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The Turn of the Screw: An Analysis of the Reliability of the Governess

Kristina Lee The Turn of the Screw: An Analysis of the Reliability of the Governess One of the most critically discussed works in twentieth-century American literature, The Turn of the Screw has inspired a variety of critical interpretations since its publication in 1898. Until 1934, the book was considered a traditional ghost story. Edmund Wilson, however, soon challenged that view with his assertions that The Turn of the Screw is a psychological study of the unstable governess whose visions of ghosts are merely delusions. Wilson's essay initiated a critical debate concerning the interpretation of the novel, which continues even today (Poupard 313). Speculation considering the truth of the events occurring in The Turn of the Screw depends greatly on the reader's assessment of the reliability of the governess as a narrator. According to the "apparitionist" reader, the ghosts are real, the governess is reliable and of sound mind, and the children are corrupted by the ghosts. The "hallucinationist", on the other hand, would claim the ghosts are illusions of the governess, who is an unreliable narrator, and possibly insane, and the children are not debased by the ghosts (Poupard 314). The purpose of this essay is to explore the "hallucinationist" view in order to support the assertion that the governess is an unreliable narrator. By examining the manner in which she guesses the unseen from the seen, traces the implication of things, and judges the whole piece by the pattern and so arrives at her conclusions, I will demonstrate that the governess is an unreliable narrator. From the beginning of The Turn of the Screw, the reader quickly becomes aware that the governess has an active imagination. Her very first night at Bly, for example, "[t]here had been a moment when [she] believed [she] recognized, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when [she] found [herself] just consciously starting as at the passage, before [her] door, of a light footstep." The governess herself acknowledges her active imagination in an early conversation with Mrs. Grose, when she discloses "how rather easily carried away" she is. Her need for visions and fantasies soon lead her to believe that apparitions are appearing to her. It is from this point on that she begins to guess the unseen from the seen, trace the implication of things, and judge the whole piece by the pattern. After the first appearance of Peter Quint, the governess begins to make inferences that lead to her unsubstantiated beliefs. The governess received a letter telling of Miles' expulsion from school before the appearance of Quint. Afterwards, however, she infers that because Miles is beautiful, the expulsion is absurd and he must be innocent: "...he was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world..." She later claims that "[h]e had never for a second suffered. [She] took this as a direct disproof of his having really been chastised..." She feels that all of these inferences are truths because Miles is beautiful. Because the governess can see that Miles is beautiful, she infers that he can do nothing wrong, and thereby guesses the unseen from the seen. The governess soon begins to trace the implication of things. Peter Quint's second appearance leads the governess to claim that he had not come for her. "He had come for someone else. This flash of knowledge" later convinces her that the person he has come for is Miles. Quint wants to appear to the children. On another occasion, when the ghost of Miss Jessel appears to the governess when Flora is near, she is certain that the child has seen the apparition. In talking to Mrs. Grose about the occasion, she tells her that; "Flora saw...I saw with my eyes: she was perfectly aware...I'm clear. Flora doesn't want me to know...[Miss Jessel's intention is to] get hold of her...That's what Flor d9c a knows." Never in the novel is there



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