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Sunday, 30 December 2018

The 3rd interpretation of The Turn of the Screw

I’ve been reading the analyses in the Norton edition of The Turn of the Screw. Readers mostly fall into 2 camps: 
1) The ghosts exist, and the children are evil. 
2) The ghosts are figments of the sexually repressed governess’s imagination. 
The 2nd interpretation is often called the Freudian reading. 
Harold C. Goddard’s essay, for example, mentions the governess’s lack of experience, her “excessively nervous and emotional” tendencies, insomnia, overactive imagination, and the fact that she “falls instantly and passionately in love” with the employer, and her love is thwarted. 
“When a young person, especially a young woman, falls in love and circumstances forbid the normal growth  and confession of the passion, the emotion, damned up, overflows in a psychical experience, a daydream, or internal drama which the mind creates in lieu of the thwarted realization in the objective world. In romantic natures this takes the form of imagined deeds of extraordinary heroism or self-sacrifice done in behalf of the beloved object. The governess’s is precisely such a nature and the fact that she knows her love is futile intensifies the tendency. Her whole being tingles with the craving to perform some act of unexampled courage. To carry out her duties as governess is not enough. They are too humdrum. If only the house would take fire by night, and both children be in peril! Or if 1 of them would fall into the water! But no such crudely melodramatic opportunities occur. What does occur is something far more indefinite, far more provocative to the imaginative than to the active faculties: the boy, Miles, is dismissed from school for no assigned or assignable reason. Once more, the hint of something evil and extraordinary behind the scenes! It is just the touch of objectivity needed to set off the subconsciousness of the governess into an orgy of myth-making. Another woman of a more practical and common sense turn would have made inquiries, would have followed the thing up, would have been insistent. But it is precisely complication and not explanation that this woman wants—though of course she does not know it.” 
Edmund Wilson belongs to this camp, and points out the Freudian symbols in the novella: “the male apparition first appears on a tower and the female apparition on a lake”. 
I’m in the 2nd camp, but don’t really see it on Freudian terms. I don’t think her love for the employer (after meeting him once) is the cause of anything, other than her unreasonable refusal to contact him when things get complicated, and don’t know if sexual repression is the explanation for her behaviour. It is perhaps in her nature to imagine things, make up stories, and see herself as a saviour. 
I think the ghosts are not real, or at least the children don’t see them, strictly because evidence shows that she is dishonest and an unreliable narrator, whatever the cause. 
The copy I have includes an essay by Robert B. Heilman, “The Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw”, in which he argues why the psychoanalytical reading of the book is commonplace and simplistic. Mostly, he responds to the arguments of Edmund Wilson and Edna Kenton. 
It is a rather good essay, with compelling arguments, but he doesn’t refute any of my arguments about the governess’s unreliability as a narrator, nor her obvious lies. He also overstates the seriousness of some of the children’s actions, to fit his narrative. I think, for example, that it is not out of character for an 8-year-old (Flora) to run off alone to the lake and enjoy her freedom—it is oppressing to always be followed by an adult. There is nothing particularly strange and evil about Miles stealing the letter either—considering the fact that he doesn’t hear anything from the uncle, his letters to the uncle are never sent, he doesn’t know when he’s coming back to school or going to another school, the governess and housekeeper (Mrs Grose) both keep information from him, the governess once talks about saving him (which he doesn’t understand), then suddenly his sister Flora gets traumatised and sent away, it makes perfect sense that he steals the letter to see what the governess tells his uncle about him and his sister. 
These actions only appear as evil to a mind like the governess’s, whatever she has. 
The only arguments from Heilman that I can’t refute are the ones I’ve already mentioned: the governess’s accurate description of Peter Quint before knowing about him, and the framed narrative. 
“The prologue tells us explicitly: at the age of 30 or so she is still a spinster, still a governess, and therefore still heir, we may assume, to all psychic ills which Wilson imputes to her at the earlier stage. But at this age she seems, to a Cambridge undergraduate whom, 10 years her junior, we may expect to be thoroughly critical, a fine, gracious woman who can elicit liking and respect.” 
That is something I cannot explain, unless Douglas, the other narrator, is also unreliable. 
So now I’ve just discovered that there’s a 3rd interpretation, from Allen Tate: 
“The governess doesn’t invent these apparitions; they merely use her as a medium. Because, obviously, the monstrous proportions of the evil are so great that they are beyond the power of any individual imagination to invent. There is something much stronger than the governess operating through her. She has her own innocent later existence, as is proved, I think, by the prologue of the story, where we learn that after this terrible incident had passed, she went on to other posts and nothing like it occurred again. It was some peculiar conjunction of forces which permitted this evil to emerge through her here.” 
I don’t necessarily agree that “the monstrous proportions of the evil are so great that they are beyond the power of any individual imagination to invent”. After all, the governess gets some facts from Mrs Grose about the depravity of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and the letter about Miles’s expulsion, to help her own imagination run wild. 
But what do you think? Is it the governess who is possessed by the ghosts?

6 comments:

  1. i think most readers and reviewers make the same mistake: analyzing the story from a modern viewpoint. HJ and his society believed in certain ideas about people and women in general which are not considered valid in today's world, and he wrote with that understanding in mind. it's not true that women behave strictly from emotions and react with no intellectual or analytical grasp of the events around them. With this in mind, i think HJ's story is no more than a piece of memorabilia, not any sort of statement about how a person today would react under similar circumstances... or did even back then, as his plot is based on how he thought his characters would behave, not as they actually might. In other words, i thing HJ was guilty of not understanding humans very well... this is not to say that research into this kind of work is futile: on the contrary, it could provide a vehicle for further knowledge; but confusing reality with a dated story should be eschewed, i think...

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    1. Sounds like you don't think very highly of Henry James then.
      I haven't read enough of Henry James to conclude, and I'm not even much of a James fan, but I don't think the time in which someone lived would necessarily make them have wrong, distorted ideas about women. What you wrote above cannot be applied for Tolstoy and Flaubert (in their best works), for example.
      Also, I don't know what you mean about "confusing reality with a dated story", because when and how do you decide something is a dated story? It can't be time. I've always thought the best (male) writer of female characters is Tolstoy, despite his misogyny. Flaubert is another great one. I also thought Henry James was good. If it's not time, the date of the work, how do you decide something is dated?

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  2. The multiplicity of desperate attempts at interpretation only serve to confirm my interpretation, of course. Available at the old bloggo. Did those Freudians even read the frame? Did they just ignore its narrator (not Douglas, although he is in on it)?

    There are no ghosts, but there are ghost stories. Those are real enough. James wrote a number of stories around the time of "Turn" about problems of interpretation in fiction. I think "The Figure in the Carpet" is the most interesting, but the ghost story crowd prefers this one.

    If a reader wants the ghosts to be "real," then they are "real," although they will never be real.

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    1. I've seen your post.
      I've been thinking about the frame story and Douglas, but I'm not a fan of your idea of Henry James being the narrator and making up the story himself, because it wouldn't really change anything. It would be a story within a story, but it's still a story, with the same issues as the ones people discuss.
      The only thing that would change the interpretation is to do with Douglas, the silence of 40 years, what he says about the governess, and what it all means.

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    2. To be more direct, the story is about the interpretation of stories. Not all of the "issues" people find cannot be resolved from within the text. The contradictions and gaps are deliberate, or at least he knows they exist. They are inherent in story-telling.

      This is maybe a little clearer in "The Figure in the Carpet," not that that has stopped anyone from saying they have solved the puzzle.

      A curious question is why the audience in the frame wants the ghost story to be true, or at least to pretend that it is true. The narrator is blatantly winking at them, but they do not want to see it. The screw loses its tension.

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    3. I do notice that the gaps are deliberate, it's meant to be ambiguous, and either interpretation can be refuted in some way.
      I notice, too, that the critics get their answers also from outside the text. Those things don't really interest me much. I'm mostly basing my interpretation on the unreliability of the narrator- the governess.
      I haven't read "The Figure in the Carpet". My uni library in Leeds is quite shitty. Miss the one in Oslo.

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