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Unnerving Tale Hidden Inside Some Stories in a Flashback
on March 16, 2003
On the surface this is a story about an either haunted or hysterical governess who juggles words with true virtuosity, stringing them into psychologically insightful sentences. But that is all just camouflage, as is the many-layered structure of this tale. When the chips are finally down, the truth emerges, even though it is never explicitly stated --- how could it possibly have been stated explicitly in 1898? --- this is a story about pedophilia and its effects on a ten year old boy. At the core of this tale lies the relationship between the boy Miles and his uncle's servant Quint at Bly, the uncle's country estate. The housekeeper Mrs. Crose informs the new governess that the too-good-to-be-true Miles had been "bad" in the past, he would disappear for hours in the company of Quint who was not only "much too free" but also engaged in "depravity." Sent off to a boarding school, Miles gets expelled for what he tells his classmates presumably about this depravity. When at the very end of the tale the governess confronts Miles about these matters, he appears to expire in the last four words of the tale's last sentence. Yet at the start of the unresolved flashback which this tale represents, Miles may yet be alive as a middle-aged family man named Douglas, who reads to his friends the whole tale as written down by the governess herself.
Is Douglas the grownup Miles? James doesn't tell, but this remains a fascinating possibility perfectly consistent with the rest of this tale. Further conflations of characters are equally well compatible with the "facts." The uncle who lived at Bly and then left his estate at the very time of Quint's accidental death doesn't want to ever again hear of his nephew or to return to Bly. Could it be that it was not Quint who engaged in pedophilia, but that it was the uncle himself who abused his orphaned nephew? In their numerous dialogues the Governess and Mrs. Crose complete each other's sentences to such a degree that one gets the distinct impression that one is dealing with the ruminations of a single character and like Quint, so Mrs. Crose too can easily be removed from the scene. In fact James does just that shortly before tale's end, while getting rid of Miles' little sister Flora at the same time. He sends them to London to visit the uncle. There is one more character, the earlier governess Jessel, whose only role is to impose a certain degree of symmetry to the tale, and to appear in one climactic scene.
Why all these dispensable main characters, why the fireside chat of all kinds of minor characters at the time when the flashback is entered never to be left again, and finally why even use a flashback? I think these are all diversionary tactics on James' part. The central story he tells is so very unorthodox, unnerving and incendiary that he prefers to hide it with great care and great success among all this clutter. As I said, in 1898 he would have been pilloried for openly writing about pedophilia. The challenge of doing so all the same, has resulted in a masterpiece of ambiguity, which still clearly conveys its point. This interpretation of the story is supported by the fact that Benjamin Britten, one of the twentieth century's greatest opera composers, has set "The Turn of the Screw". Britten was himself apparently interested in pubescent boys and pedophilia drives the stories of three of his masterpieces. Based on what has been written about Henry James, he may not have been a stranger to this subject either.
The style of this tale is fascinating. On the one hand it is formal, quite pedantic, quite precious and removed, as if carving itself a much-needed ditch separating the narrative from the reader. It does not grant easy access. On the other hand all those long sentences with big words tend to have a mesmerizing effect that absorbs the reader into the story better than even the most honest and well-meaning informality ever could. There is a certain rhythm and poetic drive to some crucial passages. For instance, as one enters the flashback, the first few pages have the drive of a prose poem or of a symhony. With it James welcomes the reader to his realm. No wonder "The Turn of the Screw" ultimately landed on the opera stage.