In 1908, ten years after the first publication of The Turn of the Screw as a serial in Collier’s Weekly, Henry James wrote that he considered the story “least apt to be baited by earnest criticism.” His prediction has been shown to be remarkably inaccurate, however, as the decades-long critical debate surrounding The Turn of the Screw has proven more vigorous and controversial than that surrounding any of James’s other works. It seems that any critic who wishes to do so may find compelling textual evidence that the work is a chilling, straightforward ghost story made all the more horrific by the youthful age of its menaced characters; or that it is a case study of a psychologically disturbed young woman in the grip of a sexually induced hallucinatory neurosis; or that it is an engrossing, powerful moral fable that allegorizes the intertwining of innocence and evil in the human heart; or that it is some combination of all these, despite the fact that the various interpretations are at odds with one another. If nothing else, then, The Turn of the Screw is, as James himself called it, “a piece of ingenuity . . . [and] of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught.”
The wealth of contradictory critical evaluations of the work testifies to its complexity and its artistry; the ambiguous overtones of the story readily seem to catch “those not easily caught.” For the first several years after the book’s publication, most readers seemed to agree with James’s appraisal of The Turn of the Screw as “a fairy-tale pure and simple,” at least in its intent. One early critic for The New York Times described the work in 1898 as “a deliberate, powerful, and horribly successful study of the magic of evil,” in which the characters of the two children, Miles and Flora, are “accursed, or all but damned, and are shown to have daily, almost hourly, communication with lost souls that formerly inhabited the bodies of a vicious governess and her paramour.”
James also described the book as a “trap for the unwary,” and the discussion surrounding The Turn of the Screw heated considerably with the publication of noted critic Edmund Wilson’s essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James” in 1934. Wilson maintains that in the novel “almost everything from beginning to end can be read equally in either of two senses.” He considers the governess an unreliable narrator, one whose perception of the events surrounding...
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