The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
The Turn of the Screw Henry James
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, biographer, autobiographer, and playwright. The following entry presents criticism on James's novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). See also Daisy Miller Criticism.
One of the most controversial works in literature, The Turn of the Screw has inspired a variety of critical interpretations since its publication in 1898. The novella was generally regarded as a conventional ghost story until 1934 when Edmund Wilson challenged this view with the contention that The Turn of the Screw is a psychological case study of the narrator, an emotionally unstable young woman whose visions of phantasms are merely hallucinations. Wilson's essay initiated a lengthy critical debate—which has continued for more than fifty years—concerning the correct interpretation of the novella. Most scholars now agree that James intended his work to remain ambiguous and allow several contradictory interpretations, although the purposes for and effects of such ambiguity, as well as the various possible interpretations that the text will support, are still widely debated.
Plot and Major Characters
The Turn of the Screw was written during James's transitional period. This refers to the years immediately following his return to fiction after an unsuccessful attempt at writing for the theater and immediately preceding his composition of the complex and imposing novels that would mark his major phase. During this period, James incorporated in his fiction such dramatic technical devices as the presentation of action in scenic vignettes and the suppression of all information by an intrusive authorial voice. This lack of objective information is the primary source of difficulty in the critical interpretation of The Turn of the Screw. The story focuses on a young, naive governess who is confronted by a pair of ghosts that she suspects is corrupting the two young children in her charge. The apparitions are those of Peter Quint, a man formerly employed in the household, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess. As her suspicions deepen, the new governess confronts each of the children concerning their collusion with the ghosts; during each confrontation, one of the specters appears to the governess, bringing the action to a crisis. The girl, Flora, denies having seen the wraiths and, apparently hysterical, is sent to her uncle in London. The boy, Miles, dies in the governess's arms during the culmination of a psychic battle between the governess and the ghost of Peter Quint.
Speculation concerning the subjective believability and objective truth of the events in The Turn of the Screw depends upon the reader's acceptance or rejection of the governess's reliability as a narrator. It is this question which, until the early 1960s, divided critical interpretation of the novella. Deriving from this critical polarity, the debate concerning the novella has focused on three main issues: the reality of the ghosts, the sanity of the governess, and the corruption of the children. According to the apparitionist reading, the ghosts are real, the governess is a rational and plausible narrator, and the children, according to the majority of apparitionist critics, are to some degree corrupted by the ghosts. The consensus among critics for twenty five years after the publication of The Turn of the Screw was to accept the novella as either a literal ghost story or an account of demonic possession of the children.
The hallucinationist, or Freudian, interpretation opposes the apparitionist position in every significant detail: the ghosts are seen as hallucinations of the governess; the governess is viewed as an unreliable narrator, either neurotic or actually insane; and the children are considered either uncorrupted or corrupted by the treatment of the governess herself. Edna Kenton considered the narrative to be a complete hoax, with both the ghosts and the children imagined by the governess's diseased consciousness. Edmund Wilson expounded on this hypothesis and explicated the story with the aid of Freudian psychoanalytical principles. According to Wilson, the governess is a neurotic spinster whose repressed passion for her employer, the children's bachelor uncle, causes her to hallucinate. The hallucinationists introduced several important thematic possibilities in their readings of The Turn of the Screw, most notably a discussion of the illicit sexuality that is suggested in the novella.
In 1962 Dorothea Krook proposed a solution to the debate between the divergent readings of James's text by maintaining that James intended his narrative to remain ambiguous; therefore, the full meaning of the tale is not to be found by proving either interpretation exclusively correct, but rather by examining the tension produced by two mutually exclusive readings, both of which are supported by the text. The majority of recent critics accept this thesis, although many still implicitly incline toward one of the two interpretations.
The Turn of the Screw is one of the most critically discussed works in twentieth-century American literature. Due to its relative accessibility and popularity compared to much of James's other work, the novella is often read as an introduction to James. In addition, this tale of mystery—a term James invested with new meaning—is among the classics of Victorian Gothic fiction and has inspired notable adaptations in other media, including opera and film. Considered among James's greatest achievements, The Turn of the Screw continues to be admired as one of the most artistic and enigmatic works in literature.
A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales 1875
Daisy Miller: A Study 1878
An International Episode 1879
The Madonna of the Future and Other Tales 2 vols. 1879
The Diary of a Man of Fifty and A Bundle of Letters 1880
The Siege of London, The Pension Beaurepas, and The Point of View 1883
Tales of Three Cities 1884
Stories Revived 3 vols. 1885
The Aspern Papers, Louisa Pallant, The Modern Warning 2 vols. 1888
A London Life, The Patagonia, The Liar, Mrs. Temperley 2 vols. 1889
The Lesson of the Master, The Marriages, The Pupil, Brooksmith, The Solution, Sir Edmund Orme 1892
The Private Life, The Wheel of Time, Lord Beaupré, The Visits, Collaboration, Owen Wingrave 1892
The Real Thing and Other Tales 1893
Terminations, Vol. 1: The Death of the Lion, The Coxon Fund, The Middle Years; Vol. 2: The Altar of the Dead 1895
Embarrassments: The Figure in the Carpet, Glasses, The Next Time, The Way It Came 1896
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SOURCE: “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” in The Question of Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by F. W. Dupee, Henry Holt and Co., 1945, pp. 160–90.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1934, Wilson presents a psychoanalytical interpretation of The Turn of the Screw in which he regards the ghosts of the story as illusions seen only by the governess.]
A discussion of Henry James's ambiguity may appropriately begin with The Turn of the Screw. This story, which seems to have proved more fascinating to the general reading public than anything else of James's except Daisy Miller, apparently conceals another horror behind the ostensible one. I do not know who first propounded the theory; but Miss Edna Kenton, whose insight into James is profound, has been one of its principal exponents, and the late Charles Demuth did a set of illustrations for the story based on this interpretation.
According to this theory, the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the hallucinations of the governess.
Let us go through the story from the beginning. It opens with an introduction. The man who is presenting the governess's manuscript tells us first who she is. She is the youngest daughter of a poor country parson, but “the most agreeable woman I've...
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SOURCE: “The Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw,” in MLN: Modern Language Notes, Vol. 62, No. 7, November, 1947, pp. 433–45.
[In the following essay, Heilman disputes the Freudian interpretation of The Turn of the Screw and instead perceives the story as a Christian allegory.]
The Freudian reading of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, which has had some currency in recent decades, does violence not only to the story but also to the Preface, which, like the story, demands scrupulous attention. The Freudian reading was first given public expression by Edna Kenton in 1924; her view is that the ghosts and the attendant horrors are imagined by the neurotic governess, “trying to harmonize her own disharmonies by creating discords outside herself.”1 Miss Kenton, however, adduces almost no evidence to sustain her interpretation, but simply enjoys a gracefully gleeful revel in the conviction that James, by permitting the ghosts to seem real, has utterly fooled all the other readers of the story. She is sure that this is so because of James's prefatory remark upon his intention “to catch those not easily caught”;2 but all James is doing in the passage quoted from is relishing—and deservedly, we may say—the success, with adult audiences, of what he modestly calls a “fairy-tale pure and simple”;3 he is talking about nothing...
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SOURCE: “The Turn of the Screw as Retaliation,” in College English, Vol. 17, No. 5, February, 1956, pp. 286–88.
[In the following essay, Levy investigates the relationship between James's play Guy Domville and his novella The Turn of the Screw.]
Though few Jamesian texts have been the subject of a more intense critical examination than The Turn of the Screw, the significance of its closeness to the débacle of Guy Domville, which brought five years of playwriting to an inglorious end, appears not to have been well understood. The editor of James's plays, Mr. Leon Edel, has been alone in perceiving that the sequence of these two works conceals an important psychological transition. For Edel, the world of The Turn of the Screw is one “of childish fear and terror,” of regressive flight into infantile fantasy, provoked by the collapse of James's theatrical visions. “The jeering audience in St. James's had reduced him to the helplessness of an unappreciated child; it had cut at the heart of his creativity,” Mr. Edel believes; the nightmarish horrors of The Turn of the Screw he interprets as prima facie evidence of the disturbing and disordering frustrations in which James's dramatic years terminated.1
By reversing the direction of Mr. Edel's hypothesis, we may see more clearly into the relations between Guy...
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SOURCE: “The Governess Turns the Screws,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 12, No. 1, June, 1957, pp. 37–58.
[In the following essay, Lydenberg perceives the governess as an ironic savior who causes the breakdown of Flora and the death of Miles.]
The interpretation of The Turn of the Screw made by Edmund Wilson in the thirties is today a dead horse, oft beaten. Every reader of the exegeses of Henry James's most famous ghost story must by now be convinced that James did not intend it as an account of the hallucinations of a frustrated, sex-starved governess.
At present it is the fashion to read the story not as a Freudian analysis but as Christian myth, suggestive of “archetypal” religious experiences. Robert W. Heilman has given the fullest exposition of this symbolic interpretation in “The Turn of the Screw as Poem,”1 an essay as typical of late forties' criticism as the Wilson interpretation, now dubbed “overrationalistic,” was typical of criticism in the thirties. Heilman demonstrates most convincingly how James has laced his story with an intricate network of words and symbols carrying general religious connotations and specifically suggesting the Judeo-Christian myths of Eden, the Fall, and the Redeemer. The drama is played against a backdrop of the gardens of Bly, a summery Eden transformed by the cold, rainy blasts that bring the fall...
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SOURCE: “Caste in James's The Turn of the Screw,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. V, No. 2, Summer, 1963, pp. 189–98.
[In the following essay, Cranfill and Clark examine James's portrayal of the social power structure in the late nineteenth century.]
Henry James took a lively interest in the English caste system of which he was both a part and an observer for most of his life. In “The Real Thing,” published six years before The Turn of the Screw (1898), James conveyed some of his chief ideas about art; but the story also tells much about class and its effects on the British. As James, when planning the tale, indicated in his notebooks, it concerns a faded, impoverished major and his wife who are bested at modeling for an artist by “a common, clever, London girl, of the smallest origin” and by a professional Italian smelling of garlic.1 In lieu of the gentry in “The Real Thing” with their well-bred, “everlasting English amateurishness,”2 each reader, drawing from his own favorite story or novel, could doubtless supply his favorite instances of James's patent sensitivity to the social hierarchy.
In his notebooks, to cite one further example, James wrote on October 10, 1895, two years before he dictated The Turn of the Screw:
The idea of the picture, fully satiric, in...
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SOURCE: “Another Twist to The Turn of the Screw,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Summer, 1967, pp. 167–78.
[In the following essay, Aldrich supports the hallucination theory of James's novella and proposes that Mrs. Grose encourages the governess's visions.]
The question whether The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story or a psychiatric case history will probably never be answered to everyone's satisfaction. There is enough evidence to convince proponents of either side of the controversy, and I suspect that it is not so much the evidence as the predilection of the proponent that determines his choice. The imaginative soul who can rise above the mundane restrictions of everyday experience will find it easier to accept Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as ghosts; the more literal and earthbound will search for an explanation in psychopathology. James never completely committed himself, and so the story continues to satisfy both camps.
In part as a result of my professional orientation, I have never been attracted to supernatural explanations, and I am therefore more comfortable with the Kenton-Wilson-Goddard1 theory that James's governess was hallucinating. Furthermore, I believe that the objections to the usual construction of this theoretical position can be overcome. These objections have been summarized by Alexander E. Jones, who, insisting that...
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SOURCE: “‘The Full Image of a Repetition’ in The Turn of the Screw,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 4, Summer, 1969, pp. 377–82.
[In the following essay, McMaster discusses the significance of James's ironic use of image and perception in his novella.]
When the governess in The Turn of the Screw has just been terrified by seeing the apparition of Peter Quint looking in at her through the dining-room window at Bly, she tells us,
It was confusedly present to me that I ought to place myself where he had stood. I did so; I applied my face to the pane and looked, as he had looked, into the room. As if, at this moment, to show me exactly what his range had been, Mrs. Grose, as I had done for himself just before, came in from the hall. With this I had the full image of a repetition of what already occurred. She saw me as I had seen my own visitant.
She watches the effect of her appearance on Mrs. Grose, giving her, indeed, “something of the shock that I had received.”
Oscar Cargill has called attention to this scene as an instance of James's “marvelous symbolic irony, perhaps the best example in his fiction”;2 and the incident certainly seems to have an impact that goes beyond its immediate import in the narrative. However, what...
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SOURCE: “The Unfixable Text: Bewilderment of Vision in The Turn of the Screw,” in Texas Studies in Literature & Language, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 538–51.
[In the following essay, Murphy explores “some of the strategies James employs to prevent a consistent reading of the text.”]
For ours is a most fictile world; and man is the most fingent plastic of creatures. A world not fixable; not fathomable!
—Carlyle, The French Revolution
Since its publication eighty years ago, The Turn of the Screw has enjoyed a double life. After Daisy Miller, perhaps James's most widely read piece of fiction, it has captivated readers, both naive and acute, as a tale of the grotesque in which a young and apparently good-hearted governess discovers the existence of ghosts at the country estate where she has been employed. Approached in a different fashion, however, it has equally captivated other readers as a revealing exemplum of self-delusion. Told by the governess herself, the tale casts mounting suspicion on the reliability of her version of the events, and, in an attempt to impose a consistent reading on all the elements presented in the story, these readers have concluded that the tale is a study in the onset of hysteria which has as its denouement the governess's inadvertent killing of the...
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SOURCE: “Narrative Structure in The Turn of the Screw: A New Approach to Meaning,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 55–65.
[In the following essay, Cook and Corrigan investigate how the narrative structure functions in the novella, concluding that it allows for multiple interpretations of the story.]
As the subject of a critical controversy which has raged for the past forty-five years, The Turn of the Screw has by now received more scholarly attention than any other single work of James, including the major novels. Since its first publication in 1898, the novella has been read alternatively as a simple ghost story; a gothic horror tale of demonic possession; a Freudian case history of sexual neurosis, hysteria, sadomasochism, paranoia, and/or schizoid dysfunction; a poetic allegory of good and evil; a metaphoric evocation of the Victorian cultural impasse; a psychoanalytic biography of Henry James; a study of infantile sexuality; and a novel of detection after the manner of Poe, Collins and Conan Doyle. This imposing group of interpretations seems impossible to assimilate in any coherent fashion. Yet all of these readings are merely elaborately refined variants of two more basic ones—one which holds that the meaning of the novel is the succession of real events objectively reported, which may or may not have resonance beyond the events themselves; and...
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SOURCE: “How the Screw Is Turned: James's Amusette,” in University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. 4, 1983, pp. 112–31.
[In the following essay, Scott explains the importance of children's games, pranks, and activities in The Turn of the Screw.]
When Henry James described his novella The Turn of the Screw as “an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the ‘fun’ of the capture of the witless being ever but small …),”1 he was not kidding. Several generations of readers have stranded themselves on what James deceptively denigrated as a “pot-boiler.” Oddly enough, critical focus has aimed at the wrong phrase (“to catch those not easily caught”), just as in reading this delightful and essentially humorous tale, readers are lured into focussing on the wrong characters. James's amusette (for that is the telling word) has caught just about everyone precisely because it is, indeed, “a plaything.”2
James's theory of art as organic postulates that no words necessary are omitted, but also that no unnecessary words are added. Why should he have expended so many words to describe the children's activities, if they are to be seen as static “victims?” Readers have apparently attributed all those details of the children's games, costumings, and whispered confabulations to “verisimilitude,” and forgotten about...
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SOURCE: “Designed Horror: James's Vision of Evil in The Turn of the Screw,” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 3, December, 1984, pp. 305–27.
[In the following essay, Miall offers a reading of The Turn of the Screw based on Sigmund Freud's “The Uncanny.”]
Henry James's tale of the supernatural has been the subject of intense critical attention ever since it was written. As all students of the story know, the presence of ghosts in it has presented a serious challenge to modern orthodoxy, but perhaps we are now less exercised by this aspect of the story. As a result, the narrative and aesthetic implications of the ghosts are not much considered. Explications of the story continue to appear with some frequency, but most of these are addressed to the status and assertions of the main narrator: for example, H. Robert Huntley's diagnosis of hysteria in the governess, Howard Faulkner's questioning of the fictionality of her narrative, or Linda S. Kauffman's argument that the governess's narrative is an extended love letter to the absent master. Two other more subtle approaches, those of Christine Brooke-Rose and Marcia M. Eaton, take for granted the ambiguity of the story (are the ghosts real or not?) and study the narrative strategies which sustain the double meaning.1 What the ghosts themselves may mean, if they were intended to be seen as a reality and not...
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SOURCE: “The Turn of the Screw and the Recherche de L' Absolut,” in Henry James: Fiction as History, edited by Ian F. A. Bell, Vision Press, 1984, pp. 65–81.
[In the following essay, Bell maintains that “it is not the ghost of the two dead household servants that the governess seeks to validate, but something more undenotable, an evil in the children and in the world which the ghosts can be said simply to represent.”]
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,...
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SOURCE: “The Ghost of Language in The Turn of the Screw,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 48–63.
[In the following essay, Mansell analyzes James's utilization of language in The Turn of the Screw.]
A word cannot be meaningless; to be a word it must have meaning.1 So-called syncategorematic words (such as “if”) may be a special case. These are said to have no meaning in themselves but only in the context of the sentences in which they figure.2 Demonstratives (“this”), pronouns, and proper nouns (“Napoleon,” “Icarus”) are also special in that the meaning they do have is usually said merely to refer outward to a referent; the referent itself is then the word's actual meaning.3 Other than these cases, to whatever extent they are considered special, words have meanings.
A meaning is an idea. What the idea is of can be considered in either (or indeed both) of the following ways. The idea can be considered to consist of certain attributes, aspects, or features (for instance, those in a dictionary definition of “tree”) of whatever is meant. The idea that is the meaning is not the idea of any particular tree which exists in space and time (the gnarled oak on grandfather's farm), but only a type consisting of what all the subsumed particulars are...
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SOURCE: “Freud's Dora and James's Turn of the Screw: Two Treatments of the Female ‘Case,’” in Criticism, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 73–87.
[In the following essay, Cohen finds parallels between James's novella and Sigmund Freud's Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.]
Sigmund Freud's Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw are two texts, written within three years of each other, which raise important questions about the nature and function of their respective genres. Freud writes a clinical case history; James, a ghost story. Yet a comparative reading of the two works not only calls into question their authors' use of these genres but also the basic assumptions about truth and fiction which we normally attach to the genres themselves.1
A Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, perhaps the best known of Freud's case histories, is rarely referred to by its actual title. Instead, it tends to be known as the case of “Dora,” the pseudonym Freud chose to protect the identity of the young woman he treated briefly for hysterical symptoms toward the end of 1900. The official title is exacting in its wording, calling attention to the incompleteness of the analysis, and suggesting that what follows will be rigorously scientific and inaccessible to...
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SOURCE: “Ordinary Human Virtue: the Key to The Turn of the Screw,” in Renascence, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1988, p. 247–67.
[In the following essay, Whelan explores the governess's profound moral and spiritual crisis, maintaining that the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel mirror the evil tendencies within the children and the governess.]
“My hovering prowling presences, my pair of abnormal agents,” with their “dire duty of causing the situation to reek with the air of Evil,” is how Henry James describes the roles of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. There is no doubt that James intends to “bring the bad dead back to life for a second round of badness,” and wishes to make these evil ones, “the haunting pair, capable … of everything—that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims so conditioned might be conceived as subject to” (xxi). In any event, these corrupting agents, these damned souls, wish to lure the children to join them in Hell. What has been generally overlooked by the critics is that these “demon-spirits” (xxi) also wish to bring about the damnation of the governess. Flora, Miles and the governess—all three—must choose between Heaven and Hell; but it is the governess's trial and her choice that grant substance and weight to the similar trials and choices faced by the children. It must also be noted that, however...
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SOURCE: “Sexual Hysteria, Physiognomical Bogeymen, and the ‘Ghosts’ in The Turn of the Screw,” in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 43, No. 2, September, 1988, pp. 175–94.
[In the following essay, Renner attributes the governess's detailed description of Peter Quint to nineteenth-century beliefs about the symptomatology of female sexual hysteria.]
For readers and critics for whom the true—and clearly the richer—story of James's The Turn of the Screw is its dramatization of a woman's psychosexual problem and the damage it does to the children in her charge, the immovable stumbling block has always been the governess's detailed description of Peter Quint, a man dead and buried whom she has never seen. If James does not mean for readers to take Quint (and subsequently Miss Jessel) as a bona fide ghost, so the argument runs, why does he arrange things so that the only way to account for her description of him is that she has seen a supernatural manifestation? Asks A. J. A. Waldock, in the classic formulation of the question,
How did the governess succeed in projecting on vacancy, out of her own subconscious mind, a perfectly precise, point-by-point image of a man, then dead, whom she had never seen in her life and never heard of? What psychology, normal or abnormal, will explain that? And what is the right word for such a vision but...
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SOURCE: “Floundering about in Silence: What the Governess Couldn't Say,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1989, pp. 134–43.
[In the following essay, Fleming perceives “both the governess's reactions and the ghosts, whether real or imagined, as related halves of a particular world-view or perceptual paradigm—one that informs not only this novella but much of James' entire fictional universe as well.”]
The question of the reliability of the governess in The Turn of the Screw has produced one of the most developed ongoing debates in James criticism. There is on the one hand the Kenton/Wilson/Goddard school that suggests that the ghosts are imagined by the governess and hence not “real”; on the other are the critics who insist that the evidence in favor of their existence is irrefutable because objective: they are perceived by the housekeeper as well.1 I suggest that there is in fact a way of perceiving The Turn of the Screw which mediates between the two sides of this debate, seeing both the governess's reactions and the ghosts, whether real or imagined, as related halves of a particular world-view or perceptual paradigm—one that informs not only this novella but much of James' entire fictional universe as well. The question thus ceases to be whether or not the governess produces, or imagines, the ghosts (for, in my view, we can as well say that the...
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SOURCE: “‘My Bad Things’: James on James,” in Ghosts, Demons, and Henry James: The Turn of the Screw at the Turn of the Century, University of Missouri Press, 1989, pp. 222–41.
[In the following essay, Beidler examines James's extratextual comments on The Turn of the Screw in order to gain insight on the story.]
Critics of both the evil-ghost and the deluded-governess persuasions are prone to seek corroboration for their theories by quoting Henry James's extratextual statements about the story. They point to his letters to his friends, and they cite his lengthy preface about the story, prepared a decade after the first publication of the story and published as part of the New York Edition in 1908. Some critics of both persuasions find what they think of as ample support for their readings in these after-the-fact authorial statements. Where James's comments do not support their readings, they call him “evasive” or else proclaim all extratextual comments to be “irrelevant” to an explication of the text. Of course, James's comments after he wrote The Turn of the Screw are often both evasive and irrelevant: evasive because he probably found it demeaning to be utterly explicit about explaining his own work; irrelevant because the story does, after all, speak for itself. Still, certain of James's after-the-fact comments are worth looking at in connection with the present...
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SOURCE: “Reading the Unreadable: Meaning in The Turn of the Screw,” in The Turn of the Screw: Bewildered Vision, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 123–40.
[In the following essay, Heller utilizes the device of the implied reader to explore the ambiguity of the ending of James's novella and explores the roles of meaning and ideology in the narrative.]
TO CATCH THOSE NOT EASILY CAUGHT
In his preface to the New York Edition, James characterized The Turn of the Screw as a piece of “cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught, … the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious” (NCE 120). It appears as a toy, a minor amusement like telling ghost stories before the fire at Christmas, but at its end The Turn of the Screw returns upon itself, refusing to end in the customary way. The tale insists upon its own unresolved ambiguity. We do not know what Miles's death means. Upon rereading, we discover depths of beauty and uncertainty in the governess that leave our attitude toward her changed, but provide no escape from ambiguity. The jaded think this just another easy thriller. The disillusioned, perhaps, find ghost stories boring. The fastidious expect to be able to spot weaknesses that will reveal the story's utter fictionality. James, however, breaks out somewhere else, by forcing our attention away from reading the ghosts and...
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SOURCE: “Reflection Rendered: James's The Turn of the Screw,” in Self & Form in Modern Narrative, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, pp. 176–213.
[In the following excerpt, Pecora places The Turn of the Screw within its literary and cultural context.]
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
To write, once again, of The Turn of the Screw as if anything still depended on that narrative or on any discussion of it is surely an act of presumption, perhaps even of the most wishful fantasy. For, perhaps more than any single piece of literature from the modern period, The Turn of the Screw has at this point been so overtaken by the commentary it has spawned that the “question” of the narrative has now become almost completely metacritical: one can hardly see the text except through the nearly opaque screen of more than half a century of professional critical argument. Various techniques have arisen for dealing with this situation, ranging from making the solution of the debate over the etiology of the ghosts the primary goal of increasingly rigorous and sophisticated close readings, to more recent attempts...
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SOURCE: “In the ‘Other House’ of Fiction: Writing, Authority, and Femininity in The Turn of the Screw,” in New Essays on Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, edited by Vivian R. Pollak, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 121–48.
[In the following essay, McWhirter examines The Turn of the Screw within the context of James's life and oeuvre.]
Although the famous debate about The Turn of the Screw—are the ghosts real? or the hallucinations of a mad governess?—has by no means exhausted itself, critics in recent decades have seemed increasingly willing to allow James's narrative something like a fundamental ambiguity, and to accept the premise that James, as one commentator puts it, wanted his readers to experience “a persistent and uncomfortable vibration between the two interpretations.”1 In practice, however, many of these same critics have been unable to resist the impulse to resolve the discomforting uncertainties of James's story. In a widely admired reading, for example, Tzvetan Todorov has argued that The Turn of the Screw is an unusually “pure” example of the “fantastic,” a genre he defines precisely by the way it leaves readers poised between natural (mad governess) and supernatural (real ghosts) interpretations of events.2 Yet by incorporating the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw into the stabilizing,...
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SOURCE: “Hysteria, Rhetoric, and the Politics of Reversal in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw,” in Henry James Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 149–61.
[In the following essay, Mahbobah addresses recent feminist perspectives on The Turn of the Screw.]
THE POLITICS OF OPPOSITIONAL REVERSAL
Recently, a number of Henry James's feminist critics have tried to rescue the heroine of The Turn of the Screw from various psychoanalytic readings which share a common gender bias in their understanding of her hysteria. While the feminist intervention into the field of psychoanalysis is necessary to correct its misrepresentations of female subjectivity, some of the new readings of James's novella mainly reverse the application of the theory, without actually moving beyond its discriminatory terms. Granted, many of the critics who utilize the methods of psychoanalysis read the governess's hysteria mainly in terms of stereotypes associated with female sexuality, and the authors of the classic Freudian readings of the novella in particular have used various labels to pathologize James's heroine, making of her story a case history which validates what psychoanalysis says about women.1 However, the readers who justify James's heroine's violence towards the two children, Miles and Flora, might be accused of committing an inequity similar to the one which...
(The entire section is 6621 words.)
SOURCE: “Narrative Games: The Frame of The Turn of the Screw,” in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 43–55.
[In the following essay, Williams analyzes the frame of the story, contending that it evokes “a heightened story-world.”]
The Turn of the Screw has been the site of a long-standing and seemingly intractable critical controversy. What Bruce Robbins ironically calls “The Thirty Years' War” (“shooting” 192) proceeded up to the 1970s over the pivotal question of whether the governess really sees the ghosts—taking her at her word, so it is a ghost story and an entertainment—or whether she hallucinates—taking her as unreliable, innocently due to her youth and inexperience or to her sexual repression and confusion, or more ominously due to her mental disorder or her manipulative scheming. Most early (pre-New Critical) readings see the novel unproblematically as a ghost story, after the manner of the gothic, and find support in James's efforts, after failing as a playwright, to write a sensationalist bestseller—in his famous formulation, a potboiler. The first parry against these unassuming readings is generally attributed to Edmund Wilson, who, in “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” finds the governess to be a patent example of Freudian psychology and repression (underscoring the phallic topoi, such as the tower Quint stands on, the...
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Beidler, Peter G. Ghosts, Demons, and Henry James: The Turn of the Screw at the Turn of the Century. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989, 252 p.
Presents critical commentary on James's novella.
Cranfill, Thomas Mabry and Clark, Robert Lanier, Jr. An Anatomy of The Turn of the Screw. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965, 195 p.
Analyzes different aspects of The Turn of the Screw.
———. Henry James: The Turn of the Screw. Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, edited by Ross C. Murfin. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995, 313 p.
Offers an authoritative version of the novella, along with feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytical, and deconstructionist perspectives on the story.
Heller, Terry. The Turn of the Screw: Bewildered Version. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989, 151 p.
Full-length critical analysis of James's novella.
Kimbrough, Robert, ed. Henry James: The Turn of the Screw. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966, 276 p.
Offers a text of the story as well as critical commentary on the novella....
(The entire section is 316 words.)