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Turn of the Screw

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Turning the Screw: Analysing Douglas’s Tale
In this essay I will be exploring the narrative style present in “Turn of the Screw” by Henry James and discussing the character called Douglas as a frame narrator for the governess’s tale. I will explore the reliability of Douglas and his relationship with the governess and look at any bias caused by this relationship. I will be analysing the narrative style of the novella, and discussing how this style contributes to the development of the story. Along with this, I will be comparing “Turn of the Screw” to traditional ghost stories, and discussing whether there are differences between the two.
Douglas is presented from the outset of the story as a frame narrator in that he begins his tale by offering to recite a manuscript written by his sister’s former governess, who is a person who Douglas holds in high esteem. This act of recounting another person’s story, or presenting a story within a story, is a clear indication that the type of narrative present in the book is frame narrative (Frame Story - Wikipedia, n.d.).
If we look at this fact in terms of the quote presented within the study material, we notice that Douglas places particular emphasis on his story, proclaiming to be “quite too horrible” (pg 1). Due to the fact that Douglas is a frame narrator rather than an omnipresent narrator, he comes complete with a range of human faults, including exaggeration and bias. The introduction of the story adds to this idea, as Douglas betrays a definite bias towards the governess by claiming that “she was the most agreeable woman I’ve ever known” and that he was “glad to this day to think that she liked me, too” (pg 2). Along with this, one of the listeners to Douglas’ story presents the conjecture that Douglas was in love with the governess (pg 3). All of these factors contribute to the theory that Douglas will present a biased view of the governess’s story, which is something we must bear in mind throughout his recounting of her tale. Douglas presents the story as a credible account of a tale to set it apart from the others told that night, given to him by a trustworthy and believable source. This presentation of the story is in fact biased because Douglas was infatuated with the governess at an early age, and this leads to him presenting the story in her favour.
To consider Douglas as a narrator for the governess’s story, we need to analyse his full relationship with the governess. Due to the fact that the governess’s story is written in her own words, she is completely biased in her own favour and presents her own thoughts and opinions on the situation as fact. She even goes so far as to call Flora a “wretched child” (pg 71) when Flora claims to not be able to see Miss Jessel thus disputing the governess’s theory that the children are aware of the spirits. The governess, and in turn Douglas who appears to fully believe her story, does not even consider the notion that she may in fact be the only person who is able to see this apparition and that she is causing the two children in her care great distress by accusing them of lying to her and plotting an elaborate plan to pull the wool over her eyes. Douglas also appears to believe the governess’s version of events, a fact which is shown in the quote “But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child” (pg 1). The fact that Douglas “knows” that this “occurrence” involved a child, when taken in context with the other stories that are being told that night shows that Douglas “knows” that the ghosts affected the children and has not considered the alternate possibility that the governess was the only person who could see the ghosts.
Douglas is the only character in the story that is able to give the reader an opinion of the governess (Turn of the Screw - Character Analysis, n.d.). This fact changes the effect of the story altogether, in that Douglas’s testimonial on behalf of the governess seems to lend credibility to her account of the story. However, the fact that we are offered a completely one sided view of the story, both through the governess’s manuscript and Douglas’s reading of it, means that it is impossible for us to see the complete picture of what happened at Bly, and this is something we need to remember when analysing the narration of the novella. The full picture of the events that led up to Miles’s death are hidden from the reader.
Douglas presents the tale as “quite too horrible” to his fellow guests in the introduction of the story. To analyse this comment in the context of the other stories that were told in the introduction, we need to take into account all of the information we are shown about the stories preceding Douglas’s story. The story which was first told involved an “apparition” appearing to a “little boy” in an “old house” (pg 1). We are not given many details of the outcome of the story, but we are told that the story culminated in the boy’s mother seeing the “same sight that had shaken him”. This story clearly has many parallels with the governess’s tale in that both tales involve children, although the governess’s contains two children as Douglas mentions. The difference is that the apparition appears directly to the child in the initial story, whereas in the governess’s story there is no clear evidence that the children have actually seen any apparition. The only person who insists on the existence of the spirits is the governess, and throughout the story we are not offered any evidence that anyone but her has seen these spirits. Even in the final scene, Miles shows that he does not know which spirit the governess refers to by asking “is she here?” referring to Miss Jessel, and then when the governess corrects him and says it is Peter Quint who is present he asks “Where?” (pg. 86). These quotes are important to the discussion at hand in that they display a clear lack of knowledge of the apparitions that the governess refers to, and Miles’s “sudden fury” shows his feelings towards his former governess and her partner. These displays are contrary to the governess’s idea that Miles and Flora are both aware of the spirits, and are actively plotting to join them. When we bear these facts in mind, if we compare the governess’s tale with the previously told story we see that whereas in the initial tale we are dealing with an apparition appearing to a child, in the governess’s story the apparition seems not to have appeared to the child at all.
The fact that the governess’s tale ended in a child’s death gives weight to the fact that the story is “quite too horrible” (pg 1) and that the story contains “ugliness and horror and pain” (pg. 2). The initial story that was told did not clarify what happened to the child and his mother in the end, but we can assume from the reaction of the listeners that they accepted this account as a story rather than factual events. On the other hand, Douglas’s tale refers to events that actually happened. Whether Miles died due to the supernatural presence of Peter Quint or from shock at the governess’s insistence that an evil spirit was present, the story ends on a tragic and terrible note. With this in mind it is fair to say that in the context of the other ghost stories told that night, Douglas’s tale is in fact “quite too horrible”. The governess’s account tells a story of great mental and emotional strain on the two children in her care, as well as the governess and Mrs. Grose. The tragic end of innocence for both Miles and Flora is a tragedy and horror in itself.
In conclusion, I feel that presenting Douglas as a frame narrator opens the story up to a further level of bias which contributes to the fact that the governess presents a one-sided view of events. Further to this, I also feel that the narrative style contributes to the mystery surrounding the events recounted in the story because we are never given a full, clear picture of exactly what happened at Bly. Due to the fact that the governess’s story resulted in the death of a young child, I also feel that the story is more tragic and horrifying than the ghost stories told in the introduction to the novella, and that Douglas is correct in describing the tale as “quite too horrible”. While the other stories told that night presented a more “traditional” ghost story, Douglas’s tale contains the horror of a ghost story and culminates in a very real consequence: the death of a child. This fact sets the story apart from other ghost stories like it and contributes to the tragedy and horror of the story.
Bibliography
Frame Story - Wikipedia, [Online], Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frame_story.
Turn of the Screw - Character Analysis, [Online], Available: http://howlandpowpak.neomin.org/powpak/cgi-bin/article_display_page.pl?id=thomas.williams/american&ar=18.

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