The Haunting of Mrs. Grose in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw
Henry James’ popular novel The Turn of the Screw is often subjected to re-examination because the writing is saturated with ambiguity preventing the reader from deriving a definitive resolution. This ghost story provides both faith in and distrust of the belief of ghosts who appear to be at fault for the major events in the story. In the 1840s in England, a young inexperienced woman becomes a governess for two young orphaned children, Flora and Miles, at a country house she refers to as Bly. The reader is absorbed following her account of what happens in this house. Because of the social hierarchy within the house she finds herself lonely, and because of her ghost sightings she finds herself a hostess for the uncanny. She recruits Mrs. Grose as her ally to defeat both her loneliness and the ghosts that are haunting her and the children. Mrs. Grose, a serious down-stairs servant who took care of Flora and Mile’s grandmother before she passed on and has stayed with the family ever since collecting trust and secrets, nonverbally accepts the request. The stress the governess is under and the way she acts is thought to come directly from her unworldly encounters, however, it appears that the natural take even more of a toll on her psyche than the supernatural. Mrs. Grose’s relationship to the governess is brimming with passive plans, including gathering information and suggesting ideas for the governess to become fixated on, and is full of executing sabotage, including encouraging the governess’ unfavourable ways and eradicating her sanity.
In a development central to the narrative, Mrs. Grose perpetuates the governess’ belief that they are friends in order to observe her and to collect information, eventually to use against her. Mrs. Grose does not indicate any sign of eagerness to meet with the governess, so Mrs. Grose often acts as if their encounters are meaningless unless the governess says something strange or acts alarming. Through the governess’ almost desperate agreement to a job the household struggled to fill, as it was rejected numerous times by others, and by the fixation of the uncle and his niece and nephew Mrs. Grose believes there must be a strong sense of persuadably in the governess due to her shallow motives. Like the reader it appears as if Mrs. Grose decides that the governess is a woman who is quick to make outrageous conclusions using little information and much of her imagination by finishing Mrs. Grose’s sentences with odd fillers such as agreeing to a nonexistent request to kiss: “Would you mind, miss, if I used the freedom-” (James 13) Mrs. Grose starts only to be soon greeted with an uncomfortable embrace; she pushes her luck and breaks the social hierarchy to meet with and watch the governess many times, yet Mrs. Grose is not chastised by the governess whose job it is to run and maintain the house as well as set a good example for her two pupils. To Mrs. Grose, who is obedient to the hierarchy, these actions signify the governess is of little experience and lacks common sense (Killoran 17). By the information Mrs. Grose obtains from the governess’ actions and conversations Mrs. Grose appears to believe that the governess would be easily operated.
Moreover, Mrs. Grose uses the character traits the governess reveals about herself to suggest ideas for the governess to dwell on and eventually change. When the opportunity presents itself, Mrs. Grose is quick to provide missing information for the governess when she is in a state of confusion. Succumbed by a new environment, responsibility, and people the governess allows Mrs. Grose to do her thinking for her; providing minimal and cursory details of a man she thought she saw she authorizes Mrs. Grose to tell her what and who it was. Clearly absorbed by her own fright the governess fails to see that Mrs. Grose seems to improvise the existence of Peter Quint, not noticeable through her words but through her response as she pauses and falters in her explanations. “Gaping still, but meeting me, she pieced it all together. “He never wore his hat, but did wear- well, there were waistcoats missed! The were both here- last year”” (James 23). When the governess asks how Miss Jessel died Mrs. Grose does not tell details, only conveys emotions and must know that the governess would fabricate the most absurd self-made story for Mrs. Grose’s benefit. While the pondering on these suggestions the governess seems to transform as her instability heightens and an obsessed for these tales begins. Mrs. Grose is often seen putting forth easily misinterpreted ideas for the governess to extend and distort.
Mrs. Grose encourages the governess to continue and develop odd behaviours which make her appear like a lunatic to the children, the rest of the house, and eventually her boss. When the governess appeals to her for support and advice after seeing Miss Jessel for the first time, Mrs. Grose has nothing to contribute to the conversation but nevertheless enables and funds it to continue with her many leading questions. The governess feels eager to answer the questions and allows her memory to subside as her expectations take over. The governess fears for the children’s safety so Mrs. Grose echoes that fear intensifying the governess’ fright and urgency, and it appears that purpose, to Mrs. Grose, of most of their conversations are to taunt and play with the governess (Killoran 19). Mrs. Grose, aware of the governess’ need to prevail, suggests that the governess get in contact with the uncle for the sake of the children causing the governess to become agitated with the acknowledgment of her impending failure. With her hurt pride and feelings of betrayal the governess offers a threat of leaving: “I would leave on the spot, both him and you” (James 48). This response not only ensures Mrs. Grose that her menacing has been successful, but also offers that the full extent of the governess’ rash behaviour would be soon met. Through the boosting of the governess’ irrational thoughts Mrs. Grose gives herself the ability eradicate the governess’ rational thoughts.
With the governess fully submerged in the ghosts, betrayal, and her own head, Mrs. Grose detaches herself from her falsified companion role and actively tries to obliterate the governess’ sanity. Mrs. Grose decides after some debate to go with the governess to retrieve Flora from the opposite side of the lake, when there, Mrs. Grose runs to Flora and offers her support but more importantly an alternative to the governess. Flora chooses to side with Mrs. Grose, probably because she was frightened of the governess and Mrs. Grose presented herself as a safety figure. This destroys the governess’ ego and casts her into a frenzy that lasts several hours, so Mrs. Grose takes over the caretaking position of the children for the night. In addition to the loss of her heroic self-views the governess is blamed for the illness that befalls Flora leaving her with remedied guilt. Having to take Flora to the uncle Mrs. Grose leaves the unstable governess with Miles who already has endured strange encounters with the governess. With Mrs. Grose absent she allows the governess to be alone without anyone to prevent her thoughts from manifesting into action. It appears Mrs. Grose expects the governess to fail as the governess notes how Mrs. Grose seemed surprised at her composure: “She looked as if she found me unexpectedly calm” (James 70). With nothing to fall back on when having an episode or seeing the ghost, Mrs. Grose leaves the governess to face and become defeated by her own mental state.
Although the reason is difficult to identify, Mrs. Grose guides the governess to losing her reputation and lucidity. Mrs. Grose was sly about how she took on her mission, by innocently listening, then suggesting, then encouraging feeble-minded activity; after successfully completing the previous tasks, she abandons her role as friend to the governess and allows her to feel the full force of her insanity unsupported. Mrs. Grose’s motives, although still unclear, are perhaps connected with the other many dead guardians of Flora and Miles, for perhaps she wants to care for the children independently, or attract the uncle to the house, or possibly she has a sadistic sense of pleasure. This beautifully crafted work, however, makes one’s finding inconclusive as Henry James’ novel creates such interesting illusions that the reader may find themselves trying to uncover whether the governess or the ghosts were the terrors to Bly, all the while innocently passing over the most perplexing of them all, the welcoming yet undermining Mrs. Grose.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Ed. Deborah Esch and Jonathon Warren. Second Ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.
Killoran, Helen. “The Governess, Mrs. Grose and “The Poison of an Influence” in “The Turn of the Screw”.” Modern Language Studies 23.2 (1993): 13-24. Web.
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