Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The governess only rarely indicates that she is afraid the ghosts will physically harm or kill the children. In fact, Miles’s death comes as a shock to us as readers, because we are unprepared to think of the ghosts as a physical threat. Until she sends Flora away, the governess never seems to consider removing the children from the ghosts or trying to expel the ghosts from the house. Instead, the governess’s fears focus almost entirely on the potential “corruption” of the children—whether they were corrupted by Quint and Jessel when the latter were alive and whether they contiue to be similarly corrupted by the ghosts. Before she even knows about Quint, the governess guesses that Miles has been accused of corrupting other children. Although the word corruption is a euphemism that permits the governess to remain vague about what she means, the clear implication is that corruption means exposure to knowledge of sex. For the governess, the children’s exposure to knowledge of sex is a far more terrifying prospect than confronting the living dead or being killed. Consequently, her attempt to save the children takes the form of a relentless quest to find out what they know, to make them confess rather than to predict what might happen to them in the future. Her fear of innocence being corrupted seems to be a big part of the reason she approaches the problem so indirectly—it’s not just that the ghosts are unmentionable but that what the ghosts have said to them or introduced them to is unspeakable.
Because the corruption of the children is a matter of fearful speculation rather than an acknowledged fact, the story doesn’t make any clear and definitive statement about corruption. Certainly, the governess’s fears are destructive and do not result in her saving the children. Notably, while the governess is the character most fearful of and vigilant for corruption, she is also the least experienced and most curious character regarding sex. Mrs. Grose is married, and the uncle, though a bachelor, seems to be a ladies’ man. The governess is singularly horrified by Miss Jessel’s sexual infraction and apparently fascinated by it as well. We might conclude that the governess’s fear of the children’s corruption represents her projection of her own fears and desires regarding sex onto her charges.
The governess’s youth and inexperience suggest that the responsibility of caring for the two children and being in charge of the entire estate is more than she could possibly bear, yet she does not look for help. Her isolation is largely her employer’s fault, because he chooses to remain absent and specifically tells her to deal with all problems by herself. However, the governess responds to her experiences at Bly by taking on even more responsibility—to bury the headmaster’s letter and keep Miles at home; to be the one who sees the ghosts rather than the children and who attempts to screen them from any exposure to the ghosts; and to save the children from the ghosts’ corrupting influence. These decisions are all self-conscious—she is not forced to make them because she can’t think of another way to respond. Instead, she deliberately chooses to view these challenges as “magnificent” opportunities to please the master and deludes herself into thinking that the master recognizes her sacrifices. Clearly, she is misguided on both counts. The master never comes down or sends any letter, and her crusade to save the children is an even worse disaster. Flora leaves the estate sick and in hysterics, vowing never to speak to the governess again, and Miles dies. Whether or not the governess was correct in thinking that the children were being haunted, she was definitely wrong in thinking she could be the hero who saves them.
The fact that the governess was misguided in adopting a heroic stance suggests several interpretations. One possibility is that the forces of corruption are too powerful for one person to oppose. Perhaps the governess could have succeeded only with the concerted efforts of the school and the uncle, and perhaps the children could not have been saved. Another possible reason why her heroism might have been inappropriate is that childhood and innocence may be too fragile to be protected in such an aggressive fashion. The governess’s attempt to police and guard the children may have proven to be more damaging than the knowledge from which she wanted to protect them.
One of the most challenging features of The Turn of the Screw is how frequently characters make indirect hints or use vague language rather than communicate directly and clearly. The headmaster expels Miles from school and refuses to specify why. The governess has several guesses about what he might have done, but she just says he might be “corrupting” the others, which is almost as uninformative as the original letter. The governess fears that the children understand the nature of Quint and Jessel’s relationship, but the nature of that relationship is never stated explicitly. The governess suspects that the ghosts are influencing the children in ways having to do with their relationship in the past, but she isn’t explicit about how exactly they are being influenced. This excessive reticence on the part of the characters could reflect James’s own reticence (which was marked), or it could be interpreted as a satiric reflection on Victorian reticence about sex. More straightforwardly, it could be a technique for engaging the imagination to produce a more terrifying effect.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Throughout The Turn of the Screw, references to eyes and vision emphasize the idea that sight is unreliable. Vision and the language used to describe it are particularly important in each of the governess’s encounters with Quint and Miss Jessel. She deems her first meeting with Quint a “bewilderment of vision,” an ambiguous phrase that suggests she imagined what she saw. Characters lock eyes with each other several times in the novella. The governess shares intense gazes with both Quint and Miss Jessel and believes she can determine the ghosts’ intentions by looking into their eyes. Although she and Miss Jessel do not actually talk, the governess claims Miss Jessel’s gaze appears “to say” she has a right to be there. At times, the governess regards the clarity of the children’s eyes as proof that the children are innocent. In these cases, she determines whether the children are capable of deception by looking at their eyes, when it may be her own eyes that deceive her.
Early on in the novella, the governess imagines herself at the helm of a “great drifting ship,” and the metaphor of Bly as a ship lost at sea soon proves to be appropriate. When the governess goes out to look for the vanished Quint, she describes Bly as “empty with a great emptiness,” as though it is a vast, unlimited sea. After her first ghostly encounters, she decides she will save the children but later cries that they are hopelessly “lost.” Her navigation skills have failed her, and she envisions the children drowning. However, she perseveres, and when she speaks with Miles near the end of the novel, she feels she is “just nearly reaching port.” The ship imagery extends further when, soon thereafter, she imagines Miles “at the bottom of the sea,” a disturbing image that foreshadows Miles’s fate. Ultimately, the governess is the character who is most lost. She cannot find a direction or destination for her theories and suspicions, and her perceptions are constantly changing.
Sound acts as a signal of life and nature in The Turn of the Screw, and its absence is a predictor of the governess’s supernatural visions. Prior to the governess’s ghostly encounters, she experiences a hush in the world around her. When she first sees Quint in the tower, the sound of birds stops and the rustling of leaves quiets. The governess takes the scene to be “stricken with death.” Nothing else changes, however, and the visual aspects of the world around her are unaffected. The governess’s sense of a hush is more marked when she meets Quint on the staircase. She interprets the “dead silence” of the incident as proof that the encounter is unnatural. In fact, she remarks that the silence is the specific thing that marks the event as unnatural and that otherwise she would have assumed Quint to be a living being. Quint’s subsequent disappearance into silence suggests that the dead dwell in a realm without sound, making silence a mark of the unnatural and unliving.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Candlelight suggests safety in the governess’s narrative, while twilight suggests danger. On a number of occasions, the governess’s lighted candle is extinguished, always with the implication that something is awry. At the top of the stairs, her candle goes out at the exact moment she sees Quint. She views him in “cold, faint twilight.” A week or two later, the governess wakes up to find her candle extinguished and Miles on the lawn in bright moonlight. Her view of him in that light suggests danger and, in a way, prefigures his imminent death. Later, Miles blows out the governess’s candle, plunging the two into darkness. The lack of moonlight implies an absence of the supernatural, and the blowing out of the candle indicates a loss of protection.
In The Turn of the Screw, events become fully real only when they have been written down. The governess at first refuses to record the circumstances at Bly in a letter to her employer. If she preserves the events in a material document, she will have reached a point of no return—she will be forever unable to deny what happened. She also has relied on threats and passionate speech to persuade Mrs. Grose of her visions and theories, and convincing someone through the written word will be much more difficult. Eventually, she does write the letter, and she also writes down the entire account in the manuscript that we are reading. The manuscript, unlike the letter, allows her to present events in a way that will persuade her readers she is both sane and telling the truth. In keeping with the ambiguity of the tale, the trajectories of both written records, the letter and the manuscript, are interrupted, which further impedes our ability to determine whether the events are or are not “real.” The letter is never sent, and the manuscript stops short of a definite conclusion. These interruptions suggest the story remains unresolved—and cast doubt on its reliability.