The True Villian
On the surface, Henry James, Turn of the Screw has all of the qualities of an innocent old-fashioned ghost story, but underneath there is much more. The use of ambiguity appears frequently throughout the novel and the reader is left to decide a lot on their own; Are the ghosts real? Who can actually see the ghosts? Which characters can the reader really rely on? These questions can be answered in a variety of different ways, but who is to say which answer is the correct one? The biggest case of ambiguity appears at the very end of the ghost story with the death of Miles.
With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a
creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with with I recovered
him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes
I held him - it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a
minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with
the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped(James 120).
When examining the scene one may think that it was the governess who physically strangled the boy. If this is not the case then the governess was the one who scared the young boy to death. Edmund Wilson an American writer, critic and social commentator discusses this in his critical essay, The Ambiguity of Henry James.
Instead of persuading him that there is nothing to be frightened of,
she has, on the contrary, finally convinced him either that he has
actually seen or that he is just about to see some horror (93).
Wilson discusses how from the governesses point of view Miles could not handle the shock and horror of the spirit but in reality he can not even see the ghosts to begin with so the blame is placed on the governess. The governess knows that Miles can not see the ghosts or her hallucinations because she mentions his sealed eyes (James 120), meaning that he cannot see apparitions like just about everyone else in the book. It is clear to see that she really is held accountable for his innocent death, not some apparition that only she alone can see.
With this, it can be said that the governess is the storys true villain. In the governess determination to pry a confession from Miles, she turns to petrifying ice to get it out of him. It is then that he reveals to the reader how the governess is the truly evil character in the story.
I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to
challenge him. Whom do you mean by he? Peter Quint - you devil!
His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication (James 120).
The governesss determination to make Miles speak turns her into a frightening and extremely intimidating woman who, murdered Miles with her terrifying insanity. It is clear that the governess is insane because throughout the entire story she acts impulsive and erratic. Wilson even states that the governess is, a neurotic case of sex repression, and that the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governesses (88). This helps clarify for the reader that the ghosts are not real and that the supernatural activity is just a figment of the mad governess imagination. This theory may justify the cruel and unusual actions of the governess but it does not distract the reader from the fact that she killed Miles, whether it be physically or emotionally. Wilson even enforces his strong argument by saying ..it is a not infrequent trick of Jamess to introduce sinister characters with descriptions that at first sound flattering... (88). Without this information one may be misled because the governess is described as sheltered, intelligent, protective, inexperienced and innocent; qualities that one would never expect of an insane murderer. Wilsons input aids the reader in figuring out that she is not a heroine for her valiant attempts to keep the children safe she is instead the antagonist of her own story.