Turn of the Screw
Chapter II - Early Criticism: 1898-1933
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 Saturday Review 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
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:
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.
Their conclusion, however, is that "the clever result is very cruel and untrue," and for that they upbraid the author for
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:
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,
However, this reviewer seems to suggest, not all readers "end by accepting her conclusions":
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,
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:
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:
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
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 San Francisco Chronicle (October 11, 1908) reviewed Volume 12 in two sentences:
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:
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
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,
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,
"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,
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
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
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,
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
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
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,
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--
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:
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
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 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
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
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,
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:
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
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.
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,
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.
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 "testifies to the fact that our own ghostliness has much quickened" (63).
At least three critics other than Kenton and Goddard--namely, Virginia Woolf in 1918 and 1921, Edith Wharton in 1924, and Carl H. Grabo in 1928--discussed James's narrative techniques for engineering feelings of fear and horror in his readers, and they came to remarkably similar conclusions.
In 1918 Virginia Woolf opined that, in James's ghost stories, "the supernatural is so wrought in with the natural that fear is kept from a dangerous exaggeration into simple disgust or disbelief verging upon ridicule." She contrasted these stories with The Mark of the Beast and The Return of Imray by Rudyard Kipling, which, in her view, "are powerful enough to repel one by their horror, but...too violent to appeal to our sense of wonder" (64). In 1921 she reiterated her conviction that authorial restraint is an important element in the particular sense of horror which The Turn of the Screw engenders.
Edith Wharton made similar points in 1924. She commended James for his authorial restraint in The Turn of the Screw -- "the economy of horror is carried to its last degree." She, like Woolf, opined that ghost stories are easily vitiated by too many and too obvious supernatural effects:
This "quiet iteration" was analyzed in more detail by Carl H. Grabo in 1928. Grabo first notes that the novella "directs itself...to a narrow channel; it aims at intensity" by means of its "unity of place" and the small number of characters with which it is concerned (208-209). He then analyzes "the successive waves which, with increasing power and frequency,...create the story's rhythm" (210).
The first wave "opens pianissimo with but the faintest single note of the unusual in the excessive pleasure which the housekeeper takes in the coming of the new governess." This wave gathers momentum when the governess, unable to sleep on the first night of her story, seems to hear "`faint and far, the cry of a child'" and later `a light footstep'" (208). Her uneasiness ceases when she is overcome by the charm of Flora but returns with greater force in chapter two when she receives the letter form the headmaster informing her of Miles's dismissal from school and Mrs. Grose's mysterious "references...to the former governess who went away and shortly after died, and to someone as yet unidentified who liked them young and pretty.'" The wave reaches its climax with the first vision of Quint in chapter three and then subsides.
But soon comes "the second wave, more powerful than the first" (211). It begins with the second vision of Quint, which occurs in chapter four. The pace then slackens in the next chapter as Mrs. Grose and the governess discuss what the vision might mean, but it quickens again with the first vision of Miss Jessel, which occurs at the end of chapter six and is hysterically related to Mrs. Grose at the beginning of chapter seven. Then the pace slackens a little as we learn more of Miss Jessel's past, but in vague terms only.... Then it is slowly extorted from Mrs. Grose, with deepening implications of evil, that Miles knew of the relations of Quint and Miss Jessel (211).
The third wave, which begins in chapter nine when the governess confronts Quint on the staircase in pre-dawn darkness, also contains lulls, in the form of
Following the governess's confrontation with Miles on the lawn in the middle of the night at the end of chapter ten, says Grabo, "the purpose of the discarnate demons comes home to the governess with unanswerable conviction" (212). After the conversation between the governess and Mrs. Grose on the following afternoon,
Grabo is primarily concerned with narrative technique, but his narratology is closely tied to his reading of the story as a moral allegory. For, as the waves succeed one another, according to Grabo, "the horror, it must be noted, has shifted form the merely uncanny, the horror of discarnate devils, to a horror infinitely deeper, the moral horror of the conflict of good and evil" (212).
While Grabo is interesting for his designation of a literary theme through a consideration of narrative technique, Heywood Broun is interesting for his discovery of a literary theme through an analysis of his own psychological reaction to the story. In a January, 1930 preface to a Modern Library edition of the story, Broun recalls reading the novella for the first time in the solitude of the Swiss Alps and being prostrated with anxiety for several days. A sudden insight into the meaning of the story accompanied his recovery from this lamentable psychological state.
The source of Broun's relief was his realization that
The conclusion which Broun drew from this experience--and which, he holds, it is "just possible" is the author's intended lesson--appears at first trivial, then sinister when we remember that in 1930 fascism was beginning to sweep over Europe.
It is tempting to classify Broun's criticism as reader-response criticism a la Normal Holland. However, while Broun's criticism does bear resemblance to that of Holland and other reader-response critics, there are two important differences. In the first place, we do not find the detailed psychological analysis of a particular reader that we find, for example, in Holland's 1968 essay on "The Purloined Letter." Secondly, Broun's, which is almost entirely narrative, appears to be a hybrid literary form, in between fiction and literary criticism. In this it somewhat resembles Muriel West's novel--if her book can be called a novel--in which a
fictional character in a lonely house struggles all night with the meaning of The Turn of the Screw. Broun's account, after all, seems far too overdone to fall outside the realm of fiction. One paragraph bears quoting in its entirety:
Granted, the story is deeply affecting--it has been for years one of my favorite stories--but the above paragraph seems a bit excessive.
As we survey the criticism of The Turn of the Screw prior to Edmund Wilson's famous 1934 essay, we find the following broad patterns.
First, we find, from the earliest reviews onward, a broad critical consensus as to the great artistic merits of the story--with only a few scattered dissenting comments, such as those of G.K. Chesterton and Ezra Pound.
Secondly, we find outstanding writers and critics on both sides of the apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy--with such figures as Walter de la Mare, Rebecca West, Carl van Doren, and Edith Wharton on the apparitionist side and Ezra Pound, Edna Kenton, and Harold C. Goddard in the non-apparitionist camp. We find that most of the critical comments during this period assume the apparitionist position, but that the two greatest critical essays both proceed from a non-apparitionist perspective. We also find early attempts at synthesizing the two perspectives or adopting a third stance which does not require a choice between them. Oliver Elton and Virginia Woolf both effected syntheses of sorts, although neither, in so doing, presented a detailed analysis of the story comparable to the analyses offered by Firebaugh and Lydenberg. Arthur Waley took a position which enabled him to avoid the choice. One of the merits of Goddard's essay, we have seen, is that it can easily be read in conjunction with essays such as those of Firebaugh and Lydenberg which effect a synthesis of apparitionist and non-apparitionist positions.
Thirdly, we have seen that much of the early criticism was subjective and impressionistic--with the critics tending mainly to record the effects of the work on themselves and to assume that other readers should and/or would be similarly affected. This broad stream found issue in two closely related tributaries--the phenomenological criticism of Kenton and the personal narrative criticism of Broun which would reach its zenith in 1964 with the publication of Muriel West's A Stormy Night With the Turn of the Screw.
In contrast to that stream is the New Criticism of Harold C. Goddard, with its emphasis on examining the text as a self-contained unit. Of course, in this case as in other examples of New Criticism, the goal of considering only the text must be seen as an incompletely realized ideal. Goddard himself admitted that certain personal experiences had colored his reading of the story, and, despite the essay's title, it is questionable whether such an interpretation could have been formulated prior to Sigmund Freud.
A number of critics concerned themselves with analyzing the narrative techniques which enabled James, in this story, to affect so many readers so deeply. Three critics--Woolf, Wharton, and Grabo--emphasized the author's restraint in presenting overtly shocking material to the reader, with Grabo offering the most complete such analysis, i.e., his "wave" theory. Goddard and Kenton combined their considerations of the author's narrative techniques with a discussion of the psychological processes of the reader of the story. Goddard suggested that the story seems more credible than most stories of the supernatural because the reader, without realizing it, is reacting to the entirely credible story of two children and an ignorant housekeeper isolated and at the mercy of an insane governess. This analysis, Goddard suggested, might also explain why the story affects so many readers with more than mere fear. The governess, in her insanity, can be seen as a tragic heroine. He also suggested that the reader is seduced by her seemingly matter-of-fact rendition of a narrative which contains obvious elements of truth. Edna Kenton, similarly, suggested that the reader is caught off guard by the charm of the governess and the surface plausibility of her account and is thus unconsciously led to collaborate with James in his "protection" of his character.
Goddard's is the most outstanding work on The Turn of the Screw during this period. Goddard's essay offers a detailed analysis of the psychology of the governess, but does not degenerate into a mere psychiatric case history because Goddard, with the story's reader always uppermost in mind, never loses sight of literary values. Goddard offers insightful comments about the narrative structure of the work--particularly about the techniques whereby James has hoodwinked so many readers--and detailed refutations of apparitionist arguments. This analysis, as we have seen, can easily be read not only in conjunction with essays such as those of Firebaugh and Lydenberg which offer syntheses of psychoanalytic and theological insights, but also in conjunction with Marxist critiques such as that of Spilka.
Edna Kenton's essay is also an outstanding one. It is a closely reasoned argument about authorial intention based on evidence form the text itself and statements of James about this story and other stories and a demonstration that a non-apparitionist perspective can lead, perhaps, to an even richer literary experience for the reader of this famous "ghost" story.
1 Kenton does not italicize titles of books.