RIP Challenge #3 - The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

Atmosphere: Ambiguous

Chill Factor: A sprinkle of hair-raising with intermittent goosebumps

I was hampered in this reading by two things: Henry James’s prose and the fact that I’ve seen the Deborah Kerr movie. Therefore, I read this novella twice.

Reading James is a little like riding a bumper car: You never know when you’ll have to switch directions to avoid getting slammed from behind. Example:

It took of course more than that particular passage to place us together in presence of what we had now to live with as we could—my dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified, and my companion’s knowledge henceforth—a knowledge half consternation and half compassion—of that liability.

Having gotten past those first two obstacles—rereading helped believe it or not, my understanding if not my humor—though I wonder if having said I read it twice, I am not adding the liability henceforth of writing like James himself—the first issue to address, I suppose, is: are the ghosts in this story real?

James leads us to believe they are. How else does the governess describe (down to the red hair) Quint so accurately, so soon after arriving at Bly? But if you believe the ghosts are real, does that lead you to question your own sanity?

Okay, maybe the governess happened to see a daguerreotype (a four-color one, the first of its kind) of the scoundrel that happened to be propped on a fireplace mantel, and she is such a smart governess, she guessed who the man was. Then her whole story makes her the whack job (not you). Which makes her whole account noncredible. So, why read the story?

Hmmm...something’s getting screwed, all right. Thanks, Henry.

I am going to handle the whole ghost question by reading this story as any other ghost story and accepting the literary conventions of the genre. Perhaps James even left a signpost for me, by using the device of a story within a story (the gentleman’s story of the governess’s written account). A similar device is used by Irving in Sleepy Hollow, among many other ghost stories.

Given that the ghost is real within the realm of the story, I turn to other literary devices to guide me as to how to read it: to wit, motif and metaphor. Analyzing just these two devices (forget POV, voice, theme and other literary whatnot), trying to keep track of motifs and metaphors in this story is about as fruitful as trying to figure out whether or not the governess is a reliable narrator. For a novella, James virtually crams motif and metaphor into every nook and cranny. Light/dark, silence/quiet, vision/sight, the turning screw. My God. You can’t turn a page without dusk falling or a candle being snuffed out.

In this way, I think James ultimately deflates his story. It is so loaded as to be ambiguous. And the ambiguity he creates ultimately did not satisfy me as a reader. I enjoyed the idea, I lived with the execution, but I did not give a whit about the resolution--which is to say, no resolution.

There are almost too many puzzle pieces, and once assembled, they don’t ever quite present a whole picture. Or, maybe this is more like it, James creates a veritable maze, where all paths are dead ends. (I should teach James a lesson and add a bunch of other metaphors here, but I am sure you get the idea.)

However, I am going to isolate and analyze a few of the many maze-paths James left in my next blog post, namely, the male/female dynamic and the repetition of the word “innocent.”

Still in work hell. RIP, normalcy. Nice knowing you, sanity. See you later, energy.


Carl V. Anderson said...

This is one that I never really knew anything about until the R.I.P. Challenge and now I have it on my list of books to read.

Rebecca H. said...

Interesting review -- you've got me interested in looking at it again, even though your response was mixed. I read it quite a while ago.

Richard said...

Hi. By coincidence I also read this story recently, earlier this week. I had a hard time accepting that the ghosts were real, myself, though I kept expecting something to happen to make it clear they were real, since I'd heard it was a "ghost story", and it never came. I read the last page like three or four times before I was satisfied I'd gotten it right, since James is not at all clear in his attribution of dialogue (intentionally, I'm sure).

Looking around the web, I came across this interesting dissertation about the critical reception to the story:

I haven't finished reading it, but I recommend at least reading chapter two, especially where the author discusses the criticism of the story by one Harold C. Goddard (there's a "Goddard" heading, if you want to skip ahead). A lot of good stuff there, I think. (Also, James' own criticism of the story is discussed a lot here.)

LK said...

Thanks, Richard. I will check it out.

Anonymous said...

there's a beautiful Turn of the Screw opera by Benjamin Britten-- see it if you get a chance.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting the link to the dissertation on the novel's critical reception... trying to write a paper about it and was having a tricky time slogging through ProQuest. This helps so much!

Charity said...

Was anyone bothered as much as I, about how the novella ended? There was absolutely no closure. Nothing. Not even a response from the unknown narrator's quiet circle. Just another one of James' dead ends, I guess...