The Turn of the Screw
A History of Its Critical Interpretations 1898 - 1979
Edward J. Parkinson, PhD

Chapter Seven - Conclusion


The time has come to summarize this history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw.

The first critic of note was James himself, who commented on the story in his Notebooks, in the Prefaces to Volumes 12 and 17 of the New York Edition, and in correspondence. I have demonstrated that these statements are not helpful to critics seeking to enlist James on one side or the other of the major controversies which have dominated the criticism of the novella--the reality of the ghosts, their nature, the moral stature of the governess, or even the seriousness and artistic merit of the work. On the contrary, we find in his statements such a pervasive ambiguity that the same statements have frequently been quoted as evidence for conflicting claims. On the other hand, I have cited evidence--particularly from the Prefaces--to indicate that his intention was to effect an unresolvable ambiguity in contrast to "the offered example, the imputed vice, the cited act, the limited deplorable presentable instance" (Preface to v. 12 xii); and we have made a case for placing James in the reader-response camp, in anticipation of critics such as Norman Holland, David Bleich, Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish and others:

Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself--and that already is a charming job--and his own experience, and his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him with all the particulars (Preface to v. 12 xxi).

One of the major trends I have noted in this study is the tendency of critics to move away from one-sided "stands" on the apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy--particularly after Heilman's 1948 essay. I suggested in chapter four that, after Wilson had so ably argued the non-apparitionist position and Heilman had so brilliantly argued for an apparitionist interpretation, it became increasingly difficult for critics to ignore either set of elements in the novella. Consequently, I perceived--beginning with critics such as Bewley, Hoffman, Chase, Lydenberg, and Firebaugh--a tendency to offer interpretations which synthesized apparitionist and non-apparitionist readings and, beginning in the sixties, an increasing tendency to consider the work inherently and insolubly ambiguous and to concentrate on explaining how the ambiguity is produced by the structure of the text and the effects of this ambiguity on the reader. These trends culminated in the reader-response structuralist criticism of Felman and the linguistically based criticism of Brooke-Rose and Rimmon. Thus, in one sense, the critical history can be seen as a journey to the place where James began.

Beginning with the earliest critical reactions to the novella, we see a consistent 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 at the beginning of our story and Samuels and Lind at the end.

From the very beginning we see the story's ambiguity reflected in the large number of outstanding writers and critics on both sides of the apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy. The non- apparitionist trend climaxed in Wilson's famous 1934 essay, while the apparitionist trend reached a similar climax in 1948, with the publication of Heilman's famous essay. After that, as I have noted, the trend was first toward achieving a synthesis of the opposing readings--leading in the sixties and seventies to very rich readings--such as those of Nardin, Fryer, Cole, Mogen, Stone, Spilka, Fraser, Rees, and Grunes--in which Marxist insights were synthesized with theological and psychoanalytic interpretations. Some early critics, such as Oliver Elton and Virginia Woolf, effected syntheses of sorts but, in so doing, did not present detailed analyses of the story. The first such detailed syntheses were offered by Lydenberg and Firebaugh in the fifties. One of the merits of Goddard's essay (written in the twenties but not published until the fifties, posthumously) is that it can easily be read in conjunction with essays such as those of Lydenberg, Firebaugh, Bewley, Hoffmann, and others which effect syntheses of the apparitionist and non-apparitionist positions.

We have seen that most of the very early criticism was impressionistic and subjective--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 is not surprising in view of the fact that the academic study of "English" was in its infancy at the turn of the century. Sir Arthur Quiller Couch had recently become the first Professor of English at Cambridge (Eagleton 28). In the United States, even outstanding writers such as Twain and Howells practiced literary criticism largely as a form of journalism.

This impressionistic stream found issue in two closely related tributaries--the phenomenological criticism of Kenton in the early twenties and the personal narrative criticism of Broun in the early thirties, which would reach its zenith in 1964 with the publication of Muriel West's A Stormy Night With The Turn of the Screw. Kenton's and Broun's essays appeared, of course, when Husserl was doing his most important philosophical work on the Continent. It is not surprising, therefore, that, during this period, a critic such as Kenton would attempt to clarify the hidden intentions of the author by intuiting gestalts from the text and relaying them to the reader, and attempt to achieve a "union" with the consciousness of the author by first identifying with the consciousness of a fictional character, the governess.

Other trends can be better understood when they are contrasted with the approach of Kenton. For example, although she attempts to understand the governess and the reader's response to the story, she must be distinguished from psychoanalytic critics such as Cargill, Bontly, Cranfill and Clark, Katan, and Aldrich--who seek such understanding through a detailed examination of the governess's words and actions in the light of psychoanalytic theories offered by Freud or other theorists, just as she must be distinguished from critics such as Felman and Brooke-Rose who attempt to understand the reader's responses through detailed studies of the structures of the text. Similarly, Kenton's attempts to understand the author's intentions are to be contrasted with psychoanalytic studies of the author such as those of Katan, Rosenzweig, or Aswell, and from historical-biographical approaches such as those of Sheppard, Stone, or Timms.

Wilson's 1934 essay was, of course, a watershed-- because of the persuasiveness and richness of the essay (its syntheses of psychological and sociological insights, for example, and its illuminating insights into the whole of the Jamesian canon), as well as because of Wilson's outstanding critical reputation. The 1938 version, with its addition of Jungian insights, was even more insightful and persuasive. The period from 1934 to 1948 was dominated by the apparitionist/non-apparitionist debate as critics reacted to Wilson. This debate reached its climax in 1948, with the appearance of Heilman's essay, an exponential/theological study arguably equal in stature to Wilson's psychoanalytic study. Some outstanding psychoanalytic criticism followed Wilson during this period--work by Edel, L.C. Knights, and Rosenzweig, for example. These would be followed in the fifties by more work by Edel, as well as Levy's brilliant combination of psychoanalytic authorial and reader-response criticism.

Wilson's essays were fine examples of that type of psychoanalytic criticism which focuses on the author and, in so doing, sheds additional light on the literary work. His criticism never deteriorated into mere psychoanalysis of an individual of historical importance; rather, his aim was always better to understand the works in question and the reader's responses to those works by exploring the creative processes of the author and the persona which the author projected in the narratives. His criticism related The Turn of the Screw to the rest of the Jamesian canon in such a way that the novella and the rest of the canon served to illuminate one another. The 1938 revision, in addition to considering additional internal evidence to support Wilson's thesis, and expanding the discussion of James's other works, offered insights which could be further developed in Jungian interpretations of the story--such as the work of Hallab in the seventies.

Most of the critical reactions during this period, however, were mixtures of formalistic analyses of the text and attempts to understand the author's intentions through an analysis of the statements James made about the story--i.e., the work of critics such as Stoll, Andreas, etc. Much of this criticism was unsophisticated by later standards--with Stoll, for example, confusing James's statements about the governess with Douglas's statements about her, and Fagin apparently forgetting that an author's stated intentions are irrelevant as guides to interpretation unless those intentions can be shown to have been realized in the work. This formalistic dominance is not surprising, since the period was dominated by the New Criticism

that began with the work of I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot before the war in England, and was continued by figures such as John Crowe Ransom, W.K. Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate in the United States during the forties, fifties, and sixties (Jefferson and Robey65).

Much of the analysis of James's statements can be attributed to critics incompletely convinced by the New Critical approach--consider, for example, Stoll's protest against critics who insist that "intentions do not matter" (233).

All of the psychoanalytic studies during this period focused primarily on the author. They were examples of what Wright calls "classical" psychoanalysis--the kind appearing in Imago "from 1912 to 1937" (Jefferson and Robey 113) and exemplified by Marie Bonaparte's study of Poe in 1949 (Jefferson and Robey 115), in which the psychoanalytic critic "treated the literary text as analogous to the dream and believed that by detailed examination of its workings he could make it yield up the psychology of its creator" (Jefferson and Robey 114). Later, structuralist psychoanalysis--focusing on the relations between the text and the reader--drew heavily on such concepts as the Lacanian theories of the relationship of sexuality to language (relating the Oedipal "loss" of the mother to the loss of correspondence between signifier and signified). This psychoanalysis began to become influential in the fifties--mediated through figures such as I.A. Richards and Ernest Kris (Jefferson and Robey 116-117). Both types of criticism continued throughout the period surveyed by this history--with the former type, probably by the virtue of a widely increasing sophistication in scholarship, becoming more and more like source studies--i.e., Cranfill and Clark, Cargill, and Lind--and also more concerned with the text's effects on the reader. The second type reached its zenith in the seventies--particularly in the work of Felman, but also in the work of Brooke-Rose, who integrated such psychoanalytic criticism into her linguistically based approach.

Wilson, of course, recognized the contribution Victorian class distinctions made to the problems of the governess and other fictional characters in James's canon. We find much more detailed and sophisticated integrations of sociological and psychological insights, however, in the sixties and seventies in the work of critics such as Spilka, Nardin, Cole, Rees, Stone, Fryer, and Fraser. The pattern of integrations was influenced, perhaps, by the pervasive influence--beginning in the sixties--of "structuralist" Marxists, such as the Marxist psychoanalytic theorist Louis Althusser (Selden 9-42).

Beginning in the sixties, also, we see the influence of structuralism in the increasing assumption that literature is an isolated and self-referential universe. We find this view reflected in Turn of the Screw criticism which attempts to contextualize the novella in the world of literature rather than to seek a "meaning" external to the world of literature. Thus, Enck understands the work in the context of similar works at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, Heilman, Feuerlich, and Fraser see the work as part of a body of literature and contend that fictional works which are not sources can nevertheless aid in understanding The Turn of the Screw. Booth explains how other literary works necessarily predispose critics to read The Turn of the Screw in certain ways. Muriel West in A Stormy Night with The Turn of the Screw sees The Turn of the Screw as a literary work made up of bits and pieces of many other literary works. Also, West's A Stormy Night, like Solomon's study, is itself a literary work. West combines literary criticism and fiction to produce a hybrid form--her book is both a critical study and a novella with a fictional and largely unreliable narrator commenting on both real and imaginary authors and literary works--while Solomon hybridizes literary criticism and satirizing of other literary critics. Many critics during this period insisted that the work cannot be understood except in the context of the entire Jamesian canon--for example, Rubin, West, Vaid, Sharp, Shine, Ward, Krook, Spilka, Stone, Fraser, and Thomas. Thus, each author's canon is considered, in some sense, to be a distinct world with its own rules and criteria of meaning. In the seventies we see a continuation of the tendency to view the world of literature as an isolated and self-referential universe. This is reflected in the source studies of Sheppard, Purton, Ryburn, Tintner, and Duthie. It is also seen in the attempts of critics such as Voegelin, Wirth-Nesler, and Merrivale to understand the novella through comparisons with other literary works without suggesting that the other works are sources for The Turn of the Screw or that The Turn of the Screw is a source for the other works. Finally, many critics during this period sought to understand the novella by viewing it in the context of other Jamesian works--Sheppard, Huntley, Dyson, Voegelin--to cite a few examples.

Heilman's 1948 essay was a significant early example of archetypal criticism. In the fifties critics such as Firebaugh, Lydenberg, Bewley, Chase, and Hoffmann also noted the existence of archetypal elements in the story but tended to combine these sets of insights with Wilsonian insights concerning the self-interested motives, neurotic patterns, and self-deceptions of the governess. In the sixties and seventies these types of insights tended to be employed to make points about the response of the reader to the text. Thus, in A Stormy Night West saw the combinations of archetypes reflecting the chaotic pattern of a nightmare and having a comparable effect on the reader. In the seventies Hallab and Stepp saw the reader affected by the apperception of repressed and warring archetypes being harmonized in a grownup Miles--Douglas--and a governess who had become the self-reflective author of the narrative.

Also, from the very beginning of our story we see a few critics such as Grabo and Goddard concerned with analyzing the narrative structures of the work--consider Grabo's "wave theory" and Goddard's suggestion of the coexistence of two plots--the ghost story and the more credible story of two children in the care of an insane governess, to which the reader responds subliminally. This type of attempt was made again and again--for example, in the fifties and sixties with Collins's, Levy's, Rubin's, and Trachtenberg's analyses of the ambiguous fusion of the identities of Douglas and Miles, in the late fifties with Jones's analysis of the three narrator "frame" structure, and in the sixties with Costello's, Krook's, and Enck's studies of the patterns of the plot, and Muriel West's study of syntactical ambiguity in "The Death of Miles in The Turn of the Screw." It reached its zenith, of course, in the seventies with the structuralist psychoanalytic reader-response criticism of Felman and the linguistically based criticism of Brooke-Rose and Rimmon.

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