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Oscar Wilde: It is a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale
James himself tosses off this story as "just a ghost story" kind of frivolous story. My reading of The Turn of the Screw reads the ghosts as MASKS concealing the REAL of childhood sexual abuse in the upper classes of England.
Turn of the Screw first published in serial form in 1898 (Collier's) is followed in 1906 by Freud and Breuer's Studies in Hysteria. (also in pdf) This seems to be where Anthony Curtis stopped thinking.
All of us who took an English Literature course in high school or college were assigned the reading of this long short story or novella. As a ghost story and a scary one. As James says in his preface his way was to engage the imagination of the reader to imagine the horror instead of literally writing all the gory details. He does, however, make sure we read the horror as sexual, if we are awake while reading it. Peter Lang says the same in his masterpiece film M with Peter Lorre.
Our Twenty-First Century perception gives us a vastly different reading than all those years ago. We who have been online to know the atrocities of sex slavery, kidnapping of young children, breeding of female sex slaves to raise children used to nothing else as future commodities is to just about collapse our imagination into dirt. The REAL is so much worse than we could ever have known that we shut down. It also seems obvious to my perception that this sort of sexual abuse was a prevalent practice among the governesses and servants in wealthy aristocratic estates. James is I believe saying this by MASKING the REAL as a ghost story.
The master interviews the prospective governess in London and he is a charming man. She is taken with him but I would not say excessively, but she is curious. He instructs her to NEVER contact him about anything in the country estate which she will preside over, nor the children, nor any gossip. NOTHING! She finds this strange, has doubts but decides to accept the position when it is offered.
The governess is read by earlier critics as an hysterical woman, a virgin, young, inexperienced and smitten with a passion for this master.
She is obviously in some level of denial but can share her fears with the head housekeeper Mrs. Grose, and can ask questions when she hallucinates a man on the roof, describing the former valet (now dead) - Peter Quint a play on Ibsen's Peer Gynt?- to the master so precisely as an actor, with red hair, and not a gentleman, the woman names him. The governess repeats that he is not a gentleman (unlike the master) oh no, but very handsome, a horror, clever and deep, and from that we intuit that he is a sexual predator that certain refined ladylike women instantly recognize and stay away from.
With our 21st Century eyes we have the master, who now lives in his townhouse in London, leaving his handsome valet in the country (not turned out to fend for himself). So can we say that he breaks the relationship either before the children come as a result of being orphaned, or after? At any rate he wishes nothing to do with his former valet. He himself is unmarried, leads a social life he does not want interfered with, so can we assume his relationship with his valet was homoerotic (many recent reviews do) and now over? It feels that way to me. James is seen as a homoerotic and some have even said had pedophiliac tendencies if he did not act on them. He is acutely aware of children's amazing capacities of perception and secret observations, thoughts and feelings. Not unlike Lewis Carroll and his Alice In Wonderland published in 1865. Surely James knew this book. Today both of them along with Darter would be rotting in prison.
The governess has shivery sensations, awaking at night, and she cannot shake them. The children are perfect. Enchanting, intelligent, imaginative, precocious, beautiful, entertaining and she cannot wish for more in either of them. (We will encounter the same defense mechanisms in Walter Sickert after undergoing THREE VIVISECTIONS (the last in 1865 in London) ON HIS GENITALS without ANESTHESIA, to turn him into a REAL BOY or else KILL HIM!)
The boy Miles is home on summer vacation, having been expelled from boarding school. BUT FOR WHAT? Is that so difficult for us to figure out now? It becomes very clear to our eyes long before the end of the story when he says to his governess, "I said things to those boys I liked. They said things to boys they liked." Well just guess what those things were and this headmaster's horror of boy sexuality and perhaps experimentation that cannot be tolerated.
When the governess is with the little girl Flora by the lake hallucinating the ex-governess - Miss Jessel - (also now mysteriously dead) the child turns her back on the water and the image and plays with a little toy wooden boat putting the mast in the hole where it belongs. Much is made of this Freudian action by Curtis and other reviewers.
Is she telling the governess what happened by the side of the lake?
Is she unconsciously just putting the mast in the hole?
Is she consciously/unconsciously playing?
Is she seductively inviting the governess to respond to her sexual overtures?
IDK. But these are only a few of the readings of this image of her actions. I am sure there are more.
The governess is considered as an hysterical woman in an unconscious state of passion for the master whom she has only seen twice. Here we note the masculine interpretation of the woman in psychological terms outlined by Freud in his Studies of Hysteria. Breuer will abruptly terminate treatment with Anna O when she tells him she is pregnant with his baby. At that moment it must occur to him that everything she has told him about nursing her father and his advances "may also be phantasy" because he knows she cannot be pregnant by him. Is this where Freud gets his interpretation of sexual abuse phantasy instead of the actual abuse for which feminists have raked him over the coals and for which he still burns?
The governess is an amazing psychologist - read Henry James here - as she begins to perceive that these enchanting children are PERFORMING ENCHANTING just for her. Then she wonders if they perceive that she knows they are performing? And she censors her behavior to hide the fact that she knows. And the plot deepens into horror. The governess begins to imagine the horror the children experienced at the hands of these two adults. Quint seeks the company of Miles which is reciprocated and the two spend many hours walking together and talking. Miss Jessell is with Flora a great deal alone. The governess now knows Miss Jessell became a fallen woman with Quint and is greatly disturbed by the intimacy of Quint and Miles and Miss Jessell and Flora. As a virgin and sexual innocent she can imagine the sexual initiation of the children but lacks our ability to visualize exactly how far it might have progressed. As Quint tires of Miss Jessell the children are brought into it to "spice it up?" And as we know from de Sade the perversity only increases as adaptation ensues.
Of course James is able to imagine sexual horror I would venture. But how far. But I think his story is deliberately MASKING what existed between governesses and servants with the wealthy classes. Freud's patients were often first exposed to sexuality very young by them. We have The Wolfman and Dora just to mention two of them.
So as James tosses this story off as a fluffy little ghost story just as Graham Greene tossed off some of his novels as "entertainments."