What is Truth?

· Literature,Ethics

“My truth.” “Your truth.” Ugh. These expressions tire me. There is only one truth.

And discerning truth is part of who we are. “What is truth?” is a question we need to ask and keep on asking. Not in Pilate’s wash-my-hands-of-it way. But in the way that reflects our desire for the knowledge needed to effectively love God and love one another.

The fact that there is only one truth, though, doesn’t dismiss the various perspectives that can be had of truth. We all have different perspectives because we are not all the same person. Each of us is shaped by our context and relationships. Our different perspectives don’t inevitably misshape the truth. When shared, they can contribute to a broader sense of truth that, in its fullness, can only be known by God.

Have you ever heard that Hindu parable about the blind men and the elephant? Look it up. The men have a choice to make: Each one can describe the truth based on what part of the elephant they feel. Each one can claim that only his truth is true. Or each one can learn more about the truth by listening to the others.

Perspectives on truth are brought to my mind when I remember Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It’s a ghost story. Or is it? That is the truth puzzle the novella offers the reader.

(People keep trying to remake this book on film. But in my mind, nothing beats the 1961 adaptation called The Innocents. It successfully creates that bone-deep gothic horror feeling and leaves you to ponder what really happened.)

The story is shaped by the journal of a woman living in mid-1800s England, described as young, untried, and nervous. An attractive, wealthy man hires her to be governess of Miles and Flora, his nephew and niece, over whom he holds legal guardianship. He has provided the children ample space at Bly, his country manor in Essex. There, a houseful of servants tends to the manor headed by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. All the financial details, he explains, are in the hands of his solicitor. His request of her is that she never bothers him about anything.

Charmed, and perhaps in love, she agrees.

Almost immediately following her arrival at Bly, Mrs. Grose hands the governess a letter from Mile’s school. The governess discovers two things. First, poor Mrs. Grose has not had the fortune of learning to read. Second, Miles has been dismissed from school because he has proven to be “an injury to the others.” Mrs. Grose finds this hard to believe; Miles has always been very dear. But the two decide keep this news to themselves. The new governess is happy to teach and care for both children, finding them every bit as winsome as their uncle.

One day, on a solitary walk, the governess sees a man at the top of Bly’s tower. She has never seen him before. After a sustained period of eye contact, he turns and disappears. The governess tries to find him to no avail. Later, she sees him again, this time looking into the house from a window. Upon sharing these two sightings with Mrs. Grose, she is surprised by the housekeeper’s assessment: It can only be Peter Quint, a former valet of questionable character. Behind her words lies confusion. Quint is dead! And Mrs. Grose has never seen any ghostly apparitions—“not the shadow of a shadow.” The governess observes:

Yet she accepted without directly impugning my sanity the truth as I gave it to her, and ended by showing me, on this ground, an awestricken tenderness, an expression of the sense of my more than questionable privilege.

It is not long before the governess impresses on the housekeeper that, though Quint had appeared to her, she is not his target. He is looking for Miles!

A short while later, and this time in the presence of Flora, the governess sees Miss Jessel, the former governess. She too, Mrs. Grose confirms, is dead. While Flora appears to lack any awareness of Jessel’s presence, the governess is convinced that Flora is pretending. She later tells Mrs. Grose of the encounter, and words spill out of Mrs Grose’s mouth. The depraved Quint had engaged the handsome Miss Jessel in an illicit love affair. And worse, Quint “did what he wished. . . with them all.”

The governess now knows what is afoot. The children, she insists, are very aware of Quint and Jessel. The apparitions are not only haunting them but possessing them. After all, what other explanation could there be for Miles’s expulsion?

“The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”

As the governess takes it on herself to protect them, both children begin to behave strangely. She interprets Miles’s behaviour in particular as an attempt to woo her; regularly, he calls her “my dear” and kisses her. Is he Miles or Quint?

When Miss Jessel next reappears, it is in the company of the governess, Flora, and Mrs. Grose. The governess insists that the others admit her presence, admit the truth, but neither does. Her demands put Flora into a violent panic. She calls the governess cruel. The governess is despondent.

“If I had ever doubted, all my doubt would at present have gone. I’ve been living with the miserable truth, and now it has only too much closed round me. Of course I’ve lost you.”

Mrs. Grose decides to remove the girl from Bly. In a parting conversation it becomes clear that, while Mrs. Grose has never seen the ghostly figures of Quint or Jessel, she remains sympathetic to the governess.

Now alone with Miles, the governess assumes her responsibility to save him. But Miles continues to act seductively in the way Quint would have behaved. When Quint’s apparition finally returns, Miles fails to notice. The governess tells Miles again and again and again that someone is there. Miles looks around frenetically but fails to see him.

Then he asks, “It’s he?”

The governess is determined: “Whom do you mean by ‘he’?”

“Peter Quint—you devil!” Miles responds, still straining to see.

The governess has triumphed.

“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 forever!”

Cradling Miles, she looks down, seeing he is now dead.

Anyone who has ever studied The Turn of the Screw knows that it is more than a ghost story. James leaves us with a troubling question: What is the truth?

An isolated country manor is the perfect setting for a ghost story. So, does the governess see ghosts? Are the children possessed by them? And, despite the consequences of Flora’s trauma and Miles’s death, is she right to take efforts to save them?

Or has the governess, in her isolation, lost her sanity? Are her visions and her interpretation of the children—especially Miles—the result of a repressed and unfulfilled sexual drive? And do her efforts to save them result in manslaughter?

When we read the story closely, there is evidence for both perspectives, both interpretations of the truth of what is going on.

The story, then, is not written to answer the question “What is the truth?” And nowhere does James offer his take on the truth. In fact, he leaves us with a lingering sense that, if we stake a claim about the truth of what has happened, we will be shaping that truth according to our own bias. How hard it is to determine what is true.

In the end, the unnamed governess is alone. Not only physically alone. Utterly, completely alone. But she has created her own isolation by preferring her own observations and interpretations to those of Flora, Miles, and Mrs. Grose. She favours her own assessment of the truth to the exclusion of all others.

She didn’t have to be alone. She had a companion, one whose illiteracy was made up for by experience. Had she gently brought out more of Mrs. Grose’s experiences of the elephant in the room, she might have seen that the truth was larger than she could ascertain.

But she would have been in good company.