The Turn of the Screw - Henry James
Much of the discussion that "The Turn of the Screw" arouses centers on the question, are there ghosts? Is the governess imagining the apparitions? But I don't think there is any doubt of that, although the story is plentifully ambiguous in other ways. After all, the narrator's account of bare facts is very clear; she says that she saw a man so clearly that she was able to describe him in detail, whereupon he was recognized as someone who died before she arrived. There are no contradictions to cast doubt on it.

However, I do wonder what to make of the motives and thoughts that she reads into the facts she relates. It is extraordinary that she starts out by considering her pupils the very incarnation of angelic purity -- first she sees them as inhumanly good, then as inhumanly wicked. And her judgments about other people rest on feelings rather than on their actions. What does it mean that she looks at the specter of the former governess and sees her as positively evil? Is this to be trusted?

Just going by the concrete things we are told, there is room for quite different interpretations from what the narrator comes to. If you consider the children as human rather than as angels or devils, their position is a sad one. They're orphaned, in the charge of an uncle who wants nothing to do with them, sent to a country house with no company except servants. And they are told that they must not become "familiar" with the servants. The chief figure in the house is Peter Quint, who we are told is terribly wicked because he wore his master's clothes, struck up an improper love affair with the governess, and spent lots of time with young Miles -- in short, he crossed class lines, that is clear, but as for wickedness, I haven't seen any yet. And it would hardly be surprising if Miles became very attached to him. We know nothing about Miles' biological father; perhaps Quint is the only "father" who ever paid much attention to him.

The one thing that is clear about the narrator is that she is very susceptible to social embarrassment. She sets up barriers in her mind about things that can or can't be said in certain circumstances and can't bring herself to cross them. She seems to be getting herself into worse social predicaments by compulsively reading motives into other people's actions, and then agonizing about what she should do based on those interpretations, and not being able to do much.

The bafflement only increases toward the end of the book -- nothing is made utterly clear. Evidently, the governess is acting wild enough to frighten everyone about her. As I said, I am more or less willing to accept the reality of the ghosts, but what do they mean? All they did was stand and stare. Anything evil about it would only be in their effect on the governess.

Well, I've enjoyed this thoroughly!