Image: Shannon Wise
Henry James And The Psychology Of Ghosts
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ 1898 novella about a naive young governess and her desperate but misguided efforts to shield two children from a pair of predatory wraiths at a lonely country estate, may well be the most important ghost story written in the English language. Of course, some critics would claim that honor belongs to Shakespeare’s Hamlet—and they might have a point if only Hamlet’s single ghostly element—the demanding, vengeful shade of the eponymous protagonist’s father—were more central to the play. However, the spectral elder Hamlet has his final scene in Act III of the five act play, thereby making Hamlet—one of our most powerful literary works in so many other ways—something less than a full-fledged tale of the paranormal.
Another obvious contender is Charles Dickens’ classic novella, A Christmas Carol (1848). The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim certainly is the world’s most popular and well-loved ghost story, by far. However, A Christmas Carol, with it’s pervasive sentimentality and shadowless moralism, contrasts as much more of a lighthearted (though, of course, still thought-provoking) entertainment and much less of a serious literary accomplishment when matched against the subtleties, ambiguities, and superb character complexities of James’ story.
Both books have had profound and long-lasting effects that extend even into our current popular culture. While Dickens’ book appealed to the conscience of Victorian society, permanently changed attitudes toward the working poor, and reshaped the spirit in which Christmas is celebrated, James’ work exerted a powerful influence on the literature and cinema of the 20th century—particularly on fictions that combined uncanny or fantastic elements with psychological ones.
The relative importance of the two books therefore depends on the lens one chooses to view them through.
The Turn of the Screw (full text available here) is especially notable for the serious uses to which James puts his ghostly characters. In all but a handful of the best ghost stories previously written, ghosts were literal, and the tales in which they appeared were meant primarily to pleasurably frighten the reader. But, while managing to be every bit as conventionally chilling as any ghost story that came before, The Turn of the Screw introduced its late 19th century audience to a deeper and relatively unaccustomed dimension of disturbance: Readers were kept on edge with the uncertainty of whether the governess was actually experiencing her ghosts, or was merely confabulating visions of the supernatural from the fears, loneliness, and unacknowledged sexual frustrations that swirled in the depths of her own mind. In weaving this ambiguity through his book, it is especially remarkable that James, at a time when most of pioneer psychologist Sigmund Freud’s work had not yet been published, intuitively anticipated a couple of Freud’s more enduring ideas about the workings of the human subconscious. Not only did James, through the thoughts and actions of the governess, imply the existence of the subconscious itself, but he also strongly hinted that the perceptions of the governess quite possibly were the result of what Freud would shortly thereafter introduce to the world as the concept of psychological (specifically, sexual) repression—the idea that powerful emotional impulses that are ignored or denied by the person who experiences them may end up emerging in another—perhaps unpredictable or even monstrous—form.
In brief, at the start of The Turn of the Screw, the inexperienced young governess goes to London for a job interview and immediately falls in love with her interviewer and soon-to-be employer—a handsome bachelor many years older than she. Because she wants to please him—and in spite of serious misgivings that include her unease over the extreme isolation of Bly, the mansion where the man’s young niece and nephew await their new caregiver, as well as the fact that “the master” not only tells her he plans to visit infrequently, if at all, but also forbids her ever to contact him about the children—she accepts the job. Once established at Bly, she is at first delighted with her bright, young charges. But her longing thoughts turn frequently to her absent employer, and soon she begins seeing the ghosts—first Quint, the master’s (now deceased) valet, then Miss Jessel, her predecessor in the governess job, who also is no longer alive. From her questioning of Mrs. Gross, the housekeeper, the governess infers not only that Quint and Miss Jessel had a sexual relationship—one that may not have been entirely voluntary on Miss Jessel’s part—but that they may have somehow involved the children in their forbidden intimacy as well.
The governess becomes convinced that, though they tell her otherwise, the children can also see the ghosts, and that they are being coerced or seduced by them. Her efforts to protect her charges become increasingly frantic, and by the harrowing end of James’ book, she is behaving in ways that end up being dangerous to the children she has been attempting to defend.
Henry James himself sometimes disingenuously dismissed The Turn of the Screw as a garden-variety ghost story of the type popular in Victorian times. However, critic Edmund Wilson, writing in a 1934 volume of the literary journal, Hound & Horn, was able to use Freud’s work on repression—yet to be fully developed and expressed at the time James’ novel was written—to expose the story’s psychological underpinnings. His conclusion, in the essay entitled, “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” was that the ghosts existed nowhere but in the troubled mind of the governess:
“The whole thing has been primarily and completely a characterization of the governess: Her visions and the way she behaves about them become as soon as we look at them from the obverse side, a solid and unmistakable picture of the poor country parson’s daughter, with her English middle-class consciousness, her inability to admit to herself her sexual impulses and the relentless English “authority” which enables her to put over on inferiors even purposes which are totally mistaken and not at all to the other people’s best interests.
“The Turn of the Screw then, on this theory, would be a masterpiece—not as a ghost story, there are a great many better ones of the ordinary kind—but as a study in morbid psychology. It is to this psychological value of the ghosts, I believe, that the story owes its fascination. It belongs with Moby Dick and the Alice books to a small group of fairy tales whose symbols exert a peculiar power by reason of the fact that they have behind them, whether or not the authors are aware of it, a profound grasp of psychological processes.”
It is important to note that not every critic has agreed with Wilson on this—and that is as it should be concerning a book constructed around a fascinating ambiguity.