Essays and Criticism
The Absent Employer
It is very difficult to make an argument about most aspects of The Turn of the Screw without first announcing whether one belongs to the group that views the tale as a ghost story or to the group that feels the governess's ghosts are really hallucinations. This essay will take the latter view as a starting point and discuss the reasons behind the governess's hallucinations. It is her master's curiously absent status, coupled with the governess's unrequited love for him, that drives the young woman to her hallucinations.
When the governess applies for the job at Bly, her employer tells her that there is one binding condition that no other woman has been able to meet: "she should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything." Instead, the governess is to be totally in charge and should "meet all the questions herself ... take the whole thing over and let him alone." The governess is unsure at first, especially because she knows the position will entail "really great loneliness."
If she had her way, on the other hand, she would be governess in the house of the master himself, on whom both Douglas and the governess imply she has a crush. As Douglas notes in his introduction to the tale, when the governess first meets the master, she notes that he is "a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl...
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Ambiguity of Innocence: Turn of the Screw
Few critical theories about literary works have engendered as much controversy as Edmund Wilson's thesis in "The Ambiguity of Henry James" (1934) that in The Turn of the Screw "the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governess," who "is a neurotic case of sex repression" (Homage . . .). Wilson never abandoned his Freudian hypothesis, in spite of sharp rebuke from many Jamesian scholars. Dorothea Krook, for example, speaks of "his misguided Freudianism" and accuses him of "arriving at conclusions which are no longer even perverse but merely fatuous." And Krishna Vaid contends that he "makes a travesty of the text" and has even "violated ... the larger context more flagrantly and more persistently than any adherent of his theory." Wilson's interpretation is like the proverbial horse that has "been much beaten but never yet ... to death," and more than one critic would like to see it given a "decent burial" (Krook ...). But the Freudians are still active. A Freudian reading alone, however, which shows that Miles is as much a sexually precocious young man as he is a ten-year-old boy, results in ambiguity. This ambiguity can be resolved only if the innocence of the two innocents, Miles and the governess, is recognized. Both are inexperienced characters who blunder at one another throughout the novel, especially in chapter 17.
The theory that the governess is sexually repressed is well founded: she is the daughter of a country...
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Turn of the Screw and the recherche de l’absolu
The preoccupation of a generation of critics with the reality status of the ghosts in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw has always seemed to me misplaced. One may grant that the spectral appearances to which the governess in the tale testifies cannot be proven to be supernaturally actual or her illusion, that we are in a condition of uncertainty over the question and that the story merits the title of "fantastic" which Todorov gives it. But is this not a minor source of our interest? The reader's epistemological quandary, his inability to be positive about how to "take" the phenomena reported by the narrator is, of course, rooted in his inability to verify or refute her first-person account; we cannot escape the enclosure of her mind, and all efforts to find internal clues of veracity or distortion in what she tells us are baffled by its essential mode. The confidence she has inspired in her fictional editor, Douglas, does not really help, either, for he, too, is a possibly compromised and implicated speaker over whose shoulder the first-person narrator of the frame-story looks at us without either reassurance or skepticism. But her report perplexes the reader in other ways too; the principle of uncertainty operates more fundamentally in leaving us in doubt about her way of reading experience generally, her evaluation of herself and others, her identification of motive and meaning in their behavior and her own, her moral vision. One may say that the presence...
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