New Critical and Structural Analyses: Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’



Link to Henry James’ 1898 Story, The Turn of the Screw:

Around the end of the nineteenth century a substantive change in thinking occurred, particularly as it pertains to views of literature of the United States and Europe. A predominance of analysis of the period tended to place greater importance on the historical, philosophical and social extrinsic implications of works of literature, rather than examine them on the value on their content in its standalone mastery. Crossing over into the twentieth century, this was identified first through Russian Formalism by great scholars such as Victor Schlovsky, Vladimir Propp and Boris Eichenbaum. Evolving from this emerged the further refinement of New Critical Analysis from the likes of T. S. Eliot which involves what he calls the ‘objective correlative’ as a way of identifying a written works expression of internal emotion through the use of symbolism. Taking the development of intrinsic analysis even further, Structuralism emerged as means of identifying motifs and recurrent patterns that together establish an internal framework, or structure, to a work. (Bertens, 383)

The style presented in Henry James’ story The Turn of the Screw is relatively unique within its genre for two notable reasons, but for also a multiplicity of subsequent grounds. In a brief letter to H. G. Wells dated December 9th, 1898, James describes a defining reference to what he would call in the same letter a ‘fairy tale’ as he sheds insight into the persona of the main character, the governess.

grotesque business…to make her picture and childish psychology I had to make her trace and present…in which absolute lucidity and logic, a singleness of effect, were imperative . . . rule out subjective complications and keep her impersonal”

(Kimbrough 111)

The importance of understanding the trajectory of transformation that transpires within the character of the governess over the arc of the story is fundamental to understanding the story itself. From a Formalist New Critical and Structural aspect, the subjectivity of transition within her is key to all stages of the story’s development and interweave of device use.

An intrinsic Formalist understanding includes observations of deeper internal elements of meaning, construct and accomplish through identifying various literary devices and forms including tone, imagery, symbolism, defamiliarization, plot and story distinction, and characterization as it relates specifically to genre. Within a formal context, an overlapping structural ethic also emerges symbolically patterned, as it relates to mystical, spiritual, psychoanalytical, idealistic and moralistic interpretation, both concretely and in the abstract.

Closely linked to the forms and use of mechanical device Formalist analysis yields, Structural analysis requires we extend our understanding into the semiotic concept of signs and symbols, representations of a greater metalanguage found within the text, genre, intertextual relation, narrative architecture, and recurring internal design. (Erlich 199) In Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw we find a rich supply of this nonverbal structure. (Saussure Ch.3.3, par.4)

The second notable distinction Turn of the Screw has within its genre is its voice and point of view of structural narrative. Serious tone is given in the form nearly of a disclaimer for the tenor, reliability and premise of the story. A groundwork of third hand recount by the narrator from a fellow named Douglas being told to an eager group as an authentic ghost story around the proverbial fire is divulged suspenseful. (Note the insertion of the term apparition. This clarifies a position going to the point of their, the ghosts, validity.)

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless . . . in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him. It was this observation that drew from Douglas—not immediately, but later in the evening—a reply that had the interesting consequence to which I call attention. Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw he was not following” (James 291)

James has set a precedence of distance and credibility here that lends itself to second and third hand unreliable account, which adds an element of doubt and hesitation, serving as a device later in the story when similar doubt and hesitation emerges within the characters and the governess herself.

Continuing this removed narrative in the near introductory recount, the vague and ambiguous imagery of implied demise befalling a child is introduced early by comparison to another familiar story involving children, to which a surrogate audience around a Christmas Eve fire is gathered, in and of itself a device of inclusion and relatability. The name of the story, Turn of the Screw, derives its name from this, the addition of a second child evoked from the group of listeners an eerily eager ‘two turns of the screw’ response.

“I quite agree—in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children—?” . . . “We say, of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that they give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.” (James 291)

By initializing this predicate here, James allows for his ‘fairy tale’ to be told in the design of a ghost story, but only on the surface. Diversion is accomplished through an underlying mechanism in the use of disjointed defamiliarization. Being that death has already occurred in the narrative, of Douglas and the governess, a seemingly extrinsic parallel to a male and female deceased within draws connection. Later we learn these two figures, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, are the primary dislocation for incredulity between the living characters as they refuse to acknowledge the governess ‘seeing’ them.

“I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at his interlocutor with his hands in his pockets. “Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.” (James 292) . . . “Is in old, faded ink, and in the most beautiful hand.” He hung fire again. “A woman’s. She has been dead these twenty years. She sent me the pages in question before she died.” (James 294) . . . “Let me say here distinctly, to have done with it, that this narrative, from an exact transcript of my own made much later, is what I shall presently give. Poor Douglas, before his death—when it was in sight—committed to me the manuscript that reached him on the third of these days and that, on the same spot, with immense effect, he began to read to our hushed little circle on the night of the fourth.” (James 295)

The Turn of the Screw holds an uncommon if not entirely unique place within the genre of ghost story and gothic horror. It is correct to see it as the ‘deathless terror’ it is and less the ‘fairy tale’ James self-describes it as for the simple fact no one dies in it until the very end, and then only for implied natural cause. The terror element is achieved through the reference to death.

“And what became of him?” She hung fire so long that I was still more mystified. “He went, too,” she brought out at last . . .

“Went where?” Her expression, at this, became extraordinary. “God knows where! He died.” “Died?” I almost shrieked. She seemed fairly to square herself, plant herself more firmly to utter the wonder of it. “Yes. Mr. Quint is dead.”. . . My friend, with an odd impulse, fell back a step. “Was she someone you’ve never seen?” “Yes. But someone the child has. Someone YOU have.” Then, to show how I had thought it all out: “My predecessor—the one who died.” “Miss Jessel?” “Miss Jessel. You don’t believe me?” I pressed. She turned right and left in her distress. “How can you be sure?” This drew from me, in the state of my nerves, a flash of impatience. “Then ask Flora—SHE’S sure!” But I had no sooner spoken than I caught myself up. “No, for God’s sake, DON’T! She’ll say she isn’t—she’ll lie!” Mrs. Grose was not too bewildered instinctively to protest. “Ah, how CAN you?” (James 329)

The question of the existence of the ghosts the governess sees works to undo the ground of her credibility within the context of her hire on as governess to begin with. Predicated upon the morality and innocence of our main character the governess, a presupposition of dignity and grace is initially challenged in the abrupt awkwardness through again diversion and a rather disappointing odd manner of her charge and employ by a charming wealthy and yet estranged uncle of two children, whom he prefers not to reside with.

“He struck her, inevitably, as gallant and splendid, but what took her most of all and gave her the courage she afterward showed was that he put the whole thing to her as a kind of favor, an obligation he should gratefully incur. She conceived him as rich, but as fearfully extravagant—saw him all in a glow of high fashion, of good looks, of expensive habits, of charming ways with women. He had for his own town residence a big house filled with the spoils of travel and the trophies of the chase; but it was to his country home, an old family place in Essex, that he wished her immediately to proceed.” (James 295-6)

The recurring pattern of the governess ‘seeing’ ghosts and the other characters denying them to her establishes a growing madness the governess internally and other characters externally question as a skeletal framework the story is fleshed out on.. The governess began as a confident, vibrant and capable young woman starting out in her prime. Quickly on, her characterization digresses into an increasing desperation and doubtful disappointment. She ponders the motives of Mrs. Grose, in her care for Flora and Miles as she grapples with the meaning and magnitude of the unknown yet recurring threat of the figures of Miss Jessel and Quint.

What was settled between us, accordingly, that night, was that we thought we might bear things together; and I was not even sure that, in spite of her exemption, it was she who had the best of the burden. I knew at this hour, I think, as well as I knew later, what I was capable of meeting to shelter my pupils; but it took me some time to be wholly sure of what my honest ally was prepared for to keep terms with so compromising a contract. I was queer company enough—quite as queer as the company I received; but as I trace over what we went through I see how much common ground we must have found in the one idea that, by good fortune, COULD steady us. It was the idea, the second movement, that led me straight out, as I may say, of the inner chamber of my dread. I could take the air in the court, at least, and there Mrs. Grose could join me. Perfectly can I recall now the particular way strength came to me before we separated for the night. We had gone over and over every feature of what I had seen.” . . . “He was looking for someone else, you say—someone who was not you?” “He was looking for little Miles.” A portentous clearness now possessed me. “THAT’S whom he was looking for.” “But how do you know?” “I know, I know, I know!” My exaltation grew. “And YOU know, my dear!” She didn’t deny this, but I required, I felt, not even so much telling as that. She resumed in a moment, at any rate: “What if HE should see him?” “Little Miles? That’s what he wants!” She looked immensely scared again. “The child?” “Heaven forbid! The man. He wants to appear to THEM.” (James 322)

James plays on the quickened pace of the governess madness, yet offsets this with an injection of days and weeks mentioned. This counterbalances what an ordinary response within the governess would seem to merit on the basis of her attending the welfare of the children, but also only discovering the ‘secrets of Bly,’ the estate itself, in meted and revealed episodic fashion. As the governess learns more and more of the improprieties that surround the deaths of Quint and Miss Jessel, and especially as they relate to the children’s, namely Miles and Quint’s involvement, the pieces become increasingly clearer, yet also increasingly insidious. Everyone seems to be complicit in some way, as if an evil persists that engulfs and involves even Mrs. Grose in her believable denial of the ghosts.

“I pressed again, of course, at this. “You reminded him that Quint was only a base menial?” “As you might say! And it was his answer, for one thing, that was bad.” “And for another thing?” I waited. “He repeated your words to Quint?” “No, not that. It’s just what he wouldn’t!” she could still impress upon me. “I was sure, at any rate,” she added, “that he didn’t. But he denied certain occasions.” “What occasions?” “When they had been about together quite as if Quint were his tutor–and a very grand one–and Miss Jessel only for the little lady. When he had gone off with the fellow, I mean, and spent hours with him.” “He then prevaricated about it–he said he hadn’t?” Her assent was clear enough to cause me to add in a moment: “I see. He lied.” “Oh!” Mrs. Grose mumbled. This was a suggestion that it didn’t matter; which indeed she backed up by a further remark. “You see, after all, Miss Jessel didn’t mind. She didn’t forbid him.” I considered. “Did he put that to you as a justification?” At this she dropped again. “No, he never spoke of it.” “Never mentioned her in connection with Quint?” She saw, visibly flushing, where I was coming out. “Well, he didn’t show anything. He denied,” she repeated; “he denied.” (James 337)

The opposition to the governess’ perception of Miles, the boy in her charge, as an innocent works to offset and support their disobedience and noncompliance with her authority. This reinforces her doubts, but also a sense of loss of control and doubts about her own madness.

“He was gentleness itself, and while I wagged my head at him he stood there more than ever a little fairy prince. It was his brightness indeed that gave me a respite. Would it be so great if he were really going to tell me? “Well,” he said at last, “just exactly in order that you should do this.” “Do what?” “Think me—for a change—bad!” I shall never forget the sweetness and gaiety with which he brought out the word, nor how, on top of it, he bent forward and kissed me. It was practically the end of everything.” (James 350) . . . Then, after another embrace, the incident and our interview closed on my recognition of all the reserves of goodness that, for his joke, he had been able to draw upon. (James 351) . . . My fear was of having to deal with the intolerable question of the grounds of his dismissal from school, for that was really but the question of the horrors gathered behind. (James 363) . . . I had so perfectly expected that the return of my pupils would be marked by a demonstration that I was freshly upset at having to take into account that they were dumb about my absence. Instead of gaily denouncing and caressing me, they made no allusion to my having failed them, and I was left, for the time, on perceiving that she too said nothing, to study Mrs. Grose’s odd face. I did this to such purpose that I made sure they had in some way bribed her to silence. “Oh, yes, they asked me to say nothing; and to please them—so long as they were there—of course I promised.”(James 366)

Henry JamesH. James

Henry James reveals the character Peter Quint has been the source of turmoil and grief for the governess directly and indirectly through the children. The extent of his bad influence on them is felt and is widespread. He serves as a metaphor for all that is evil and counter to her efforts. His appearances are catalysts for the devolving of the governess spirit, sanity and confidence.

“I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. “Whom do you mean by ‘he’?” “Peter Quint—you devil!” (James 402) . . . He was absolutely, on this occasion, a living, detestable, dangerous presence. But that was not the wonder of wonders; I reserve this distinction for quite another circumstance: the circumstance that dread had unmistakably quitted me and that there was nothing in me there that didn’t meet and measure him. (James 342) . . . Lord, how I pressed her now! “So that you could see he knew what was between the two wretches?” “I don’t know—I don’t know!” the poor woman groaned. “You do know, you dear thing,” I replied; “only you haven’t my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back, out of timidity and modesty and delicacy, even the impression that, in the past, when you had, without my aid, to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable. But I shall get it out of you yet! There was something in the boy that suggested to you,” I continued, “that he covered and concealed their relation.” (James 336)

In conclusion, and upon our New Critical Formalism and Structuralism approaches to analyzing the internal forms, devices, symbols and framework, we can clearly observe some very unique and intricate details and qualities to Henry James’ highly debated masterpiece, especially concerning the actuality of the ghosts. It is my conclusion here the ghost are in fact real based on the previous knowledge of them by the caretaker Mrs. Grose, but also on the fact of the governess’ observations in such detail without prior knowledge being confirmed circumstantially through the children and other caretakers. It really is only through a detailed examination of these deeper structures that a suitable conclusion can be made outside of the social and historical influences that would likely have resulted in the opposite conclusion.

Ambiguity lies at the heart of the deathless supernatural psychodrama horror. If nothing else, the decision is left to the wind and the preferences of inference and deduction. Evidence supports either view of her sanity or the legitimacy of the ghosts. An undeniable transformation takes place in all the living characters at Bly, but especially in the governess. She transcends the confident and naive take charge woman we see in the beginning to a seasoned, scared and unsure yet protector and rescuer in a desperate and fleeting expediency in the end. She sincerely seeks to exercise her duty as governess over the children and fights for their safety as she perceives Quint to be an evil influence from the grave. (Wright 184)

Works Cited

James, Henry, and Perry Meisel. The Turn of the Screw, and Other Short Novels. New York: Signet Classic, 1995. Print.

James, Henry, and Robert Kimbrough. The Turn of the Screw An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966. Print.

Wright, Walter Francis. The Madness of Art, a Study of Henry James. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1962. Print.

Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine. Gravenhage: Mouton, 1955. Print.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court. 1983. Print.

Bertens, Johannes Willem. Literary Theory the Basics. London: Routledge, 2001. Print

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