Heads or Tails: Ambiguity and Structure in The Turn of the Screw

Perception is very much like a sixth sense. Human beings have a unique capability to not only taste, touch, smell, hear, and see, but to perceive and formulate objective information and turn it into subjective opinion. In analyzing the Henry James Gothic psychological thriller The Turn of the Screw in the structuralist literary criticism, the framework for the story allows the parameters of the setting and characters to be seen, without providing any subjective information to the reader. The ambiguity surrounding the plot and definition of each character allows the critical reader in their formative opinions of both. James was careful to structure the story so that the entirety was left to the interpretation of the reader, observing his intention to provide framework to prop the story up, but devoid of details to influence the reader in a direct way.

At first sight, the genre of the story itself is open to perception. Although it is clearly a Gothic tale of ghosts and torment, it is also psychologically compelling. An important aspect that supports James’ framework is the use of signs, symbols, and motifs. Thematically, a consistent aspect of the story is literally perception. The unnamed governess perceives Flora and Miles to be unusually attractive children, going so far as to describe Flora as possessing “incomparable childish beauty” and being “dazzled by their loveliness.” (James) It is also implied that she perceives their uncle to be an impressive man, attractive like his wards, and intriguing. What little narrative there is to describe the governess herself is that she is but an apprehensive young woman piloting a family unit almost like a savior. In a more figurative sense, the governess perceives the apparition of ghostly figures who send her into a plight of emotional turmoil. Other perceptions which afflict the governess include the innocence and culpability of the children, coupled with her confusion of truth and the representation of truth.

A sidecar to perception is judgment, which is never far off of the peripheries of opinion and objectiveness. Sometimes the ugly side of perception, judgment can be easily made with finite information, but when left without tangible direction, judgment becomes hazier, as is the case with The Turn of the Screw. For example, the governess initially judges the children to be near perfection, seeing few flaws in their appearances or demeanor. She cannot fathom how Miles would be expelled from school, a reason for which the reader can never truly know. She describes him as “only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it” (James) and she deduces that the school-world could only have tainted his impenetrable innocence, rather than considering that he could ever be so unfit to be there to begin with. Like a siren call, she is drawn into a world of beautiful people, almost too beautiful, and she tallies outer beauty with inner beauty. However, as the story progresses she begins to doubt the truthfulness of the children failing to see the apparitions. Her judgment becomes clouded, which can easily account for detractors who may think the governess to be insane. Judgment, whether it be hers of the relationship between Ms. Jessel and Quint, or the doubt of the children’s true nature, is a recurring theme that drives both the story and the ambiguous take away for the reader.

A sign that provides the backdrop for a supernatural breeding ground is the repetitive signifier of complete isolation. The house is isolated from society, the uncle is isolated from his niece and nephew, and the governess is isolated from the uncle as well as any sense of community. With isolation and open space also comes a great deal of white noise, and silence. The actual symbol that perpetuates the signifying and underlying tone of eeriness is the apparitions themselves, which appear outwardly to the acknowledgment of the governess. The isolation is a natural part of the atmosphere in the story, while the alleged ghostly apparitions are the symbols that earmark the movement and conflict within the story.

The structuralist narratology is specific in that the traditional ghost story typically begins with some form of background. Whether it is a tale of a cursed village or a possessed child that kick starts the narrative into gear, the conflict is foreshadowed and then develops once the story begins. James does well to preface the story with the prologue, which is helpful considering that the story begins and ends with no other discernible method to understand the buildup otherwise. His formula was not unlike other storytellers; he provided a prologue to fence the story into its necessary boundaries, while leaving the interior of the plot blank aside from repetition of signs, symbols, and motifs. The development relies on the initial narration, and develops meaning as it continues.

Whether or not the governess is truly insane, or actually experiencing supernatural phenomena is never revealed, nor is much of the plot intrigue, such as the children’s ability to see and feel the presence of a supernatural phenomenon. The reader is never told why Miles has been expelled from school, or why the uncle makes a clear directive never to be bothered with the children. Perhaps this ties into an underlying acknowledgment of supernatural acts at work, or a disturbed broken family. What is clear, however, is that the reader is meant by design to come to their own conclusions based on their perception of the setting and characters, omens provided in the signs, symbols, and theme, and the little information provided in the prologue. In the most intriguing and ambiguous of structures, James created a chilling world of mystery.

Work Cited
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Project Gutenberg, N.p., 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 7 Sep. 2013.


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