Monday, October 31, 2016

I recognised the signs - The Turn of the Screw is what it absolutely is not

Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things that they absolutely were not.  (Ch. 6)

Yesterday I suggested what I called the second-most productive way to read The Turn of the Screw.  The most productive way is to read it as exactly what you want it to be.  If you want ghosts, you can have them.  If you prefer madness, there is definitely that, of several varieties.  Maybe the ghosts drove the governess mad; maybe her sexual hysteria creates the ghosts.

That quotation up above does a lot of good work.  The text is naturally deconstructionist, my favorite example being the long passage in Chapter 13 where the governess explains how the absence of the ghosts proves their presence:

I recognised the signs, the portents – I recognised the moment, the spot.  But they remained unaccompanied and empty, and I continued unmolested; if unmolested one could call a young woman whose sensibility had, in the most extraordinary fashion, not declined but deepened.

Edmund Wilson, when he created his meticulous Freudian exorcism of the story’s ghosts, built his theory in part on a complete reading of Henry James, pulling in evidence from across his writing. Any text became fair game to explain this text.  Why he needed all that for a Freudian reading of, for example, the first time the governess sees the ghosts, atop the house’s towers, I don’t know.  Thoroughness.

I admired them [the towers], had fancies about them, for we could all profit in a degree, especially when they loomed through the dusk, by the grandeur of their actual battlements… (Ch. 3)

Or when the governess thinks that she and the ten-year-old boy are like

some young couple who, on their wedding-journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter.  (Ch. 32)

I reach for just one other story, a recent one, “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896), which is directly about searching through literary texts in search of solutions to imaginary puzzles, or even to real puzzles to which the author has deliberately omitted necessary clues.  Other stories from the same period – “The Way It Came” (1896) and “The Real Right Thing” (1899), for example – pursue the theme.

James appears to be working through not just an aesthetic but a metaphysics of ambiguity, writing stories where the density of signifiers is so thick that real and false clues are indistinguishable.  Readers hack their way through the thicket with the strongest tool they have, their freedom to ignore any detail that gets in the way of moving forward.  Ignoring the frame, or the odder features of the governess’s prose, or the amusing abruptness of the story’s ending, the ending that seems designed to baffle all theories.

As I work on a Jamesian puzzle, is my sensibility deepening, or declining?  Again, though, it is not that the figure in the carpet is not there – it is in an important sense there if I see it – but rather that it is so hard to get anyone else to see it.

We lived in a cloud of music and love and success and private theatricals.  (Ch. 9)

I am not sure why the Turn of the Screw has become the single most famous and most cited James story, but I suppose it is partly because it can be made to do whatever is needed.


  1. Ah, a celebration of reader-response theory! To my mind, ambiguities and ironies (HJ's strengths, whether intentional or unintentional) are the hallmark of canonical fiction; if we all agreed upon a single reading of a text, why should anyone bother reading it (i.e., something doomed to irrelevance in short order)? But I'm blathering.

  2. The subsequent history of The Turn of the Screw is a good case study for reader-response theory, isn't it? So many strongly opposed ideas, a number of which seem to go well beyond the text itself.