on 31 July 2016
The first element to clear up is the date of publication. Henry James could not at that time when he wrote this strongly anti-gay, as we would say today, novella using ghosts to create tension ignore Oscar Wilde’s Ghost of Canterville in which Oscar Wilde in 1887 makes fun of Americans who believe in ghosts so much that they can shoot peas with peashooters at them, up to the final peace agreement the Americans negotiate with that ghost. Henry James takes quite a serious approach towards the two ghosts of his story, meaning it is not any device to frighten the readers, but a dramatic element in the story without which it does not work.
He could not either ignore the situation in England, where he situates the action, at the time since Oscar Wilde was sentenced to a two year prison term for his gay sexuality with young men if not teenagers. Note at the time the age was not at stake, only the orientation. The sentence was implemented from 1895 to 1897. Then Oscar Wilde moved to Paris where he died in 1900. Since Henry James situates his story in England he had to take into account the real paranoia about any gay orientation, though if Oscar Wilde had not “seduced” (and that seduction was long lasting for the “ victim”) the son of a Lord, himself to become a Lord, he might very well have gone through without even a trial or a fine. That conception of society divided into upper tiers that have to remain cut off from any intimate relation with all other middle or lower social tiers is absolutely dominant at the time in England. And we must keep in mind the subject was so pregnant that it will be the core of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928, censored in England up to 1960), and it was a core element in the recent TV series Downton Abbey, whose action is situated in the 1910s and 1920s. Henry James’ novella can only be understood in his time within that social and sexual context.
But in the 21st century a critic has to be more creative, though some are sticking to the old approach.
This old approach only takes into account two basic interpretations with a mongrelized third one. The first one is that the two ghosts, Quint and Miss Jessel, are real and we have a real ghost story that obviously has not read Oscar Wilde, but today that kind of story does not work, except for teenagers (and young ones at that) on television. The second interpretation is that the governess (who does not have a name, and that cannot be gratuitous) suffers from hallucinations and is misled by her own possessive and protective, we could say extreme maternal, desires. The third interpretation is a little bit of each of the first two because Henry James tries to be non-committed on the dual choice. But one thing is sure for all such critics: the two ghosts tried to sexually possess, and might even have succeeded, at least in the case of the boy and Quint, the two children who are at the time of these events seven for the girl and nine for the boy. The story told by the new governess takes place when they are respectively eight and ten. I personally have not found one element that is clear about Flora or Miles having intercourse of any type with Miss Jessel and Quint
I would like to insist here on what is a shortcoming of the novella itself, the fact that Henry James does not really examine and scrutinize the psychological situation of the two kids, and then I will try to explore a modern interpretation of the anonymous governess.
The shortcoming is why and how the two kids end up in an isolated country mansion of an upper class London man who is a bachelor and the uncle of the kids. This story that is underused is essential to evaluate the children.
They lost their parents in India two years ago when the new governess arrives. They were uprooted from India then and entrusted to their upper class uncle in London who is a bachelor and uses the services of a valet who apparently wears some clothes of his master, which is frowned upon by the new governess when she is told but perfectly tolerated by the master. This proves nothing as for sexual orientation, but it does show something about the social orientation of this uncle, though his not wanting the two kids in his London home seems to show he does not want to be bothered by them and/or he wants to protect them from his own life style which is not specified in orientation, sexual or social likewise. So after losing their parents and being uprooted from India the are uprooted from their uncle’s London home and sent to live with quite a few servants in a countryside mansion of their uncle’s, a mansion that is composite: old sections from a several century old structure that looks medieval (crenellated towers) and a more modern structure in-between, meaning from the 19th century, or maybe the end of the 18th century.
This second uprooting sets the kids under the responsibility of two people, with servants around, including a housekeeper: a governess, Miss Jessel, and the uncle’s valet, Quint. Miss Jessel is responsible for the education of the kids and particularly of the young girl, whereas Quint is responsible for the upbringing of the young boy. The novella insinuates that the two kids developed very intimate (in time, which is the only parameter that is specified) relations, Miss Jessel with the girl Flora, and Quint with the boy Miles, often referred to as Mr. Miles. The intimate relations can easily be explained by the trauma of the loss of the parents and the double trauma of the double uprooting. There is absolutely no element that implies this intimacy is sexual, hence pedophile.
But for a reason that is called a scandal, with once again no specification, Miss Jessel has to go home, that is to say she is fired. There is some innuendo about the scandal but we cannot say if Miss Jessel, a governess who has to be young and pure, hence unmarried and virginal, did something unacceptable with Quint or anyone else. The novella seems to imply she did not do anything with the kids and at the end Miles clearly says he did not do anything bad with her. So we have to come to the idea she had a relation with Quint. And she dies soon after leaving for a cause we are not told. Soon after, Quint dies accidentally though without any detail. The two kids find themselves in another traumatic situation and Flora is temporarily taken care of by Mrs. Grose, the Housekeeper, who must be married but at the same time no husband is attributed to her, and Miles is sent to a boarding school. This situation is of course another trauma for the two kids who are separated and the boy sent to a boarding school which is not the best place for a traumatized child. No surprise when we learn at the end that he told things (which are not specified) to some of his “friends” there and these friends told these things to others including the teaching personnel, which explains the fact Miles is sent back home for the summer but with a letter telling his guardian he will not be taken again in the Fall.
What is missing here is the PTSS or PTSD that has to have developed in the two kids. Their Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or Disorder must have been extremely high due to the successive traumas and uprootings they experienced at a very young age: between 6 and 8 for Flora and 8 and 10 for Miles. In fact it is this PTSS/D that could explain the final episodes of Flora refusing to see the governess again after a final ghost event with Miss Jessel, and then the death of Miles after another and final ghost event with Quint. The two kids are literally haunted by these ghosts that are only seen by the governess and that she imposes onto them in what must be considered as psychological if not even psychiatric torture: bringing up the last two people with whom they had some intimate equilibrium, hence maybe peace in their traumatic situations. And this governess is more than simply agitating the ghosts: she tries to force the kids, Flora first and Quint second, to admit they had a “bad” relation with the two ghosts when they were alive, which amounts to depriving the children of the recollection they may have kept of the two people who have been taken away by death after obscure circumstances, which had to reactivate the death of their own parents. The governess does not understand that and yet Henry James does not exploit it, so that the final position of Flora rejecting the governess and the final death of Miles remain unexplained. Miles does not die of fear, but he dies because that is the only way the governess leaves him to keep in contact with the last man he has had some intimate and balanced, maybe happy, relation with.
But the novella must be interpreted by critics with modern resources.
Henry James is telling the story in which a male character is bringing up the notebook of the nameless governess in which she tells what happened to her when in charge of Flora and Miles in the countryside mansion in Bly. In other words Henry James provides us with a personal diary by a character he invents and constructs but he constructs her only with her own words which have to be analyzed psychologically, socially and even from a non-clinical psychiatric point of view. This anonymous governess speaking in the first person is suffering of an extremely serious psychiatric disorder that has to be identified from what she says herself. Everything being fiction told by Henry James.
Her extremely strict and violent opposition to any sexual relation between Flora and Miss Jessel or between Miles and Quint, motivated both sexually and socially, reveals on her side a sexual and social heritage that is not dealt with except with a couple of allusion to her own brothers and sisters that lead nowhere.
The fact that she is a lot more motivated in her hostility by Miles and Quint than by Flora and Miss Jessel, shows she develops a sort of jealousy that would be purely pedagogical if equal on the two kids, but that is a lot more intricate and intimate since it is essentially directed towards the boy. She takes a stronger anti-gay position with Miles than with Flora. I say anti-gay and not anti-pedophile because she insists on the social dimension of the crime: Quint is behaving towards Miles not as a subservient servant but as something like an equal who can even wear his own master’s clothes, Miles’ uncle’s clothes. But what reveals the very obscure motivations of the governess is first the strong protective attitude: as such she is maternal. But second it is excessively physical and cuddling, hugging, embracing and kissing, including when Miles is in bed and she is sitting on his bed are impulsive, vast in time and repetitive. We are beyond anything that is normal for an adult woman and a ten year old boy who clearly asks her to leave him alone. She is obviously in love with the child and her desire is intimate though in her consciousness not sexual, but she does not see that all the hugging, embracing, cuddling, kissing, etc., is sexual and cannot be anything but sexual for a ten year old boy who must be starting to feel some desires and has spend one term in a boarding school with other boys and who longs for going back to be with boys because he wants to be a man. He uses this argument to build some distance with the governess who does not seem to understand. In other words her attitude is sexually motivated, even if unconsciously for the governess, is sexually received and interpreted and this time not unconsciously at all for Miles though it is for the governess, and is experienced as a frustration at least, in fact a castration, and this is conscious for Miles though unconscious for the governess.
But why does she condemn that intimacy with Quint and not with herself? The rejection of such gay relationship is clearly a way for her to hide and keep under control her own impulses. The rejection is typical of her time. It is also a way to cathartically sublimate and desexualize her own impulses. But this catharsis should also bring her to the point where she should step back and let Miles be, and obviously it does not work like that, which means her impulses are deeply rooted in her unconscious and her impulses are both pedophile and incestuous since she assumes the protective maternal stance of a quasi-mother, of a mother substitute in a situation of total absence of the real mother.
If then we associate the PTSS/D of the children to this falsely cathartic incestuous and pedophile impulse of the governess along with her extreme and excessive rejection of any gay or social mixing for the children we have to come to the conclusion that this attitude is completely castrating for Miles to the point he can only think of one escape to rejoin the last man with whom he had a relation, Quint. Since Quint is dead, though he does not see his ghost, he has to die to be with him again. Then the very end is clear when Miles “admits” his relation with Quint. Under duress more than simple pressure Miles admits he is seeing a vision of someone. The governess imagine it is a “she,” thinking of Miss Jessel. Miles answer curtly: “It’s he?”
At this moment the governess becomes a torturer that only works (and that was her main characteristic all along) on what she conjures up from what she considers as signs though they are never confirmed by real words from anyone. Here is that imperial attitude:
“I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. “Whom do you mean by ‘he’?”
And Miles’ answer is not an answer to her but to himself, to the vision he has in his mind of the only possibility he has to escape that dragon of a governess:
“Peter Quint—you devil!”
And of course she does not understand he is talking to Quint in his mind, not the ghost she sees at this moment, but the real memory of the intimacy he had with Squint, an intimacy that implies no sexual relation, but only a friendly and socially uneven but accepted relation. She at once sees meaning where there is nothing:
“His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication. “Where?” [says Miles of course]
And her conclusion is fatal, lethal. It is the last thread she cuts. She finally lets him go to Quint, but not the ghost, though she does not know.
“They are in my ears still, his supreme surrender of the name and his tribute to my devotion.”
And yet this harpy of a woman has to push even further:
“What does he matter now, my own?—what will he ever matter? I have you,” I launched at the beast, “but he has lost you for ever!” Then, for the demonstration of my work, “There, there!” I said to Miles.”
For her the ghost is real and can be positioned in real space, the competition is won and she strikes the last two blows to Miles.
In other words her deranged sexual and emotional impulses lead her to a crime, a murder, she commits with only words and she triumphs just before discovering her murder because she thinks she has Miles to herself forever.
So, to conclude, this ghost story has little to do with ghosts being real or hallucinations. It is a deep story about a fully repressed and perverted woman who is so haunted by her own sexual impulses which she tries to control by her absolute rejection of anything sexual that she invents ghosts and fantasized relations between the children she is supposed to take care of and the ghosts she imagines. This enters in conflict with the PTSS/D of the children, though insufficiently developed by Henry James, so that Flora rejects her totally and Miles dies to escape the mental castrating prison in which she tries to lock him up.
We can hardly reproach Henry James with not knowing what we know today but we definitely have to reproach critics with not going beyond the manipulation Henry James works on us. Think for example of the name of the valet, Quint, meaning “five.” Thus Quint is the pentacle, the devil in simple symbols and then the last words addressed to Quint by Miles are “you devil!” This name then becomes friendly from Miles who is going to stop his heart to rejoin Quint. But what a manipulation in which the nameless governess falls head first! Apparently many critics have fallen into it too. I am of course here only speaking of what has been written on Henry James’ novella that was adapted to the cinema, television, ballet and the opera, not to speak of theater.
What surprises me most is why critic as so reluctant at identifying incestuous and pedophile impulses in women. And we do know they exist.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU