The Turn of the Screw occupies a unique place in Henry James’ fiction. It is neither novel nor short story, neither ghost story nor realistic narrative, narrated by a woman neither servant nor family member, featuring (somehow) beings neither living nor dead. Few, if any other of James’ fictions, demand the degree of interpretive work on the part of the reader as does this novella. Willen correctly notes that “certain works of literature like certain inventions, give rise to flourishing industries” (v). And James’ The Turn of the Screw has in a sense been industrialized as the volume of the critical material devoted to the work is incredibly vast. As a matter of fact, no other work of James’ has produced such an impassioned critical controversy, with readers and scholars arguing for a hundred years about the correct way to read it.
Yet, this text like all texts, does tell a story: an anonymous narrator recalls a Christmas Eve, when he listened to a guest named Douglas recounting a ghost story which was written by a former governess. As Douglas begins to read from the written manuscript the story shifts to the governess’s point of view. She is hired to take care of two children whose parents are dead. The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country house in Essex. The Governess’s new employer gives her full charge of the children and she travels to the intended place. Miles soon returns for the summer just after a letter arrives from the headmaster stating that he has been expelled. Although the governess is hesitant to bring up the issue in order to discuss it with him, she is too carried away by the adorable boy to do it. Shortly thereafter, the governess begins to see the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognize. These figures come and go without ever being seen or challenged by other members of the household. After hearing the governess’s description of the two figures, the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, reveals that they resemble the former vale, Peter Quint, and the previous governess, Miss Jessel, who had both died a year before. Jessel was from a good family, but she had been somehow corrupted by Quint, a drunken villain. Her misadventure forced her into committing suicide.
As the summer wears into autumn, the children continue to be models of exemplary behavior. The governess is, though, increasingly, distraught. More appearances of Jessel and Quint have convinced her that they are pursuing some sort of unholy communion with Miles and Flora. The governess grows obsessively protective, and presses the children more and more to admit their complicity. Later, following the strange sequence of events, Flora is missed. When she is found by the lake, the governess sees the apparition of Miss Jessel and immediately points it out to others and forces Flora to accept that she was talking to her. Flora denounces her, and resentful of her obsessive control turns out to be sick and is sent to her uncle. With Flora and Mrs Grose gone, Miles and the governess are left alone. Miles, under pressure, admits that he had been dismissed from school for saying things and that he had stolen the letter intended for his uncle. When she once again sees Peter Quint at the window, the governess tries to shield Miles from the sight. “It was like fighting with a demon for a human soul” she states (James 125). An instant later he cries out, “Peter Quint, you devil!” and falls into her arms, dead (126).
What, exactly, has happened? What took place in the past between Quint and Jessel? Were the children involved? If so, were they the innocents they first seem to the governess? Worse, were they sexually abused by Quint and Jessel, and are they now somehow re-enacting those activities? Is the governess protecting them from real evil, or is she subjecting them to her own obsessive agendas? Is she sexually repressed and transferred her fantasies into Miles? And finally, the central question which arises from all these: Are the ghosts real or just the figments of her imagination?
Henry James is a shrewd observer who analyses the twists and turns of the relations based on the characters’ reactions. At first his prose was fresh and clear, later it became weighted and complex in its allusiveness and imagery. His influence has been pervasive; Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene are among the many novelists who derived techniques or aesthetic ideas from the fount of Henry James (Edel 5-7). He was one of the rare writers who perceives and follows the psychological truth that “a novel creates the greatest illusion of truth when it grows out of the personage’s observation and perceptions.” It is why, in James, we find “an insistence upon the fundamental truths of human behavior” (16).
It was between 1895 and 1900 that he established his series of stories concerned with his theme of innocence in a corrupting world. The most celebrated in this group is Turn of the Screw (29). During his life The Turn of the Screw was published in five authentized forms: as a serial in Collier’s Weekly early in 1898, as the first of two tales in separate English and American books in October, 1898, as the second of four tales in a volume of the New York Edition in 1908, and as the first volume of The Uniform Tales of Henry James published by Martin Secker in London, April 1915. It is essentially believed that he stuck to the authentic punctuation of the New York Edition because the major revisions appear in this version. Here, James seemed determined to shift the center of attention away from the details of action observed by the governess to the reactions felt by the governess. Besides, he removed commas to get closer to the stream of consciousness. All in all, James tries to draw the reader into the course of the governess’s narrative via increasing the use of possessive pronoun “my” and replacing the verbs of perception and thought with those of feeling and intuition (kimbrough 53).
Although, later, James himself dismissed the novella as trivial: he told Howells it was a “down-on-all-fours pot-boiler,” it promptly captured the imagination of his readers and has held it ever since (Kimbrough 29). James revealed on more than one occasion how he deliberately sought ambiguity so that his reader would imagine his own “horror” – on the theory that a nightmare is most frightening to the person who dreams it (29). Most of James’s contemporaries accepted the story at face value as a particularly terrifying ghost story. Soon, however, the current of criticism changed course.
Generally the history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw is dominated by the apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy – most obviously after publication of Edmund Wilson’s famous non-apparitionist essay in 1934. He expanded the argument in his seminal essay of 1934, “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” In it, Wilson famously wrote that the governess was a “neurotic case of sex repression” (385). This approach opened a flood gate for articles in which critics argued that the governess was delusional, mad, or evil herself. Then Heilman’s famous apparitionist argument in 1948 was followed by other apparitionists who argued that the non-apparitionists overlooked key passages in the novel that support a reading of the governess as sane and the ghosts as real.
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Later the best critics such as Lydenberg tended increasingly to synthesize the two approaches rather than exclusively affirm one side of the controversy. This led in the sixties and seventies to very rich syntheses – often integrating psychoanalytic, sociological, and theological approaches. Besides, in the sixties, largely due to the influence of structuralism, we see a tense to consider the work inherently ambiguous and the concentration on explaining the way the ambiguity is produced by the structure of the text and the effects of this ambiguity on the reader.
With such a well-known and loaded back story, contemporary readers are understandably likely to bring a hermeneutical bias to their initial reading of this tale. Yet they do so at their peril, for the enigmas of this text demand that they question, reconsider, and often reject their original interpretation in favor of another one.
In addition to all, Henry James’ fiction has proved a remarkable resource for filmmakers, inspiring well over 100 films and television adaptations. Film versions of The Turn of the Screw have featured Deborah Kerr, Ingrid Bergman, Lynn Redgrave, Amy Irving, and Valerie Bertinelli as the governess, Linda Hunt and Marianne Faithfull as narrators. Of the numerous film adaptations, Ben Bolt’s The Turn of the Screw (2000) and, especially, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) make best use of the conventions of cinema to exploit the novella’s interpretive possibilities.
As the fluctuations in the responses may reveal, the responses could be based on the social, historical, and individual situations governing the reading. Nevertheless, according to the guide of this research Wolfgang Iser, it is first the text and then the world which shape the responses. With this view in mind, the starting point of this research is the different and contradictory responses to The Turn of the Screw. In fact, how is one single text, as a primary incentive of responses, received differently by different people? Iser believes that the text is the source of response, and saying the unsaid and writing the unwritten of the text is the task of the reader. An Iserian critique works on the aesthetic and hermeneutic grounds of reception, in the reader and the text. Accordingly, this research attempts to distinguish between the written and the unwritten in The Turn of the Screw and to portray the process of coming at the meaning by synthesizing both. Therefore, a survey of the scholarly responses is presented at the first step. The selected and reviewed responses are the ones which have mainly discussed the issue of the apparitionist/non-apparitionist nature of the Turn of the Screw. Following this, the researcher tries to explore the gaps and indeterminacies which have led to these disparate responses. That is, it can be partially understood what kind of potentials exist in the text waiting to be actualized.
The research in the final step of its process have a look at two versions of the novella’s adaptations in order to see how every one of them in its aesthetic reception undertakes the process of actualization and attains meaning.
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