Anne Bronte's first novel, Agnes Grey, a first-person narration in twenty-five chapters by a clergyman's daughter, a governess, which is mainly concerned with the moral deficiencies of her difficult charges, may have provided a model for The Turn of the Screw (twenty-four chapters, not including the prologue). Agnes certainly has the quality James congratulated himself on having given his governess: 'She has "authority," which is a good deal to have given her' (New York Preface). Comparing it with similar quasi-Victorian short novels of recent vintage, such as William Trevor's 'Reading Turgenev' (in Two Lives) and Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac, I discover that though Bronte's is a duller story it has a quality of sobriety, truth, taste, poise, measure, or again in a word authority, that eludes the modern writer. It was no doubt in recognition of this quality that George Moore called it 'the most perfect prose narrative in English literature'. In his American lecture on Balzac, 1905, James refers to Anne Bronte along with her sisters: 'their dreary, their tragic history, their loneliness and poverty of life... The personal position of the three sisters, of the two in particular, had been marked, in short, with so sharp an accent that this accent has become for us the very tone of their united production. It covers and supplants their matter, their spirit, their style, their talent, their taste; it embodies, really, the most complete intellectual muddle' (Literary Criticism: French Writers, 118-19). He spoke dismissively in 1875 of the 'crude and morbid story of "Wuthering Heights"' -- apparently quite impercipient of Emily Bronte's skill in handling narrative viewpoints (Literary Criticism: English Writers, 1230). In 'The Turn of the Screw' he may be aiming especially at the muddled public who sentimentalized the Brontes and admired their crude fictions, for most readers of the story will take it initially as a Bronte-style romance, like Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, and the imperious governess plays on the reader's sympathies much as Jane Eyre does.
When teaching 'The Turn of the Screw' one tries to have students respond to it as a story about heroines and ghosts. Then they are supposed to be surprised and enlightened by the discovery that the heroine is of unsound mind. Finally, the great illumination: James has composed a deliberately ambiguous text! But in reality James has done something subtler. The first turn in his dialectic makes it impossible to return to the straight tale of heroic confrontation with Evil. The second turn does not reinstate that tale, so that one would have a mere alternative between opposed readings, as in some sort of optical trick. Rather, we detect ourselves doing to the governess what we had earlier detected her doing to the children, trying to establish an authoritative position of control over her discourse. Then we are dislodged from our position of objective judgment outside the text and realize that we are caught up with the governess in the madness of interpretation. When the reader awakens to the paranoid texture of the Governess's discourse, the effect is almost like that of seeing a ghost. But Shoshana Felman argues that this is a further trap for the reader, who becomes in turn just as supposititious as the Governess and just as prone to impose a vulgar literal meaning on the text:
The literal is 'vulgar' because it stops the movement constitutive of meaning, because it blocks and interrupts the endless process of metaphorical substitution. The vulgar, therefore, is anything which misses, or falls short of, the dimension of the symbolic, anything which rules out, or excludes, meaning as a loss and as a flight -- anything which strives, in other words, to eliminate from language its inherent silence, anything which misses the specific way in which a text actively 'won't tell'. The vulgarity that James then seeks above all to avoid is that of a language whose discourse is outspoken and forthright and whose reserves of silence have been cut, that of a text inherently incapable of silence, inherently unable to hold its tongue. (Felman, 107)
The serene diagnosis that the Governess is insane, especially as formulated by Edmund Wilson, does violence to the text, eliminating its play of doubt and undecideability, and is shown up by the text itself as a vulgar and reductive gesture. 'In her constant efforts at deciphering the goings-on at Bly, the governess's whole adventure turns out to be, essentially, a reading-adventure, a quest for the definitive, literal or proper meaning of words and of events... prompted by a perception of ambiguities... The act of reading and interpreting those ambiguities, however, reveals itself paradoxically to be an act of reducing and eliminating them' (153-4). Quite: it is when she protests too much about 'absolute certainty' (ch. 6) -- 'That can have but one meaning' (ch. 2); 'There was but one sane inference' (ch. 4) -- that the Governess shows up as unreliable. But our urge to be certain about the Governess and to put her in her place repeats the same reduction and impoverishes James's text.
The Freudian reading 'is no doubt correct, but it misses nonetheless the most important thing: it is blind to the very textuality of the text. The question of a reading's "truth" must be at least complicated and re-thought through another question which Freud, indeed, has raised, and taught us to articulate: what does such "truth" (or any "truth") leave out? What is it made to miss?' (117). Felman wants to maintain that the Freudian reading, though true, is 'no truer than the opposed positions which contradict it. And it is "false," indeed, to the extent that it excludes them' (117), just as we might say that the Maggiephobes' reading of The Golden Bowl is true but no truer that that of the Maggiephiles. I am not entirely happy with this generous embrace of ambiguity. After all, both readings of The Golden Bowl can logically coexist in the space for evaluation provided by complex human behaviour in a complex situation in which values are clashing, but a mad Governess who projects delusions on the children in an intrusive and abusive manner cannot coexist with a heroic Governess who is saving the corrupted children from real ghosts. At one point the Governess declares that the children are mad, which rather forces the reader to decide between their sanity and hers. Of course, as we saw above in the case of Roderick Hudson, two contradictory stories can co-exist. But even in that case, one will emerge as the stronger. The interpretation of the Governess as heroic saviour is surpassed when we are clued in to the pathological character of her discourse, and there is no going back on this insight, just as insight into the gay subtext of Roderick Hudson rules out return to a straight reading of the Rowland-Mary romance. The Turn of the Screw 'constitutes a reading of its two possible readings, both of which, in the course of that reading, it deconstructs' (190). 'The "main interest" of the story is thus the "thickness" it acquires through its own reading' (125). But to readmit the 'heroic saviour' account of the Governess as a valid reading would be to regress from a thick reading to a previous thinner one. The deconstruction of the second reading should bring us to a higher level of insight, be it even insight into the blindness of insight, rather than merely leave us with an unsatisfying deadlock.
'If, by virtue of the storyteller's transference on the reader, the reader thus becomes the storyteller's ghost (the addressee of his unconscious), the reader, in his turn, transfers on the storyteller or the "author", to the extent that he invests the later with the authority and prestige of the "subject presumed to know"' (134). The text undermines its own authority and therefore unsettles the reader who has installed himself comfortably in a clear judgment on 'what is really going on'. It invites one set of transferences by identification with the heroic narrator, then another set of transferences by identification with the supposed infallible author exposing his 'supposititious young friend' to our ironic gaze. But the Master, like a good psychoanalyst, eludes these transferences and leaves his tale and his narrator's voice to their own resources (a disappearing act mirrored in the tale's dead narrators and absent, incommunicado masters). '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. was indeed ceaselessly affirmed by Freud' (200). 'James's very mastery consists in the denial and in the deconstruction of his own mastery' (205).
But has Felman herself eluded James's trap? Louis Suarez-Potts suggests that 'rather than seeking the truth of the Governess's truth, we might rather tear at the fabric of interpretation itself that the story presents. And I'm not sure that trotting out the awesome authority of Freud (via Felman) is really that useful anymore, except as a strategy for further addressing the quite historical problematic of modernist interpretation and desire'. Indeed, James's story is a product of a period in which the detective story blossomed (Conan Doyle). T. S. Eliot and Joyce tease their readers with riddles that appeal to the same appetite as detective fiction plays on. Of course Freud himself has much in common with Sherlock Holmes. Today this modernist mythology of solutions to riddles, and the associated desire, have less purchase on our imagination. The idea of the Master, 'the subject supposed to know', is dethroned in Lacan and more so in Derrida and postmodernism. Felman presents a postmodernist James in this sense. Or is this relinquishing of mastery itself a modernist posture, since it's already flourishing in James, Freud, Joyce? James criticism seems to dwell within James's own mind to a great extent, without much of an effort to historicize him. Of course he is historicized to the degree that critics like Adeline Tintner, Wendy Graham, Ross Posnock, Clair Hughes supply the cultural contexts of his novels, but the steeper, sharper establishment of critical historical perspective such as we find in Marxist or postcolonial readings of Joyce seems to be absent.
Casey Abell objects: 'I do not believe that the traditional, heroic-governess interpretation is by any means excluded by subsequent rereadings of the story. Her point-by-point identification of Quint remains an immovable object. You can tiptoe around it..., but it's still there and it's still tough to dodge'. Clair Hughes has this to say: 'We see the governess "seeing," and we see her perceptions and prejudices about social class, sexual mores, professional and maternal rivalry over the children colour her judgment and her descriptions. The whole business of description, the legacy of the realist tradition as represented by George Eliot and Balzac, is thus thrown into doubt by the unresolved status of the governess's visions' (Hughes, 176). You can hardly launch a good ghost story without some such scene of stunning verification, and James's handling of this necessity is masterful. The Governess's recitation is thoroughly histrionic, it is a show of 'authority', the authority not only of realist rhetoric (the sort Balzac whacks us with every so often) but of mediumistic declarations of the type: 'Uncle Wally wants you to know that your lost scissors will be found under the sofa' (James was versed in the literature of spiritualism). She works on the credulous Mrs Grose skilfully: 'seeing in her face that she already, in this, with a deeper dismay, found a touch of picture, I quickly added stroke to stroke' (ch. 5). Note her active compositional role and her keen awareness of the forensic value of the evidence she presents. 'He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair. His eyebrows are somehow darker; they look particularly arched and as if they might move a good deal'. As she actively 'helps' Mrs Grose to 'meet' her she falls into a parody of literary descriptive style, and reveals herself to the reader as a skilful story-teller, so that we begin to look at the text she addresses to us with an eye for its compositional ploys.
If the story were about a woman who thinks she is seeing a ghost but is in reality merely hallucinating or who may be merely halllucinating, it would have little literary interest. What is thrilling is the emergence within the Governess's discourse of a rich complex of neurotic interpretation, and the hermeneutic perplexities in which it involves the reader. James not only chose to give the ghosts the reality of powerful hallucinations, but also to leave open the possibility that they have a certain preternatural reality as well. As so often, he has his cake and eats it too. They are 'goblins, elves, imps, demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft' (Preface). Note that the reference to trials for witchcraft at the same time suggests that the ghosts have but a flickering and hypothetical reality. In the Preface James hints only very delicately at the ironic presentation of 'my young woman engaged in her labyrinth'. He speaks of 'our young woman's keeping crystalline her record of so many intense anomalies and obscurities -- by which I don't of course mean her explanation of them, a different matter'. That 'of course' indicates that James expects the reader to see that the Governess is an unreliable narrator -- unreliable in her explanations, 'her anxieties and inductions'. The clearest indication of the ironic intent is perhaps in the phrase 'to knead the subject of my young friend's, the supposititious narrator's, mystification thick'. We are held back from rushing too hastily or too certainly through the door of the Freudian reading. It hovers as a virtuality, as a very persuasive interpretation that lures us as the ghosts lure the children into dangerous places. Jamesian fictions, as we have already seen in the case of the gay subtexts, project such spectral perspectives before the reader, never to be banished, but never to be conclusively pinned down either. The multiplication of such effects in The Wings of the Dove and especially in The Golden Bowl ensures that these works can 'tease us out of thought' indefinitely.
Reviews of The Two Magics
The Turn of the Screw first appeared in serial form in Collier's Weekly between January and April of 1898. Then, in October of 1898, it was published in both Great Britain and the United States, together with the undistinguished story "Covering End," in a volume entitled The Two Magics. Accordingly, the first critical reactions to The Turn of the Screw were reviews of The Two Magics.
The first point to be made about these initial reactions is that they were, with very few exceptions, favorable. Thus, the critical consensus that The Turn of the Screw is a great work of literary artistry--a consensus that has persisted throughout endless debates concerning questions of interpretation--was present from the very beginning of the long critical discussion.
On October 15, 1898, The New York Times SaturdayReview of Books and Art (111, 681-82) began the discussion by terming the novella "a deliberate, powerful, and horribly successful study of the magic of evil, of the subtle influence over human hearts and minds of the sin with which this world is accursed" and by declaring the work worthy of being compared to Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Terming the story "the strongest and most affecting argument against sin we have lately encountered in literature," this anonymous reviewer confessed himself unable adequately to "express the awful, almost overpowering sense of the evil that human nature is subject to derive from it [the story] by the sensitive reader." He judged the story "one of the most moving and...most remarkable works of fiction published in many years." On the same day a favorable review appeared in Literature. This reviewer called the work "so astonishing a piece of art that it cannot be described" and one which "exhibits his [James's] subtlest powers" (351).
Other favorable reviews soon followed. The New York Tribune on October 23, 1898, (supp., p. 14) claimed that the story "crystallizes an original and fascinating idea in absolutely appropriate form." On the following day the Detroit Free Press termed the work a "horribly successful study" of depravity, equal in stature to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Springfield (Mass.) Republican praised the story (October 30, 1898, 8), as did the Overland Monthly (32, November, 1898, 493), the latter publication lauding the author as "unique among storytellers" for his knack of "riveting...the reader's attention on every sentence." Laudatory reviews also appeared in the St. Paul Daily Pioneer Press (November 6, 1898, 26), Life (32, November 10, 1898, 368), the Portland Morning Oregonian (November 13, 1898, p. 22), the Critic (XXXIII, December, 1898, 524), and Ainslee's Magazine (11, December, 1898, 518). The American Monthly Review of Reviews (XVIII, December, 1898, 732-733) termed the story
the finest work ... [James] has ever done--for the foul breath of the bottomless pit itself, which strikes the reader full in the face as he follows the plot, puts to shame by its penetrating force and quiet ghastliness the commonplace, unreal `horrors' of the ordinary ghost-story; it does indeed give an extra `turn of the screw' beyond anything of the sort that fiction has yet provided.
Book Buyer (XV11, December, 1898, 437) termed the story "one of the most appalling ghost stories ever told." The Nation (67, December 8, 1898, 432) also reviewed the novella favorably.
Laudatory reviews continued to appear in 1899. Favorable articles were published in Book Notes (2, January, 48-49), Dixie (1, January, 59-60), and Chautauguan (28, March, 630). The latter publication's praise was effusive:
The intangible is here painted with a skill little short of the supernatural, and in dealing with these subtleties of the mind the author has produced a tale whose suggestiveness makes the blood bund through the veins with unusual rapidity.
There were, of course, a few unfavorable reviews of the novella and scattered unfavorable statements within generally favorable reviews. Some of the unfavorable comments can easily be attributed to a dated Victorian puritanism upon perceiving suggested sexual material in the plot of the novella. Such often obscured moralization, for example, explains "Mr. Chesterton's doubt as to whether the thing ought ever to have been published" (Goddard 7). It is sometimes difficult-- perhaps because turn of the century critics often wrote with less precision than we have since come to expect--to be sure whether the reviewer is devaluing the story as a work of art by objecting to the author's inclusion of unsuitable material or only pointing out that certain happenings within the plot structure would be deplorable if they occurred in real life. For example, a review in The Outlook (LX, October 29, 1898) declared, "The story itself is distinctly repulsive." The same review, however, characterized the tale as "a ghost story, psychologically conceived, and illustrating a profound moral law." Contrasting the tale with "the ordinary clumsy, materialistic ghost story," this critic stated, "It is hardly necessary to say that Mr. James's tale has nothing in common with the ordinary ghost story; it is altogether on a higher plane both of conception and art." Even more interestingly, a review in The Bookman (XV, November, 1898, 54) appears clearly to devalue the story--"We have never read a more sickening, a more gratuitously melancholy tale"--by carelessly assuming an identity between the author's point of view and that of the governess and thereby imputing to the author and his story those defects of character--for example, a tendency to see evil everywhere and easily believe the worst about others--which so many later critics have noted in the governess. These reviewers obviously came close to a positive evaluation of the story. "It has all Mr. James's cleverness, even his grace," they say.
The plotting of the good governess and the faithful Mrs. Grose to combat the evil, very gradually discovered, are marvelously real. You cannot help but assist at their interviews and throb with their anxiety.
Their conclusion, however, is that "the clever result is very cruel and untrue," and for that they upbraid the author for
the deep mistake of writing the story at all... A theory has run away with him. It is flimsily built on a few dark facts, so scattered and uncertain that they cannot support a theory at all.
The Independent (LI, January 5, 1899, 73) called the work "the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern. "Terming "unaccountable" the author's decision to "make such a study of infernal human debauchery," these reviewers seem to perceive some sort of technical artistic mastery the effect of which is vitiated by the story's reprehensible moral stature. "The study, while it exhibits Mr. James's genius in a powerful light, affects the reader with a disgust that is not to be expressed." The authors do not discuss the theme of the story, but rather seem content to point in horror at the subject matter:
The feeling after perusal of the horrible story is that one has been assisting in an outrage upon the holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence, and helping to debauch--at least by helplessly standing by--the pure and trusting nature of children.
They conclude, "Human imagination can go no further into infamy, literary art could not be used with more refined subtlety of spiritual defilement."
The second major point to be made about these early reviews is that the criticism is predominantly subjective and impressionistic--the reviewers tend mainly to record the effects of the work on themselves and to assume that other readers should and/or would be similarly affected. A brief skimming of the above-cited reviews should make this pattern clear. The New York Times review is predominantly a listing of emotional experiences in store for "the sensitive reader." The Outlook described the novella as "distinctly repulsive." The Bookman called the work "sickening" and "gratuitously melancholy." The Overland Monthly praised James for "riveting the reader's attention on every sentence." The American Monthly Review of Reviews referred to the experience of evil "which strikes the reader full in the face." The Independent claimed the tale "affects the reader with a disgust that is not to be expressed" and then proceeded to comment on said reader's "feeling after perusal of the horrible story." Chautauguan assured its readers that James's story "makes the blood bound through the veins with unusual rapidity."
Reviews, of course, are not scholarly monographs. Even today reviews tend to be much less analytical and more impressionistic than scholarly discussions of a literary work which has been available for a longer period of time. Nevertheless, there are some rather striking omissions: The Outlook, for example, assures us that The Turn of the Screw "has nothing in common with the ordinary ghost story" but does not tell us in what way it differs from such a story--we are told only that this story is "altogether on a higher plane both of conception and art"; the same review terms the tale "a ghost story, psychologically conceived, and illustrating a profound moral law" but offers no hint as to what the reviewers mean by "psychologically conceived" and what "profound moral law" they find in the story. The review in The Independent is unrelieved invective which sheds no additional light on the meaning, structure, or value of the literary work. The review in The American Monthly Review of Reviews is almost wholly evaluative --we are not told what specific techniques James has employed to make this story "horribly absorbing" and full of "penetrating force" and "capable of producing such a living, vivid, indelible impression upon the mind"--instead, the reviewers bombard us with generalities: "...there is a completeness, a finish, a sense of easy mastery and boundless reserve force about this story which are entirely fascinating." The review in Literature contains unexplained statements--e.g., "We cannot enter into the morbid psychology of such a work as this" and "It is fiction, but it is not a novel; it is full of apparitions, generally in broad daylight, but it is not a ghost story." We wonder, in particular, why the work is "not a ghost story," since the reviewers obviously adhere to a supernatural interpretation, terming the "subject" of the story "nothing less than the demoniac possession of two young and otherwise delightful children." The Sewanee Review complimented James without offering any explanations for the compliments: "His character analysis...deserves not a little praise, and his manner of dealing with the supernatural is quite unique."
There were, however, some very perceptive comments in these early reviews which anticipated the concerns of later critics.
For example, at least one reviewer immediately perceived the governess as possibly an unreliable narrator. The governess, according to The Critic,
has nothing in the least substantial upon which to base her deep and startling cognitions. She perceives what is beyond all perception, and the reader who begins by questioning whether she is supposed to be sane ends by accepting her conclusions and thrilling over the horrors they involve.
However, this reviewer seems to suggest, not all readers "end by accepting her conclusions":
...if, when the lids of the books are closed, he is not convinced as to the possibility of such horrors, he is at least sure that Mr. James has produced an imaginative masterpiece.
And, of course, as we have seen, the reviewer in The Bookman came close to seeing the governess as unreliable by questioning the corruption of the children--"we must deny the continuity and the extent of the corruption as suggested here"--but then hastily and carelessly imputed the presumed fault not to the fictional narrator, but rather to the author of the story.
A few reviewers appeared to recognize the pervasive ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw, which James boasted of in his correspondence about his story and in the Prefaces to Volumes 12 and 17 of the New York Edition and which has spawned so many different interpretations of the tale.
The review in The New York Times stated,
The work is not horrible in any grotesque or `realistic' sense...it is ...free from the slightest hint of grossness. Of any precise form of evil Mr. James says very little, and on this head he is never explicit.... The most depraved `realist' could surely not be more powerful, though he might, in his explicitness, defeat his supposed purpose.
This reviewer considered James eminently successful in employing ambiguity. "No eloquent outpouring of a Jeremy Collier or other avowed enemy of specified evils could produce a feeling of grater abhorrence for the object attacked."
The review in Literature began, "It is not our fault if we fail to understand Mr. James's new book. He leaves everything unexplained." Presumably the author simply "explains" a story to readers. This reviewer attributed the ambiguity of the story to the nature of its subject matter, "the action and reaction of good and evil in childhood," concluding that "the subject does not admit of any plausible statement." The discussion concluded with the words, "Mr. James, though one of the most interesting of writers, is not also the most lucid." The Overland Monthly, in a similar vein, called the story "as interesting as a Chinese puzzle," and The Critic termed it "so super-subtle as to be almost impalpable." Some reviewers viewed the story as a moral allegory, and thus began a long series of religious and moral readings which still continue. Interestingly, however, some seemed a bit uncomfortable with such an interpretation--anticipating Heilman, the moral interpreter par excellence of The Turn of the Screw, who, nevertheless in 1948, warned us not to "fall into much more blunt statements than we ought make. We say, too forthrightly, that Bly `becomes' a Garden of Eden" (188).
The New York Times review, for example, compared the story to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in that, like Stevenson's work, James's is a "horribly successful study of the magic of evil, of the subtle influence over human hearts and minds of the sin with which this world is accursed." However, the reviewer then added, "This is not akin in any other sense than the one here specified... Mr. James's story is perhaps as allegorical as Stevenson's, but the allegory is not so clear." Later, after insisting that James "is the seer and the moralist, whether designedly so or not," this reviewer says, "The allegory is plain or not, according to the reader's aptitude for discovering allegories. We do not insist upon that."
Literature, as we have previously mentioned, considered the novella to be about "the action and reaction of good and evil in childhood."
The review in The Bookman saw the story as a depiction of "a sink of corruption, never uncovered, but darkly, potently hinted" underlying "purity, beauty, and joy," which "on the surface" are "resplendent." Thus, according to this reviewer, "the situation of Maisie is reversed," for What Maisie Knew was a triumph of beauty in the end. Its theme was that purity and candor and joy could be strong enough in the heart of a young creature to counteract the miasma of the evil amid which she lived.
This reviewer--who, in my opinion imperceptively, attributed the unreliability of the governess's conclusions to the author of the novella and considered the work thereby to be defective--considered the two dead servants to be symbols:
Mr. James has used symbolism to help him out with theme; so, at least, we may speak of the two ghosts--one of a rascally valet, the other of an iniquitous governess--the origins of the evil in their lifetime, who haunt the children after their death--
but thought the symbolism "clumsy," opining, "...only there in the story has Mr. James actually failed."
The American Monthly Review of Reviews, meanwhile, saw the theme of the story as "the mysterious legacy of evil that may continue in force after death."
Notably absent from these early reviews were any perceptive comments about the narrative structure of the story--the frame of story within story as told by three fictional narrators--which later critics as diverse as Alexander E. Jones, Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and Shoshana Felman have found so significant. Instead, almost all reviewers ignored the prologue, while The American Review of Reviews dismissed it as "a needlessly awkward method of starting the story," and The New York Times nonchalantly said, "The introduction to this tale is sufficiently conventional, but one decides, in looking back, that it serves better than another would."
This early criticism is almost entirely impressionistic and subjective. The critics--in marked contrast to so many later literary scholars--assume that it is the task of the author to leave nothing ambiguous or unexplained; these critics are thus unable to articulate some of the most important elements of the work, those connected with its ambiguities.
Reviews of the New York Edition
In 1908 The Turn of the Screw was published in revised and definitive form as part of Volume 12 of the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, along with the famous Preface discussed extensively in the preceding chapter of this book.
The differences between the later version and the one published in The Two Magics and the importance of these differences for the interpretation of the narrative have been greatly exaggerated by some critics--most notably, Edel in The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (434) and in The Psychological Novel: 1900-1950 (45), Cranfill and Clark in An Anatomy of The Turn of the Screw (18), and Kimbrough in his Norton Critical Edition to The Turn of the Screw. In the latter volume Kimbrough succinctly summarizes the differences he and other critics have perceived:
...major revisions appear in the 1908 New York version. Here James seemed intent on shifting the center of attention away from the details of action observed by the governess to the reactions felt by the governess. By removing commas...he came closer to approximating the streams of her consciousness.... By increasing the use of the possessive pronoun `my' and by replacing verbs of perception and thought with those of feeling and intuition...James draws us intimately into the course of her narrative. The effect is more vital and vivid...(91).
This view has, I think, been convincingly refuted by E.A. Sheppard in Appendix 1 of Henry James and The Turn of the Screw. A detailed collation of the two editions, according to Sheppard, fails consistently to support the patterns Edel and the other critics have suggested--indeed, it provides numerous counter examples. Sheppard has convincingly argued, citing quite a few examples, that
James's revisions in The Turn of the Screw not only were stylistic, and merely stylistic, in intention but also, as regards character and incident, effect no change whatever in the impression conveyed to the reader (253).
Sheppard also cites differences between the two texts which can scarcely be considered improvements and, in so doing, calls into question the prevalent assumption that the 1908 revision is superior to the version published in The Two Magics. "But indeed there is no question," says Sheppard, "that many of James's alterations are unnecessary, or inept, or both, and that they may justly be described as the perfectionist's obsessional tinkering with his work" (260).
In any case, the 1908 version should not be considered a new or different literary work. As I pointed out in my discussion of the reviews of The Two Magics, many of the important insights of later critics were present in seminal form in the critical reactions of 1898 and 1899. Also, as we saw in the preceding chapter, James's ambiguous and seemingly contradictory remarks about the story began before the 1908 revision and continued in the Prefaces to Volumes 12 and 17 of the New York Edition.
This is perhaps why, in surveying the reviews of the New York Edition, we find nothing of substance that is new about The Turn of the Screw. Indeed, most of the reviews are perfunctory comments about the New York Edition as a whole or substantial parts of it--several volumes, for example--and contain nothing but platitudes and generalities.
For example, the Nation (August 6, 1908) devoted only one paragraph to Volumes 11 and 12 of the New York Edition, and that paragraph was mainly a perfunctory discussion of the Prefaces. After remarking that "the prefaces are, as usual, devoted to Mr. James's suggestive criticisms of his own writings," the reviewer devoted one sentence to The Turn of the Screw: "`The Turn of the Screw' was written as a `Christmas-tide toy,' based on `the vividest little note for sinister romance' that Mr. James had ever jotted down."
Similarly, in a brief article entitled "Writers of Books: The Literary World of Today," the Boston Evening Transcript (August 26, 1908) devoted three brief paragraphs to four volumes of the New York Edition, including the volume containing The Turn of the Screw. Two of these paragraphs were devoted to The Awkward Age. The third paragraph briefly mentioned The Turn of the Screw in a listing containing six other short works, only to point out that "upon these James [in his prefaces] is no less introspective than he is upon his longer novels." After some discussion of The Aspern Papers, the reviewer summarily concluded, "Surely nothing more weird and strange than these introductions has ever been offered to the reading public."
The Bookman (September, 1908) devoted only one paragraph to the New York Edition and did not mention The Turn of the Screw. This reviewer was general and perfunctory:
The prefaces to these volumes, in which he has, so to speak, turned the sharp edge of his critical faculty against himself, promise to constitute in their entirety one of the most interesting of personal documents.
The San Francisco Chronicle (October 11, 1908) reviewed Volume 12 in two sentences:
The twelfth volume comprises `The Aspern Papers,' a charming study of Italian life; `The Turn of the Screw,' `The Liar,' and `The Two Faces.' Henry James' prefaces furnish good reading, as they throw much light on the conception and development of these tales.
The Chicago Evening Friday Literary Review (August 20, 1909) devoted only one paragraph to the entire New York Edition.
Thus, it is easy to see why James complained in a letter to Edmund Gosse (August 25, 1915) that the New York Edition "never had the least intelligent critical justice done it--or any sort of critical attention at all paid it" (Letters IV 778). Foley summarizes the situation thus:
...when this work met with so little appreciation and so much contempt or neglect, he was sorely disappointed. There was surprisingly little comment about the edition in the magazines. After the excitement occasioned by the announcement of the scheme and the appearance of the first few volumes had subsided, succeeding volumes were either merely announced or ignored (122).
There were a few exceptions, of course. Edward Marsh, for example, in October of 1909, published a five page review entitled "Henry James: Auto-Critic" in Bookman (30, 138-143), concentrating on the prefaces as "a complete, thoroughgoing analysis" of James's creations which, since they came from the artist himself, should be considered "without a parallel in literature." He praised James for "the fullness and richness of his exposition of a whole set of relations commonly ignored by the novelist" (141). This review, however, contained no significant discussion of The Turn of the Screw. Similarly, a five page review in the London Times, which was reprinted in Living Age (262, 691-696) made quite perceptive comments about a number of the novels and tales but did not mention The Turn of the Screw.
I have suggested as a main reason for the paucity of perceptive reviews of the 1908 version the essential identity between the revision and its predecessor--the former having been characterized by Sheppard as "the perfectionist's obsessional tinkering with his work" (260). This hypothesis is confirmed by Foley's conclusion upon surveying the reviews of the New York Edition in American periodicals: "...the prefaces were welcomed and applauded, but the revisions of the individual stories...were resented and ridiculed" (123). It is hardly surprising, also, to find no plethora of detailed and insightful analyses of the two Prefaces in which The Turn of the Screw was discussed, since the ambiguities and subtleties of these Prefaces, which I explored in the preceding chapter, would probably not be immediately apparent to reviewers.
The most important criticism of The Turn of the Screw prior to Edmund Wilson's famous 1934 article, "The Ambiguity of Henry James," is undoubtedly Harold C. Goddard's "A Pre-Freudian Reading of the Turn of the Screw." Although Goddard's essay was not published until 1957, he wrote the essay--according to his daughter, Eleanor Goddard Worthen--"about 1920 or before" and, year after year, read it to students of literature at Swarthmore College, where he was a professor of English. Leon Edel in his "Prefatory Note" to Goddard's article, accepts Ms. Worthen's estimate of the date because Goddard, in the essay, refers to no critic of the story "later than William Lyon Phelps," (Goddard 1) whose first comments appeared in The Yale Review in 1916, although Phelps did offer further remarks in his Howells, James, Bryant, and Other Essays, which was published in 1924 and in his Autobiography with Letters, which was published in 1939. I am not aware of any evidence which would contradict Goddard's daughter's estimate of the date of composition.
Ms. Worthen, after her father's death, forwarded the essay to Edmund Wilson, who, in turn, gave it to Leon Edel. Edel then provided the title for the previously untitled essay and published it in Nineteenth Century Fiction, XII, No. 1 (June, 1957), 1-36--along with a "Prefatory Note" of his own.
In his "Prefatory Note" Edel extends to Goddard "the credit of being the first to expound, if not to publish, a hallucination theory of the story" (Goddard 1). Edel also--probably in order to justify his choice of a title for the essay--contends that Goddard's achievement was effected
without the aid of Sigmund Freud. Goddard's essay is a singularly valuable example of textual study. He relied wholly on what James had written, and he gave the tale that attentive reading which the novelist invited when he called his work `a trap for the unwary' (1).
Here Edel seems to suggest that Goddard's essay is a specimen of the New Criticism. And, indeed, Goddard seems to arrive at and present his interpretation by a thoughtful reading of the story itself. He does not refer to psychoanalytic literature or employ even very common psychoanalytic terminology, such as Oedipus complex, hysteria, conversion, or transference. Instead he, in his own words, attended closely to "the facts of the story" (6) and, in Edel's words,
not only sought to understand the psychology of the governess but examined that heroine from the viewpoint of the children entrusted to her, noting such things as `the governess' account of the wild look in her own eyes, the terror in her face' (Goddard 2).
Indeed, Goddard's methodology seems to be to "read between the lines" of James's story and decipher another story--what the characters probably thought and feared and wished for--given the evidence presented in the text. In so doing, Goddard relies not on technical and abstruse theory, but rather on the sort of "common sense" understanding of human nature which would be available to any sensitive and intelligent reader.
Goddard first of all reminds us of some facts about the background, personality, and situation of the governess before the advent of the apparitions--facts which are related by Douglas in the prologue or by the governess herself in the course of her narrative: for example, "the eccentric nature" (chapter 13) of her father; her troubled family "where things were not going well" (chapter four); her inexperience; her infatuation with her employer; the hopeless nature of this infatuation, given the social and economic realities of Victorian Britain; her tendency to insomnia and mood swings, which she admits in the first chapter of her narrative; the "really great loneliness," as Douglas puts it, of the position which she accepted; her poor judgment, as evidenced by her accepting, because of a hopeless romantic attraction, a position requiring such an unusual and unwise commitment--"that she should never trouble him--but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything..." (Prologue). We have, concluded Goddard, "a girl of no worldly experience and of unstable psychical background" in a situation which is intolerable for her (6-7).
Goddard then attempts to demonstrate how, naturally, "that inveterate playwright and stage manager, the subconscious" (9) of the governess would piece together the incomplete information available about the children and their former guardians to construct an "internal drama" in which she would execute "imagined deeds of extraordinary heroism or self-sacrifice done in behalf of the beloved object," the children's uncle (8).
According to Goddard, the main elements of the "witch's broth" (7) of incomplete information out of which the governess constructs her bizarre interpretation of reality are the following: first, "the master's strange stipulation" that she never contact him again--"something extraordinary, she was convinced, lurked in the background" (7); second, her discovery that "the boy, Miles, is dismissed from school for no assigned or assignable reason" (8); third, Mrs. Grose's "inadvertent hint"(8) in chapter two about some mysterious man who liked "young and pretty" women(9); fourth, Mrs. Grose's oblique remark in the same conversation about the mysterious end of the former governess, Miss Jessel, who "was not taken ill, so far as appeared in this house," but who began a holiday and "went off to die"(7).
The governess's motivation for selecting the particular pattern which she finally chooses to impose on the above incomplete and hitherto formless picture is her need to execute "some act of unexampled courage" for the man she loves but cannot possess. "When a young person," says Goddard,
especially a young woman, falls in love and circumstances forbid the normal growth and confession of the passion, the emotion, dammed up, overflows in a psychical experience, a daydream, or internal drama which the mind creates in lieu of the thwarted realization in the objective world... Her whole being tingles with the craving to perform some act of unexampled courage. To carry out her duties as governess is not enough. They are too humdrum. If only the house would take fire by night, and both children be in peril! Or if one of them would fall into the water! But no such crudely melodramatic opportunities occur. What does occur is something far more indefinite, far more provocative to the imaginative than to the active faculties...--namely, the hints and particles of information we have listed (8-10).
"This material and plan on which the dreaming consciousness of the governess sets to work" (10) begin to take definite form when she sees Quint for the first time. The governess has been wandering around Bly on a June evening daydreaming about the employer and imagining how wonderful it would be for him suddenly to appear and smile in approval of how well she is discharging her duties, when she sees a male figure looking down at her from a distant tower. "Instantly, however, she perceives her mistake. It is not he. In her heart she knows it cannot be. But if her love is too good to be true, her fears, unfortunately, are only too true. And forthwith those fears seize and transform this creation of her imagination" (10). The governess has combined this vision with Mrs. Grose's earlier hints about Peter Quint to fashion "the specter who is to dominate the rest of the tale," a being who, "because he is an object of dread... becomes the raw material of heroism." Consequently, at the time of the second vision of Quint, she experiences, in her words, "the shock of a certitude that it was not for me he had come. He had come for someone else." Goddard sees no reason for this inexplicable certitude that the children are the threatened ones other than "the creative logic of her hallucination," which requires that "she must not merely be brave; she must be brave for someone's sake... She must save the beings whom he has commissioned her to protect" (11).
This "creative logic" combines with the ignorance and superstition of Mrs. Grose, who precipitately concludes that the man and woman the governess has seen are Quint and Jessel because of the housekeeper's belief in ghosts and her dislike of Quint and Jessel. Goddard correctly points out that it is the governess, not Mrs. Grose, who identifies the female apparition as the former governess and that the governess's description of the apparition is not at all detailed--the only specifics are that the woman was pale, beautiful, and dressed in black. He also argues quite persuasively that Mrs. Grose, during her conversation with the governess immediately following the second appearance of Quint, has not paid much attention to the detailed description the governess has offered but instead has hastily identified the specter on the basis of only two facts, since these are the two facts that Mrs. Grose repeats in her "breathless affirmative groan" that the man was hatless and dressed in some other man's clothes. With his usually memorable and quotable prose, Goddard suggests that the "intellectual level" of such reasoning is "the level, as anyone who has ever had the curiosity to attend one knows, of a fifth-rate spiritualistic seance," adding, "As if good ghosts always wore hats and bad ones carried their terrestrial pilfering into eternity!" (15) Goddard suggests that Mrs. Grose is moved to make this hasty identification because of the governess's suggestion that the figure is somehow a menace to the children, of whom the housekeeper is so fond and toward whom she is so possessive: "So do the governess' fears and repressed desires and the housekeeper's memories and anxieties unconsciously collaborate" (14). Then, throughout the remainder of the narrative, the governess continually "seizes the flimsiest pretexts for finding confirmation of her suspicions" (20).
While Goddard has offered an ingenious and convincing explanation of the "identification scene"--the conversation in which Mrs. Grose identifies the male figure as the ghost of Peter Quint--which allows us to believe in the innocence of the children, he has been equally ingenious and thorough in his discussion of the final scene of the story in which Miles dies after "his supreme surrender of the name" of Quint.
Goddard points out that Mrs. Grose in chapter 21 does not guarantee that the children have not met after the second vision of Jessel at the lake and the ensuing emotional confrontation between the governess and Mrs. Grose. When the governess asks if they have met, Mrs. Grose is "quite flushed" and answers,
Ah, Miss, I'm not such a fool as that! If I've been obliged to leave her three or four times, it has been each time with one of the maids, and at present, though she's alone, she's locked in safe. And yet--! (qtd. in Goddard 26).
Secondly, Goddard reminds us that, in the final scene, Miles's first question is, "Is she here?" If the governess's interpretation of events were correct, we should expect Miles to use the masculine pronoun and refer to Quint. He would use the feminine pronoun if the idea of spectral visitation came from his sister, whom the governess has terrified with her insane ravings about Miss Jessel, rather than from his own secret consorting with Quint. Then, when the governess screams, "It's not Miss Jessel!" he would naturally think of the other former guardian, Miss Jessel's paramour, who is also deceased (27).
While Goddard provides a detailed and insightful analysis of the psychological processes of the governess, he does not, as Thomas has justly accused some psychoanalytic critics of doing, "approach `The Turn of the Screw' as if it were a psychiatric case study rather than a work of fiction" (20).
First of all, Goddard combines his analysis of "the creative logic of her hallucination" with an analysis of "the creative logic" James has employed to make the story credible to the reader as he
hypnotizes us into forgetting that it is the governess' version of the story to which we are listening, and lures us, as the governess unconsciously lured Mrs. Grose, into accepting her coloring of the facts for the facts themselves (19).
The story is perceived as more credible than most stories of the supernatural, according to Goddard, because the reader, even if not consciously, perceives the real plot, which is believable: "Two children, under circumstances where there is no one to realize the situation, are put, for bringing up, in the care of an insane governess" (19). This plot is made credible by the introduction of two characters who, together, would be likely to provide the governess with an opportunity to continue her depredations undetected: namely, the totally indifferent employer and the superstitious, ignorant, and easily intimidated housekeeper. The final element, of course, is the isolated location of Bly.
We are led to forget, suggests Goddard, that no facts--only her bare assertions, accepted, for the most part, by Mrs. Grose--are presented to support her contentions that the ghosts are a threat to the children and that the children see them because she matter of factly relates wild hypotheses as facts and includes them in a narrative containing some true information. The governess offers without differentiation facts and interpretations of facts--for example, when she in chapter ten relates the fact that she sees Miles on the lawn and the assertion that Miles is looking above her at some person on the tower or when in chapter seven she relates in the same breath the fact that she saw Miss Jessel and the assertion that Flora also did. We are offered her interpretations of the children's behavior as if these interpretations were facts when in chapter seventeen Miles's reference to "this queer business of ours" is taken to refer to secret visits with Peter Quint and, in chapter twenty-three, his reference to "the others," the servants at Bly, is interpreted as a reference to the ghosts. Finally, in duping the reader, the governess is aided by that scintilla of truth which her interpretation contains: the fact that Miles and Flora are not "just happy natural children." This fact is made apparent by, among other things, "the fearful language that Flora uses in her delirium, the boy's lie about the letter, the clear evidence at the end that he has something on his mind that he longs to confess" (23).
A careful reading of the story, however, suggests Goddard, indicates that whatever abnormal behavior the children exhibit can most plausibly be attributed not to the influence of Quint and Jessel but rather to that of the governess herself.
Fear is like faith: it ultimately creates what at first it only imagined. The governess, at the beginning, imagines that the actions and words of the children are strange and unnatural. In the end they become strange and unnatural for the good and sufficient reason that the children gradually become conscious of the strangeness and unnaturalness of her own attitude toward them.... Thus do her mania and their fear feed and augment one another... (22).
Goddard is also to be distinguished from those psychoanalytic critics such as Cargill, Cranfill and Clark, and C. Knight Aldrich, M.D., among others, who seem to treat the work as the case history of a real psychiatric patient rather than as a work of art, by his paramount concern with the effect of the work on the reader. All Goddard's analysis of the narrator's psychology is clearly subordinated to this latter primary concern, explaining the story's effect on its readers. First, as we have seen, Goddard's analysis of the psychology of the governess is subordinate to his attempt to explain the terror the story induces which so many other supernatural tales do not--a terror dependent upon "the quality of being entirely credible, even by daylight" (3), for even skeptical readers can recognize the plausibility of the true plot--"two children...in the care of an insane governess" (19), especially when the author creates two other characters--namely, the employer and Mrs. Grose--whose characteristics complement those of the governess so that the reader is not disturbed by "the unlikelihood of this situation's occurring...the fact that in real life someone would recognize the insanity and interfere to save the children" (18).
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Goddard employs his analysis of the psychological processes of the governess to construct an interpretation which can account for the "beauty" of the story and perhaps, in his words, "redeem the narrative from the charge of ugliness and render even its horror subordinate to its beauty" (6). For, if we accept his interpretation, Goddard argues, the story becomes not "a tale of corrupted childhood," but rather "a tale of incorruption childhood" in which the children remain "incarnations of loveliness and charm" who are "withered at last in the flame of the governess' passion. ...And the withering of them in the flame is rendered tragic rather than merely horrible by the heroism that they display." Consequently, the reader of this work sees "justice done to the incredible, the appalling courage of childhood." Furthermore, in Goddard's view, the governess herself can be seen as a tragic figure, a literary demonstration of the truth that "mental aberration may go hand in hand with strength and beauty of character... The governess is deluded, but she rises to the sublime in her delusion" (33-34). Because of this paramount concern with the effect of the story on the reader, Goddard is undogmatic about the existence of the ghosts:
Whether the insane man creates his hallucinations or whether insanity is precisely the power to perceive objective existences of another order, whether higher or lower, than humanity, no open-minded person can possibly pretend to say, however preponderating in the one direction or the other present evidence may seem to him to be (33).
Goddard, therefore, considers the story "susceptible of various readings" (33). This insight, it seems to me, is one of the most important strengths of Goddard's essay, since no reading's claim to be exclusively correct can be reconciled with the enigmatic and seemingly contradictory statements of the story's foremost critic, Henry James himself. Also, Goddard's interpretation can easily be read in conjunction with other outstanding interpretive essays--most notably those by Lydenberg and Firebaugh--which effect a synthesis between the Freudian and non-Freudian readings, claiming that the personal problems of the governess interact synergistically with objectively evil presences to bring about the downfall of the children. A few other early critics seemed to perceive dimly the necessity of such a synthesis--for example, Elton and Woolf; the weakness of these critics, however, is that they offer unsupported assertions not grounded in the detailed analysis of the text which Goddard has provided.
From the foregoing discussion the major strengths of Goddard's outstanding essay should be readily apparent. The major weaknesses of the essay in my opinion are Goddard's failure to explain the psychodynamics of the governess's later apparent sexual attraction to Miles (Some psychoanalytic critics have attempted to explain this) and Miles's dismissal from school.
Some critics--for example, Alexander E. Jones--have cited as a weakness Goddard's "irrelevant" (116) inclusion of his childhood experiences with an insane servant who used to tell him and his sister of her nocturnal visions of ghosts. It is easy, however, to dispute the "irrelevance" of such personal material by considering the literary work's all-pervasive ambiguity together with the author's explanation, in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition, of the artistic function of that ambiguity, an explanation which seems to invite the inclusion of a critic's personal experiences:
There is ...no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to fifty other elements, a matter of appreciation, speculation, imagination--these things moreover quite exactly in the light of the spectator's, the critic's, the reader's experience. Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough...and his own experience, his own imagination...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 (xxi-xxii).
Willen suggests that the story is told by a governess rather than a mother and that her narrative is included in the reports of two other narrators in order to shield "the reader from direct and possibly inhibiting contact with his own childhood fantasies, thus freeing him for an apparently objective analysis of the story." But such an apparent freedom is, in Willen's view, spurious, for he states categorically, "Each objective analysis, however, is conditioned by the reader's childhood experiences and emotional responses to them" (vii).
Goddard's interpretation, moreover, is not mere assertion supported only by a personal anecdote; he offers abundant evidence from the text to support his particular reading of the story. Furthermore, he offers a reasonable explanation for his inclusion of the anecdote:
It may be that this experience subconsciously accounts for my reading of The Turn of the Screw. If its influence is justified, it is worth recounting. If it is unjustified, it should be narrated that the reader may properly discount its effect on my interpretation of the tale (17).
The distinction that Goddard makes between those personal considerations which may have influenced his reading and the evidence in the text which validates his reading and which, he holds, should be convincing to any reader and his emphasis on the latter rather than the former distinguish Goddard's criticism from the later reader-response approach of such critics as Norman Holland. It is interesting by way of contrast to consider Holland's essay on "The Purloined Letter," an exploration of how his concerns with adolescent masturbation coincided with certain elements in the story's structure to produce a particular reading experience in the pubescent Holland. In Holland's essay the critic's personal experience is primary; in Goddard's it is tangential.
A very conservative New Critic might fault Goddard for the inclusion of another kind of "irrelevant" material: James's comments about the story in several letters and in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition. Goddard, however, can hardly be accused of the intentional fallacy, for he seems to cite James as one critic who may be in agreement with him, as a way of emphasizing the plausibility of his interpretation. His disclaimer at the end of his essay indicates that he does not consider such evidence decisive, or even, perhaps, very important:
I may be guilty of twisting perfectly innocent statements to fit a hypothesis. They do appear to fit with curiously little stretching. But I do not press the point. It is not vital. It in no way affects the main argument. For in these matters it is always the work itself and not the author that is the ultimate authority (36).
It could also, of course, be argued that the "elemental human psychology" (10) which Goddard employs would not seem elemental to one who had not done some reading in psychoanalysis. This, however, is a problem with almost all New Criticism. Literary critics do a tremendous amount of reading not only in literature but in psychology, history, philosophy, theology, anthropology, and other disciplines. Some of this knowledge always influences their approach to a particular text. Their desire to look exclusively at the literary work in question can only be partially successful.
The New Criticism has also been indicted--quite recently by Terry Eagleton--for ignoring the larger social, political, and economic realities of the society in which the literary work was produced and the work's political implications for the critic's own historical milieu. It is thus interesting to note that Goddard's analysis includes a basis for the development of a sociological, even a Marxist, reading:
The reaction upon a sensitive and romantic nature of the narrowness of English middle class life in the last century: that, from the social angle, is the theme of the story (34).
Goddard's essay--with its detailed and plausible account of the psychology of the governess, its insightful tracing of James's artistry in "[throwing] the reader off the scent" (14) to produce terror of a special kind, its preeminent awareness of literary values, its ingenious readings of the identification scene in chapter 5 and the final scene in chapter 24 to refute arguments against hallucination theories, and its provision of bases for readings which combine psychoanalytic, theological, and sociological considerations--is one of the most outstanding in the history of Jamesian criticism and certainly the most outstanding critical response to The Turn of the Screw in the period prior to Edmund Wilson's famous essay.
Edna Kenton has an important place in the history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw because she was the first critic to publish a categorical declaration that the ghosts do not exist outside the mind of the governess. Her famous essay "Henry James to the Ruminant Reader: The Turn of the Screw" was published in The Arts, VI (November, 1924), 245-255.In this article, Kenton disputed what she termed "the traditional, we might almost call it lazy version of this tale"--namely, "the children hounded by the prowling ghosts." On the contrary, declared Kenton, "Not the children, but the little governess was hounded by the ghosts" (254). The ghosts, maintained Kenton, "are only exquisite dramatizations of her little personal mystery, figures for the ebb and flow of troubled thought within her mind, acting out her story" (255).
Kenton's claim to be the first to propound a hallucination theory of the story is disputed by Wagenknecht:
Though Edna Kenton is generally given the credit (or blame) for having first suggested that the ghosts in `The Turn of the Screw' are hallucinations, this is not strictly accurate. The idea had been advanced before 1924 by a number of writers, some of them distinguished... (103).
Wagenknecht, however, does not give the names of any of these writers, and my research has failed to uncover any. I suspect that Wagenknecht has not carefully read the writers he may have in mind.
Ezra Pound, for example, in 1920, called the work
a Freudian affair which seems to me to have attracted undue interest, i.e., interest out of proportion to the importance as literature and as part of Henry James's own work, because of this subject matter. The obscenity of `The of the Screw' has given it undue prominence (150).
This is not the same as saying the ghosts are hallucinations.
Similarly, an anonymous reviewer in The Critic (XXXIII, ops., December 1898, 523-524) had stated that the governess "has nothing in the least substantial upon which to base her deep and startling cognitions," but had then added,
She perceives what is beyond all perceptions, and the reader who begins by questioning whether she is supposed to be sane ends by accepting her conclusions and thrilling over the horrors they involve.
This is certainly not an unequivocal statement that the ghosts are hallucinations; it could easily be interpreted to mean that the governess is a clairvoyant who "perceives what is beyond all perception" and that the reader "ends by accepting her conclusions" because his horizons have been broadened.
Likewise, Oliver Elton, in 1907, referred to the reader's "doubt, raised and kept hanging, whether, after all, the two ghosts who can choose to which persons they will appear, are facts, or delusions of the young governess who tells the story." Such a reference can hardly be interpreted as a commitment to a non-apparitions reading; indeed, Elton seems committed to the opposing proposition. He refers to "the courage of the young English lady who, desperate and unaided, vainly shelters the children" and to "the distrust with which others regard her story, and the aversion towards her inspired by the ghosts in the children themselves." He also says that the apparitions
figure as the survival of the poison which they had sown while living in the breasts of the innocents. And when this influence reawakens, the earthly forms of the sowers gather visible shape, at once as symbols and as actual combatants (255-256).
Virginia Woolf in 1918 opined that Quint and Jessel "have neither the substance nor the independent existence of ghosts" but rather should be seen as "an illustration, not in itself specifically alarming, of a state of mind which is profoundly mysterious and terrifying" (63-64). However, she seems to mean here not that the ghosts are hallucinations per se but that they represent some evil that is within all of us in addition to existing externally:
The governess is not so much frightened of them as of the sudden extension of her own field of perception, which in this case widens to reveal to her the presence all about her of an unmentionable evil (63).
Woolf's remarks in a 1921 essay seem incompatible with any interpretation which would locate the ghosts only in the mind of the governess, and even more incompatible with any attempt to account for them by a psychoanalytic interpretation. Woolf says that, when we read the novella, "it is not a man with red hair and a white face whom we fear. We are afraid of something, perhaps, in ourselves." But this "something" seems also to have a real existence outside our minds:
It is unspeakable. We know that the man who stands on the tower staring down at the governess beneath is evil. Some unutterable obscenity has come to the surface. it tries to get in; it tries to get at something .... Is it possible that the little girl, as she turns back from he window, has seen the woman outside? Has she been with Miss Jessel? Has Quint visited the boy? (72).
Furthermore, this "something" seems not to be explainable through psychoanalytic or any other theory: "It is Quint who must be reasoned away, and for all our reasoning returns" (72).
Wagenknecht is also unfair to Kenton when he characterizes her essay as "primarily a long purr of self-satisfaction at having been clever enough to perceive something that nobody else could see" buttressed by "little or no argument" (103). On the contrary, her article is a closely reasoned argument which relies on evidence of two kinds: James's statements about The Turn of the Screw itself and about other literary works and internal evidence gleaned from the story.
Kenton, first of all, cites passages from the Prefaces which, in her opinion, suggest that James intended to deceive the readers of the story. She reminds us, in this connection, of James's characterization of the story in the Preface to the 1908 New York Edition version:
It is a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the `fun' of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small), the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious (qtd. in Kenton 245).
She also recalls his statements about supernatural tales in the Preface to Volume 17 of the New York Edition. James had proceeded, she tells us, "with a scruple for nothing but any lapse of application, on the credulous soul of the candid, or, immeasurably better, on the seasoned spirit of the cunning reader." He later concludes, "Attention of perusal, I thus confess by the way, is what I, at every point, absolutely invoke and take for granted" (qtd. in Kenton 245).
That James intended to "catch" the readers by making them believe in the account of an unreliable narrator is evident, suggests Kenton, from James's discussion in the same Preface of the objections raised
by a reader capable, evidently, for the time, of some attention but not quite capable of enough, who complained that I hadn't sufficiently `characterized' my young woman engaged in her labyrinth; hadn't endowed her with signs and marks, features and humors; hadn't in a word invited her to deal with her own mystery as well as with that of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel (qtd. in Kenton 248).
James's answer to this objection, Kenton reminds us, was to state, "We have surely as much her own nature as we can swallow in watching it reflect her anxieties and inductions" (qtd. in Kenton 248). That James intended "her own nature" to have a distorting effect on her perception of reality is evident, according to Kenton, from the distinction James makes in the same paragraph between "her record of so many intense anomalies and obscurities" and "her explanation of them, a different matter." Finally, James, in Kenton's view, implies that asking the reader to believe the governess is asking quite a bit, perhaps too much:
It constitutes no little of a character, indeed, in such conditions, for a young person, as she says, `privately bred,' that she is able to make her particular credible statement of such strange matters. She had `authority,' which is a good deal to have given her, and I couldn't have achieved so much had I clumsily tried for more (qtd. in Kenton 248).
Furthermore, says Kenton, if the governess had undesirable traits, we would not expect James to make them obvious, considering his remarks on Thackeray and Balzac in his essay "The Lesson of Balzac." In this essay James criticizes Thackeray for insufficient "protection of character" in his treatment of Blanche and Becky in Vanity Fair, in contrast to Balzac's treatment of Valerie Marneffe. In James's "book of golden rules," says Kenton, "no character is worth doing unless it is worth loving, and no lover is worthy of his love if he lacks the instinct to protect the beloved." Accordingly, maintains Kenton,
...if one is making a collection of his agents of evil, they are not to be found among those endowed with the usual stripes and markings. He loves them even more than Balzac loved Valerie, and protects them with far finer dexterity. In The Turn of the Screw1 the protection of character, by all the evidence, reached its apotheosis: not until he came to the writing of The Golden Bowl was James to lean quite so heavily on the strong arm of the novelist's finer technic (251).
Next, Kenton turns her attention to the story itself. She points out that the prologue--"the submerged and disregarded forward to the tale" (251)--presents a narrator who is young, inexperienced, and possessed by a never-to-be-requited infatuation for her employer. She reminds us that this infatuation continues after the governess arrives at Bly and that the first vision of Quint occurs while the governess is walking around the estate daydreaming about the man she loves (252). Kenton also emphasizes a point she suspects many readers may tend to forget--
that it is she [the governess]--always she herself--who sees the lurking shapes and heralds them to her little world. Not to the charming little Flora, but behind Flora and facing the governess, the apparitional Miss Jessel first appeared.
Those critics who see "the children hounded by the prowling ghosts" need to be reminded, contends Kenton, that "no reader has more to go on that the young governess's word for this rather momentous and sidetracking allegation" (254). Kenton also directs our attention to the governess's discussion of her own "moods" or psychological states which seemed to presage the appearance of the ghosts:
There were states of the air, conditions of sound and stillness, unspeakable impressions of the kind of ministering moment, that brought back to me, long enough to catch it, the medium in which, that June evening out of doors, I had my first sight of Quint... I recognized the signs, the portents--I recognized the moment, the spot (qtd. in Kenton 254).
So she made the shades of her recurring fevers dummy figures for the delirious terrifying of others, pathetically trying to harmonize her own disharmonies by creating discords outside herself (254).
Kenton's analysis of the story itself is much less detailed than Goddard's. We are told that the apparitions "are only exquisite dramatizations of her little personal mystery, figures for the ebb and flow of troubled thought within her mind, acting out her story" (255), but we are never told precisely what her "story" is -- i.e., how her unrequited love for the children's uncle and/or her other problems cause her to need the apparitions of Quint and Jessel; and the only insight we are given into her "little personal mystery" is to be reminded of her unwholesome infatuation toward the employer. One of the main strengths of Goddard's essay, on the other hand, is his detailed analysis of why the governess needs the ghosts. Furthermore, Kenton does not provide, as do Goddard and some other critics, detailed answers to the arguments of the apparitionists. She does, however, tie her analysis of the story to James's critical statements in a way Goddard does not. She ties "the protection of character" which James praised in Balzac and incorporated in his own "book of golden rules" for fiction to his avowed intention in the Preface to Volume 17 of the New York Edition to "rouse the dear old sacred terror"--i.e., "the tone of suspected and felt trouble of an inordinate and incalculable sort" without presenting "the offered example, the imputed vice, the cited act, the limited deplorable presentable instance" so as to avoid the artistic failure of presenting to the reader
some grand form of wrong-doing, or better still or wrong-being, imputed, . . .promised and announced as by the hot breath of the Pit which would "then, all lamentably, shrink to the compass of some particular brutality, some particular immorality, some particular infamy portrayed: with the result, alas, of the demonstration's falling sadly short (qtd. in Kenton 255).
James has created an air of unspecified evil, Kenton maintains, by creating a narrator who "could not specify" so that "readers of her tender, moving tale have of necessity had to think the evil for themselves." Consequently, contends Kenton,
the ironic beauty of his subtle device for best expressing the depths of evil is that it was at the same time the calculated trap of traps for the guarding of his heroine. The eager, thrilled, horrified reader, joined with her in her vivid hunt after hidden sins, has failed to think sufficiently of her; and has, all oddly, contrived to protect her quite as romantically as her creator permitted her to protect herself in her charming recital of the happenings at Bly. Her own story, so naively sympathetic, of the ghosts and children, has been her simple bulwark--even the cunning reader has been credulous (255).
The reader, in other words, "protects" the governess by "specifying," from his own experience, the exact nature of the threat posed by Quint and Jessel and, in the process, forgetting that her assertion is the only evidence that Quint and Jessel pose any threat at all.
The extremely perceptive reader, however, Kenton maintains, experiences much more. The story produces its fullest effect
when the reader, persistently baffled, but persistently wondering, comes face to face at last with the little governess, and realizes, with a conscious thrill greater than that of merely automatic nerve shudders before `horror, 'that the children have been destroyed not by malevolent ghosts but by a self-deluded narrator who has also deceived the reader "joined with her in her vivid hunt after hidden sins" (255).
In her analysis of the reader's response to the story, Kenton is, of course, very close to Goddard. Goddard also maintains that the reader is hoodwinked by the superficial plausibility of the account of a seemingly straightforward narrator and that the reader's experience is deepened and enriched if he realizes, upon considering the clues in the story--such as the information about the governess in the prologue--that the children are, in fact, the innocent victims of a well-intentioned but deranged woman. The main difference between these two critics lies in the importance assigned to the author's intention when considering the reader's response to the literary work. Goddard considers the critical task to be the examination of the literary work itself, which, as a New Critic, he considers a self-contained entity. Accordingly, he relies only marginally on statements James made in the Prefaces and in correspondence, stating, at the end of his essay, that James's intention, even if ascertainable, "in no way affects the main argument. For in these matters it is always the work itself and not the author that is the ultimate authority" (36). Kenton, on the other hand, appears to see the literary work as a communication from the author to the reader and to view the critical task as the ascertaining of what it was the author intended to communicate. In other words, she seems to approach The Turn of the Screw as though it were an enigmatic letter or a cryptic diplomatic communication. The critic would then be a decoder, attempting to discover, from his knowledge of the author and the totality of the situation surrounding the composition of the missive, what the author intended to convey. Thus, the reader who "sees through" the spurious account of the governess achieves, by this insight, not only a private artistic experience but an interpersonal experience, a communication with the author. The insightful reader
has worked for it all, and by that fruitful labor has verified James's earliest contention that there was a discoverable way to establish a relation of work shared between the writer and the reader sufficiently curious to follow through (254).
In other words, the hermeneutic enterprise forges a bond between writer and reader--both have labored, and their labors have combined to produce a particular result, the specific reading experience which the author intended to effect.
For this reason Kenton is unapologetic in citing statements from the Prefaces as evidence. Indeed, one of her complaints is that "old reactions to the novels and tales have not undergone re-evaluation; old criticism has not been re-written" (246) following the publication of the New York Edition Prefaces. Kenton cannot be classified as a New Critic. She cannot be classified as a reader-response critic a la Norman Holland because she does not attempt to account for a reading experience unique to one reader because of that reader's individual psychology; she is interested, instead, in the type of reading experience the author intended any sufficiently perceptive reader to obtain.
Because of her emphasis on the reader's apprehension of the author's intention-- i.e., a meeting of two psyches, we might label Kenton a phenomenological critic. For Iser, the characteristic differentiating phenomenological critics from others is the former's concern with "not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text" (Guerin 274). Kenton, like other phenomenological critics, attempts to achieve a "union" with the consciousness of the author by first identifying with the consciousness of a fictional character, the governess. This is precisely the approach of David Halliburton in Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View. Halliburton "discovers the authorial intentionality in a story by identifying with the main character" (Staton 63). Kenton would probably agree with J. Hillis Miller, who maintains,
The comprehension of literature is a process of what Gabriel Marcel calls `intersubjectivity.' ...If literature is a form of consciousness the task of a critic is to identify himself with the subjectivity expressed in the words, to relive that life it anew in his criticism (Guerrin ix).
Kenton must be distinguished, however, from other critics who are interested in apprehending the communication the author intended for the reader. Although Kenton tells us that James's methodology involves enchanting us with the story of an enchanted but seemingly straightforward narrator, she does not provide us with a detailed analysis of how this deception is produced. We thus cannot call her criticism rhetorical because she is not concerned with analyzing rhetoric. And we cannot term her criticism technical or philological as Hall defines these terms--"ascertaining the intention, meaning, and spirit of a work of literature, through its mode of expression" (482). For we find in her essay nothing like the detailed textual analysis which we find in Maynard Mack's "The World of Hamlet" and which is recommended in R. P. Blackmur's "A Critic's Job of Work" Instead, Kenton intuits gestalts from the text and relays them to the reader. Thus, she unapologetically refers to her first experience with the story:
...I read it first `at night,' in a `country house' -- and in a long ago `first edition' -- into and long past the midnight hours. The conditions were ideal, and all the admiring and admirable reactions to this `finest ghost story in the world' were mine; of all the thrills and spiral shudders born of the creeping ghosts and `haunted children' I had the full effect, but it was an effect differing in some inconsequential ways from many of the admiring and admirable reactions to his tale; even enhanced a little, I must now believe, by another kind of wondering that developed steadily along side the prime inevitable wondering over `story' and `plot.' There was the wondering over the portentous Evil that, from the first page to the last, floated through the great room of the story; but there was wondering also over the beauty no less portentous in the working of the evil spell. There were the `ghosts'; but there was also the way they came. There were the lovely `corrupted' children; but there was the exquisite little governess too, guarding her charges so explainingly--even she seemed a little infected by the sinister air she breathed in and out so pantingly. ...Strange indeed, today, how this wondering over matters that few fictions generate blurred any serene certainty, at the end, of what the story was about; and so, in this particular instance, enhanced the first effect of The Turn of the Screw. Because here was a little oasis in the wordy desert of fiction; a spot inviting one to linger on a while and search about in all leisure for some possible buried treasure; a find, in short, worth any waste of curiosity in the hunt for the `fun' that might come out of it (248).
Kenton accepted the invitation. She lingered to "search about in all leisure for some possible buried treasure" in her experience of this literary work, and the treasure she found is still studied by those who seek to understand what they can of The Turn of the Screw.
Other Critical Reactions
Although the history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw during this period is dominated by Goddard and Kenton, it is nonetheless important to recall that a number of distinguished writers published statements about the novella prior to Edmund Wilson's famous essay--most notably, Walter de la Mare in 1915, Rebecca West in 1916, Ezra Pound in 1918 and 1920, Virginia Woolf in 1918 and 1923, and Edith Wharton in 1924. We find, throughout the period, distinguished writers and critics on both sides of the apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy, although the preponderance of opinion seems to be apparitionist.
Walter de la Mare took an apparitionist stand, seeing in the story's "blind groping of love amid the debauched innocence of childhood" a powerful revelation of "a subliminal world that centuries of psychical research can only supplement" (177). Rebecca West was also an unequivocal apparitionist, viewing the events at Bly as they "are seen by the clear eyes of the honorable and fearless lady who tells the tale" (97). Similarly, Carl Van Doren read the story straightforwardly as a tale of "two children so corrupted by wicked servants that words will not utter the evil in them" (211). And Edith Wharton--one of James's most intimate friends-- also stands with the apparitionists, referring without irony to "the poor little governess" and "the two figures of evil with whom she is fighting for the souls of her charges" (40).
Ezra Pound, on the other hand, appeared to read the story non-apparitionally. In 1920 Pound dismissed the story as "a Freudian affair which seems to me to have attracted undue interest" (150). His designation of the story as "Freudian" does not, in itself, however, place him definitely in the non-apparitionist camp; for some critics a story is "Freudian" if it arouses certain responses in the reader. However, two years earlier, Pound had categorized The Turn of the Screw, along with The Tragic Muse, as the artistic product of a "hater of tyranny" and as a literary protest "against all the sordid petty personal crushing oppression, the domination of modern life." He considered the subject of the story to be "`influence,' the impinging of family pressure, the impinging of one personality on another; all of them in highest degree damn'd, loathsome, and detestable" (28). Pound could, of course, be referring to the influence on the children exerted by Quint and Jessel, but that would appear to be a rather forced interpretation of his remarks. When a critic uses terms such as "pretty personal crushing opposition," "domination of modern life," and "impinging of family pressure," to describe a writer's preoccupations, we do not ordinarily think the writer is calling for more exorcisms. These descriptions would, on the other hand, fit in quite easily with an interpretation of the story in which the governess would be driven to oppress the children because of her own unconscious conflicts, conflicts which could be traced--as some critics (for example, Spilka), have suggested--to the social and economic inequities of Victorian Britain.
Another interesting non-apparitionist statement was proffered by F. L. Pattee in 1923. Speculating about the author's creative process, Pattee suggested that the story "is the triumph of science over romance." James began, suggests Pattee, to write a ghost story
strongly on the side of the emotional and the romantic... yet so fundamental was his scientific habit, his recording only that which had come within the range of his material experience, that the story may be read not as a ghost story at all, but as the record of a clinic: the study of the growth of a suggested infernal cliche in the brain of the nurse who alone sees the ghosts, of her final dementia which is pressed to a focus that overwhelms in her mind every other idea, and makes of the children her innocent victims.
This, suggests Pattee, was the way James had to metamorphose Bishop Benson's anecdote because of the type of man and artist James was. "Never did he work from his emotions: always he viewed life objectively, coldly, accurately, recording only what he saw within the area he thought worthy of study" (180).
We listed as one of the major strengths of Goddard's essay the fact that his interpretation leaves room for syntheses of apparitionist and non-apparitionist approaches--for example, the 1957 essays by Lydenberg and Firebaugh, both of which suggest that the psychological problems and mediumistic powers of the governess facilitate--and perhaps even make possible --the destruction of the children through the agency of objectively existing demonic forces. It is, therefore, interesting to note that several other early critics either attempted some synthesis of the apparitionist and non-apparitionist approaches or offered some other explanation of the ghosts--rejecting both the view that they are objectively existing demonic entities and the contention that they are hallucinations of the governess.
For example, Oliver Elton, in 1907, declared that the question as to whether the apparitions are "facts or delusions of the young governess who tells the story" is "kept hanging" (206). He suggested, however, that the question need not be resolved because the ghosts fulfill a literary function which is distinct from the seemingly mutually exclusive functions assigned them by apparitionist and non-apparitionist critics.
The ghosts play their part in the bodily sphere as terrifying dramatis personae--neither substance nor shadow; they are there, as Gorgon faces at the window; while, spiritually, they figure as the survival of the poison which they had sown while living in the breasts of the innocents. And when this influence reawakens, the earthy forms of the sowers gather visible shape, at once as symbols and as actual combatants (255-56).
Arthur Waley took a somewhat similar position in a 1918 article. Waley declared that the work is not a ghost story but a literary statement about childhood. "It deals with the fact that children have an interior life, carefully hidden from their elders." Waley considered James's statements about the ambiguity of the story to be "quite untrue"; he considered the wickedness of the servants and the corruption of the children-- their bad language, for example--to be unquestionably sexual. Quint and Jessel function as literary devices, according to Waley, "materializations" of "this contamination" in order to convey the story's theme--"beneath this mask of `absolutely unnatural goodness,' of `more than earthly beauty,' the old contamination lurks." (4-5).
Virginia Woolf, in 1918, effected a synthesis of the apparitionist and non-apparitionist approaches which is different, in a subtle way, from the approaches of Firebaugh and Lydenberg. She does not argue that the psychological problems and mediumistic powers of the governess facilitate the materialization of extrinsically existing demonic entities, but rather that the evil which the governess perceives is so deep and so pervasive that it eludes any compartmentalization as exterior or interior, being both at once. Quint and Jessel, she contends,
have neither the substance nor the independent existence of ghosts. The odious creatures are much closer to us than ghosts have ever been. The governess is not so much frightened of them as of the sudden extension of her own field of perception, which in this case widens to reveal to her the presence all about her of an unmentionable evil. The appearance of the figures is an illustrations, not in itself specially alarming, of a state of mind which is profoundly mysterious and terrifying... The horror of the story comes from the force with which it makes us realize the power that our minds possess for such excursions into the darkness; when certain lights sink or certain barriers are lowered, the ghosts of the mind, untraced desires, indistinct intimations, are seen to be a large company (63-64).
In 1921 she reiterated these points, declaring that James's ghosts "have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange" (71). Woolf made it clear in this article that she did not consider the ghosts to be hallucinations but instead to be adumbrations of a depth of evil which is terrifyingly real.
We know that the man who stands on the tower staring down at the governess beneath is evil. Some unutterable obscenity has come to the surface. It tries to get in; it tries to get at something. The exquisite little beings who lie innocently asleep must at all costs be protected. But the horror grows (72).
She also suggests, in this article, that no explanation--and thus, I suppose, no psychoanalytic theory--can fully elucidate the realities at Bly. "It is Quint who must be reasoned away, and for all our reasoning returns. After all critical speculation, something remains unaccounted for" (72).
A great merit of Woolf's approach is her location of the source of the story's appeal in a certain introspective turn which human consciousness has taken in the twentieth century. Its appeal, she suggested in 1921, is distinctly modern. Mrs. Radcliffe is quaint, according to Woolf, because "we have become fundamentally skeptical" of supernatural horror which assails us from outside ourselves. "Moreover, we are impervious to fear" (67). Increased introspectiveness, in Woolf's view, has gone hand in hand with psychical research in a period "which seeks the supernatural in the soul of man." Consequently, a ghost story like The Turn of the Screw