Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is one of the first great mystery novels. At least that’s what I’m told. Wordy, dense works with lots of run-on sentences aren’t really my thang. I suppose that’s one of the great things about this series though – I get to read lots of classic works that I wouldn’t otherwise read. Whether I end up enjoying them is a different question altogether.
The Turn of the Screw appears in the season two episode Orientation. Desmond is frantically trying to fix the Hatch computer while Jack is questioning him about what the computer does. Desmond tells Jack to find the Orientation video on the bookshelf behind The Turn of the Screw.
James’ novella opens with a group of people telling ghost stories to one another. One of the members of his party goes to retrieve a manuscript that he claims was sent to him by a young governess and assures the group that it is the scariest story ever told.
The rest of the novella is told from the governess’s point of view in the form of a diary that she was keeping. She is hired by a rich uncle charged with taking care of his nephew and niece after the children’s parents died. He does not want anything to do with the children, so he places the two of them with the governess and a maid in a far off estate and tells the governess not to contact him.
The boy, Miles, is off at boarding school and the governess enjoys spending the days with Flora, the young girl. However, soon after she arrives, she receives a letter saying that Miles has been expelled from school for an unnamed violation. Miles never mentions the expulsion and the governess doesn’t bring it up because she wants Miles to do so himself. Awkwardness ensues. The governess seems to think something is off with Miles but can’t quite figure out what.
Although the children are charming, weird things start happening. The governess sees the figures of a man and a woman on the remote estate. This is creepy enough in its own right; the fact that the estate is off in the wilderness somewhere really kicks it up a notch. After confiding with the maid, she seems convinced that the ghosts are Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, two former employees that seem to have an influence over the young children.
Peter and Jessel keep appearing and the governess slowly starts to lose her mind. She becomes convinced that Miles and Flora are possessed by the ghosts and sets out to have her own little exorcism to get rid of the spirits. In the climatic scene, she finds herself in the middle of a tense standoff with Peter and Miles. She hugs Miles tight to keep him safe and Peter eventually leaves; as soon as he does, she finds that Miles has died in her arms.
Critics have debated over what really happened in the novella. Although it seems like a straightforward ghost story, many think that everything that happened was in the governess’s head. Time and again, the maid cannot vouch for things that the governess claims she sees. Neither can the children, although the reader gets the distinct impression that they are playing coy.
The climatic scene is open to interpretation as well. Did Miles die because he was possessed by the spirit of Peter and once Peter was gone, he had no more soul? Or did he die because the paranoid governess squeezed him so hard that he suffocated?
That discussion should make it fairly clear why the book was included in Lost. The “are they alive or are they dead” question appears throughout the show. The Peter Quint/Miss Jessel ghosts reminded me of Christian. We spent the better part of five seasons trying to figure out if Christian was really alive or just a ghost. Even more than that, at that time of the show, only Jack had seen Christian on the Island. Many viewers asked whether it was just Jack that saw Christian or whether Christian was actually there.
The show later explored the idea that the whole thing might be in someone’s head in the season two episode Dave. In that episode, Hurley became convinced that the entire Island was in his head. It turns out that it wasn’t, but at the time it seemed like a very real possibility.
When reading about Miles, I couldn’t help but think about his namesake Miles Straumme. Young Miles seems to communicate with Peter quite a bit more than Flora throughout the book; at times, it seems he even communicates with Miss Jessel more than Flora does. Miles in Lost can do the same with his ghost “seeing” powers that become important in season five and six of the show.
Miles also bares similarities to Walt. Like Walt, young Miles was ditched by his caretaker after his parents died. And like Walt, weird things tend to happen around Miles. Ghosts seem to possess both children, but weird things don’t start to happen until Miles shows back up from school. As we learned in season one, weird things happen around Walt – including the creepy scene in which the bird flew right into the glass door as he read a book about the same bird.
These similarities aside, the book was included in Lost simply because both works are examples of a proverbial “mess with your mind” work. But trust me on this one: Lost is quite a bit better than The Turn of the Screw.