The last scene of Jonathan Glazer’s film Birth and Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw reveals similar details with regard to the theme of possession and dispossession which is apparent in both stories. The last remaining frames of Birth shows Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, in a white wedding dress on the seashore shows her new husband comforting her as she seems to be in despair. In a somewhat similar manner, The Turn of the Screw’s last scene ends with Miles dying in the governess’ arms upon exclaiming his resentment towards Peter Quint.
These last two parts of the stories can be considered the most powerful and revealing scenes of the story. The embracing aspect of the characters in both the film and story demonstrates the theme of possession which actually signifies the main characters’ dispossession of the other character. Possession and Dispossession in Birth and The Turn of the Screw The ending of Birth and The Turn of the Screw reveals little about the whole context of their plots but the power of the last scenes are considered to be the most emotional.
To further strengthen this claim and to fully understand how these scenes reveals how the process of possession leads to dispossession of the characters, it is important to go back to the previous pages of the story. Jonathan Glazer’s controversial 2004 film Birth tells the story of a widow, Anna, who is about to get married 10 years after her husband died but whose feelings are hindered when a 10-year old boy, Sean (also the name of her late husband), introduces himself as Anna’s reincarnated husband.
This premise becomes the whole conflict of the film as Anna struggles to her impending marriage with the very supportive Joseph and her feelings for her late husband whom she adored. Gradually, she becomes convinced of the 10-year old Sean’s story when he is able to answer all the most personal questions that only Anna and Sean could possibly know. She goes as far as going out with the boy in the park and designing plans for the two of them in the future. She even tells Sean that they could wait for 10 more years so they could be legally married.
However, in the end, the young boy confesses that he is not Sean. This premise becomes very complicated due to its ambiguity in relation to what the boy really knows. Clearly, the young boy seems to have been possessed by the deceased Sean but when he finds out that he has an affair with Clara, a friend of Anna, the possession ceases. The concept of possession in the film Birth is evident in both Anna and young Sean’s characters. Anna, who is seen to be standing in front of her dead husband’s grave in the first 20 minutes of the film, reveals her undying devotion to the late Sean.
She is asking permission or most probably informing him out of respect to their past communion that she is about to get married to Joseph. This scene gives an impression to the readers that Anna may still have feelings for her husband. Her facial expression as she stands on his grave demonstrates poignancy and still, the feeling of loss. It is clear to the audience that Anna is currently having cold feet over the impending marriage that the arrival of the “reincarnated Sean” bothers her to the extremes.
She starts doubting her feelings for Joseph which is further strengthened by the claims of young Sean. Clearly, she is still possessed by her love for her dead husband as the boy is possessed by it. “He is what? ” (Birth). This is the question asked by the mother of Anna played by Lauren Bacall. When Clifford tells Anna that the boy is not Sean upon meeting him, Anna replies, “Yes it is” (Birth). The boy who is regularly referred to as “it” shows that they do not regard the boy as a human reincarnation of Sean but rather an unusual and abnormal occurrence in Anna’s life.
This already gives away the fact that the boy is the manifestation of Anna’s love for her dead husband. Her grief and continuous mourning for her dead husband has possessed the body of a child. “I’ve met somebody who seems to be Sean… I really hoped that he was Sean. I wanted him to be Sean. But I knew he wasn’t. The thing is I’m falling in love with Sean again. That’s what’s happening. I need you to tell him to go away. Because I can’t do it” (Birth). The concept of possession in this film is in terms of Anna’s longtime possession of her love for her husband which manifested in a child such as Sean.
This is the best reasonable explanation behind the idea of “Sean’s reincarnation” because the young boy could not possibly and impulsively have pretended after seeing the letters. It is not possible that he is able to play and memorize a whole lifetime of Anna and Sean’s relationship in the past. That is a very unlikely explanation. “If I lost my wife and the next day, a little bird landed on my windowsill, looked me right in the eye, and in plain English said, ‘Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m back’ What could I say? I guess I’d believe her.
Or I’d want to. I’d be stuck with a bird” (Birth). The opening line of the film already suggests the theme of possession. The voice over who is obviously Anna’s dead husband Sean talks about Anna possessing the body of a bird. Apparently, Sean is willing to be “stuck” with a bird which indicates that he is willing to hold possession of the bird despite its non human qualities. Despite its impossibility to provide him warmth and care as human beings do. This is the same premise with what happened between Anna and the young boy, Sean.
Despite the constant warnings of Anna’s logic and rationality that reincarnation is impossible, she resorts into believing the boy for the sake of regaining the possession of her supposedly dead husband. Similarly, in The Turn of the Screw, the nameless new governess of a house in Bly, demonstrates the same kind of possessiveness towards her beloved pupils, Flora and Miles. She becomes too indulged in taking responsibility of them that she goes as far as missing the church to be able to protect the house from the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.
This is quite comparable to Anna’s struggle to believe the impossible and irrational concept of her dead husband’s reincarnation through the young boy, Sean. As a new governess of the two children, she becomes very fond of the children and later discovers apparitions of Quint and Miss Jessel’s ghosts in the house. She is definitely determined to protect the children from these ghosts as she believes that they are using them for some evil plans. The governess is the one narrating the story after the prologues shifts to chapter one and her deep devotion and attraction to the kids is very clear in her descriptions of them.
She describes Flora as “a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her. She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen” (James, 1964, p. 9). Moreover, she recalls upon her first meeting with Miles that he possesses “great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had, from the first moment, seen in his little sister” (James, 1964, p. 18). She is very particular with her love for the children that she enjoys her stay despite the ghostly apparitions that has been haunting the house.
The theme of possession is most likely to be labeled by the readers as the possession of the ghosts with the bodies of the children. The children are obviously behaving in a quite erroneous and rigid way while the ghosts believed and seen by the governess roams around the house. The use of the first person’s point of view in the story gives a sense of suspense to the readers which are very important to allow them to relate and ponder on the circumstances. However, the recurring apparitions of the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel must also be taken into serious consideration.
If one would scan the previous incidents in the story, it has been indicated twice that the governess has positioned herself to the exact positions and locations where the ghosts appeared. The first one is when she thinks she sees the presence of Quint outside the window looking at her. She goes out to see but the ghost has already vanished. She tries to stand on the same location where she sees Quint and looks inside the house where a frightened Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, demands what she is doing outside.
She saw me as I had seen my own visitant; she pulled up short as I had done; I gave her something of the shock that I had received. She turned white, and this made me ask myself if I had blanched as much. She stared, in short, and retreated on just my lines, and I knew she had then passed out and come round to me and that I should presently meet her. I remained where I was, and while I waited I thought of more things than one. But there’s only one I take space to mention. I wondered why she should be scared (James, 1964, p. 27).
The second incident is when she jumps up from the stairs upon realizing that she is sitting at the bottom of the stairs where Miss Jessel sat exactly the way she did days ago. This two incidents imply that the governess is somewhat a reflection of the two ghosts who are possessing the children. She, too, possesses the children. She has the tendency to become possessive herself. “There were moments when, by an irresistible impulse, I found myself catching them up and pressing them to my heart” (James, 1964, p. 51). In the ending of the story, she proclaims to the ghost of Peter Quint that, “What does he matter now, my own?
—what will he ever matter? I have you” (James, 1964, p. 122). The governess’ choice of words clearly indicates her desire to possess the love and attention of the children, particularly Miles in this scene. This scene now leads us to the comparison of the last scenes of the two works of art. Clearly, the last scenes clarify who really are the possessor and the possessed. Anna and the governess’ devotion to a dead husband and the kids respectively is what possessed the objects of their devotion. The last part of the stories signifies their dispossession from them.
Anna, upon her realization of the truth weeps once again in front of the waves of the sea. She is dressed in her white wedding gown and the whiteness of the screen indicates a fresh new beginning for her and her new husband, Joseph. It is this time that she finally learns how to let go and dispossess her from her own suppressed feeling for Sean. As she weeps amidst the raging waves of the beach, the symbolical purpose of the waves washes away what is left of her possession. This is similar to the governess’ when she feels Miles heart stops.
She does not merely lose the physical body of the boy she adores but also the possessiveness that she feels towards him. The governess describes the part as, “it may be imagined with what passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped” (James, 1964, p. 122). Finally, the boy is dispossessed. He is finally free though it is not made clear by James if he is free from Quint or from the governess. However, like Anna, the meaning is ambiguous.
The symbolisms used can actually convey different interpretations. Conclusion The theme of possession is quite apparent in the first quarters of the film while the theme of dispossession is revealed in the last two scenes of Birth and The Turn of the Screw. The possessions include supernatural ideas such as ghosts or the concept of reincarnation to further illustrates the possessiveness of the main characters in the stories. However, the last scene of the film and novella produces an argument with regard to the real explanation behind the possessions.
It is clear that Anna and the governess’ love for Sean and the children correspondingly is what drives the possession to manifest. It is therefore, Anna and the governess who are controlling their loved ones and not some sort of supernatural third party. Apparently, the stories talk about the notion of love but in a different way. It demonstrates how far love could go in the mind and heart of a person which can deliberately hurt the person in the end.
James, H. (1964). The Turn of the Screw. Forgotten Books, 1964. Gower, L. & Glazer, J. (2004). Birth. [Motion picture] USA: New Line Cinema