Turn of the Screw
Chapter IV - Movement Toward Synthesis: 1949-1957
The period from 1949 through 1957, inclusive, was dominated by Heilman and Wilson, as the best critics strove for a synthesis of the insights into the work which each of these critics had provided. Thus, we see here an illustration of the truism that a literary work is never the same after it has been discussed extensively by a great critic. Wilson and Heilman were both great critics; and, although they disagreed with one another, both were right--each made a compelling case which subsequent critics felt compelled to acknowledge as they strove for greater understanding of the literary work. So obviously valid were many of the points raised by both Wilson and Heilman that some critics who were unable to synthesize the two sets of insights felt constrained to devalue the literary work itself as hopelessly disunified and flawed--they could not thoroughly and convincingly refute either Wilson or Heilman.
1. Roellinger and Cargill
As if in demonstration of the partial validity of these opposing readings, two outstanding source studies appeared during this period, one of which lent strong support to the view of Wilson and one of which supported Heilman's reading. Both source studies argued along similar lines, each presenting evidence of James's likely familiarity with the source or sources in question, each finding reflections of the source in the literary work itself, each demonstrating that the source's influence would be compatible with James's statements about the work in correspondence, in notebook entries, and in the Prefaces to Volumes 12 and 17 of the New York Edition, and each demonstrating how an acknowledgement of the source's influence could deepen the reader's understanding of the literary work.
Francis X. Roellinger argued that the Proceedings of the Society for Physical Research were a likely source of The Turn of the Screw. He pointed out, first of all, biographical facts which would indicate an intimate familiarity on James's part with the Society and its publications--for example, James's lifelong interest in paranormal phenomena, his attendance at Society meetings, his brother's scientific research in the area and office holding in the Society, his acquaintance with and extensive correspondence with many prominent members such as F.W.H. Meyers and Edmund Gurney, and his references to the Society in notebook entries and correspondence.
Roellinger next turns his attention to James's statements about the story in the Prefaces and in correspondence. Roellinger calls attention to the January 12, 1895 notebook entry in which James discusses his late night conversation with Archbishop Benson and Benson's relation of the anecdote which supposedly supplied the "germ" of the story but reminds us that Benson's sons later could not remember any story in their father's repertoire similar to that in The Turn of the Screw. Although Roellinger accepts James's notebook entry as a good faith account of the origin of the story, he considers this testimony from the Benson sons to be evidence that the original anecdote was drastically altered in the process of artistic creation and that "James might have drawn details from other sources. . ." (403). He then suggests "one possible and very likely source of inspiration . . . the publications of the Society for Psychical Research. . ." (403). Roellinger further observes that some findings of the Society
Roellinger next considers James's disparagement of "recorded and attested ghosts" in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition and suggests that these remarks are intended "chiefly to make clear to the reader his reasons for ignoring these limitations in the construction of his own phantoms" (404). Roellinger suggests that, while James's ghosts were "departures from the usually inartistic and meaningless apparitions of scientific investigation," they were nonetheless--in contrast to "the familiar phantoms of Gothic fiction . . . conceived to a surprising extent in terms of the cases reported to the Society" (405). Were this influence not so strong, suggests Roellinger,
Roellinger then cites a report from the Society which distinguishes between scientifically studied apparitions and the "magazine ghost stories" in which
The ghosts of The Turn of the Screw, says Roellinger, are of the former type.
Roellinger summarizes the characteristics of the "scientific ghost" studied by the Society for Psychical Research:
It is easy to see, suggests Roellinger, how "the ghosts of `The Turn of the Screw' conform precisely" to the above description:
Next, Roellinger discusses several specific cases cited by the Society which appear to bear striking resemblances to the apparitions in The Turn of the Screw: a mysterious old lady who appeared to a little girl and her brother and stared at them--the woman later, as an adult, was "interviewed by Edmund Gurney and described by him as a `sensible and clear-headed person'" (407); the testimony of "a governess employed in a house in Ireland" concerning a female figure who appeared "in the schoolroom" and "at the bottom of the stairs" and was later seen by the two children (both girls) who were in the care of the governess (409); and, finally, "a woman `tall, dark, and pale, dressed in black,'" who appeared to a child while the child was in the company of her governess--the child said to the governess, "It wants you, Miss Alice, it wants you" (409).
These parallels are striking enough to suggest that the ghosts of the story may be more than Wilson's "mere hallucinations."
On the other hand, however, Oscar Cargill, in "Henry James as Freudian Pioneer," employed much the same methodology as Roellinger to suggest that important sources of the story were the illness of the author's sister, Alice James, and "The Case of Miss Lucy R.," which appeared in Breuer and Freud's Studien uber Hysterie--which was published in 1895.
Just as Roellinger argued from biographical data that James would have been familiar with the research and publications of the Society for Psychical Research, so Cargill argued that James would very likely have kept up with the writings of Freud--citing as evidence his deep affection for his mentally ill sister Alice, his brother's pioneer medical research in the field of mental illness and publications on the subject, and his friendship with Alphonse Daudet, who was well acquainted with Charcot. Cargill, like Roellinger, also cites as evidence Archbishop Benson's sons' "emphatic . . . denials that the tale was in their father's repertoire," suggesting that, since "James tries immediately, in fact, almost insistently, to establish his indebtedness to the Archbishop" and since "it was not his habit thus to acknowledge his sources," he might have had "a special reason for it in this instance"--namely, protection of his sister's memory (15).
Cargill finds striking similarities between the case of Miss Lucy as Freud recounts it and the story of the governess in The Turn of the Screw.
Miss Lucy R. was seen by Freud in 1891 for a persistent purulent rhinitis which was supposedly of psychosomatic origin and which was purportedly cured by psychoanalysis. Miss Lucy was an English governess from Glasgow who was employed by a wealthy Vienna businessman as governess in charge of his two children. The man was a widower. She experienced a continual smell of burned pastry in connection with her rhinitis. This began after some pastry was burned when she was distracted by the children who had hidden a letter from her mother. Under questioning, she revealed to Freud that a short time before this she had written to her mother expressing a desire to come home. Under further questioning she confessed that behind her desire to return and her hesitancy to do so lay her love for her employer. She admitted that she had once entertained the hope that he would marry her but had given up that hope. She was, however, afraid the servants might "divine her thoughts and laugh at her."
In later sessions she stated that, after she had discussed the above material with Freud, the sensations of burned pastry were replaced by the smell of cigar smoke. Further questioning led to the following information. The employer had, upon one occasion, had a very intimate conversation with the governess and said that he had great confidence in her and depended greatly on her for the care of his children. He then gave her "a long look" which she interpreted as evidence of a possible romantic interest in her. Later, however, when a number of guests had come to dinner, an elderly accountant who had been smoking cigars kissed both the children. After the guests had left, the employer, who did not approve of anyone kissing his children, held the governess responsible for not preventing the occurrence. He became very angry and threatened to dismiss her if she did not prevent such incidents in the future. The one affectionate interview was never repeated. After these incidents were thoroughly discussed with Freud, her rhinitis and inappropriate olfactory sensations ceased (21-23).
Cargill sees several striking similarities between this case and that of the governess in The Turn of the Screw. Both involved young English women of slender means who were governesses of children whose guardians were rich men socially superior to these young women. Both fell in love with the employer, although both should have been able to recognize the hopelessness of the attraction. Both had their hopes raised because of a single interview. Both were afraid to admit their feelings openly. Miss Lucy's Glasgow origin indicates to Cargill a Presbyterian background which is reflected in the puritanism of the governess and in the fact that she is the daughter of a poor parson. The scuffle between Miss Lucy and the children over the letter from her mother Cargill compares to Miles's theft of the letter the governess had written to her employer. The apparently sexual threat to Miss Lucy's charges from a kissing visitor Cargill relates to the apparently sexual threat to Miles and Flora posed by Quint and Jessel. He suggests that, just as the employer of Miss Lucy commanded her to save his children from this threat and depended on her to do so, so the governess feels she has a duty to the master of Bly to protect his nephew and niece from the forbidden sexual knowledge offered by Quint and Jessel. Finally, Cargill reminds us that Harley Street was the traditional "physicians' row" of Victorian fiction and suggests that the governess may have been a patient of the master who may have been a doctor--thus, she might have been unstable to begin with--either under the care of a psychiatrist or under the care of a general practitioner for some psychosomatic ailment. He suggests further that her conversations with Douglas may have cured her just as Miss Lucy's psychoanalysis ended her conversions (23-25). The latter two points are rather weak--Thomas has appropriately pointed out that psychoanalysis does not work the way Cargill has suggested--conversations with Douglas would not constitute psychoanalytic therapy--and that a Harley Street doctor should have been able to note the governess's instability in an initial interview and avoid sending her to Bly (42).
The second source Cargill suggests for the story is the illness of James's sister Alice and, in particular, her writings in her diary.
The governess's sexual attraction toward the master and later toward Miles and her obsessive interest in the sexual behavior of Quint and Jessel and of Miles when he was at school may have caused James to fear an adverse public reaction to the book, suggests Cargill, so he may have listed Archbishop Benson's anecdote as the source rather than Miss Lucy's story or his sister's history with their obvious erotic overtones. "What better avoucher for one's morality than the Primate of the Church of England? Could a foul story have originated in so pure a source?" (29).
Thus, Cargill's genetic criticism views two possible sources of the story--"The Case of Miss Lucy R." and Alice's Journal--to understand the effect of the story. He agrees with Goddard as to "the central motif in his story, the horror of children betrayed by their protectress, a mad woman. . ." (29).
2. Lydenberg and Firebaugh
John Lydenberg and Joseph J. Firebaugh were the two critics who were most successful in synthesizing the insights of Wilson and Heilman. These two critics, each in his own way, were able to integrate Heilman's masterful insights into the story's religious motifs with Wilson's insights concerning the shortcomings of the governess and the origins of these shortcomings in her individual psychology as it reacted to the situation in which she found herself at Bly. Furthermore, each critic was able to demonstrate how her individual shortcomings interacted with the realities Heilman had perceived to bring about the downfall of the children.
Lydenberg, for example, quotes Heilman's assertion that the descriptions of the governess "suggest that James is attaching to her the quality of savior, not only in a general sense, but with certain Christian associations" but then completes the picture with this trenchant observation:
Thus, Lydenberg's analysis takes account of the totality of the literary work--he considers not only the exponents identified by Heilman but their context, i.e., their function in a literary work with a definite narrative structure and a narrator with certain characteristics. The other characters at Bly are seen through the eyes of this character. Lydenberg reminds us of Spinoza's dictum: "What Paul says about Peter tells us more about Paul than about Peter" (39).
Lydenberg points to evidence in the prologue--such as her hasty and unwise infatuation for the employer--and to evidence within her narrative--such as her emotionalism and proclivity for jumping to conclusions --to present an unflattering portrait of the governess. I have discussed this voluminous internal evidence in my consideration of other critics such as Goddard and Wilson; there is no need of a repetition here. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Erich Fromm, Lydenberg characterizes the governess as
Lydenberg agrees with Goddard that the governess subconsciously wishes to see the ghosts, and that, at the root of this wish, is her desire to perform some heroic service for the employer and, consequently, shine in his eyes. Thus, she is led to use the children as pawns for her own gratification. She wishes to possess them totally so that they will totally serve her ends, and, in so attempting, she destroys them. She smothers them with her possessive love and hounds and terrifies them to death with her suspicions.
Lydenberg does not agree with Wilson that the ghosts are merely the governess's hallucinations. He grants them some sort of reality outside the mind of the governess but is vague as to their ontological status because, he holds, on this point the story is intentionally vague. He suggests that they have symbolic rather than everyday reality--that they are symbols of an aspect of human nature which, like original sin perhaps, exists in all people, including the governess --although she does not realize it. This reality, Lydenberg suggests, might not have flowered in such an evil form had she not "forced issues that need not have been forced" (57). Thus, it is her reaction to this pre-existing darkness in human nature which causes it here to assume so overt and destructive a form.
She is able to do this, suggests Lydenberg, because she possesses mediumistic powers which allow her to conduct forces which could not otherwise materialize. She, of course, refers to herself as a protective screen. Lydenberg seizes on this metaphor and suggests that she is a conducting rather than an intervening and protecting screen. She is, therefore, more astute than other characters such as the appropriately named Mrs. Grose. Unfortunately, her knowledge serves no wholesome end. She knows too much of evil for her own and other people's good.
Lydenberg, unlike Wilson, relates her love for the employer to a deeper and more universal flaw--the desire to shine in one's own prideful eyes by finding evil in others. He thus finds in her psychology a particular religious type and sees in the story a criticism of that New England Puritanism with which James was so familiar. And here--though Lydenberg does not push the point--he opens the door to a synthesis of Goddard's analysis of her motivation and Wilson's 1938 suggestion that the amorous relations between the two specters reflects her own subconscious desire for an illicit relationship with the employer. She is high strung and anxious even at the beginning of the story, suggests Lydenberg, because she cannot accept herself and other human beings as mixtures of good and evil. Thus, she is forced to project her evil tendencies onto others--perhaps even to partially create the ghosts or to facilitate their appearances--and triumph over evil outside herself.
Thus, Lydenberg sees the religious motifs identified by Heilman as functioning in an ironic way. He terms the governess a false savior and sees the story as a criticism of a type of Christianity--mentioning Augustine, Luther, and Calvin but then adding that the governess "is too blind to the possibilities of there being sin in her to be wholly approved by them" (58).
Lydenberg is, from beginning to end, concerned preeminently with literary values. He never turns the story into a psychiatric case history or a piece of religious propaganda. Rather, he sees the religious exponents in the light of the narrative structure and the type of narrator presented. And, like Goddard, he is primarily concerned with the effect on the reader and how it is produced. He considers it primarily a story of horror and concurs with Heilman that the horror is effected by "the children and what is happening to them." He adds, however, "What is happening to the children is, clearly and terribly, the governess" (40). He considers Heilman's view that the horror is effected by the influence of Quint and Jessel to be too abstract to do justice to the dramatic intensity of the story. Rather, he agrees with Goddard that our sense of horror arises from our perception of two innocent children being destroyed by a mad and dangerous woman.
Firebaugh, like Lydenberg, saw the religious motifs which Heilman had identified as functioning in an ironic way. However, while Lydenberg was primarily interested in the governess as a savior, and only secondarily interested in her inadequacies as a teacher, Firebaugh made the latter point the focus of his analysis of the story--and read the Biblical motifs in terms of a controlling motif of innocence versus knowledge in an Edenic setting. He did not concern himself, as had Lydenberg, with the reality of the ghosts but rather with the story's apparent messages about the relationship between knowledge and sin:
Citing Edel, Firebaugh reiterates the internal evidence many critics have noted concerning the poor judgment and emotional instability of the governess. He concentrates, however, on her teaching. "We need not concern ourselves overmuch with whether the governess is neurotic, or whether she sees visions, if we will concentration on her incompetence, shown in numerous ways" (62). An apparent weakness of Firebaugh's analysis is his apparent failure to explain how her infatuation for the employer causes her to facilitate the evil effects of the ghosts. He does, however, tie her faults to the shortcomings of the master she serves and shows, in the process, how both conspire to the children's undoing. Furthermore, his theory of her obsession with sexual knowledge which others have and she does not--and her fear of such knowledge combined with her prurient curiosity--can be easily accommodated to Geismar's psychoanalytic interpretation which sees in the story a reversal of the usual family triangle--with the adult governess functioning as the curious child and Miles and Flora as the sexually knowledgeable couple.
According to Firebaugh, the children--like all people--cannot remain innocent forever in Bly, their Garden of Eden. Quint and Jessel, like the serpent, have come bearing knowledge. The master, having set them up for a fall by hiring Quint and Jessel, has irresponsibly retired from the scene and thus becomes an ironic God figure--as the governess is an ironic priest and savior:
The governess's identification of knowledge with evil finally leads her to destroy the children. She is aided in this not only by the indifference of the uncle but by the stupidity of the appropriately named Mrs. Grose and by the headmaster's evasion of responsibility in not discussing fully the reasons for Miles's dismissal from school. This latter evasion is also a denial of knowledge on the part of a teacher, and it provides fuel for the destructive speculations of the governess.
Like Lydenberg, Firebaugh sees the story as, at least in part, a criticism of New England Puritanism with its failure to understand that knowledge and love can coexist and that perpetual innocence is not only impossible but also undesirable.
3. Other Syntheses: Bewley, Chase, Hoffmann, Siegel, Levy, Edel, Collins
Other critics seemed to sense the significance of the points raised by Wilson and the necessity for a synthesis of the two positions. Maurice Bewley, for example, in "Appearance and Reality in Henry James," saw in the relationship of the governess to the two deceased servants a reflection of the relationship between Mrs. Wix with her "moral sense" and Mrs. Beale--Maisie's former governess and Sir Claude, for whom, suggests Bewley, Mrs. Wix can be shown to harbor an infatuation --upon a careful reading of the novel. The nameless governess, according to Bewley, represents the "world's artificial system" (105) which destroys childhood innocence--a destruction symbolized by Flora's "withered fern" (111) at the end of the story. Just as Mrs. Wix employed this "moral sense" to keep Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude apart, so the governess has her own reasons--her love for the employer whom her subconscious transmutes into the figure of Quint and whose affair with Jessel she opposes--for her moral crusade at Bly (105-11).
While Bewley does agree with those psychoanalytic critics who hold that the governess subconsciously wants the ghosts to be present, he does not--like Wilson, for example--categorically deny their reality. Instead, he suggests that
He suggests that, as we read the story and enter its world, we are to accept the reality of the apparitions. He does not, however, accept the governess's confident assertions that they are the damned ghosts of the deceased servants. Rather, citing James's statements in the Preface that the apparitions "are not `ghosts' at all, as we know the ghost, but goblins, elves, imps, demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft," and the distinction James makes between "her record of so many intense anomalies and obscurities" and "her explanation of them, a different matter," Bewley suggests, following Liddell, that the apparitions are demons who have assumed the forms of Quint and Jessel.
In discussing this process of evocation, Bewley synthesizes this view of the apparitions as demons with Wilson's 1938 theory of the origins of the ghosts as projections of the governess's other self consorting illicitly with a sexualized transmutation of the employer and with his own Hawthornean suggestion that, once the story's moral point is grasped, the ontological status of the apparitions is of no significance.
The fact that the relationship of the phantoms to the two dead servants is problematic, however, is, according to Bewley, a serious flaw in the work. In this respect it compares unfavorably, contends Bewley, to What Maisie Knew. We know the real character of Maisie because we know her real history and the real Mrs. Beale and Sir Claude. We know nothing of Quint and Jessel as living human beings. The prior history of Bly is related only by an unreliable narrator. Bewley laments the fact that
This inability of the reader to make a final judgment is what causes The Turn of the Screw, according to Bewley, to compare unfavorably to What Maisie Knew.
What, finally, is of the greatest interest is the light the comparison throws on the contrasting relations between appearance and reality in the two books. For the success of Maisie arises partly from the stability of that relation as it exists there, whereas the instability of the relation in The Turn of the Screw, if it generates an effective atmosphere in the novel, nevertheless limits the possibilities of achievement (102-3).
Later, Bewley elaborates on this limitation. "What James has, in effect, accomplished, is an undermining of the laws of evidence, and a destructive foray into the grounds for moral judgment" (111). We have lost here, Bewley maintains, the
At the end of the essay, Bewley sums up the effect on the reader.
I would suggest that perhaps Bewley is mistaking his dislike of the story's worldview for a defect in the author's artistry. He has previously suggested that the ghosts "cease to matter in themselves" once the story's "moral point" has been grasped. I would add that, perhaps, the flesh and blood Quint and Jessel matter less than Bewley supposes--the story's real focus being on what the governess is doing to the children as she uses them for her own ends. Perhaps Bewley's overestimation of the importance of the living servants is an illustration of the danger of reading one literary work in light of another. Bewley might here take a lesson from the New Critics--The Turn of the Screw, after all, is not What Maisie Knew.
Although his analysis of The Turn of the Screw was not as extensive as Lydenberg's, Firebaugh's, or Bewley's, Richard Chase--in The American Novel and Its Tradition--also seemed to be leaning toward a synthesis of the Wilsonian and Heilmanian positions. Maintaining that "The Turn of the Screw is symbolistic rather than allegorical," Chase asserts that
Chase considered Wilson's interpretation to be
This symbolistic tale, however, does not yield itself to such tidy categorization:
This ambiguity--which Bewley considered an artistic flaw--Chase takes to be the point of the novella:
The universality of this theme is emphasized by Douglas's high recommendation of the governess in the prologue, which suggests that
Charles G. Hoffmann in "Innocence and Evil in James's The Turn of the Screw," effected a synthesis of what might be called the pro-governess and anti-governess positions by seeing the governess as innocent of evil rather than neurotic but nevertheless disastrously misguided in her handling of the situation at Bly.
Hoffmann follows Heilman in analyzing the light and darkness imagery which indicates a change in Miles and the youth versus age imagery which indicates a change in Flora. Hoffmann finds in this work, as in so many of James's other works, a conflict between innocence and evil. He follows Heilman in seeing in this story a particular emphasis on the duality of human nature--particularly in childhood. Contrasting The Turn of the Screw with The Pupil, Hoffmann notes that in the latter the evil parents are not innocent, and the innocent Pemberton and the child victim are not evil. In other Jamesian works,
The corruption of the children, thus, proceeds from their own nature, according to Hoffmann, although it is exacerbated by the evil ghosts who
Thus, Hoffmann takes at face value the governess's account of the supernatural happenings at Bly. He is quite specific in his denials of the mental abnormality of the governess. He denies any subconscious conflicts arising from her love for the employer:
Hoffmann does not find her initial excitability to be as significant as some other critics have found it to be:
Hoffmann also has a high regard for Mrs. Grose, seeing her as
However, although Hoffmann denies that the governess is psychologically abnormal and that she consciously or unconsciously wishes to assist in the infernal ministrations of Quint and Jessel, he does consider her to be the unwitting accomplice of that hellish pair. The difference between Hoffmann's position and Lydenberg's is that, while Lydenberg considers her neurotically engendered subconscious wishes to be the cause of her cooperation in the children's destruction, Hoffmann sees her innocence as the cause. Hoffmann has reminded us that, in James, quite frequently, the innocent "betray themselves because they are incautious in their innocence when placed in an evil environment" (97). So the unfortunate governess betrays not only herself but the children. Thus, Hoffmann compares her to Oedipus--forgetting, perhaps, that Oedipus is not really innocent and, therefore, not making as direct a connection with the concept of original sin as he might have made:
Eli Siegel's insightful criticism of the novella opened doors to a synthesis of the pro and anti- governess positions which Siegel, unfortunately, failed to see. Siegel approaches The Turn of the Screw from the perspective of his "Aesthetic Realism" which sees moral goodness and concomitant attractiveness--as well as their opposites--as functions of the relationship between what is "inside" and "outside" a person. According to Siegel, the origin of human evil is to be found in the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world" (xxi). This self-centeredness is, suggests Siegel, the underlying evil in the children which horrifies both the governess and the story's readers: "One gets the feeling that evil in Miles and Flora has to do with their separation from the feelings of others" (vii). Accordingly, Siegel strongly criticizes Wilson and other psychoanalytic critics for their heavy emphasis on sexuality and praises Heilman as a critic who "takes theology seriously" (36). He agrees with Heilman's assertion that part of the explanation of the plethora of anti-governess criticism is an overestimation of the moral purity of children and adds that critics who fail to see evil in Miles and Flora are, perhaps, "afraid of their own childhood" (36).
Siegel is also reminiscent of Heilman in his strong insistence that reduction of the evil in the story to sexual misconduct betrays a shallow understanding of the points at issue. "People want to talk about such awful things as carnal pleasure," suggests Siegel,
Thus, Siegel explains the story's lack of specificity not as a reflection of James's neurotic repressions but rather as the appropriate literary vehicle for a philosophical truth--"which is the presentation of evil as an existent thing, but also shadowy, umbrageous, hardly graspable" (61-62). This mysterious self- centeredness, which attempts to make all reality revolve around a self turned in on itself, is suggested, says Siegel, by the title: "the motion of a screw, the circumference changing to the center, the sense of a circle whirling to a center. There is the quietness of the motion; the stealthiness, in a sense" (43).
One of the most interesting components of Siegel's reading of the story is his view of the ghosts as victims, at least partially, of the possessing, wicked children. Rather than traditional possession or obsession of humans by spirits, Siegel sees the children and the ghosts locked in a symbiotic embrace of mutual possessiveness. He seems, as a matter of fact, to lay the major share of the blame on the children. In making this claim, Siegel relies partly on evidence from the text itself--for example, Flora's manipulation of the two pieces of wood during the first appearance of Miss Jessel, which Siegel interprets as a suggestion that Flora is "fixing" or "impaling" the soul of her previous governess (57); Miss Jessel's angry looks at Flora during her first and last appearances; and the female specter's black apparel and continually sad facial expression--and also what we might term authorial criticism, that attempt to deepen our understanding of one literary work by comparisons with the rest of the author's canon, an approach which, we have seen, was so fruitful in the work of such critics as Wilson and Bewley, among others. Thus, Siegel reads the work in the light of such stories as "Maud-Evelyn" and The Sacred Fount. He connects this possession of the dead servants to that deeper evil he has postulated in the psychology of the children, which seeks to devalue what is not the self.
Thus, the children's possession of the spirits is related to something deeper--"the process of taking the life out of people and wanting live things not to be alive" (21). Thus, the evil of the children reinforces and is reinforced by the evil of the specters as the quartet engage in an unholy dance, with the children "using their minds to possess two not wholly solid, not wholly alive beings, out to possess them" (151). This interpretation is, suggests Siegel, confirmed by a thoughtful perusal of James's entire ghostly canon.
Siegel sees this post-mortem possession of the servants by the children as an extension of the children's class-conscious patronization of the living pair. "Miles and Flora, being aristocratic children, get a certain satisfaction from patronizing two servants, as rich boys and girls . . . have done in the past" (5).
This patronizing--which the story strongly suggests was reciprocated by the servants, who "spoiled" the children--is reflective, says Siegel, of a deeper evil--namely, "contempt . . . satisfaction out of being able to despise another . . . the extent of the desire for this satisfaction and what it leads to, are not known, and usually not believed when seen" (xiii). This contempt is "a way that says: `A person made by God exists for me to have glory'. . . .it is evil pure" (54). This contempt, in Siegel's view, is at the root of most, if not all, injustice in the world:
It should be apparent from the foregoing summary that Siegel narrowly missed writing a great book on The Turn of the Screw and that the reason he did not write that book was his failure to recognize the implications of his own ideas--in particular, his failure to see how his insights implied the necessity of synthesizing the pro-governess and anti-governess positions.
In the first place, in his discussion of the children's possession of the two spirits, Siegel fails fully to appreciate the text's strong indications that the governess also possesses the specters and the children. What evidence he does see he underestimates or dismisses as evidence of the humility of the heroic governess who has been honest enough to include self-derogatory material in her account.
For example, when Siegel discusses the typical Jamesian ghost as "a feeling towards another that has become so much a part of yourself, it takes an outward form" (153), he fails to remember the governess's intense feelings toward and constant preoccupation with the ghosts throughout most of the story. Many examples could be cited--consider, for instance, her question in chapter thirteen: "How can I retrace today the strange steps of my obsession?" (244). We have many first person confessions of her obsession; that the children were obsessed is speculation on her part and on Siegel's.
Similarly, Siegel recalls the governess's statement in chapter seven that her own eyes "might have resembled" the "awful eyes" of Miss Jessel as they "fixed the child." He interprets this passage in a way which is complimentary to the governess:
Siegel makes a similar point when discussing the last appearance of Miss Jessel, which occurs in chapter twenty. Siegel recalls the governess's passionate cry to Mrs. Grose, "You don't see her exactly as we see?" and then makes this observation:
Siegel, however, immediately drops this point; he does not pursue its implications for the moral stature of the governess. Siegel also, in considering the "anger" of Miss Jessel in this scene, offers this speculation: "Miss Jessel could be angry because she was made to appear when she didn't want to. She was evoked at the wrong time. . ." (102). Siegel obviously thinks Miss Jessel was evoked by the governess, for he reminds us of her "gratitude" when Miss Jessel appears. He then makes a provocative statement, the implications which he never explores:
We find the same sort of pattern in Siegel's discussion of the governess's inappropriate behavior in Miles's bedroom in chapter seventeen.
Siegel, however, is quick to excuse the governess:
Also, in citing this bedroom scene as an argument against those critics who have censured the governess--such as Wilson--Siegel forgets that he has included "an infinite possibility of nursing" in his definition of the wrong kind of possession:
Here, Siegel has forgotten, apparently, the lesson he had earlier derived from "Maud-Evelyn": "how people want to make nothing of each other" (21). We find this obsession "with taking the life out of people and wanting live things not to be alive" (22) in her insistence on extremely strict standards of behavior for the children and her overreaction to even minor deviations from these standards. Recall in this connection, her argument with Mrs. Grose in chapter two. Siegel indicts the children for "taking the life out of people," but the story seems to indict the governess.
A similar case can be made concerning the deeper evil which, according to Siegel, underlies such possessiveness--namely, "the desire for contempt" or "contempt with something that looks like love" (55-6). Siegel is certainly correct in his condemnation of this desire: ". . . as soon as we begin using the weakness of another with the hope that the person continues weak or foolish to maintain our own glory--there is nothing more ugly in this world" (54).
His case is non-existent, however, when he asserts that Miles and Flora "do something to truth, to suit themselves" (vii), and "hope that [others] act contemptibly and . . . use persons' weakness to exalt [themselves] . . . [using] the weakness of adults to get [themselves] a bad glory" (5). All the story's evidence indicates that the governess does this with her inductive leaps, forced hypotheses, and all-consuming willingness to believe that the worst must be true--as critics such as Goddard, Wilson, and Lydenberg have demonstrated in detail. Siegel's argument that the uncle would be unlikely to be "so impressed as to look on the governess more favorably" by her "maligning the niece and nephew" (54) is not impressive--critics such as Goddard and Lydenberg have demonstrated in convincing detail how such fantasies could arise from her unrequited infatuation. Again, Siegel briefly touches on certain considerations but does not explore their full implications. He considers her joyful exclamations in chapter twenty-one upon hearing Mrs. Grose's testimony about Flora's shocking language but dismisses her joyful relief with this explanation:
Siegel seems not to have made up his mind about the reason for the governess's delay in contacting the children's uncle. At one point he suggests the following explanation:
At another point, however, he explains the same hesitation in a way which is much more favorable to the governess:
Even here, of course, there are implications that Siegel does not acknowledge, for numerous psychoanalytic critics have traced Hamlet's hesitation to unresolved Oedipal impulses which cause him subconsciously to identify with the evil which he consciously yearns to eradicate. G. Wilson Knight has gone so far as to suggest that Hamlet is "a thousand times more dangerous than Claudius" (35).
Siegel, in short, narrowly missed writing a great critical work. He should have started by applying his main ideas--symbiotic possession motivated by the desire for contempt--to the governess and then suggested that, perhaps, the same evil might be found in the children. Instead, he placed his central emphasis where the evidence is weakest.
Siegel, at times, seemed dimly to perceive the possibility of a Marxist reading of The Turn of the Screw. Siegel likens the evil he sees in the children to social injustice rooted in class inequalities. He suggests that "Miles and Flora, being aristocratic children, get a certain satisfaction from patronizing two servants" (5) and that "James wanted to appoint Flora and Miles as being of the ruling class of England and therefore of a higher breed than the governess" (112). Siegel suggests that James saw social injustice as the visible manifestation of what starts as an invisible evil:
Unfortunately, however, Siegel is so enamored of the governess that he cannot offer a detailed sociological reading of the story as have critics such as Spilka and Cole. Such a reading would recognize that the governess is both above and below the children and assert the full implications of the economic and sociological reasons for the hopelessness of her infatuation for the employer and the effects of that hopeless infatuation on herself and those around her.
While critics such as Lydenberg, Firebaugh, Bewley, and Chase found philosophical messages in the story's all-pervasive ambiguity--concentrating on how such ambiguity might be related to the story's theme--Leo B. Levy offered a theory concerning James's intended effects on his readers as an explanation of the genesis of the ambiguity. He thus, in a most interesting and fruitful way, combined authorial criticism--drawing insights from the author's biography and other literary works--with reader-response criticism.
Levy agreed with Edel's 1948 statements about James's disappointment and anger at the failure of his career as a playwright which drove him into seclusion during the later 1890's and precipitated the composition of the morbid ghostly tales of that period. Levy, however, rejects Edel's interpretation of the story as "a regressive flight into infantile fantasy, provoked by the collapse of . . . theatrical visions" which "had cut at the heart of his creativity." He suggests, instead, "reversing the direction of Mr. Edel's hypothesis," that
The story, in Levy's view, is "a peculiarly civilized revenge upon the audience which was still responding apathetically to Guy Domville"--i.e., "an act of retaliation upon the `vulgar' spectator of Guy Domville. So masterful was this revenge," suggests Levy,
We have here not a synthesis per se of the Wilsonian and Heilmanian positions but an implicit recognition of the merits of the arguments of both sides, for Levy suggests that neither side can be definitively refuted. The great narrative artist's intention, on the contrary was to construct a tale in which "the foundering rock remains: there is no way of positively determining the point of view from which we are to read" (287). This interpretation, says Levy, throws light on some details of the story which most critics have overlooked--for example, in the prologue, the departure of several guests "whose interest is crude to begin with" and whose disappointment is evident when Douglas says, "The story won't tell . . . not in any literal, vulgar way" (287). Levy also suggests that, throughout the story, "the note of the disreputable and the lurid, the deceptive and the false, is sustained by images of the theater"--citing as examples "the histrionic talents of the children" as
Leon Edel, also, during this period, offered not a synthesis of the Wilsonian and Heilmanian readings, but an interpretation which acknowledged both sides by postulating an irreducible ambiguity as one of the main constituents of the story. Recall that, in 1948, Edel had seemed to hedge on the question of the ontological status of the ghosts, contending that "of paramount interest are . . . the persons who see the apparitions" (xxvi). He suggested, further, that the story's deliberately created ambiguities invite readers to mix their own fantasies with those of the terrified fictional characters, thus heightening the disturbing character of the reading experience.
In 1953 Edel published Henry James: Stories of the Supernatural, a reissue of the 1948 Ghostly Tales of Henry James containing "an entirely new introduction," as well as "extensively revised and rewritten . . . historical and critical prefaces preceding each tale." Here Edel appears to assume an unequivocally non-apparitionist position, going so far as to compare the self-deluded governess to Adolph Hitler:
Edel, however, is quick to caution that
He also recognizes the informational lacunae in the story which are so numerous that "the reader experiences difficulty in obtaining and giving a wholly coherent account of the happenings" (428). This ambiguity is ineradicable--hence, no interpretation can be accepted as proven to the exclusion of others. Hence, suggests Edel, the plethora of interpretations proves the mystery is insoluble. "To have everything explained in a hundred different ways is, in reality, to explain nothing" (429). Edel enumerates three possible readings: "as a `pure' tale of the supernatural . . . as a psychological case . . . as a fantasy of James's--that is, as a part of his own imaginative life" (428).
In reading the story in one of these ways--or in any other way--"The reader's fancies are apt to become confused with those of the governors, who tells her story with so much self-assurance--almost as if she were trying to convince herself" (428). There, of course, Edel brings to the story a reader-response approach which, at the end of the nineteen seventies, would be developed at much greater length by Felman. Edel here is engaging in genre criticism, for he finds this involvement of the reader to be a milestone in the history of narrative art.
Edel reiterated these points in The Psychological Novel: 1900-1950, which was published in 1955. There, treating The Turn of the Screw as a precursor to such works as The Sound and the Fury, Edel contrasted it with Notes from Underground, noting that in the Jamesian work there is "no . . . obvious signaling" that the narrator is unreliable or even mad. Thus, like Goddard, Edel partly accounts for the story's effect by pointing out that
Edel considers the narrative "frame"--the three narrators and the information they provide and fail to provide--as an important part of the methodology whereby James leads the reader "unsuspectingly." This narrative "frame" would later be considered extensively by Jones. Edel also follows Goddard in suggesting that the reader is led astray by a clever mixture of factual and supposititious material. "She speculates and she assumes--and what she first states as fancy, she later states as fact" (62). The confusing effect of this interweaving is augmented by the statements of another narrator.
We see, then, that Edel, during this period, considered the ambiguities which gave rise to the apparitionist/non-apparitionist debate to be an ineradicable part of the structure of the literary work and, rather than argue for a particular interpretation, attempted to explain how this ambiguity arose as the literary work--with its particular structure--interacted with various readers. He then found a place, and an important one, for this ambiguous work in literary history.
In May of 1949, Carvel Collins suggested "an additional ambiguity which may possibly add support" to Wilson's interpretation of "that story which without its ambiguities would be dull but with them has elicited so much discussion." Collins's suggestion, which would later be restated and developed in more detail by Rubin, is that Douglas and Miles are the same person. Such a reading, says Collins, would strengthen Wilson's view because it would mean that Miles did not die at the story's end as the Governess says--this inaccuracy should make the reader
In support of this reading, Collins states the following similarities from the plot:
Collins also cites Douglas's "excess of emotion" regarding the governess and her manuscript and suggests that James would not make this narrator "excessively emotional" about the events in question
Some critics would accuse Collins of in-reading when he suggests Miles's later recovery, Mrs. Grose's silence out of loyalty to the governess, Flora being "placated" and remaining with the governess and Mrs. Grose while Miles went away to school and/or to live with the uncle, and the subsequent reunion of Miles and the governess. We must remember, however, that Collins italicizes the word possibility in presenting this reading of the story and presents it as a "meaningful ambiguity." We might also recall Edel's reminders in 1948, 1953, and 1955 that those critics who "fill in the blanks" from their own imaginations are doing what James specifically invited them to do in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition and what the story itself--with its many seemingly unanswerable questions--seems to require its readers to do. Collins, furthermore, considers the similarities he cites from the story to be "considerable documentation" and suggests that "James was such a careful worker elsewhere that the following items are probably not without significance." Collins's statements about James's purposes or intentions should not be considered examples of the intentional fallacy, for Collins is careful to look only for purposes actually realized in the construction of the story, i.e., purposes discernable in the text itself.
Collins is clearly in the non-apparitionist camp, yet he pays some attention to Heilman and other such critics by his recognition that the story is ambiguous--i.e., that no interpretation can be proven to be exclusively correct.
Collins's concern is not with philosophical messages which might be derived from the story's ambiguity--here he can be contrasted with Bewley, Chase, and Liddel--but with how the effect is produced. He is, in other words, concerned with James's literary craftsmanship as such; he wants to deepen our understanding of how the story works--as a student of painting techniques might strive to understanding exactly what a painter did to cause a portrait's eyes to "follow" the spectator no matter at what angle the spectator might stand. In this regard, Collins's approach is very close to that of Edgar Allen Poe, who also was concerned with analyzing technique and who saw literature as entertainment rather than philosophy.
4. Failures to Synthesize Leading to Devaluation of the Work: