The Turn of the Screw: Ch. 1-6

“I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong…”

The opening lines of chapter 1 of The Turn of the Screw immediately align us with the governess-narrator’s feelings on what will happen in the story. This sets us up to pay attention to how events, circumstances, and ideas are interpreted and felt rather than looking at them more objectively. The governess-narrating-from-the-future is aware of this, but the present governess doesn’t seem to be. For example, the narrator admits that Bly House is “a big ugly antique,” but at the time, exploring it for the first time with Flora, the governess sees it as “a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite.” If you pay close attention to how the governess describes things or events, you can see the bias of her feelings, often her feelings that have been predetermined beforehand. Her one point of self-awareness is that she admits that she was “carried away in London” – presumably by her employer.

These first few chapters emphasize the atmosphere and the mood over plot. Most of what happens early on is setting up the house, the inhabitants of the house, and the governess’ attitude toward everything. The only really strange thing that has happened is the governess seeing a strange man outside of the house, behaving in what I would call An Excessively Creepy Manner.

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However, there are lots of other odd goings-on, if not explicitly a threat of home invasion.  The little boy Miles gets kicked out of his school, supposedly for “corrupting” his classmates; Mrs. Grose’s occasional weird attitude; the unexplained absences and deaths of previous employees.

Miles and Flora so far are perfect angels. Like, too perfect. Kids that entertain themselves??? Kids that strategically show up to interrupt serious conversations so that you can cuddle them??? NEFARIOUS FLORA. SCHEMING MILES. I might have a suspicious attitude toward children….I think it’s hard to judge (so to speak) the children at this point in the story, because we don’t have that much description of them besides the governess’ vague, besotted one. We don’t see much of their behavior, aside from Flora leading the governess around and Flora playing determinedly by the pond at the end of chapter 6.

Mrs. Grose has a lot of influence over the governess’ ideas because she is the only one who has expressed an opinion on what’s going on, or provided information on what happened before our governess arrived. Mrs. Grose seems reluctant to use her influence, though, instead taking cues from the governess on what to share. We haven’t seen much of the other adults at the house, and they’re apparently too far below the governess to count for much???? Or maybe she’s just too busy with the perfect children.

The governess herself seems very ready to jump to conclusions, but I think that’s realistic given her age and experience level. As she says herself: “It was the first time, in a manner, that I had known space and air and freedom, all the music of summer and all the mystery of nature. “ She also admits that “I was off my guard.”

I don’t think it’s indicative, at this point, of any conscious unreliability in how she is telling the story. But DISCUSS! Another point in her favor is that she hasn’t heard Quint’s name or description before she sees him twice: “the figure that faced me was- a few more seconds assured me-as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind” (the image=her thoughts about her employer).  So either she’s lying through her teeth to her audience, or she is really seeing a person that she had no idea existed before. According to Mrs. Grose (NOT the governess), the stranger must be a ghost, because he must be Quint, who is certainly dead. The governess is ready to seize this idea but it’s handed to her externally rather than her coming up with it herself.

THEN AGAIN, why doesn’t the governess say anything to Mrs. Grose after seeing him the first time? As the governess says, “An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred.” In other words, it would be very natural for her to complain or report the sighting of a random man standing on top of the house she’s living at. She decides not to say anything so as not to worry Mrs. Grose but like, what the heck, governess! You have kids in the house! Randos are not tolerated!

I love the bit at the beginning of chapter 4: “Was there a “secret” at Bly- a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?” It’s very possible that this woman is related to our good friend Catherine Morland; she’s a country girl who has apparently grown up reading Radcliffe and Bronte.

It’s not until the governess sees the guy a second time that she gets pretty freaked out. I love and hate the image of the governess entering the house, looking out through the window on the far side, and seeing someone standing there, simply staring at her.

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“On the spot there came to me the added shock of a certitude that it was not for me he had come. He had come for someone else.” This is a very odd thing to say, aside from the fact that she doesn’t recognize the guy, so he must be recognizable and known to someone else, the person he has come to see. But it’s a good example of the governess coming to conclusions based on her gut feeling at the time, rather than from any information she does or doesn’t have.

In chapter 5, we learn lots of unsettling things about a dude named Quint, who matches the governess’ description of their rando visitor. Mrs. Grose’ reaction to the sightings, as told to her by the governess, is very telling: her face shows “the delayed dawn of an idea I myself had not given her and that was as yet quite obscure to me.” Based on everything we learn about Quint in chapters 5 and 6, I am ready to defend the point that Quint was abusive in some way to everyone living in Bly House (after the boss leaves). Mrs. Grose’s vague but alarming “He’s a horror!” and the fact that she says the boss left Quint Alone with us” are enough of a hint for me.

Mrs. Grose is very ready to believe that Quint’s ghost is coming after them. I’m not sure if this is criticism of her as an illiterate, possibly superstitious person, or if it’s as the governess believes, that Mrs. Grose and her are SUPER TIGHT FRIENDS that will support each other through everything. What do you all think?

The governess has determined to protect the two kids at all costs from Quint, even though she really has no evidence at this point that he’s after them. All she knows is that Quint was “much too free” with Miles, whether that means socially, physically, spiritually???? She also is aware that she will not ask for help from her employer, and in any case he would probably refuse to help. Her attitude toward her employer is strange – she seems besotted or at least very admiring of him at times, but she also knows that he’s not to be depended on: “he was not a trouble-loving gentleman, nor so very particular perhaps about some of the company he himself kept.” Mmmmhmmmm.

What did I miss in these chapters? As always, leave your comments and questions below, or throw them into the #turnofthescread hashtag on Twitter!

Tune in next Tuesday for discussion of chapters 7-14, where hopefully we find out who the “third figure” from chapter 6 is! I’ll be posting some more this week on context of the novel and Henry James’ attitude toward the supernatural.

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4 thoughts on “The Turn of the Screw: Ch. 1-6

  1. My thesis — and I realize this is mine and only mine — is that the source of evil is the children. That it was they who corrupted and implicitly killed Quint & Miss Jessel, and that only Mrs. Grose’s profound stupidity has protected her from their machinations. Along comes our governess, the daughter of a rector, in her first posting. It’s like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas dinners all in one for precious little Miles and Flora.

    So why is this my thesis? The best horror novels reveal the monster turning the pages. I distrust so much sweetness and light in children, especially children of privilege to whom little if anything is denied. Let’s look first to the employer.

    He’s a wealthy and frivolous buck who doesn’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of unexpected parenthood. Nothing more natural than for him to set them up in his rarely visited house in the country. (The Only Way is Essex.) But we know he must have originally spent some time with them there, because his valet was there. That’s where Quint met Miss Jessel, and also reportedly frivoled with Miles. I cannot believe even the most reckless dandy would keep two valets, one for the country and one for the city. So, that places him at Bly with the children for some period of time. (NB: A valet is a “gentleman’s personal gentleman.” He dresses and undresses his master, takes care of his clothes, shaves him, and is even there to hand the employer his rubber ducky in the bathtub. He is affixed to his employer, not a location.)

    He spends some unknown time with the precious angels at Bly, then returns to town. Some time later, after Miss Jessel has handed in her dinner pail, he succeeds in retaining a new governess/lamb to the slaughter, our narrator. At that point, he has a stipulation, that she must never discuss the children with him at all. Here is the passage:

    “That she should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone. She promised to do this, and she mentioned to me that when, for a moment, disburdened, delighted, he held her hand, thanking her for the sacrifice, she already felt rewarded.”

    There is a certain desperation conveyed by that “—but never, never” that I, for one, always get caught up on. His relief when she agrees is so great that she felt already rewarded, without — bless her heart — stopping to wonder why he is overcome by relief, or why he denotes her agreement as a sacrifice.

    I’ve already gone on too long, but the gist of my take is, he saw something in the kids during his tenure at Bly that made him determined to shut them out of his life completely. He kept them in Essex like quarantined patients, determined to protect himself from their infection.

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