Turn of the Screw: Essay

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1. What were Henry James's ideas about writing fiction?


James wrote quite a lot about his theory of fiction in prefaces for the New York Edition of his work, and in his long essay, The Art of Fiction (1884), collected in his Partial Portraits (1888). His remarks and appreciation of fiction as a serious art form helped to shape modern twentieth-century fiction. He did not believe writers should be constrained by rules and formulas, such as those put forth by the English critic, Walter Besant, who said a writer had to write only about what he or she had experienced. James believed a good writer was a sensitive observer on whom no detail was lost. A writer, like James himself, could catch suggestions from anywhere and spin them into stories. Imagination could make up for lack of experience. He examined a variety of fiction writers in Partial Portraits, such as George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Guy de Maupassant, and Anthony Trollope, showing how each excelled in showing life from a distinct angle and point of view. He did not subscribe to Victorian ideas that fiction had to have a didactic or moral justification. He admired realistic portrayal of character through thoughts, point of view, and the observations of others.


James says that it is time to stop apologizing for fiction as something wicked or made-up apart from life. Fiction competes with life the way a painting does. It creates a version of life from the artist's point of view. James contends fiction is concerned with truth, making it a sort of sacred calling. The fiction writer is a philosopher. James does not like the idea that the novelist merely entertains. As an art, fiction has the right to be concerned with form and style. An artist has to be free to experiment. Consciousness is a kind of spider web that catches the faintest hints and makes them into revelations through imagination. He appreciates the artist who has the “power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern.”James advises, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”  In “The Turn of the Screw” James shows the mind of the governess to be so finely balanced it can catch multiple nuances from almost nothing—a word, a gesture. There are scenes in which it is apparent that nothing concrete is happening between characters, but they are aware of each other and what is not being said. Mrs. Grose is shown to be an unimaginative person who contrasts with the finely tuned intuition of the governess. The governess is either a portrait of what James think the writer should be like, or else, he is trying to show the liability of such a sensibility in a wicked world. 


2. What did James say about “The Turn of the Screw”?


From a Notebook entry dated 1895, James says he got the story of “The Turn of the Screw” from a visit to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Addington in January 1895.Two of the archbishop's sons, A. C. Benson, and R. H. Benson, were also writers of ghost stories. He says the archbishop got the story from a lady, told vaguely, about some children left in the care of wicked servants. When the servants died, they haunted the children. He notes in his Notebook that such a story should be told from an objective observer, an outsider. In a letter to H. G. Wells in 1898, James claims that the ghost story was so grotesque that the only way he could manage was to make the governess objective and logical. In another letter to F. W. H. Myers in 1898 James says he had to make sure that the children seemed to be truly exposed to the worst evil. These statements have been taken by critics to mean that James thought of the ghosts as real and the governess merely recording the story. In his New York Edition preface to the story he recounts again that he got the story from the Archbishop with such vague details that it was a “shadow of a shadow.” He felt the absolute freedom to treat the story with his imagination. The story was an improvisation but at the same time, he had to go for a singleness of effect. He compares his ghost story to a fairy tale like Blue-Beard. Tone is primary; he had to make the mystification of the narrator all-important. He does not dwell on her personality, he says, because he has to make her observations in the forefront. He is not trying to reproduce modern accounts of psychical phenomena of apparitions. He is not interested in ghosts themselves but how to create an impression of horror. His ghosts cannot merely be seen; they must be active agents of evil. Quint and Miss Jessel, therefore, are not ghosts but made into demons.


James's motive as an author is to scare the reader with vague accounts of evil so readers will supply the horror with their own imagination. His statements suggest that James was not trying to make the governess into a psychological study of hysteria or madness, as so many modern readers take it. The tale is vague enough to be interpreted in more than one way, but James, the craftsman, is more interested in how to create the effect of horror. He insists in all these accounts that the narrator is objective and that the children were really at risk from the ghosts. That is what creates the horror for him.


3. What are some other interpretations of “The Turn of the Screw”?


An article on psychical research and the ghosts of the story in the 1940s by Francis Roellinger shows that James presents more realistic ghosts than the formula ghosts from gothic tales. Real reports of ghosts are like those in “Turn of the Screw,” occurring in daylight and visible to some people, but not others. They are clear and wear recognizable clothes, as in life. They are a phenomenon noted around violence and sudden death.


Virginia Woolf wrote a review in 1921 agreeing that James's ghosts were not like the gothic tradition of storytelling, but she saw the horror that his ghosts suggest something within us. The evil at Bly comes in a great silence and tries to get in. The storytelling is so masterful James makes us afraid of something unnamed, an obscenity that comes from the depths.


One of the major interpretations was that of Edmund Wilson, who, in 1934, published a Freudian study of the governess as having a sexual neurosis. In his view, the ghosts were a product of the governess's imagination because of her sexual repression. James had thus produced a major modern psychological study of a character. Before Wilson, readers had believed James that the ghosts were to be taken seriously, at least in terms of the story as a horror story. After Wilson, many decided the governess was the evil one in the story. Since Wilson, readers generally choose one of two readings, for the governess, or against the governess.


Robert Heilman in 1948 argued for the story as a poem, to be appreciated for its suggestive ambiguity. The reader is not asked to choose. The governess is not on trial. James is trying to create mystery about one of the oldest themes—the human struggle against evil. Humans contain the paradox of good and evil in themselves. The author has said he wants readers to construct the meaning for themselves. He succeeded better than he knew.


Today, readers continue to enjoy a variety of meanings. The 1961 film version (“The Innocents”) with Deborah Kerr as the governess was declared by Martin Scorsese to be one of the scariest horror films ever made. It keeps both views without choosing: the ghosts are real, but the governess is also neurotic.


4. What is included in the genre of the ghost story?


Ghost stories about spirits of the dead are ancient lore in most cultures. As a modern form, the ghost story, sometimes classified as a weird or horror story, is one genre of speculative fiction, along with fantasy and science fiction. This genre became popular with the revival of gothic architecture in the eighteenth century in Europe. Gothic-style castles and mansions were the natural scenes for the return of ghosts who carried family mysteries and secrets of murders, suicides, buried treasure, and tragic love. Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was so obsessed with the gothic that he made a gothic castle at Strawberry Hill in England and wrote The Castle of Otranto in 1764, the first gothic novel. As a literary genre, the ghost story usually contains a reference to the supernatural. In some ghost stories, like Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho(1794), or Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre(1847), the mystery is resolved with a common sense rather than supernatural explanation. The ghost story is primarily, however, a mystery concerning deceased figures who appear as apparitions scaring or interfering with the living. Such stories generally are left unexplained. Sometimes ghosts come back for revenge or to clear up a mystery. Sometimes they prophesy the future or explain a curse. Famous ghost stories include those by Edgar Allan Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1839), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The House of Seven Gables,1851), Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights,1847), Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol,” 1843), and Sheridan Le Fanu (“Green Tea,” 1872). Stephen King's story, The Shining, a 1977 novel made into a 1980 movie about a haunted hotel, shows the genre still powerful. “The Turn of the Screw” took ghost stories in a new, more realistic direction. The ambiguity of the tale, however, is part of the genre itself that does not give away all the secrets. In particular, James learned how to write the ambiguous story of evil from Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose stories can be seen in more than one way (“Rappaccini's Daughter,” “The Birthmark,” “Young Goodman Brown”). James had written a biography of Hawthorne and admired him, though he did not copy Hawthorne's highly symbolic and allegorical style. “The Turn of the Screw” does however, have a moral dimension in which the governess considers her duty in the face of evil.


5. What are some other stories about evil children?


One of the scary elements of “The Turn of the Screw” for the original audience was the fact that children could be possessed by demons and commit evil. Several early reviewers declared they were disgusted by such a plot. There was a long legacy from Romantic and Victorian literature of angelic and innocent children, so James's story makes the wicked children a centerpiece of its sense of horror.


Since James's day, several other authors and filmmakers have taken up the suggestion of evil children.For instance, The Bad Seed was a 1954 novel by William March, made into a play by Maxwell Anderson, and into a horror film in 1956. A cute little girl named Rhoda is a sociopathic serial killer. Her mother discovers this and the fact that her own mother had also been a serial killer. Convinced it is a genetic criminal tendency, the mother decides to kill herself and her daughter. In the play, the mother shoots herself and gives sleeping pills to the daughter. The daughter is ironically taken to the hospital and saved, so the evil continues. The filmmakers had to show the girl killed by lightning, since it was against code at that time to let evil go unpunished.


Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a 1954 dystopian novel about a group of English schoolboys marooned on an island who have to govern themselves. Away from civilization, the boys descend into primitive cruelty and superstition. This premise directly opposes the philosophical position of such writers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who had made popular the idea that children are innocent until corrupted by civilization. Lord of the Flies was made into a film in 1963 and 1990.


Stephen King's “Children of the Corn,” a 1977 horror short story, is a tale about a group of children who worship a Satanic figure in a demonic cult and crucify their victims to appease the cornfield. The story spawned many films and sequels.




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