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Turn of the Screw Unreliable Narrator

1995 words (8 pages) Essay in English Literature

05/07/17 English Literature Reference this

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Vision or perspective is a key theme that reoccurs in both the film entitled The Innocents by Jack Clayton, and novel Turn of the Screw by Henry James. They both suggest that the governesses’ vision is not dependable making her an unreliable narrator. Throughout the novel and the film the governess is certain that she sees ghosts and tries to convince Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, to acknowledge their presence as well. The crucial question that is left unanswered in both novel and film is the existence of the ghosts. According to Banard, the governess is a neurotic spinster whose repressed passion for her employer, the children’s bachelor uncle causes her to hallucinate (Banard 199). The governess comes across similar to a boy crazy teenager who sees a man and falls head over heels in love with him. The governess exhibits much behaviour which makes her seem like she has a couple of her screws loose in her head.

From the beginning of the novel the governess presents herself in a way that barely qualifies herself for the job as the children’s governess. The initial narrator, Douglas describes the governess as ‘young, untried, nervous’ (James 121). From the first chapter the governess suggests that she is a somewhat moody person describing her past as ‘a succession of flights and drops’ (James 123). It makes her seem like taking the job as a governess would be a bad idea because she is quite sensitive and fickle. By making us aware of her changes in mood, it makes her come across as nervous, emotional, and not necessarily reliable. Her instability creates a feeling of uncertainty to the readers which makes us uncertain that we can trust her point of view in the narrative. While the instability makes us, the readers doubt her, the uncle does not pick up on that unstableness at all for all he wants is someone to keep his niece and nephew out of his way so he can continue his life as an eligible bachelor. She even doubts herself, saying she feels she is making a mistake, ‘felt all my doubts bristle again, felt indeed sure I had made a mistake.'(James123). It is the uncle who makes the mistake because he hires her even though she has no experience and does not know much about the job. When she arrives to Bly, she becomes irrational when she discovers that Miles, one of the children she is to care for has been expelled from school. As she constantly inquires about why he was sent away, Miles never answers her questions as to why he was expelled which makes her much more sceptical of him because he is acting like he is hiding something. Instead of writing to the school to investigate the real reason why Miles was expelled she conquers up her own reason rather than finding out the truth. She lets her imagination run wild about a little boy she barely knows concluding that Miles is an evil child which is why he was thrown out of school. The governess is very curious about the reason behind Miles’ expulsion but chooses to complicate the situation rather than just contacting the school. Her scepticism is obvious more in the film for she asks Miles quite frequently and never really responds. Without any proof she labels Miles and spends the rest of the novel and film trying to help him. In the end she discovers the truth finally; Miles was expelled because he said things to other boys at the school.

The governess finally gets some answers when interrogating Miles in the last few chapters of the text although they are still vague:

No, I didn’t steal… my hands…shook him as if to ask him why, if it was all for nothing, he had he condemned me to months of torment. What then did you do?… Well- I said things…. Was it to everyone? I asked… No- only a few. Those I liked. And did they repeat what you said?’ Oh yes, he nevertheless replied- they must have repeated them. To those they liked. (James 233-235).

Even early on the novel she is proving herself to be unfit for the position she has acquired, in this particular scene she is interrogating Miles to find out answers. Instead of being the comforting caregiver like she was hired to be, the governess cross-examines the children similar to a criminal that is on trial. Even finding out the truth frustrates her because his answer is so vague. The governesses’ attitude towards the children makes her perspective as a narrator seemed biased and somewhat deceitful, she labels the children early on in the story which prevents us from seeing the children’s perspective as well. The technique James uses in his writing makes the text ambiguous for her chooses to tell the story from the perspective of the governess, an unreliable narrator which characterizes his writing. As Voltteler indicates in his argument, by using this technique the reader often witnesses events through the eyes of the character whose perception may be clouded by personal jealously, misunderstanding or self-deception (Votteler 263). In the case of the governess, her vision is clouded by her lust for the uncle.

In addition to her desire for the uncle, she often sees Peter Quint or Miss Jessel but nobody else seems to acknowledge their presence when she points them out making it seem like she is the crazy one. In the film, the governess who is named Miss Gibbons goes looking for Flora by the lake and Miss Jessel appears and she tells Flora to look. When Flora indicates in the film that she has no idea what the governess is talking about she interrogates her and tries to force Flora into saying that she sees the ghost of Miss Jessel, someone whom Flora was close to and who died within the past year. When Mrs. Grose admits that she didn’t see the ghost either, she is accused of betraying her for Mrs. Grose never did disagree with Miss Gibbons claims in neither the novel nor the film. In the novel, the governess calls Flora ‘you little unhappy thing’ (James 213) and points Miss Jessel out from across the lake implying that Flora sees her. Flora replies scared and horrified that Miss Jessel was even brought up. ‘I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you!'(James 215). In the film, Clayton accentuates this scene by making Flora seem like she is corrupted not by the ghost but by Miss Giddons. In the film Flora seems like an innocent young girl and when Miss. Giddons questions her Flora looks as if she really does not see Miss. Jessel and it makes her quite upset. This scene emphasizes that Flora now sees that her governess is unfit and is corrupted. In forcing Flora to admit that she sees her previous governess, Flora then begins to think that Miss Giddons is ‘wicked’ and cannot be trusted anymore. According to Wilson, there is never any reason for supposing that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts. She believes that the children see them, but there is never any proof that they do (Wilson 117). Not many questions are answered in the novel and the film; Clayton keeps with the ambiguous tone that is evident in the novel. Even the title of the film, The Innocents gives the viewer the idea that the governess is crazy and the children are merely just being children, a concept which the governess chooses to ignore. So when the children act in way that the governess does not understand she thinks that the children are corrupt and she must save them. In keeping with a similar representation among both the film and novel, it allows the viewer to decide for themselves. Either she is a crazy, hallucinating governess or the ghosts are real and the children are in on the plan to drive her out of Bly.

Additionally, in the novel the governess has a fascination with gothic literature therefore she is hallucinating because she is a disturbed because she reads dark stories in her free time. What the governess first does after she sees Quint is compare it to her reading of gothic novels with romantic heroines. ‘Was there a ‘secret’ at Bly- a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?'(James 138). Since she loves reading such dark stories, they are all she has to compare what is happening in Bly to. When she first sees a man walking along the roof of the house all she can describe is what the figure looked like, but on her second sighting she feels that Quint was looking for someone other than her. This is important because as the story progresses her claims about the ghosts get more biased. Even though in the film there is no mention of her fascination with gothic books we still grasp that Miss Giddons mentality is not stable, making her an unfit caretaker. Afterwards the governess claims to know many things that cannot be proven, ridiculous claims based on her senses undermine her trustworthiness as a narrator in the novel. As well, when she sees these ghosts she is not certain that they are the deceased governess and valet until Mrs. Grose tells her that Miss Jessel, the previous governess and Peter Quint, the valet died nearby the house in Bly. The governess has no proof in the novel, whereas in the film an addition point is added, while playing hide and seek with the children, Miss Giddens finds an old photo of a man who Mrs. Grose identifies as Peter Quint. The additional proof added in the film makes the plot more believable because it means that Miss Giddens had some evidence to back up her claims. In the novel, all we are told about Quint is that he is handsome but it is really impossible to know how much the ghost the governess sees resembles Quint. According to Wilson, James knew what he was doing and he intended the governess to be suffering from delusions. The governess could have learned about Quint’s appearance from the people in the village who with whom we know she had talked and who had presumably also told her of the manner of Quint’s death (Wilson 153).There are many ways she could have found out more information about the deaths of these two former employees which could have made her more delusional. Although neither the novel nor the film discuss her speaking to the other people in the town, we must not assume that the mansion is the only home in that part of England.

So in conclusion, in both novel and film there is a recurring theme of unreliability of perception. The governess is shown as an unreliable narrator preventing us from seeing more than just her perspective. Her vision is contaminated by her lust for the children’s uncle who she falls head over heels in love with. From the beginning she is described in terms which make her perspective not trustworthy since she is described as moody. Throughout the novel and the film the governess is certain that she sees ghosts and tries to convince Mrs. Grose and the children that the ghost of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are a reality. Lastly, her fascination with gothic literature enables her to see aspects of evil which may not be really there. As she imagines scenes from her book, she believes she is seeing ghosts which are not really there. So on the whole, many incidents contribute to the belief that the governess is just hallucinating the ghosts and corrupting Flora and Miles by frightening them.

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