Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw (Norton Critical Edition)The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How did this 1898 novella become modern and postmodern literary theory’s most inscrutable touchstone? According to Henry James’s Notebooks—and scholars have disputed this, but then they dispute everything, as we’ll see—he got the kernel of the novella, a ghost story, from the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Saturday, January 12th, 1895. Note here the ghost-story told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the Archbishop of Canterbury: the mere vague, undetailed, faint sketch of it—being all he had been told (very badly and imperfectly), by a lady who had no art of relation, and no clearness: the story of the young children (indefinite number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country-house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places, the deep ditch of a sunk fence, etc.—so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves, by responding, by getting into their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost; but they try and try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children ‘coming over to where they are.’ It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect in it. The story to be told—tolerably obviously—by an outside spectator, observer.

The Turn of the Screw does relate the above plot, but with two complications. First is the “outside spectator, observer.” For this role, James took a cue from earlier British fiction and invented a nameless governess, “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson.” She answers an ad from a London gentleman to look after his orphaned niece and nephew, Miles and Flora, at Bly, his country estate. The Master specifies that he is not to be disturbed by reports of what happens at Bly: he gives the governess full authority over the household, which also includes a company of domestic servants headed by the kindly Mrs. Grose.

James teases us—and his heroine—with the possibility that this story is another Pamela or Jane Eyre, that the governess will win the heart of the Master and superintend the estate not as his employee but as its mistress. This possibility—and the well-read but inexperienced 20-year-old governess is well aware of it as a romantic possibility—never materializes. Instead, the ghosts of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and her lower-class paramour, the servant Peter Quint, materialize, though possibly only to the governess herself, who openly desires some opportunity to prove herself a responsible, resourceful, and even heroic steward for her absent Master.

Her heroism consists in her rescue of the children from the dead couple’s corrupting influence. Miles, it transpires, has been dismissed from his school for unspecified transgressions, misbehaviors presumably picked up from Quint, who was, as Mrs. Grose informs the governess, “much too free” with “everybody” while he lived. The governess’s attempts to protect the children from corruption, however, prove dangerous and eventually lethal at the conclusion.

The conclusion of the text is not the conclusion of the tale, however, which brings me to James’s second twist or turn on the Archbishop’s anecdote. With his characteristic indirection, James gives us the end of the story at the beginning of the book: the governess’s narrative is introduced by another nameless narrator, who tells of a Christmas gathering where the attendees share ghost stories. After hearing the tale of a haunted child, a man named Douglas promises to tell a story about two haunted children, and in the process provides the novella its polysemous title: “If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?”

Douglas sends for a manuscript he has kept since his undergraduate days, when he befriended his sister’s governess; the manuscript is her account of her time at Bly. Some of those at the party titter that Douglas must have been in love with the governess, though she was 10 years his senior, but he protests that the love story in her manuscript doesn’t involve him.

Mrs. Griffin, however, expressed the need for a little more light. “Who was it she was in love with?”

“The story will tell,” I took upon myself to reply.

“Oh, I can’t wait for the story!”

“The story won’t tell,” said Douglas; “not in any literal, vulgar way.”

The frame story’s invocation of erotic cryptography and narrative obfuscation is the warning above the gate to this tale of a governess possibly in love with someone who isn’t there and possibly seeing two more people—themselves class-crossed lovers—who aren’t there either.

Note James’s metafictional play: he takes for his subject the materials of popular romance, of Gothic and sentimental fiction, but he makes the common reader the anti-promise that he will provide none of those genres’ usual satisfactions. The governess, likewise, imagines herself to be a Fielding, Radcliffe, or Charlotte Brontë heroine, but finds herself instead in much more mystifying territory, in a poetic universe that doesn’t quite exist yet, but which will later be called, among other things, the Kafkaesque (though we might mention Emily Brontë as ghostly English forerunner).

In his Preface to The Altar of the Dead and Other Tales, James explicitly differentiates between what we would call “literary” and “genre” fiction (he labels the latter “pure romance”), and he differentiates not on the basis of subject matter—literature doesn’t have to be strictly realistic: it can have haunted houses—but on the basis of treatment and emphasis:

We want [the story] clear, goodness knows, but we also want it thick, and we get the thickness in the human consciousness that entertains and records, that amplifies and interprets it. That indeed, when the question is (to repeat) of the “supernatural,” constitutes the only thickness we do get; here prodigies, when they come straight, come with an effect imperilled; they keep all their character, on the other hand, by looming through some other history the indispensable history of somebody’s normal relation to something.

To serve as proper objects of serious literary representation, ghosts and demons and their genre cousins (he also mentions pirates and detectives) must have human relevance. They attain human relevance by being grounded in ordinary human life. This is not a completely revolutionary idea—Walpole had something like it over a century before James, and he took the hint from Shakespeare—but James’s proto-modernist twist is to insist, in The Turn of the Screw, on a narrator whose psychology becomes the center of the tale. The ghosts are only interesting insofar as they affect this psyche, and are still more compelling when understood as projections of it.

In his Preface to the 1908 New York Edition of The Turn of the Screw, to which version James made a number of edits throwing the governess’s subjectivity and uncertainty further into the foreground, he gives a further turn to romance by claiming that the ghost story, if it wishes to retain the “dear old sacred terror” and the air of “[p]ortentous evil,” must remain calculatedly vague. The reader must do the work of imagining the worst:

Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself and that already is a charming job and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.

If the governess’s consciousness is more interesting than what it perceives, how much more interesting to the reader is the reader’s own consciousness in perceiving the governess? James’s commitment to the cryptic, his refusal to “tell…in any literal, vulgar way,” leads him to design a text that reads its readers more than we read it. The illicit thoughts incited in us by the text’s ambiguities become our chief concern.

As James Joyce wrote of another strange neo-Gothic fin-de-siècle novella, “What Dorian Gray’s sin was no one says and no one knows. He who discovers it has committed it.” But this is too literal: the guilt may come even from knowing what we aren’t supposed to know about sin. Virginia Woolf was truer to the Jamesian vagueness when she wrote of The Turn of Screw itself, “We are afraid of something unnamed, of something perhaps in ourselves.”

As for Oscar Wilde, his prosecutor, turning the screw on the aesthetic defendant, certainly believed he had discovered Dorian’s crime, and the interpretive holes in James’s text have been similarly crammed by critics with unspoken sexuality, his corpus serving as playground for the Freudians and Foucauldians. We can’t deny he invites such attention. An analysis of one extended passage will show how James elicits forbidden thoughts. Here the governess and Miles discuss the reason for his expulsion:

He looked in vague pain all round the top of the room and drew his breath, two or three times over, as if with difficulty. He might have been standing at the bottom of the sea and raising his eyes to some faint green twilight. “Well—I said things.”

“Only that?”

“They thought it was enough!”

“To turn you out for?”

Never, truly, had a person “turned out” shown so little to explain it as this little person! He appeared to weigh my question, but in a manner quite detached and almost helpless. “Well, I suppose I oughtn’t.”

“But to whom did you say them?”

He evidently tried to remember, but it dropped—he had lost it. “I don’t know!”

He almost smiled at me in the desolation of his surrender, which was indeed practically, by this time, so complete that I ought to have left it there. But I was infatuated—I was blind with victory, though even then the very effect that was to have brought him so much nearer was already that of added separation. “Was it to everyone?” I asked.

“No; it was only to—” But he gave a sick little headshake. “I don’t remember their names.”

“Were they then so many?”

“No—only a few. Those I liked.”

Those he liked? I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?

What did Miles say? The text’s refusal to satisfy our curiosity on the matter forces our mind to go in every which direction in search of what is “enough” to get one “turned out,” to denominate whatever it is in James that dare not speak its name, to elaborate on what the governess calls, in reference to Quint’s life, “strange passages and perils, secret disorders, vices more than suspected.”

Considering Quint’s transgression—his affair with the higher-class Miss Jessel, an affair that, it is implied though never stated, left her first pregnant and then dead—we might assume that he conveyed some erotic knowledge to the boy, which the boy then passed to his schoolmates. Or maybe, much more innocently, the lower-class laborer simply taught Miles some profanity, and Miles then taught it to his friends. Or maybe, much more disturbingly, Quint himself sexually preyed on Miles, and Miles in turn himself acted out sexually at school. (Is “green twilight,” by the way, queer code language, a reference to the Wildean green carnation? In a text so withholding, one does become paranoid.)

But no matter what happened at school, Miles is innocent by definition, since he, an orphan of 10, cannot be held responsible for how an adult has corrupted him. (He is not, however, innocent in the angelic way the governess, with her head full of Victorian sentiment, thinks he and Flora both are; this is just the obverse of thinking them secretly depraved. One of the governess’s flaws—and her society’s—is to see children as capable only of pure goodness or absolute evil rather than ordinary humanity.) What is the governess if Miles is innocent, as he is? That is the only easy question the text poses: she is guilty. Of what? Of being “blind with victory,” of being so possessed by a will to knowledge that it becomes a will to domination. She is guilty of putting the torturous interpretive screw to her young charge.

Which observation leads me to a question so horrifying few critics seem to ask it, though they have raked over every other inch of this text. As the governess exclaims, “The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear.” I fear she could be guilty of something even worse than intellectual imposition. Are we so sure the governess’s desire is all for the absent Master? Are her endless references to the children’s “more than earthly beauty” not a little disconcerting, not to mention her eerie nighttime visit to Miles’s bedroom or her comparison of her accompanying him to church as akin to “some young couple…on their wedding journey”? Is Miles’s flirtatious manner with the governess (“His ‘my dear’ was constantly on his lips for me”) not perhaps a victim’s desperate survival strategy, a mollifying concession meant to deflect a more violent trespass? Might The Turn of the Screw not in the end be a cross-gendered anticipation of Lolita?

The novella’s omnipresent disquieting hint of predation, whether we take it to be Quint’s or the governess’s, must be what provoked the strong reactions of the novella’s otherwise laudatory early reviewers, who write of how “the very breath of hell seems to pervade some of its chapters,” who pronounce it “distinctly repulsive,” “very cruel and untrue,” and “the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern.” Henry James, concludes one reviewer with an eye toward holiday retail, “is by no means a safe author to give for a Christmas gift.”

Almost every scene, every dialogue, every description in The Turn of the Screw can be interrogated in the above way. Like other works by James, it is a running stream of double entendre. Because so much of what is said in the book is ambiguous, and so much else left out, our imagination runs wild (or Wilde) over the grounds at Bly in quest of secret knowledge. It is no wonder, then, that the novella became a key text, second only to Hamlet, for Freudian literary criticism, and then later for other critical schools that refused to take any text at face value.

The history of Screw criticism just is the history of modern criticism: more even than Dracula, James’s novella should be read in the Norton Critical Edition. There you’ll find, in addition to the notebook entries and Prefaces of James and the novella’s early reviews quoted above, Edmund Wilson’s pioneering psychoanalytical explanation of the text, “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” Wilson declares the narrative “a study in morbid psychology,” a “characterization of the governess” and “her inability to admit to herself her sexual impulses.”

Wilson further implies that we require not only Freud but also Marx to explain the source of the governess’s delusions, which include her “English middle-class class consciousness.” Her desire is not merely erotic but also economic—a desire to join the Master’s class, and a consequent, if hypocritical, disgust at Quint’s similar attempt to ascend to Miss Jessel’s status. Adding to Wilson, Bruce Robbins in his overtly Marxist entry in the Norton chastises the governess for evading “her recognition of what so many voices are trying to tell her—her identity with ‘the others'”—i.e., her own status among the exploited, which status she abjects in her abhorrence of her fantasized sexual parvenu Quint.

On the other hand, one of the more fascinating pieces in the volume is Robert B. Heilman’s essay arguing for the reality of the ghosts against the psychoanalytic critics. He systematically demonstrates, or tries to demonstrate anyway, that all of what Wilson called the text’s “ambiguities” can be resolved in favor of the governess’s interpretation. To take only one example, the governess openly discusses and even jokes about her crush on the Master; if the Freudian explanation requires sexual repression, then isn’t it a problem, asks Heilman, if “the governess’s feelings for the master are never repressed”? Heilman wants to defeat the Freudians to save the novella for religion: it is, he says, “a drama of salvation.” This goal aside, though, his emphasis on the genuine ambiguity of the book’s ambiguity—there really is not enough evidence to say decisively whether the ghosts are real—is necessary to appreciate the most sophisticated reading of the text.

The showstopper of the Norton is a long—over 30-page—excerpt from Shoshana Felman’s “Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation),” a study in poststructuralist meta-psychoanalytic interpretation. Felman shows that we need the whole unholy trinity, all three masters of suspicion—I mean Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche—to provide a rational explanation for this haunting. Freud takes care of the sexual element, and Marx the economic, but we require too a Nietzschean understanding of the will-to-power motivating every exercise of interpretation to see not only how the governess tortures her preferred meaning out of Miles, but also how Edmund Wilson tortures his preferred meaning out of the governess. The interpreters of the text have taken on the role of its heroine, unconsciously and compulsively restaging the novella’s drama of lethally reductive reading.

What the interpreters miss, observes Felman, is that James has trapped them into thinking themselves superior to the governess, even though they, like her—and like us all—are wandering in the maze of meaning, unable to obtain an Archimedean vantage outside of language and sexuality from which to judge anyone or anything absolutely and finally. Felman emphasizes the “fact that literature has no outside, that there is no safe spot assuredly outside of madness, from which one might demystify and judge it, locate it in the Other without oneself participating in it,” and she denounces both Edmund Wilson and the governess for their “discourse of totalitarian power” in their insistence on a single meaning. James offers “an invitation to repeat the text, to enter into its labyrinth of mirrors, from which it is henceforth impossible to escape.” Nor should we wish to escape, because our entrapment is therapy for the totalitarian temptation, a lesson in how to live within the considerable limits of human subjectivity.

In Felman’s reading of The Turn of the Screw, the hermeneutic of suspicion finally turns on itself, until reading becomes a perpetual process of self-reflection, half-chastened, half-playful, rather than any capacity to expose the final truth of the other. In time and space, a driven screw goes forward, but in the ideal space of reading, its turning only describes a circle.

Felman echoes Maurice Blanchot, who in his own piece on James collected in the Norton, focuses on the writer rather than the reader, on James’s need to explore every possibility of his donnée, on “the pure indeterminacy of a work,” before setting to write. Blanchot nevertheless comes to a similar conclusion about literature’s infinitude of unrealizable potential:

[S]uch perhaps is the essence of James’s talent: to make the work present at every moment and to suggest, behind the structured, determined work, different structures, the limitless, weightless space of the narrative as it might have been, as it was before all beginnings.

James writes a perfectly ambiguous story—a story as ambiguous as life itself. I am confident of only one thing about this book: James did not intend us to believe or to disbelieve in the ghosts, he intended us to notice the narrative’s irresolvable ambiguity. As Felman observes, James, the author who will not tell us what his book means, is himself the absent Master.

The founding premise of Marx-Nietzsche-Freud, the proposition from which all else in their various thought follows, is the absence of God. We are in consequence responsible for our own societies, economies, values, psyches, and interpretations. This lack of a Master is the same stipulation that incites the governess’s dilemma, and then again the dilemma of her readers: the problem of an opaque but intolerable psychic and social economy that seems to cry out for an emancipatory interpretation nowhere available, that seems to invite us to feats of what may be heroism, but then again may also be acts as evil as that which we tell ourselves we war against.

The final turn of the screw: we’re free. Isn’t it terrifying?



  1. I think it’s obvious that the governess is sexually repressed, but your argument for The Turn of the Screw as a cross-gendered anticipation to Lolita is interesting.
    Have you seen the adaptation The Innocents by the way?

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