Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"What's Your Title?" - 'The Turn of the Screw.'

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"What's Your Title?" - 'The Turn of the Screw.'

Article excerpt

Henry James's ghosts," Virginia Woolf once observed, "have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts--the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons" (179). Indeed, when the governess of The Turn of the Screw encounters her first ghost, she takes him for an ordinary man. She is, to be sure, agitated by his unexpected appearance, but her fears are perfectly understandable: An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear," she explains, "to a young woman privately bred" (James, Turn 16). Moreover, this man does betray a want of breeding, for he is not respectably attired ("there was a touch of the strange freedom, as I remember, in . . . his wearing no hat" [17]) and is too bold with his stares. But he is not taken for a ghost. And when the governess sees him again, this time more closely, her perception of him does not change: he is impudent, but he is not a demon.

To the reader, however, this man has "ghost" written all over him. Speculation that he may be from the village, or even from a more remote locality, is dismissed out of hand. Not only is he not from the village, the reader secretly vaunts, the intruder is not from this world. Furthermore, those noises the governess heard her first night in the house and Miles's dismissal from school--they, too, must be ascribed to some demonic intervention. As readers, we are confident that a supernatural explanation will be found for each of these mysterious occurrences even though the governess herself, at this point in the story, has not begun to entertain this possibility, nor do the events in themselves warrant our doing so. What, then, makes us so certain, and so reluctant to put a different construction on the events? The answer is obvious: the narrative prologue to the talc.

By identifying in advance the generic form of the governess's tale, the prologue narrows the hermeneutic boundaries around the text. Told to expect a ghost story, we dutifully adjust our reading to suit this particular narrative format. Thus, instead of naively asking ourselves, for instance, who that stranger trespassing on the master's estate may be, we jump to the conclusion that he is probably a ghost. The prologue has preconditioned us to accept the "logic" of this inference.

Moreover, to discourage us even further from questioning the objective reality of the "ghosts," the prologue inculcates respect for the governess's character and discernment. We are informed in the introductory narrative that our storytelling governess was not only "charming" and "agreeable," awfully clever and nice"; she was a woman who would "have been worthy of any [responsible position] whatsoever" (2). Such a strong endorsement of the governess's judgment and character, though tendered by an admirer who only became acquainted with the woman some 10 years after the events related in her manuscript, cannot be dismissed as insignificant. Douglas (that admirer) may be partial, even extravagant in his praise of the governess's capacities, but there is no suggestion that he would deliberately misrepresent her. To him, the governess was simply a brave young woman who sought to rid the children under her care of a demonic possession.

To summarize then, the prologue does direct our reading of the governess's narrative in quite a determined manner. It is not unusual for a writer to control the interpretation of his or her material in this way. But for James to do so, it seems to me, is extraordinary. For how could the "James" of common literary renown, so firmly opposed to the obtrusive authorial hand, have condoned such flagrant authorial manipulation? It is difficult to imagine him saying, as James seems to in the narrative prologue to the talc, "My dear reader, this is--don't you know?--just a ghost story," without detecting a touch of irony in that reductionist just, that confidential don't you know? Surely one of the last things James would stoop to in a fictional work would be to tell us, in no uncertain terms, what we should know. …

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