The story that is the subject of this review concerns a worrisome governess, her two enchanting little charges, an agreeable maid, a haunted mansion, and two “evil” spirits. The determined Miss Giddens will stop at nothing to save sweet little Flora and dear Miles from the “evil” that haunts Bly, the country estate in which they dwell. This “evil” incarnates as the ghosts of the children’s former custodians, the late Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. While alive, these two had a sordid affair, often engaging in sexual acts openly, possibly in front of the children. It is up to Miss Giddens to put an end to their “corruptible ways” that continue after death. But in order to do so, she must convince the children to confront that which haunts them. And the first step in this process is to get them to overcome their denial: Miss Giddens needs to be able to get the children to admit that they are indeed haunted. For they carry on as if nothing bothers them. For they are “The Innocents”. Meanwhile, the “screw continues to turn”.
The preceding paragraph presents a concise synopsis (I hope so anyway), and yet it is only the skin of the story. There is much more going on below the surface. Notice how I have placed the word “evil” in quotation marks on three occasions. Likewise, I have placed “corruptible ways” inside these protective, overhanging symbols that defend these words from a single-sided perspective. Do these spirits really represent evil and corruption? Maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe there are no ghosts at all.
There has been much argument and analysis over this Henry James masterpiece: The Turn of the Screw. Likewise, there has been much praise for Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, a film interpretation of the famous novella. I will get into the analysis in a bit. But first, let’s deal with the basics of each medium.
The Turn of the Screw begins with a group of friends that gather on Christmas Eve and listen listen as someone recites a ghost story. Ghost stories were part of the Christmas tradition in the days of yore. Think Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” – with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Anyway, the story that is told is “The Turn of the Screw”. The title is based on an expression that means “an action which makes a bad situation worse, especially in order to force someone to do something.”
The person doing the forcing is Miss Giddens. She is forcing her charges to admit to being haunted by the ghosts of their former caretakers. Does her insistent broaching of the subject make things worse? Yes indeed! But she realizes this, and so she treads cautiously. Through hints and subtle coaxing, she addresses the children. One of the more noteworthy aspects of James’s writing has to do with the dialogue. When speaking to each other, the characters engage in art of circumlocution – communicating in a vague way, being indirect. When the governess gets very close to approaching the children about the ghosts, the children suddenly stop answering her questions. Or they change the subject. Miles, the cleverer one of the two children, will throw his questioner off as he rebuts with questions of his own, questions that make Miss Giddens rethink this whole ghost business and cause her to have doubts. Admittedly, the book is a tedious read. In the end, I was able to find enjoyment with it, but the enjoyment has its costs. I paid for it with much rereading and contemplation.
The film The Innocents is easier to comprehend, and thankfully the mystery and ambiguity of Henry James’s story remains. It is based on a play by the same name (The Innocents by William Archibald), which in turn is based on Turn of the Screw. The famous Truman Capote pens the screenplay for the film.
More so than the book, the film is a haunted house movie. The film making style is chilling and haunting. The soundtrack features a child humming a tune, an effect that comes off as innocently creepy. The camera successfully captures symbolic imagery; the sky and clouds are reflected in the pond, the rays of sun streak into the house. There are good closeups of facial expressions; kudos to the actors who communicate so much with a simple twist of their facial muscles. Then there is the camera and sound styling that make for a compelling haunted house movie; effective uses of shadows, camera pans across long hallways, background creaks, and laughter – echoing, reverberating laughter.
The differences between the film and the novella can be summed up this way:
The Turn of the Screw – a complex psychological drama that features ghosts.
The Innocents – A ghost/haunted house story with psychological underpinnings.
As far as analysis is concerned, I will base most of it on the film. The main question that arises has to do with the ghosts. Are they real, or are they figments of Miss Gidden’s imagination? If they are imaginary, why on earth would she dream up such horrors!
Let’s assume they are imaginary (Actually, I’m going to assume they are both real and imaginary. I will explain this later). To what mental processes are we the reader/viewer to attribute these imaginary products? Let’s examine what others say about this.
From the New Yorker, with quotes from David Bromwich:
He (David Bromwich) concludes, flat out, that the evil that threatens the children “is channeled and communicated by the governess,” who presents us with “an unforgettable image of psychological projection—the inward fears of the governess transfigured by imagination into a palpable menace.” He effectively offers us a ghost story without ghosts.
Then there is this from sparknotes:
With the publication of a 1934 essay by the influential critic Edmund Wilson, a revised view of the story began to gain currency. Wilson’s Freudian interpretation, that the governess is a sexually repressed hysteric and the ghosts mere figments of her overly excitable imagination, echoed what other critics like Henry Beers, Harold Goddard, and Edna Kenton had previously suggested in the 1920s.
Ahh those Freudian, psychological innards; the ID and the Superego duking it out before us. The New Yorker quote mentions projection; another psychological term. Oh how I love it that such a term is associated with a haunted house story, for it adds a whole new dimension of analysis to us people of the page – us students of haunted house lore. Some time ago, I wrote an article about haunted house lore from a sociological point of view. (You can read it here.) Now, we at the page can examine haunted houses from a psychological point of view. The “ghost conjurer” in our story is Miss Giddens. Her mind churns out the spirits, and her eyes act as the projectors. The house is the screen on which she sets her spirits free. It accepts these spirits and reflects them back to us, the viewers of the film (or us as the readers of the novella). In this way, the spirits can be both imaginary (projected from her mind) and real, (or existing as “observable entities” to us the viewer/reader.) As ghost story fans, we can relish in the thrill of encountering ghosts while at the same time understand them for what they are – psychological manifestaions. OR – the ghosts might still be real, even to the other characters of the story that deny seeing them. Nevertheless, they still exist as symbolic entities. Maybe it can then be said that they are made of “ethereal symbolism.” Is that such a thing? Well it is now, cause I just coined the phrase!
Let’s see how this plays out in the film, shall we? Yes we shall! Oh and beware! There are spoilers lurking below!
Here’s a recap. Miss Giddens takes charge of two children at Bly Estate. They are so mannered, so bright beyond their years. They seem so pure as to be uncanny; unreal. When she learns that ghosts are haunting them and intent on possessing them, she does everything she can to protect the purity. Notice I said “the” purity and not “their” purity. Yes on the surface, it is their innocence she wants to protect. But there in another “purity” she seeks to salvage. That purity is her own. Miss Giddens sees herself in the children. Each child represents a competing side of her inner conflict. Flora is the most innocent. She is the sponge that is ready to soak up experience. She is the one to be corrupted. She represents Miss Gidden’s lack of experience, her virginity. Miles, the slightly older brother, represents the darker side of Miss Gidden’s explorations of her own psyche, the guilt that comes with the “sinfulness” of sexual awakening. Thus, he is the corrupter.
How dare I place such moral weight on children? Who am I to equate the ways of children with adult-like offenses? To place such burdens entirely on the children is unthinkable, and this is why the spirits of adults exist as their ghostly counterparts. Flora is (supposedly) haunted by Miss Jessel, the former governess that was “corrupted” by the servant Peter Quint. Miles is haunted (supposedly) by Quint, the corrupter, the one who “touches” Miss Jessel. And Miss Jessel, shamefully, allows such “touching.” In a way, Miss Jessel and Quint are familiars, if we go by this definition of offered by Pierre A. Riffard.
A familiar spirit (alter ego, doppelgänger, personal demon, personal totem, spirit companion) is the double, the alter-ego, of an individual. It does not look like the individual concerned. Even though it may have an independent life of its own, it remains closely linked to the individual.
Thus, Quint and Miss Jessel represent the darker side of the children’s innocence while at the same time serve to epitomize the Freudian conflicts within Miss Giddens.
Let us go now to certain scenes and lines of dialogue in order to obtain evidence for my analysis.
In describing the house, it his mentioned that there are many rooms that are locked and empty. This symbolizes areas of the psyche that have yet to be explored. But due to barriers such as “guilt”, entry is forbidden. Flora comments on the rooms and says “Big rooms get bigger at night.” I take this to mean that in darkness (in the unknown areas of the psyche) psychological tasks seem huge. But Flora also says “I wish I could sleep in many rooms all at once,” showing how she craves experience. Like Miss Giddens herself.
On the other hand, it is revealed that Miss Giddens is raised by her father, a strict minister, in a house with several brothers and sisters. She says her house was small, “too small for secrets.” She had no room for discovery. There was little personal growth.
Flora prays the “Now I Lay Me” prayer. She comments on the “if I die before I wake” part of the prayer. She says about dying, “If I don’t go to Heaven, my soul will roam.” This is the searching for self, perhaps even barred from Heaven on account of guilt.
Miles is not yet on the screen. He is away at school. But soon he comes home, having been expelled. The letter explaining the expulsion doesn’t go into any details. It will be revealed that he is a bad influence on the other students, but still the specifics remain unknown. Later he lies in bed and Miss Giddens stands outside his bedroom door. Strangely, he knows she is there. The unconscious mind knows all. He is on the other side, where her desires exist. Miss Giddens wants to cross over to them but is afraid to do so.
Miss Giddens plays hide-and-seek with the children (What will she see when she finds them? Will she find evil hiding inside sweetness?) In the attic Miles jumps out from his hiding place and grabs his governess’s head. His grip is strong. This occurs in front of a picture of Quint. He is her sexual desire. This urge takes a hold of her and won’t let go.
In another scene, the kids play “dress up”. They wish to surprise Miss Giddens with their costumes. This activity is similar to the hide/seek metaphors. Who are these children underneath the surface, beyond the costume?
One evening, Miles misbehaves. He goes outside in middle of night. Flora watches him from the window as he stands eerily in the moonlight in the courtyard below. All this is a set up to prove to Miss Giddens that he can be bad. Later, when explaining his behavior, Miles says, “A well-behaved child is boring.” So Miles does something wrong and Flora enables it. Miss Giddens, like Flora, looks down upon him. She is aware of her desires, her impulses of the ID, and she seems them clearly, but from afar. After ushering Miles back to bed, there are implications of a pedophilic encounter. But of course this is all symbolic so we need not worry. But Miles kisses his governess. The kiss is long and passionate and Miss Giddens allows it to happen.
In a climactic scene, Miles distracts Miss Giddens while Flora runs out of the house. (Innocence if fleeing!) Miss Giddens finds the young girl at the edge of the pond. She is dancing (the last attempt at retaining innocence) Miss Giddens sees the ghost of Miss Jessel on the other side of the pond. She insists that Flora sees her too. Somewhat hysterically, she demands that Flora confess to seeing her. Flora screams and has a breakdown. Later, along with the maid, Mrs. Gross, she departs from the premises, never wanting to see Miss Giddens again. To this, Mrs. Gross says, “Waking a child can be worse than any bad dream”. This line pretty much sums up what has happened. Flora (and Miss Giddens) is forced to “wake up” and confront the loss of innocence. No longer is she pure. No longer is she protected. With such revelations, heartbreak is only natural.
After confronting the loss of innocence, the next step is to confront those “sinful,” lustful desires. Miss Giddens is now alone with Miles. They sit at a table and drink tea like they are two adults on a date. She confronts him. She asks him about why he was kicked out of school. At some point during their conversation, Miles lashes out, “You dirty minded hussie!” While this happens, the ghost of Quint looks in through the window. Miss Giddens says “Those are not your words!” She insists that they are coming from the spirit which possesses him. She forces him to put a name to the evil. Finally he does. He says “Quint!” Then, Miles dies. This is the final step. Once the demon is acknowledged, once it has a name (is easily identifiable), all notions of innocence and any pretense for purity is gone. Dead.
So, wrapping this up, Miles calls out the name of the spirit on his own accord. Miss Giddens, though coaxing him to call out the name, does not tell him which name to say. This leads credence to the theory that there really are spirits floating about in this story. But they might not exist independently outside of Miss Gidden’s perspective. The children may be conduits through which the spirits come to be; the current which powers up the projector that operates inside the governess.
Overall, I prefer the film to the book. The film is much more of a haunted house story than the book. And you know me – I just love me some good ol’ fashion house haunting tales. But please, don’t discredit the book. It is indeed a brilliant piece of work. It has stumped academics for years and it will do so for many years to come.