her narration she seeks a substitute for the master, someone to confirm the view of herself that she wishes to establish. This desire to speak to a master does not belong only to her. The "things" that Miles said at school seem designed to attract the masters' -- the teachers' -- interest. At any rate, they do attract such interest and eventuate in a letter to the master, his uncle. At Bly, both children, along with the governess, dream of the return of their uncle and pretend to write him letters, that is, they write letters to him that they never send. Douglas provides another example of the desire to communicate across some barrier that must be broken, the ice of his years of silence, with some authority, the frame narrator who, he believes [whom he believes], will bring to the story special understanding. It is significant that nearly every attempt to communicate with authority in this tale is blocked and that intermediaries are nearly always necessary. Even Mrs. Grose must have someone else write for her.

     Noticing this pattern supports the idea that what the governess wished for in the first place was to be loved. She says as much in her account of the moments preceding Quint's first appearance. She was proud of her work and wanted the master's approval. Instead, as it turns out, she must submit to the gaze of the master's dark double, which judges her without apparent sympathy, which challenges with increasing insistence her confidence that she has managed well. The final elaboration of this challenge in Miles's death leads to a second wish, the desire for a master who will remove her doubts and, she hopes, restore to her that image of herself she treasured before Quint appeared. Quint's appearance takes her back to the letter from the headmaster, that assertion of something hidden which she has ignored, but which indicates that her mastery of the situation has been, from the beginning, illusory.

     The governess desires mastery so that she may be loved. When the ghosts remind her that her mastery is incomplete and when they threaten to master her by winning the children, she struggles against the ghosts to "regain" control. In this situation, she longs to have the assistance of the master, but she more than once refuses to call him down. Indeed, she refuses to involve him until the crisis of Flora's illness. She states fairly clearly her reasons for these refusals. First, there is the injunction. Though she wishes his assistance, he has forbidden her to ask for it. To love the master and to be loved by him, she must obey. Second, she is not in control. To love and be loved, she must obey the command to be master in place of the master, to deal with the situation without disturbing him. Third, she loves the children. She thinks that to go to the master when the situation is out of hand will destroy the children. Because she is the only one who sees into the situation, she is vulnerable. The uncle will not believe the children are haunted. Instead, he will believe the governess is mad and that she has concocted all this fantasy to attract his attention. The ghosts will be left to their own devices with the children.

     The governess longs to speak at Bly, but is hedged about by prohibitions. She cannot speak frankly with anyone except Mrs. Grose, and, as Brooke-Rose points out, Mrs. Grose is usually a mirror, reflecting the governess rather than advising her with authority (176-79). Later Douglas appears, a reflection of both Miles and the master in his position and disposition. From him she may receive what she has never received before, confirmation of her final mastery of Bly. If she conscientiously gives him her whole story, he may act as her master mirror, telling her at last whether she has seen it all, or if her "blindness" of victory has, as she fears, obscured her vision, covering up her failure. Her doubt centers in Miles's death. She turns to Douglas, who loves her and who will judge her out of his love. She asks him whether she mastered her situation and, by doing so, freezes him into decades of silence. He cannot say. After those decades, he passes her story on, with the injunction to his listeners that the governess is unquestionably worthy of his love, but also with his doubt, his sense of "general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain," still intact (2). Judging from Douglas's reaction, there would seem to be no master of this situation and, therefore, no mastery.

     In her narrative, then, the governess asks for Douglas's judgment. She needs someone to tell her unequivocally that she has done well or badly. There is a strong temptation to reconstruct the implied reader, after seeing Miles's death, in such a way as to deny this request. At least, many readers have done so. As Brooke-Rose shows, the more closely one examines the governess's language, the more one sees subtle but telling weaknesses in her character: "Thus the first chapter gives us, over and above what the narrator consciously tells us, information about her: she is impressionable, highly strung, dualistic, has a tendency to dramatize and to exteriorize, has a narrator's talent, hidden desire for love, power, and possession, she is imaginative or at least fanciful" (193). The most attentive reader will most fully incorporate such indications into a new view of the governess after seeing Miles's death and may utterly abandon her. To see that the governess may have completely misread the ghosts in some way and, therefore, that she may be an unconscious murderess can lead to a strong revulsion against her. The real reader may reverse the identification between implied reader and narrator by constructing a new implied reader who rejects the narrator. James has attempted to head off such a reaction in several ways.

     We have seen two of his ways. When one attends to the governess's indirectly expressed motives for her confession, one discovers her self-doubt and her request for loving judgment. That she has seen most of her own weaknesses makes it difficult to judge her as more blind than the implied reader. That she, too, sees into the moral enormity of the possibility that she has misread her situation makes it difficult to accuse her either of simplicity or negligence. That she has tried to act out of her love for the children and their uncle makes it difficult to wholly reject her good intentions. Furthermore, that she asks for loving judgment reveals her need, which must be acknowledged if one is to be fair. When the governess longed for the master to see her and love her during the idyll before the ghosts appeared, she wanted him to see an illusion, to ignore her failure to deal with the headmaster's letter. When she writes her narrative to Douglas, she wants to be loved as a whole person, as one who has a secret, unseen side. This desire, of course, is unspoken. She seems unconscious of asking for loving judgment, but behind her entire performance is the implied message to Douglas: "To love me, you must also love my secret." Were there really a master who could explain fully whether she succeeded at Bly, then, of course, she would have no secret. Perhaps that would be better. Perhaps it would not. In any case, there is no one living who can know that secret.

     James gives plenty of latitude for doubting the governess. There is almost no end to her human weaknesses and flaws. Yet James exerts inexorable pressure on the implied reader to identify with her and to love her even though a major gap in her interpretation of events at Bly opens with Miles's death. On the one hand, that gap pushes into the foreground other gaps of which Brooke-Rose provides rather a full catalog (chapters 7 and 8). On the other hand, are the governess's love, her need, her moral concern, and her awareness of personal weakness. The governess's self-doubt encourages the construction of alternate readings of Bly. If she is mistaken, then what else might have happened? Before turning to the possible answers to this question, it will be useful to make explicit a pattern that has implicitly informed much of our discussion up to this point, that of the secret message.

     From one point of view, The Turn of the Screw is about a secret message. We have seen that there is a secret message implicit in the governess's narration -- that to love her, we must love her secret. In her overt text, there is a covert message, just as in the letter from the master is an unopened letter from the headmaster, which fails to specify why Miles is being expelled. This pattern pervades the tale. We can trace the secret message back from the reader, the last to receive it, toward its origin: reader to frame narrator to Douglas to governess. From whom does the governess have it? She has her letters with their suggestion of an infinite regression of secret content. The letter from the headmaster withholds some presumably wicked secret about Miles. If it is reasonable to see this letter as the message that is elaborated in events at Bly, events that the governess then claims to read, what is its source? It comes from the headmaster who had it from the masters who had it from their friends who had it from Miles. He said "things" to those he liked. What things? Where did Miles hear them? Where did Flora learn the words that shock Mrs. Grose? The governess and Mrs. Grose believe that these things came from the dead, from Quint and Jessel.

     What would the dead have to say to these children? What might they not say? This Jamesian question gains force when one considers how the pattern of messages from the dead pervades The Turn of the Screw. The tale opens with the summary of a story of visitation, a message so vivid that the child passes it to the parent, and both see. Miles and Flora are more acquainted with the dead than with the living. In their short lives, they have lost parents and grandparents. Though their substitute father has let them love him, he is conspicuous by his absence. In his place he has left his substitute, Quint, and Jessel. They, too, die. Finally, the children are left with their absent guardian and the new governess, their latest parent figures. More than any other characters, the children have the dead from whom to receive messages. This pattern is repeated for the implied reader, whose message also comes from the dead. Only the frame narrator remains in life, so far as can be known. The chain of communication from Quint through Douglas is made up only of the dead. This progression suggests that the message's destination as well as its origin is outside the human world, for it never comes to rest. The message is never finally read. The governess is a great reader, and she senses that she has failed. Douglas remains at a loss to explain it; he only passes it on. As Shoshana Felman and Brooke-Rose argue, critics also repeat the story, showing in their contentions our inability to read the story, not because we lack reading ability, but because the message refuses to be read. The letter from the headmaster is addressed to the master, but he declines to read it. As a substitute for the master, Douglas cannot say what he has read. He can only repeat the message. What Miles said comes around to the masters and finally to the headmaster, but it is not (cannot be?) specified. The message seems to be for the master from the dead.

     But there is no real master; no one can successfully read the covert meaning of the message. The governess is told to be the master, and she tries with equivocal results. Her problem elaborates the problems of all who would be master. What, precisely, is the message? What do the dead want to say to the master? This second question offers one way of generating the kinds of answers that criticism, in its attempts to master this secret, has given to fill the gap on which the story insists. As Felman argues, the defining characteristic of the message is its silence. It appears in indicating figures that reveal its presence -- ghosts, play, letters, pranks, and confessions -- but in itself, it remains unspoken (161-77). One of the main labors of the criticism of this tale has been the effort to speak for that silence, to speak with the voice of the dead.

     What are the consequences if the implied reader attempts to discover alternative readings of events at Bly? This reader is not so anxious to escape identification with the governess that he will ignore her depth of self-knowledge as it is revealed to Douglas. Rather, the implied reader is trying to be her Douglas, to look where she has not seen, to see what she cannot see. The reader strives to grant the governess her request. He gives her her goodness and asks what other meanings there might have been in what she saw at Bly.

     The governess may have been right: the ghosts could be spirits of evil persons, now deceased, who desire, for their own perverse reasons, to have more company in their torment. On the other hand, she may be entirely wrong. According to Mrs. Grose, Quint and Jessel were in love. They separated and they died. At Bly they had been together, and so they return. Perhaps their spirits haunt Bly as ghosts traditionally haunt the places where the crucial events -- usually the sins, but sometimes the injustices -- of their lives took place. Perhaps, therefore, the children are never really in danger. This possibility is not very strong because there are so many circumstances to suggest that the ghosts are somehow connected to the children, but it is quite possible that they communicate with the children without intending harm.

     It is also possible that the children use the ghosts. When Miles dies in the presence of the governess, apparently as the direct result of learning that he has lost contact with Quint and Jessel, how are we to understand this event? Perhaps it is not the case that the ghosts try to get the children, but that the children try to get, or keep, the ghosts. Thrice orphaned, the children cling to their most recent pair of parents. Quint and Jessel may haunt the house because the children will not let them be dead. Why might the children doom Quint and Jessel to haunt Bly? There are several possible, related reasons. Quint is a double of the master. Jessel is a lady. Quint and Jessel are lovers, and the children are, to some degree, aware of that. These dead are manipulable. The children can see them when they will. But it must be a secret, for when parents are living in the world, they are out of control. They disappear. This hypothesis is not the only one of this kind available, but all those I can think of work in about the same way, for example, the ghosts are the children's parents but appear to the governess as Quint and Jessel. In any case, such an hypothesis accounts fairly completely for the strange behavior of the children. They are so good for at least two reasons. First, their goodness is a strategy for insulating them from the living world; it reduces interference with their fantasy. Second, their goodness to the governess makes her love them, binds her to them, for it seems fairly clear that they prefer living parents, though they fear they cannot depend upon them. When the subject of the return of the dead hangs in the air, they dream of the return of the master. If they can pair the governess and the master into living parents, the reversed doubles of Quint and Jessel, perhaps they can give up the dead parents who, after all, are not particularly comforting. It may even be that the disturbances they create are their "fine machinery" for bringing down the master. Finally, then, Flora, forced to choose between the dead and the living mother, chooses the dead. To her the living mother appears cruel in her attempt to displace Miss Jessel. Miles, when he is forced to choose, is so divided that he cannot live. His love for his dead parents and for the governess kills him.

     That the children construct the ghosts or call them forth for their own use is at least as strong an interpretation as the one the governess constructs. This interpretation may also be wrong, for the ghosts may be working out their own unconnected problems or there may be no ghosts at all. That the ghosts' actions are unrelated to the children is suggested in the first paragraph of the frame. Why does the governess not consider any other possibilities mentioned so far? Why is she so certain that the ghosts rather than the children are the agents at Bly? First, she shares her culture's assumption of the innocence of children, and second, to her the ghosts appear evil. Considering these alternative readings pushes us back to the governess's reading, making it look more like an invention, to which she and her culture may contribute. The governess, of course, has feared from the beginning of her supernatural experiences that she was inventing, though she has never been able to see what she might have invented. That is why she needs Douglas: to look at her and tell what he sees.

     To read the governess's interpretation of the ghosts as her invention, we must return to her love for the master. She loves him, but is forbidden to speak to him. She longs for him to see her devotion to him, but can only show it by her silence and her care for the children. The children easily replace him as the substitute objects of her devotion. Miles, especially, fits into the mold. He is called the young master. He is connected via his "pretty waistcoats" (54) with Quint and the master. The metaphor of the honeymoon turns up on his final evening with the governess. Critics have pointed out many other elements suggesting that the governess unconsciously looks upon Miles as a lover. This love for the children undergoes a split because she cannot possess them as she wishes to possess the master. She cannot tell them of her adult love. I am not being prudish by avoiding the word sex in this description, for as Felman says, love here includes more than mere coitus (99-113). The governess's desire to possess the master has more content than the mere desire to have sexual intercourse with him. Her desire for him is connected with her desire for mastery and her repression of the ghosts, but may not be the reduced meaning of those manifestations. None of this desire to possess may be spoken of to the children, for they too, by means of social convention, command silence. To speak of her desire to them would be to corrupt them. The ghosts, then, are inventions of her repressed desire to speak the unspeakable. They are evil because they do, whenever she is absent, what she longs to do but cannot. To her consciousness, this longing takes the form of wishing to speak to the children about the dead. From her unconscious, this longing appears as the dead returned, the ghosts themselves, who speak to the children. The message these ghosts carry from her unconscious is for the master, but, diabolically, they speak it to the master's substitute, the children.

     Whatever the status of the ghosts in reality, the governess may have unconsciously appropriated them for her own use. She seizes upon these dead as just the ghosts she needs: illicit lovers, violators of boundaries such as class, and corrupters of children. She makes the ghosts into externalizations of her secret desire to possess the master. She then struggles with them for the children. This struggle for the children figures forth an internal struggle over who will possess the governess, over who is to be her master. She eventually tells her story to Douglas because he is the next master she encounters and loves. Even more important, he loves her, so to him she can pass the whole message with its holes, with its underside exposed, as it were. Her secret is that she may have cruelly hurt Flora, and she may somehow have caused Miles's death. That he has died challenges her overt interpretation. He ought to have been saved, but dead, he keeps his secret.

     In her experience of the ghosts and in her telling of that experience, her unconscious seems to present itself as "the discourse of the Other," as coming from the outside, as the uncanny. She comes to her listener as to an analyst because she remains unable as yet to see that what the Other says belongs to her. From this point of view, the governess may look quite evil in herself. This appearance would put the implied reader in the awkward position of having to condemn the character in whom he has invested so much. If Douglas felt this tension, his forty years of silence becomes explicable, but his conclusion that she was worthy of any position would remain mysterious. Working through the implications of the governess's reading leads to an understanding of Douglas's final praise.

     Felman provides a way into the implications of the possibility that the governess invented her reading of the ghosts. Her invention would arise from her need for mastery, the need to regain the illusory sense of control she had before the ghosts appeared. The governess is insistent about her reading because she needs urgently to master the crumbling situation. Therefore, to the governess, Flora's manipulation of two pieces of wood in the presence of Miss Jessel must mean something. If it seems to mean that the children and the ghosts communicate, possibly about sex, then the governess insists on that meaning -- in self-defense. The urgency of regaining control, for all the good reasons she can give, pushes her toward investing the situation with the unknown content of her unconscious, whether or not that situation springs from her unconscious in the first place. The governess's insistence on this meaning is a form of self-defense in two senses. First, it externalizes her own desires, keeping them repressed. Second, it asserts that it is not the governess, seeing ghosts, who is mad, but the children, talking with ghosts, who are mad. Her struggle to be pure and sane condemns the children to corruption and madness. In her effort to close an open structure, she excludes the children's point of view. To get hold of this situation is to lose it. As she imposes her will on Miles, he grows more distant until, finally, she grasps him, and he is gone (Felman 161-77).

     Such an act would be depraved were it consciously done. Those critics who are hardest on the governess tend to forget that what is unconscious is truly unknown. We cannot condemn the governess for a death that was not consciously intended. But perhaps she should have known better. Surely someone should have known better. The mad ought not to be hired to care for small children. They certainly ought not to continue in the profession. If the governess is mad, what is the cause of her madness?

     Brooke-Rose argues that the governess has not moved through the three phases of Lacan's mirror stage and so has not arrived at an identity. Specifically, she has not moved from the recognition of the Other to the recognition of the Other as self. Therefore, she cannot move through the third phase of recognizing the Other as self but other (161ff.). In more common terminology, the governess's restricted life before this first job has kept her unaware of her own conscious/unconscious split. Therefore, she is not prepared to deal with the experience of the unconscious as her own experience. She is unable to integrate her experiences. When the repressed appears under the pressure of the sudden expansion of her life at Bly, with its promises and limits of pleasure and power, she can only externalize the repressed desire, seeing it as belonging to the Other, her ghosts. In this view, the need for mastery is generated entirely from within the governess. In her correction of the standard hallucination reading, Brooke-Rose unsurprisingly concludes that from this point of view, the governess eventually abandons the children in order to save herself (178). However, even in this hallucination interpretation, this is not necessarily the case, for the governess always connects the children's salvation to her own. If they are saved, then she is. While putting it this way, as the governess does, may seem to imply that her own salvation is more important, it also says directly that the governess must concentrate her efforts on saving the children. They come first in time, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they come first in her heart, even if only as substitutes for the master. Brooke-Rose also hints at the explanation of self-defense, which I want to develop further here, when she points out that "hysteria is both a personal and a socially produced illness" (158).

     While the need for mastery arises from within the governess, that need itself is produced by her society. Why does the governess come to Bly without her identity intact, if that is her problem? How is it that a person of her intelligence, sensitivity, and education needs to use the dead? Clearly, it is because, in her society, the dead are not taken seriously enough, at least openly. Her culture insists that the dead do not exist and ridicules the dead in its Christmas tales by the fireside. But this insistence masks doubt; it is a prohibition rather than a scientific statement. Secretly this society fears the dead. It absolutely forbids that one talk seriously of the supernatural with innocent and impressionable children. The governess's society mirrors her split, revealing itself to be the source of her split. To see ghosts is to be mad; to pretend to see them is great fun. To believe in ghosts is childish, but no child should be allowed to believe. To talk seriously of the supernatural is forbidden. Indeed, the "deliciousness" of Douglas's tale may spring directly from his implied intention to violate this prohibition. The governess's society refuses even to recognize the Other (the dead) much less to see it as a reflection of itself. This refusal in real Victorian society can be seen in contemporary reviews of the tale, just as the protest against this refusal can be seen in that same society's literary and scientific preoccupation with the paranormal. This preoccupation is reflected not only in the quantity of fantasy written in the late nineteenth century, but also in James's other stories of the supernatural. Within the text, this refusal to give the dead their due is reflected in all of the responses to the message from the dead, except for those of the children and the governess. The master will not read it. Only those who truly love each other will try to read it or at least to communicate it faithfully. In their spiritual isolation, hedged about by commands of silence from all sides, these three seem at least to look upon and commune with what appears to be outside normality. It is very difficult to determine whether any of them move beyond recognition of the Other to identification with it as self and other.

     Bly offers the governess a chance to grow, to move beyond the childishness imposed upon her by her society. She does remarkably well, from any point of view, for a twenty-year-old woman in a society that commands her both to remain a child and to preserve the childhood of others. Her attempts to save the children amount to attempts to exchange places with them, to see for herself, and so to learn to be an adult, while preserving for the children the childhood that belongs to them as literal children. The reversal she sees has been imposed upon them by the structure of society (the definition of the forbidden) and by the structure of the empire (the deaths of parents in India). This reversal-in which the children are old and she is young -- is evil, she thinks. Both she and the children have been treated badly. As she sees into this situation, she becomes determined to correct it, but in doing so, she is hampered by the structures that have so far held her back. Her freedom is largely illusory as long as she is forbidden to speak either to the master or to the children. She must maneuver in an extremely narrow space. There is much more arrayed against her than even she is likely to be able to discover. In her attempt, however, the governess rises above her narrow society, achieving a stronger identity than it would allow her. If she is clumsy, even wrong, in her reading of the ghosts, even if she misappropriates them for her own uses, she at least looks upon them and struggles with them courageously. For this reason, Douglas can love and admire her despite her secret, despite her inability to know (an ignorance he shares) what she really has done. Though he cannot resolve the question of her responsibility, he cannot fail to see her as heroic.

     This tragic dimension of the governess's predicament makes it difficult to condemn her. The more deeply one looks into the possibility that she has radically misread the events at Bly, the more she appears to be a comparatively innocent victim of power beyond her control. In this view she becomes a violated child. As her society totalizes its world view and excludes the dead, so she totalizes her view of the ghosts and excludes the children -- or so it would appear. Their exclusion mirrors her own. If the implied reader's identification with the governess is shaken by the death of Miles, it is eventually steadied upon reconstructing the tale as the governess's confession of doubts and as a secret confession of failure. The implied reader can be realized as identifying with the governess who saved Miles by bringing about his death, or he can be realized as identifying with the governess who, as an instrument of powers beyond her control, murdered Miles. The governess hopes she was the former, which is bad enough, and unconsciously fears she was the latter, which is terrifying. Felman says, "The reader of The Turn of the Screw can either choose to believe the governess, and thus to behave like Mrs. Grose, or not to believe the governess, and thus to behave precisely like the governess" (190). I would argue that whether we believe or disbelieve, we act like the governess and like Douglas. In short, the implied reader is entrapped within a dilemma that mirrors the entrapment of the governess and of Douglas. Of course, Felman means something different; she means that the governess's action in the past was to close her situation by insisting upon her reading, whether right or wrong, of the ghosts: not to believe the governess is to perform the same operation upon her. If the real reader insists upon a single reading of the governess, if he denies the ambiguity of her situation, he duplicates her equivocal act. Furthermore, he duplicates that act without provocation equal to her own, for his situation is much less desperate than hers was. By accusing the governess, one violates her. By exonerating her of all serious error, he also violates her, ignoring her secret message, the very doubt and concern that led her to tell her story.

     The tale demands that the implied reader love the governess. It challenges that love in its last events, but reconstructing the implied reader as a doubter leads again to love. The attempt to fill in the unspoken in the governess's narrative leads the implied reader back to pity for her sufferings. To love the governess means accepting ambiguity and, therefore, accepting terror -- the terror of not knowing what she has done, the terror that apparently haunts her to her deathbed. She passes this terror to Douglas, who is haunted in his turn. And finally it comes to the reader. The governess cannot know whether she saved Miles or murdered him, whether his death was worthwhile. Neither can any implied reader. When the governess and the reader come again to the end of her narrative, it is love for the children and for the master that keeps her doubt alive, that tortures her with the possibility that she has failed, and that drives her to seek some master for her narrative. And it is the implied reader's love for the governess that preserves the ambiguity of the tale. The reader desires to know the truth and to love the governess. As long as one loves the governess, the truth cannot be known. The implied reader, therefore, must share the governess's obsession, and the tale must continue to seek its master.

     Such a trap is trap enough, but James is more diabolical than Poe. Like Poe, he suspends the reader between two modes of response. Neither the natural nor the supernatural explanation of events is alone satisfactory. The implied reader is left in vibration between these two uncomfortable readings and is provided with no escape. The role of implied reader is without an ending, and the tale haunts its readers. James is more diabolical in the way he closes off conventional escapes.

     It ought to strike any reader familiar with the criticism of The Turn of the Screw that I have been rather tender with the governess. I have emphasized the degree to which the tale requires the implied reader to love the governess, asserting that this love is a crucial element in James's trap. Felman and Brooke-Rose demonstrate persuasively that criticism of this tale has been much more aggressive, much more psychologically violent (Felman 94-102; Brooke-Rose ch. 6). I return to this point because it is proof of James's mastery of terror fantasy. By demanding love from the implied reader, James has attempted to close off the kind of escape we saw critics suggesting for "The Fall of the House of Usher." James has discouraged allegorical readings by tying the appearance of the fantastic to psychological realities, such as sexual desire and the loss of parents, as well as by giving a high degree of verisimilitude to character and event. He has discouraged naturalizing and trivializing the tale by increasing the discomfort of such attempts.

     Attempts to escape finally center in the Freudian/anti-Freudian debate that Felman and Brooke-Rose examine so carefully. Generally, the Freudians have been naturalizers. In their insistence upon making the ghosts into hallucinations, they condemn the governess to madness. Felman explains how this comes to be the case in Edmund Wilson's reading:

Thus, for the governess to be in possession of her senses, the children must be possessed and mad. The governess's very sense, in other words, is founded on the children's madness. Similarly, but conversely, the story's very sense, as outlined by Wilson, by the logic of his reading, is also, paradoxically, based on madness -- but this time on the madness of the governess. Wilson, in other words, treats the governess in exactly the same manner as the governess treats the children. It is the governess's madness, that is, the exclusion of her point of view, which enables Wilson's reading to function as a whole, as a system at once integral and coherent -- just as it is the children's madness, the exclusion of their point of view, which permits the governess's reading and its functioning as a totalitarian system. (195)
Such a position is not comfortable. Wilson's own discomfort with it is suggested by his subsequent vacillation (see Willen 115-53). This vacillation, in turn, is uncomfortable because it violates not only the manifest ambiguity of the tale, which Wilson set out to affirm in his original essay, but also because it violates the demand that the implied reader love the governess. Poe's terror fantasies depend upon ambiguity to restrain the reader from making bad-faith escapes. James depends upon ambiguity and upon love.

     Love also restrains attempts to trivialize the tale. As the existence of the debate shows, one cannot easily deny that there are ambiguities. Though it is perhaps illogical that the burden of proof should fall on those who are willing to give the governess the justification she desires, still these readers must struggle against the "naturalizers" to make their arguments count (Felman 94-102). It is important to keep in mind that neither the trivializers nor the naturalizers are necessarily acting with bad intentions. For example, Robert Heilman in "A Note on the Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw" certainly does not mean to trivialize the tale when he eloquently defends the governess. Still, the point of view he argues tends to eliminate the most disturbing ambiguity from the tale by trivializing the fantastic. This point of view also fails to love the governess by failing to listen to her whole message, the secret, hidden side as well as the open, conscious side of it. To affirm the governess's innocence is to deny her own consciousness that she went too far, used too much psychological violence. It is to be less true to her than she is to herself. As a friendly betrayal, it parallels the acts of Miles's friends, who passed his remarks toward the masters who read them as evil and had him expelled. Any form of mastering another in this tale seems to be a failure of love.

     It is a masterstroke, then, to make the governess worthy of the implied reader's love, for doing so cuts off conventional paths of escape from the terror of entrapment in the role of the implied reader. In this way James surpasses Poe in realizing the potentials of terror fantasy, tightening the screw on his reader's already well-secured thumb. To remain in the role of the implied reader is to identify ever more closely with the haunted governess. This entrapment and the threat of transformation it entails may tempt the reader to escape by fixing the governess as either mad or innocent, but James has made traps of these escape routes as well. Each tends to make the reader conscious of acting in bad faith in his attempt to detach the implied reader from his identification with the governess. The ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw is not resolvable, the tale not readable in the way most fiction of "the great tradition" is readable. As Felman says: "James's trap is then the simplest and the most sophisticated in the world: the trap is but a text, that is, an invitation to the reader, a simple invitation to undertake its reading. But in the case of The Turn of the Screw, the invitation to undertake a reading of the text is perforce an invitation to repeat the text, to enter into its labyrinth of mirrors, from which it is henceforth impossible to escape" (190).

     Felman's analysis raises in a radical fashion the difficulty of responding to this tale and, by implication, to all tales of terror fantasy. She seems sometimes to imply that all literature is terror fantasy, but I understand her to mean that all literary language, as Lacan argues, carries with it a fundamental split between conscious and unconscious. That this is so does not make Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice unreadable in the same way as is The Turn of the Screw. Those novels offer acceptable illusions of closure and do not call attention to the ways in which they are unclosed; terror fantasy refuses closure. The terror fantasies we have examined pretend at first to play the usual literary game with the reader, but when the moment of closure arrives, they pointedly refuse to play the usual game, leaving the reader in a limbo that requires a new reading strategy. James has, indeed, set a trap for the reader, and the reader's fundamental problem is to escape. The critical histories of all three of our terror fantasies testify not only, as Felman says, to the tales' power to make their readers repeat texts in several senses of repeat, but also to their power to make readers desire escape.

     Felman argues that though there is no escape from the terror of the tale, still it is possible to read the unreadable (143, 200). She means that while the story encloses the implied reader in its "labyrinth of mirrors," there is still some perspective outside the labyrinth from which it may be viewed. To remain in the labyrinth is to be driven mad; outside the labyrinth is James, the master of his own tale. His mastery, she says, consists of escape: "It is because James's mastery consists in knowing that mastery as such is but a fiction, that James's law as master ... is a law of flight and of escape" (206). There is no master. Mastery is a fiction. To fix a meaning upon the governess, to master her, is to lose her, just as her mastery of Miles may have lost him. What does it mean to say that mastery is a fiction, if not to affirm that the self that attempts mastery is a fiction? The attempt at mastery is, after all, the attempt to assert the self's dominance over the ghosts (if they are real) or over the Other (if the ghosts spring from the unconscious). The search for a master is a search for the gaze in which one is whole, the master of one's self; it is the search for the gaze of love. Such a gaze is imaginary; it is constructed by the desiring self. Likewise, the critical mastery of The Turn of the Screw is imaginary, a construction of an expert reader desiring closure. The name we have given to that construction is the implied reader. The implied reader refuses to give up its independent life; it will not be closed, will not be possessed. As a result, the real reader becomes possessed. The perspective of escape from this possession, in which mastery is seen to be a fiction, must be outside that constructed self, the implied reader. The elaboration of this idea generates an aesthetics of terror fantasy.

End of Chapter 9.

Contents
  Notes &
Permissions
  Preface & Acknowledg-
ments
1:
Introduction
2: Horror in Literature and the Literature of Horror
3: The Marvelous Horror Thriller
4:  The Fantastic/Uncanny Horror Thriller
5: The Aesthetics of the Horror Thriller: Stoker's Dracula
6: The Pure Fantastic Tale of Terror
7:  Anticlosure: Poe's "Ligeia"
8: The Entrapped Critic:
Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"
9: The Master's Trap:
James's The Turn of the Screw 
10: Escape: An Aesthetics of Terror Fantasy
11: Terror and the Sublime
Sources
Index