Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Scholars are divided in their opinion of what “really” happened in The Turn of the Screw, falling into two camps. One holds that the story is a tale of a ghostly haunting, taking at face value the governess’s story. The other camp believes the governess insane and that the story is the record of her hallucinations and madness. Edmund Wilson, the eminent twentieth century critic, inaugurated this school of thought in a 1938 essay calling for an explicitly Freudian reading of the novel in which the governess is treated as a “neurotic case of sex repression.” By this reading, the towers of Bly House are phallic symbols, and the governess is acting out repressed sexual rage at the patriarchy, as represented by Miles and his (absent) uncle. As Willie van Peer and Ewout van der Camp have noted, however, these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive and can both be true. In fact, the Freudian interpretation is quite clever but forgets that fiction is, well, fictional, and therefore can play by its own rules. In the world of The Turn of the Screw it may just be that Freudian interpretations are the false reality and ghosts are the truth that Freudian theories unfairly obscure. Since it is a novel, and not an autobiography, we can never know (136).
Accordingly, the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw may be the souls of the deceased spirits of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, former servants who had had a sexual affair with one another while in the employ of the uncle of the two children, Miles and Flora, who has entrusted their care to the governess. The governess supposes that the ghosts may have sexually molested one or both of the children, but the novel is ambiguous; it could be that she herself is obsessed with the children’s sexuality and is tempted to molest them, blaming her compulsions upon the supernatural specters that she imagines she sees. Alternatively, the ghosts may be demons who have disguised themselves as ghosts in order to deceive the governess and draw her away from God. However, she never seems to be overtly or especially religious, or, for that matter, Christian.
There is a second possibility for a Christian interpretation of the story, that of Robert Heilman, who argues, in “The Turn of the Screw as Poem,” namely, that--
The story is virtually a morality play, involving the typical conflict of divine and demonic agents fighting for the soul of Everyman. The garden at Bly is the Garden of Eden; Miles and Flora are Adam and Eve in a state of prelapsarian innocence; Quint corresponds to folklore descriptions of the Devil; the governess is both an angel sent from God and a Christ-like mediator. By the end of the story, the Fall has occurred, but at the last minute the governess exorcises the demon from Miles’s soul and thereby saves him. Other apparitionist critics have expanded and rounded out this interpretation; the only character left unaccounted for is Miss Jessel, who too often is seen as merely the artistic counterpart to Quint. Miss Jessel, as cohort of Satan, is probably the Lilith in the Judaeo-Kabbalistic tradition who united with Adam and brought forth the race of demons, imps, and fairies (Rictor Norton, “Henry James's The Turn of the Screw,” Gay History and Literature, 1971, 1999, updated 20 June 2008).Either interpretation, the Freudian or the Christian, makes of the novel both more and less than it seems to be in itself, for the story, capable of prompting both interpretations (and others), makes sense from both points of view but exhausts them rather than being exhausted by them. As usual, it seems that the way by which one interprets literature indicates at least as much about the interpreter as it does the interpreted. For Freudians, the story is about sex, because all things are reducible to sex. For Christians, the same story is about sin and redemption, because the world itself is a product of creation, sin, and redemption.
For me, it is clear that the Christian understanding of the story is richer and more complex than the psychoanalytical one, for life is more than sex and requires, to be appreciated properly, a world view that embraces both spirit and flesh (and both eternity and time) rather than simply the erotic impulse and its effects. The Freudian interpretation is reductive and simplistic; the Christian, expansive and intricate--rather like The Turn of the Screw (and life) itself.
It is clear that the spirits in the novel represent sexual lust, for, as Colavito points out, they are “decadent Jazz Age ghosts whose debauchery and sexual excess corrupted them into evil.” Their leader was “Emeric Belasco, the house’s builder and leader of the debauchery.” However, it was through the application of both science, and not sorcery alone, that Belasco corrupted his guests:
Belasco, it transpires, was a genius who studied deeply of the sciences and the dark arts, including the occult, and used his powers to mentally dominate his guests and turn them toward sensuality and destruction as part of his experiments and almost anthropological studies in evil. Under his auspices, men and women became like animals. . . and the guests killed and ate one another as they reveled in freedom and joy (298).Dr. Barrett “is a skeptic about spiritualism,” attributing the Dionysian activity of the supposed ghosts to “energy” derived from “unconscious human powers.” In the course of the investigation, the investigators are sexually molested and assaulted by the spirits in the house, or, as Dr. Barrett contends, as a result of “the unconscious minds of the psychics” he employs and the telekinetic attacks they launch. For their part “the psychics believe Belasco’s shade is controlling a number of ghosts who commit the assaults” (298).
The novel’s resolution indicates that it is Belasco himself, “who survived death to continue his experiments in evil,” and Dr. Barrett’s weapon against the “electromagnetic radiation emitted from the [human] body” does its trick so that “Belasco’s power fades away,” suggesting, Colavito says, that the novel’s author intends the story’s theme to be that “the faith-based world of the mediums’ belief must bow before science”; their powers seem, after all, to have been grounded in physical, rather than spiritual, reality, products of “electromagnetic radiation,” and not demonic activity: “in the end even the most horrible of supernatural nightmares is reducible to natural law” (299).
The ghosts of Matheson’s novel are both physical and spiritual, like the universe itself, which is precisely the view, concerning the nature of reality, that Christian thought itself argues. Ironically, Matheson’s novel seems to prove what it sets out to invalidate. Not only are the ghosts--or ghost, actually, for “the entities in the house” turn out to be “in fact but one--Emeric Belasco himself”--the source of the mischief, but they are also proof of the ability of the human soul to survive physical death (299). The ghost in the novel is himself a rather reluctant apologist, of sorts, for the Christian view of reality as consisting of both the physical and the spiritual.
Note: In Part 4 of “Sex and Death,” I will take a look at another horror icon, that of the werewolf.