I'm writing an essay in which I have to outline arguments both for and against the reliability of the governess in The Turn of the Screw. There are endless sources arguing that she is unreliable but basically none for the other side. Can anyone provide either sources or reasoned arguments as to why she could be considered reliable?

  • 4
    In general, reliable narrators are the default assumption, and you only assume that a narrator is unreliable if there are good reasons for believing them to be so. So you need to argue that the reasons given for assuming that she is unreliable are inadequate — that there are no inconsistencies in her story that compel you to believe that she is unreliable.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 13:15

1 Answer 1


It is a good idea, when discussing “unreliable” narrators, to be explicit about what exactly is supposed to be unreliable about the narrative. A narrative can be unreliable at different levels. At one extreme the narrator may lie outright (Baron Munchausen); at the other the narrator may be accurate but mistaken in interpretation or judgement (The Remains of the Day); or it may be unclear where on this spectrum the narrator lies (‘The Restorer of Reputations’).

I am going to assume that the interpretation you want to argue against is the ‘hallucination’ theory popularized by Edmund Wilson, who summarizes it like this:

According to this interpretation, the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess’s hallucinations.

Edmund Wilson (1934). ‘The Ambiguity of Henry James’. In Hound and Horn VII:3 (April/May 1934), p. 385.

In this theory the governess really did see the figures, but she was mistaken in interpreting them as ghosts. The difficulties with this theory were summarized by Robert Liddell:

The ‘hallucination’ theory can then only be held:

  1. If we disbelieve Douglas’s estimate of the governess’s character.
  2. If we give a very strained explanation of her description of Quint.
  3. If we believe she is deluded about the very sense-data experienced in Miles’s room, not only about her interpretation of them.
  4. If we believe, on no evidence, that Miles had got into touch with Flora after the scene by the Lake.

Robert Liddell (1947). ‘The “Hallucination” Theory of The Turn of the Screw’. In A Treatise on the Novel, pp. 141–142. London: Jonathan Cape.

Liddell’s points are:

  1. Douglas describes the governess as “the most agreeable woman I’ve ever known in her position; she would have been worthy of any whatever”.

  2. The governess’s detailed description in chapter V of the features of the first apparition (“red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight, good features and little, rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair …”) is immediately recognized by Mrs Grose as being Quint, whom the governess can not have seen since he died before she came.

  3. Chapter XVII: “The answer to my appeal was instantaneous, but it came in the form of an extraordinary blast and chill, a gust of frozen air, and a shake of the room as great as if, in the wild wind, the casement had crashed in. The boy gave a loud, high shriek, which, lost in the rest of the shock of sound, might have seemed, indistinctly, though I was so close to him, a note either of jubilation or of terror. I jumped to my feet again and was conscious of darkness. So for a moment we remained, while I stared about me and saw that the drawn curtains were unstirred and the window tight.”

  4. In chapter XXIV Miles seems to be aware of the apparition of Miss Jessie in chapter XX, even though he was not present on that occasion, and has apparently had no opportunity to learn of it from Flora, who “passed that night […] with Mrs. Grose”.

Points (1) and (4) are in my opinion rather weak. The governess could be “agreeable” and “worthy” but still subject to hallucinations; and Miles could know about Miss Jessie from other sources than Flora. Point (3) is better, though the “gust of frozen air” could perhaps be a hallucination and Miles’ shriek an empathetic response to the governess’s terror. Point (2), however, is strong: it is hard to explain this away except by supposing that the governess has had Quint described to her and neglected to mention that in the narrative. But if we suppose that the governess could be dishonest to this extent, what is there left of the story?

Another objection is that sexual repression does not cause hallucinations: the idea that it does is a kind of pop-Freudianism. Liddell does not include this in his list, I suspect, because in 1947 Freudianism was still respected as a scientific theory of human psychology. Certainly Wilson’s analysis of The Turn of the Screw was explicitly Freudian, for example he wrote,

Observe, also, from the Freudian point of view, the significance of the governess’s interest in the little girl’s pieces of wood† and of the fact that the male apparition first appears on a tower‡ and the female apparition on a lake.

Wilson, p. 387.

† Chapter VI: “She [Flora] had picked up a small flat piece of wood, which happened to have in it a little hole that had evidently suggested to her the idea of sticking in another fragment that might figure as a mast and make the thing a boat. This second morsel, as I watched her, she was very markedly and intently attempting to tighten in its place.” ‡ A case of “anything longer than it is wide is a phallic symbol”.

However, just as ghosts (which don’t exist either) are a convention in supernatural stories, pop-Freudianism is a convention in psychological thrillers. So one way to look at the debate over The Turn of the Screw is to think of it as a disagreement about which genre it belongs to: should we interpret it as looking backward to ghost stories like ‘The Way It Came’ and ‘Owen Wingrave’, or as looking forward to 20th-century psychological thrillers like Rebecca and Psycho?

  • It's a convention now, but Freud was publishing about the same time. It would be a very odd thing for a theory to be twisted into a pop convention and used by a writer in so short a scope.
    – Mary
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 1:58
  • But the question is not what put it into Wilson's head, but whether it was in James's, and James published it at the same time as Freud -- indeed, Freud had only published one book before Turn.
    – Mary
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 12:45
  • Its validity, however, needs to turn on whether it's a good account. Freudianism is not generally regarded as such, and pop Freudianism is as much broken down from even what Freud stated. Were it accurate, James could have drawn on it without knowing about. Since it's not, it would have had to come from the culture.
    – Mary
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 12:55
  • @Mary: I've updated the answer to clarify the discussion of pop-Freudianism as a genre convention. Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 17:42

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