Friday, July 15, 2011

Watching the Screw Turn: Henry James, Narrative Ambiguity, and the Battlefield of Interpretation

‘The Turn of the Screw’, by Henry James, originally published serially in Colliers Weekly. Edition I read: The Turn of the Screw: A Norton Critical Edition, Norton, New York, 1966.

Henry James, in a 1913 charcoal sketch by John Singer Sargent.
Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, presents, on the face of it, an eerie ghost story. It recounts the experience of an unnamed young Governess, commissioned by a blithe young gentleman to take care of his orphaned nephew and niece, who finds herself the sole apparent observer of manifestations of a haunting around the two children and the large house of Bly they inhabit. The ghosts, she comes to believe, are those of Mr Quint and Miss Jessel, two former employees, who the Governess comes to believe wants to keep a grip on the children. This story, perhaps the most famous James ever wrote, has become since its publication the subject of argument as to whether it is a tale of psychological disintegration, or a plain tale of supernatural haunting. This argument is complicated by James’ own pronouncements on the subject, displaying his evident intent to write a literal ghost story, and, therefore, the legitimacy of the psychological interpretation has been forcibly denied. And yet it persists, partly because of questions of James’ motives for writing the story, but chiefly because of the ambiguity of James’ chosen writing style, the depth of his engagement with the problem of point of view, and the nature of the genre he was working in. Tales of the supernatural are all, arguably, metaphorical adventures into the realm of the psyche and the irrational, and therefore by working in the genre James invited such reinterpretation. James’s own announced intentions, to return vitality to the ghost story by minimising the fantastic, also concedes to an age in which credulity is best achieved through minimisation of the fantastic.

“In matters like this the work itself and not the author that is the ultimate authority,” Harold Goddard, one of the first to take up the psychological argument for interpreting the book, declared. Here arises one of the recurring problems of intention versus interpretation, which is central to so much contemporary literary study. “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” as Roland Barthes stated, and the idea that an author can have a grasp of every conceivable interpretation of a work is disputed. But so can the notion that an author is fixated on and aware of only one interpretation. James’ story is in itself an interpretation, of a ghost story he said was told to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less. James synthesised characters to act out the roles in such a fashion that pleased him and his opinion of how to make such a story believable and dramatic. One of James’ first decisions was to utilise a layered authorial voice, and reception of the story depends on this. James uses three levels of storytelling: that of the authorial “I”, recounting the gathering of people listening to ghost stories; the reading by Douglas, one of that group; and the memoir he reads, of the memoir by the Governess herself.

The Turn of the Screw takes its name from a metaphor used by the second of three narrators for the tale, Douglas, meaning the desired effect of intensification of drama and suspense. The story calls attention not merely to its own designed effect, but to the effects behind its literariness: the object of The Turn of the Screw is not merely to turn the screw, but to observe how it is turned. This was not so uncommon in fantastic genre writing of its era: the controlled reportage and viewpoint in “found” material, such as diaries, letters, and journalistic accounts, was a commonly utilised method for affecting realism, one that would give grounding to the incredible, not far, indeed, from the method of contemporary horror movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) in imitating documentary and home movie techniques. The fantastic genre can be defined as one that “oblige(s) the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and supernatural explanation of events...the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work”, as Tzvetan Todorov describes it.

Supernatural phenomena were largely, by the time of James’ writing, considered improbable if not ludicrous by most. Therefore, the construction of a mood of credulity became the most important task in a supernatural tale. James wrote his novella in this generic mould, and this genre is distinct from the realistic, albeit highly psychological, morally searching novels James was best known for. Unlike such works, which are indebted for at least a certain amount of their creation to grounded observance, the representative nature of a ghost story is easier to suggest. James’ preoccupation, whilst engaging this technique, as he himself acknowledged the start of this tendency as being Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, was to move beyond pseudo-realism into something more penetrating. He moves sideways from this; despite the first-person narrative, the Governess writes like Henry James with long, endlessly qualified and subjunctive sentences, and she even jumps over key pieces of her own experience contrary to the nature of most first-person reportage where the precision of description afforded by observation might be expected. Such leaps include her observations of Miss Jessel, when she appears close to herself and Flora, just like a writer delaying narrative pay-off for the sake of suspense, but also because it is only in the later recounting to Mrs Grose that this incident and the Governess’s instinctual observations take on reality – in the act of communicating them.

How one interprets such a story depends on individual point of view. Especially following Edmund Wilson’s essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James”, the psychological view became important in regarding The Turn of the Screw. People predisposed to belief in spirituality and other concepts that resist purely rational reduction will possibly retain at least credulity for spiritual emanation and thus be sympathetic to the substance of the ghosts. An arch rationalist, with a scientific mindset or an awareness of psychological theory, will probably interpret any ghost story as essentially a psychological one, investigating it for coherence of metaphor and the intelligibility of its codification of psychological concepts. Such attitudes are not necessarily automatic, but there is still a choice of viewpoint involved. James’ story presents, in its images, characters, and narrative processes, much material that resembles psychological symbolism. James’ brother William was a pioneering psychologist, although such symbolism as the phallic tower on which Quint appears whilst Miss Jessel appears by the equally suggestive lake is more distinctly Freudian. The possibility that James was writing a disguised meditation on the illness of his sister Alice has been floated, including by Oliver Cargill, and that this was his reason for now being explicit about his intention, instead preferring to call it, in a letter to H.G. Wells, “essentially a potboiler.” A problem here is not just the disparity between the intention and effect of an author’s labours, but also how reception of a work evolves. Just because later readers and critics regarded James’ story as a great work that might encompass deeply personal reflections and acute thinking on psychological viewpoint and therefore represent a major James tale, that nonetheless doesn't mean that the writer himself couldn’t think it really was a potboiler, compared to his more elaborate, realistic novels. Nonetheless James’ determination, as stated in his preface, to “improvise with extreme freedom”, indicates his intent to explore new territory in the ghost story. And how to achieve this? To recharge its effect by deemphasising the spectres as much as possible and rendering them secondary in controlling effect to the viewpoint of the heroine, working on the theory that what is not seen, explained, literalised, is the most effective. James is therefore demonstrating how perspective is inseparable from reality, and that credulity is perhaps ironically best serviced by ambiguity. If the traditional manifestations of ghost are, as James argues, “little expressive…little dramatic,” then the only thing that can give them substance, threat, drama, is to make their nature undecidable.

Rebecca Evans and Timothy Robinson in an English National Opera production of Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, composed in 1953.
Throughout the narrative, events, statements, and curiosities of expression in the testament of the Governess suggest an authorial awareness of the nature of hysteria, projection, and sublimation, constantly in evidence throughout the tale. These are seen in the behaviour and attitudes of its heroine, enforced by the subjective nature of the telling, where things are only seen and reported, albeit with curious elisions and apparent distortions, through her eyes. The Governess, barely out of adolescence herself, can be seen to invent bogeyman projections of gross male sexuality in Quint, displacing a desire stoked by her employer, and a wretched self-projection in Miss Jessel as a fallen woman, a duality hinted when the Governess recognises herself as having taken the place of Miss Jessel as the wretched woman at the foot of the stairs. She then displaces her fearful emblems onto her two young charges, whose very lack of obvious maliciousness and minor faults become a blank screen onto which the Governess can project her neurotic obsessions. The most famous film version of the story, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), exacerbates the theory of sexual repression by casting not a young woman but the middle-aged Deborah Kerr as the Governess, and, accordingly, transforms the tale into “precisely the psychological narrative which James’ writing painstakingly invalidated and avoided,” as it was put in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Film. At one point, referring specifically to a boat, but in a way to the entire substance of her narrative, the Governess cries, “Our not seeing it is the strongest of proofs.” Such a line can seem a precise portrait of a paranoid schizophrenic mindset, where elaborate fantasies are constructed, where everything is infused with meaning due to a private logic.

Therefore aspects of the tale can be used to argue against a literal haunting. The fact that no-one else sees the ghosts is perhaps the most significant, with Mrs Grose’s and Flora’s apparent inability to see Miss Jessel when the Governess can. Whether by the design of the ghosts or the illness of the narrator, they do not share their appearance with anyone else. Yet this does not mean they are not there, or, as Desmond Manderson recently put it: “This nothing is what is most troubling about James’ ghosts; ironically, it establishes their presence and their menace.” The Governess has explicated how the children always readily acquiesced to her scenarios to act out, and it might be argued that the moment of truth with both children sees them stricken with cognitive dissonance at this new scenario, in which their perpetual companion and mentor suddenly starts seeing dead people, and wants them to do the same. The children therefore respond, unconsciously, to the Governess’s desires for them to enact her fantasies. Simultaneously, incidents which allow the possibility of the Governess’s convictions include the fact that Mrs Grose seems to recognise Quint from the Governess’s description, the inexplicable nature of Miles’s expulsion from school (“for that was really but the question of the horrors gathered behind”), the eventually revealed cause of it, his collusion with Flora to defy the Governess at several junctures, and his apparent anxiety and inexplicable death when the Governess tries to break her hold over him. Yet none of these on their own constitute solid proof. The Governess’s description of the man could simply have given Mrs Grose a slate on which to inscribe the face of Quint, a man who offended her. Miles’ rude language might have been picked up from Henry Fielding, whose Amelia even the Governess, whose experience has before Bly not even encompassed such an act, reads, or indeed from other sources. Mrs Grose surrenders to credulity thanks to her conviction in what she “heard” the children say, and to the persuasiveness of the Governess’s conviction.

Deborah Kerr as the Governess and Peter Wyngarde as Quint in The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film version.
The Governess’s preoccupation eventually narrows to the moments in which she tries to confirm that the children are aware of the spectres too. The result in one instance is for Flora to not want to speak with or see the Governess again, and for Miles to drop dead. Only in this last case does a real, undeniable event linking the Governess’s fixations with undeniable physical truth occur, and even here, what causes his death, whilst she attributes it to his being “dispossessed”, is hardly inarguable. Throughout the story, key aspects retain an ambiguity that is hard to dismiss, particularly in the Governess’s encounters with Miss Jessel in Chapters VI and XV, where the information she gives to Mrs Grose in subsequent chapters seems at odds with what she herself describes. The observations and certainties that the Governess expresses to Mrs Grose in Chapter VII seems to have no basis in what can have been observe by her, but a chain of inferences based either in preternatural or paranoid sensitivity. The limitations, and the advantages, of the viewpoint James chose for telling his story here become apparent. The peculiar elision at the end of Chapter VI, which concludes with the Governess resolving to observe the shade of Miss Jessel watching her and Flora: “My apprehension of what she was doing sustained me so that after some seconds I felt I was ready for more. Then I again shifted my eyes—I faced what I had to face.” The narrative voice then jumps to the subsequent conversation where the gap between what seems substantiated by her earlier observations and what the Governess now proposes is difficult to account for.

Nonetheless, whether the apparitions are real or imagined, the story can still be observed to work, at least on a mechanical level, in the same fashion. Apparitions appear to the heroine; they make her concerned for the safety of her position and the children entrusted to her care; she sees the apparitions as attaching themselves to the children and fears their corruption; this drives her to assert more and more rigorous control over the situation, which instead causes her command to completely unravel. This attempt, to assert control over the irrational, be it spectral or psychological in nature, is the lynchpin of the story. The Governess is entrusted with a position of great nominal power, especially by the standards of a young woman in her profession, far beyond the normal in fact. Her commission from the employer is “that she should never trouble him…take the whole thing over and let him alone,” far beyond the usual limits of a Governess, especially one of the protagonist’s age and level of experience. Into her hands is thrust not only the task of teaching the children but in taking proxy responsibility for them in all things, and the stake of the drama, the end which the Governess dreads most of all, is being forced to appeal to the masculine employer who excised himself from the situation.

Equally central to the Governess’s threatened failure is the possibility of her losing control over the education of the children, the infiltration of their minds and worldviews by Quint and Jessel and the forbidden values associated with them, the bad language which caused the expulsion, as the Governess finally teases out from Miles. This merely accentuates the problem of child-rearing, for which the Governess is unequipped, and the anxiety of exposure to corrupting influences that rupture the boundaries of the acceptable, the ordered, and the controllable. In both the psychological and literal readings, the ghosts still perform this function, of perverting the course of learning for the children, or at least the Governess fears they will, away from the accepted norm which she has been charged to shape them to; the ghosts literally and figuratively embody the threat of sexuality, amorality, and disobedience assaulting the settled order the Governess must maintain. As the Governess’s anxiety mounts, even their seeming perfect behaviour becomes, becomes a pretence through which she professes to discern a great play-act designed to fool her. Later, particularly in Chapter XVII, Miles’ own precocity, with his pronounced desire to “see more life” and suggestions of adult sexuality beginning to grow in him, or, as the Governess would have, being instilled in him by Quint, responds to the attention of the Governess herself, whom he calls “dear” like an adult. This is increasingly complicated by the fact that the Governess projects an adult sexuality onto the boy, that of Quint, rather than an emerging form, and her own incapacity to differentiate the two, exacerbates the problem, leading to the moment in which Miles blows out the candle like a lover. Here, the gap between the interpretations is so great yet so close, as the choice is between an external, malevolent force, drawing them both in through deception and advantage, or an internal force in both violating a social and psychological barrier.

There is therefore an implicit disparity between the conclusions offered by the literal and psychological interpretations. If Mr Quint and Miss Jessel really have come from beyond to claim the children, then the things they embody are designated as Other, as evil, corrupting, and corrosive as the Governess fears, dispersing the anxiety generated by the personal ramifications of the story, and partly justifying the Governess’ push into a “war” that ends in an innocent’s death. If, however, they are manifestations of her mind, they are the opposite, representing the inescapable human-ness of sexuality and its perversion, through lack of self-awareness, by a repressive social order that tries to restrain it. Miles’ death is the product of the failure of the paradigm the Governess tries to enforce, but which is failing inside her already. Yet if ghosts are automatically symbols, then either way, they embody a primal truth unanswerable to reason. Michael Scofield argues that James left his story so much implied because of three reasons: to rouse the reader’s imagination, because the subject matter of his story was too shocking to treat overtly, and because he himself did not want to face its implications. Yet studies of “evil…of a sexual nature” were a familiar James preoccupation. As with the question of point of view, therefore, a consistent authorial interest has been invested in the work, which, then, enriches it, intentionally or not, beyond generic limits: it becomes instead a study in the way the individual human deals with reality and subliminal drives. James’ desire to avoid writing a ghost story as a “mere modern psychical case, washed clean of all queerness as by exposure to a flowing laboratory trap,” as he described it, indicates a need not only to preserve mystery, but to respect the things he was invoking, suggesting their power and vitality even in their monstrousness. Therefore, part of the beauty of The Turn of the Screw is that it never forces a definite conclusion.

Barthes, R (trans. S. Heath) 1977, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image-Music-Text, Hill and Wang, New York.
Cargill, O. 1963, ‘“The Turn of the Screw” and Alice James’, in The Turn of the Screw: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. R. Kimbrough, Norton, New York.
Kimbrough, R (ed) 1966, The Turn of the Screw: A Norton Critical Edition, Norton, New York.
Gelder, K (ed.) 2000, The Horror Reader, Routledge, London.
Hardy, P (ed) 1985, The Encyclopedia of the Horror Film, Aurum Press Ltd, London.
James, H. 1898, ‘To H.G. Wells’, in The Turn of the Screw: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. R. Kimbrough, Norton, New York.
James, H. 1908 ‘The New York Preface to Volume XII of “The Novels and Tales of Henry James”’, in The Turn of the Screw: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. R. Kimbrough, Norton, New York.
Manderson, D. 2010, ‘Two Turns of the Screw’, in The Hart Fuller Debate – 50 Years On, ed. Peter Cane, Hart Publishing, Oxford, p. 197-217.
Scofield, M. 2003, ‘Implied stories: implication, moral panic and The Turn Of The Screw’, Journal of the Short Story in English (Online), 40, Online since 29 July 2008,
Spilka, M. 1963, ‘Turning the Freudian Screw’, in The Turn of the Screw: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. R. Kimbrough, Norton, New York.
Seymour-Smith, M (ed.) 1980, Novels and Novelists, W. H. Smith and Son, London.
Todorov, T. 1975, ‘Definition of the Fantastic’, in The Horror Reader, ed. Ken Gelder, Routledge, London, 2000.
The Innocents (motion picture), 1961. 20th Century Fox, Achilles. Director, Producer: Jack Clayton. Writers: William Archibald, Truman Capote.

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

This is a terrific essay and one that captures the essence of the dilemma faced by post-Enlightenment thinkers - the grip of magic thinking on the human animal. The story is genuinely creepy because we "of course" know there is no such things as ghosts, but there certainly are such things as hauntings. A ghost may be a psychological projection, but that makes it no less a threat, as the fate of Miles clearly indicates. In my own attempts to write a ghost story, I found myself perhaps unconsciously creating marital discord and then the appearance of a female ghost to the husband. Sexual anxiety? Barely bridled anger? Quite possibly. Henry James' skill in manipulating the narrative, as you outline, does really make one believe in ghosts.