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Henry James makes use of the device of irony, at every level, to enhance the interest of the novel. The title, The Turn of the Screw gives a key to the concept of irony operating in the novel. The screws keep turning off and on in the novel, puzzling the readers. The characters and their intentions in the novel are different from what they appear. The owner of the house at Bly offers the job of a governess for his wards, because he has no time to attend to them. The governess accepts the offer, not because she is interested in the job but because she has fallen for the charms of her employer. She reaches Bly with apprehension, because she is not familiar with that part of the country and because she is doubtful about the inhabitants of the place. However, she gets a pleasant surprise when she finds both little Flora and Mrs. Grose the housekeeper, adorable and amiable. Later, when she gets a letter from the headmaster of the school about Miles’ dismissal, she starts doubting the boy’s character but Miles turns out to be a pleasant and courteous boy.
The governess then believes that the ghosts of Quint and Jessel visit her. Since no else sees these apparitions, it is likely that they are a figment of her imagination. The lady feels that the ghosts haunt the house, not to scare her, but the children. Thus, begins her obsession for protecting the children against the evil influences. However, the more she tries to ward off the evil, the less successful she is. When she forces the children to acknowledge their association with the ghosts, they feel threatened and lose their hold on life. Flora falls seriously ill and has to be taken away to her uncle and Miles has a nervous breakdown and drops down dead. The governess therefore fails in her mission. She is unable to protect the children against evil influences.
Henry James introduces the element of the supernatural in the novel, in order to make it exciting and thrilling. However, unlike the authors of some other ghost stories, James very subtly brings in the element of the supernatural so that it appears convincing. The governess sees the ghosts of Quint and Jessel at a distance and they only stare at her. They do not make ghastly faces, scream or touch her, as is described in some of the horror stories. They look grim or pensive according to the nature of their character and stir the conscience of the governess to take action. The governess is dreaming about her employer, the first time Quint shows up on the tower, wearing the clothes belonging to his master. All the other times, he appears either at the window or below the staircase, just when the governess has been seen contemplating about him. Similarly, the ghost of Jessel appears in a pensive mood to the governess, whenever she is in the company of Flora. Through their aloofness and silence, the ghosts look more intense and leave a deeper impact on the readers.
Henry James devices the supernatural as an outcome of the subconscious of the governess. The governess is highly romantic and courageous, and dreams of acting as a godmother to the children. Hence, she is haunted by the ghosts of the former employees at Bly who seem to be making her aware of her responsibilities towards the children. She imagines that the evil spirits have come to tempt the children and corrupt them. Since, no one else mentions the ghosts; it is likely that she is having hallucinations. Thus, James reveals the supernatural as a psychological device and gives credibility to the novel.