Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folklore in James's Fiction: Turning the Screw

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folklore in James's Fiction: Turning the Screw

Article excerpt

Henry James is not commonly studied for his folkloric debt. Out of the volumes of scholarship devoted to James, relatively few consider his incorporation of or reliance on folkloric materials and conventions Jones, Folklore and Literature in the United States, 1984). For example, while there have been well over one thousand publications concerning The Turn of the Screw, making it one of the most studied works of all time (see Peter Beidler, "A Critical History of The Turn of the Screw," 1995), only a handful discuss the folklore elements in that text. This critical neglect of the folklore connection is misleading, however, for James was an astute observer of cultural phenomena, and he frequently employed folk paradigms, conventions, and motifs in his art. In particular, understanding the use of folklore in The Turn of the Screw is crucial to unraveling the Gordian Knot that constitutes that text.

Unfortunately, previous folkloristic studies of The Turn of the Screw, while pointing audiences in the right direction, have not fully aided our understanding of that novella. Robert Gale in 1959 notes briefly that James frequently refers to numerous fairy tales and cites certain correspondences to traditional narratives. George Knox (1963) discusses the use of incubi and succubi in the story, linking it to tales of the supernatural. Eleanor Gornto in her dissertation, "A Study of the Influence of the Fairy Tale on the Fiction of Henry James" (1973), presents the view that the fairy tale offered James an exaggerated fictional reality against which to measure his essential realism in The Turn of the Screw as well as in other works. Joseph Firebaugh (1975) points out that the man from Harley Street resembles the God of the Old Testament.

Mary Hallab notes in "The Turn of the Screw Squared" (1977) the parallels to fairy tales in the Arabian Nights and the Grimms' collection, and the resemblance of the activity of the ghosts to the fairies of legendary lore, which traditionally try to possess or to spirit away children. She suggests further that Miles's death, which occurs in the fall, corresponds to the traditional sacrifice of myth and vegetation gods, and that the taboo not to call the uncle and the Governess's attempt to name the ghosts (cf. "Rumplestiltskin") are also folkloric motifs. She sees a Jungian psychic function in these folkloric allusions, symbolically portraying the Governess's rebirth into a fully integrated personality, as reflected in the relationship of the characters in the resolution.

In her subsequent contribution "The Governess and the Demon Lover: The Return of a Fairy Tale" (1987), Hallab revises her assessment and, based on parallels between James's tale and two fairy tales concerning a young woman engaged to look after the children of a fairy master, as well as the resemblance to the tale of Cupid and Psyche (AT 425), suggests that The Turn of the Screw is itself essentially a fairy tale in which "the truth is psychological and universal rather than material and particular" (114). Rather than interpreting the ghosts as fairies coming to spirit away the children, she claims "the children and the ghosts can be seen as already inhabiting the fairy or 'other' world, into which the governess enters" (106). She then reads the tale as if it were a true fairy tale that uses the symbolic imagery of ghosts to depict the psychological development of the heroine concerning her own dark animus and her relationship with a prospective mate.

Hers is an ingenious Jungian reading that would make great sense if this were indeed a true folktale or fairy tale, rather than an imitation or literary parody of the fairy tale genre. While her documentation of the parallels is very persuasive, Hallab overlooks some significant differences between the traditional tales and James's tale that call her reading into question: specifically, the fact that it is a written document (see Kauffman, 1981), that it is told in the first person (see McElroy, 1982), that it is much longer than a traditional tale, that the characterization and style are much more elaborated than traditional tales (see Luthi, 1970 and 1982), and, finally, that Miles's death does not fit the mold nor does it make sense if he were truly a fairy child, since a fairy child would not be mortal. …

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