In the novella The Turn of the Screw, Henry James brings us a little creepfest that may be hard for you to appreciate in the installment the class read. (And if you're not an AmLit student, go online to Project Gutenberg and read the whole thing. It really is good, and maybe your hair standing on end will keep you warm. )
Here's the quick plot summary: (SPOILERS for the haven't-read-it-yet folks.) A mysterious narrator tells the story of someone he knew -- a governess -- who had a horrific experience while working for two orphaned children. She was hired by the children's uncle to care for them in a large, country house, but forbidden to contact him concerning them. (Cue dramatic music.) The children, Flora and Miles, are a little weird, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, seems to be Not Telling Something in a capital-letters kind of way.
The governess eventually discovers that, 1. Miles has been expelled from his boarding school for something mysterious and probably horrible; 2. Miles and Flora see dead people, and talk to them every chance they get; 3. Flora resents the snot out of the governess for interfering with the aforementioned conversations; and 4. the dead people are the former governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, the butler Peter Quint, who died apparently because everybody associated with Flora and Miles kicks the bucket sooner rather than later.
The governess decides it's her duty to protect the children from the ghosts, although it's unclear what the threat actually is. It's important to realize that ALL her information about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, including suggestions that they, while alive, had an unsavory influence on the children, comes from Mrs. Grose. The governess never questions this information, but instead takes on the "moral" job of saving the children's souls from Jessel and Quint. In the course of trying to shield them, however, she makes Flora so mad, the girl goes to live with her disinterested uncle. In trying to protect Miles from Peter Quint (who appears to be standing outside the window, which wouldn't be all that scary, except that it's on the second floor), something happens to the child and he dies. Eventually the governess dies, and this account of the story comes down to the narrator in all its creepy sophistication.
Here are some questions about it for us to ponder right here, in lieu of class, and these are questions that have kept James scholars busy for generations, so don't be too glib with your answers.
First, where do we locate the real evil in this story? Is it in Flora and Miles, the ghosts, the governess? The answer to this question hinges on what we believe about the efforts to corrupt, or protect, the children, and on the answer to another big question . . .
. . . Is the governess a reliable narrator? If we take her at face value, she is protecting two innocent children from soul-stealing ghosts. If we start to question her motives, or her sanity (after all, she's the one who admits to seeing Peter Quint and Miss Jessel), then a new picture can emerge. She could also be the credulous dupe of Mrs. Grose, who might have some supernatural axe to grind herself. It's all so COMPLICATED.
That, of course, leads us to wonder who is sane in this story, and who is delusional. Go ahead and wonder that in the comments box, but again, don't be too quick to make the call, and ALWAYS offer evidence from the story to back yourself up.