In 1934, Edmund Wilson, in an essay called "The Ambiguity of Henry James," argued that governess was crazy, and that the ghosts were hallucinations resulting from her sexually-repressed psyche. Since then, volumes of critical argument debating the point have amassed. (So much so, in fact, that Edward J. Parkinson, Ph.D., compiled an overview of the critcism for his dissertation.)
I am not a scholar of this, or any other, issue, and I haven't done anything more than skim the arguments in the course of Internet surfing. But nothing I've glimpsed has made me want to read more deeply because the arguments seem so implausible.
The Turn of the Screw is a multiple frame story: the unnamed and unidentified narrator tells us what Douglas said, and Douglas in turn reads from a manuscript written by the governess. The narrator gives no indication of being unreliable, and Douglas exists on the page as serious and discreet.
The questions about narrative credibility only begin when the governess' narrative voice takes over the story. The governess, after all, is seeing ghosts - ghosts whose presence are not confirmed by another witness; additionally, the governess liberally leaps to wild conclusions (The ghost was looking for little Miles! The children see the ghosts! The ghosts want to possess the children!) that are supported by no tangible evidence.
Nonetheless, Douglas attests to the governess' credibility. He tells us, at the beginning of the book, that the governess had been his sister's governess, that he'd found her
the most agreeable woman [he'd] ever known in her position. . . . [S]he struck me as awfully clever and nice. Oh yes; don't grin: I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me, too.
(p. 3.) He also reveals in his preamble to the governess' manuscript that the governess never saw her employer again after her initial interviews for the job. (p. 7.)
By the end of the book, (spoiler alert!) with little Miles' heart abruptly stopped, the reader can easily forget Douglas' testimony from the beginning of the story. According to Douglas, after this governess had a charge die on her watch, she nonetheless was able to continue working in her profession. She was not shunned by prospective employers, which suggests strongly that her employer, Miles' uncle, gave her a good recommendation.
More astonishingly, her employer didn't see the governess after the death of his nephew. This fact is all the more shocking because, before Miles' death, the governess dispatched Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, with Flora, Mile's sister, to take refuge at the uncle's flat in London. With a niece crowding his bachelor lodgings because, in the throes of illness, she appeared possessed by the ghost of her former governess, and with a nephew dead in the arms of the current governess back in the country house in Essex, the uncle still doesn't meet with the governess - not to investigate, not to commiserate, not to mourn, not to condemn.
Granted, the employer admittedly didn't like the fuss and bother of caretaking children, but once Flora is at his London abode, and Miles needs to be buried, he must engage - just as he had to divert himself from his bachelor's schedule to hire another governess after the first governess, Miss Jessel, died. Why he would engage without seeing the current governess is odd.
I picture the employer sending money and a glowing recommendation through his solicitor, and then prodding her on her way. Or possibly the solicitor made quiet inquiries to place her elsewhere. But in all events, Miles' death seems to have prompted a distasteful cover-up - and one that bespeaks both a sense of guilt on the part of the uncle and a sense of vindication for the governess. In his smoothing over of the event, the uncle tacitly acknowledges that he shouldn't have left the governess alone and without recourse to his advice. Such a concession seems exceedingly unlikely in the event of wrongdoing (even insanity-induced wrongdoing) by the governess.
No other option accords with Douglas' testimony. If the governess had been subject to state action because of Miles' death - whether criminal investigation, imprisonment, commitment to an insane asylum, or civil suit - she would not have been able to continue her work as a governess with Douglas' sister. Nor is it likely that her personality would have been so winning by the time she met Douglas. Moreover, the uncle almost certainly would have seen the governess in the course of such state action, whether to provide testimony or otherwise.
To insist on the insanity of the governess in the face of Douglas' testimony is to question Douglas. Some critics do. For example, various theories suggest that Douglas is a "grown-up" Miles. But I think that, by the time we're positing convoluted scenarios in which dead children resurface elsewhere in the story as grown adults with different names, we're out of the realm of interpreting Henry James and into the fresh, wide-open space of independent creation.
In his Preface to The Turn of the Screw, James is forthright about leaving the ghosts vague:
What . . . had I given the sense of? Of [the ghosts] being . . . capable . . . of everything - that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims . . . might be conceived as subject to. What would be then . . . this utmost conceivability? . . . There is for such a case no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to . . . the spectator's, the critic's, the reader's experience. Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough . . . and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy . . . and horror will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.
This Preface, combined with the testimony James gave Douglas to submit on the governess' behalf, elucidates James' intent. He wrote a ghost story. Whatever the governess' psychological profile, she is in the presence of ghosts. James just thought the ghosts would be more effective if he left them highly undefined and let the readers' imaginations fill in the details. Rather than offer "weak specifications," James wants the readers' imaginations to fire up.
I hope I'm not out of line when I say, with all due respect to the Master, that I think he let himself off the hook of detailing the "weak specifications" a little too soon. Without a doubt he fired up readers' imaginations. But, as I detailed in a prior post, precisely because the horror of the story isn't palpable, because his "general vision of evil" wasn't "intense enough" to weather the changing consciousnesses of readers in ever-more-modern societies, the absence of "weak specficiations" has enabled readers' imagations to wander wildly from the topic of the evil in which the ghosts were engaged. Ghosts? Modern readers dismiss ghosts and look for alternative explanations, Freudian sub-texts, and twisted conspiracies.
Poor governess: the ordeal to which the author subjected her is nothing compared to her eternal afterlife on the prongs of the critics' pitchforks.
(Image of Michelle Dockery playing the governess in a BBC television version of The Turn of the Screw from The Mirror)