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

Chapter I - Henry James on The Turn of the Screw


Any history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw should begin with a discussion of Henry James's own statements about what is arguably his most enigmatic and controversial work.

The Ghosts: Hallucinations Or Realities

The first point to be made is that James did not come down unequivocally on one side or the other of the central controversy concerning The Turn of the Screw--focused by Edmund Wilson's famous assertion (in his 1934 essay) that "the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess's hallucinations" (385). Indeed, James's statements on that score are perhaps as enigmatic as the novella itself.

For example, in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James (the volume in which The Turn of the Screw appears in definitive form),1 James asserts his intention to avoid "the new type... [of ghost story], the mere modern 'psychical' case, washed clean of all queerness as by exposure to a flowing laboratory tap, and equipped with credentials vouching for this" (xv).

One problem with this quotation is the meaning of the word "psychical." The American Heritage Dictionary (2nd College Edition, 1982) lists two quite different definitions of "psychic... Also psychical": "of or pertaining to the human mind or psyche"; and "of or pertaining to extraordinary, especially extrasensory and nonphysical, mental processes ... proceeding from, produced by, or responding to such processes."

Seizing on the latter definition and apparently oblivious of the former, Edmund Wilson -- perhaps the Freudian non-apparitionist2 par excellence -- in his 1934 essay argues that the ghosts of Quint and Jessel are not "those in cases of psychic research" (389). Similarly, Leon Edel, who also reads the story psychoanalytically, in his Introduction to The Ghostly Tales of Henry James interprets this passage in James's Preface as a devaluation of any story "too closely resembling a case history out of psychical research" because such material would be "unusable to a literary artist" (xxvii). On the contrary, James's ghost stories, says Edel, "constitute a series of psychological case histories of disturbed and frightened people" (xxx) -- in this instance,

the testimony of a horrified little governess away from home for the first time in her life who has fantasies which may or may not be founded on reality, but which partake of reality as far as she is concerned (xxix).

At the other end of the spectrum, Glen A. Reed, assuming the other definition of the word "psychical," cites the very same passage from James as evidence that the author of The Turn of the Screw would have opposed non-apparitionist readings:

if the evils and the ghosts are able to escape as mere hallucinations of the governess ... if we treat the story as a psychological study in sexual frustration, as Mr. Wilson suggests, then James is guilty of attempting to write the very type of modern `psychical' case he scorned (417).

The situation is further complicated by the fact that both Henry James and his brother William had a lifelong interest in both mental illness and paranormal phenomena -- i.e., a lifelong interest in the "psychical" in each of the senses given.

Later, however, in the same Preface, James specifically discusses scientific investigations of paranormal phenomena.

I had ... for instance simply to renounce all attempts to keep the kind and degree of impression I wished to produce on terms with the today so copious psychical record of cases of apparitions (xix).

This seems clear enough upon a first reading, yet upon further reflection difficulties arise.

James's main objection to the ghosts of psychical research seems to be their inactive and innocuous quality -- i.e., they cannot terrify because they do so little. His remarks on this matter are worth citing at some length:

Different signs and circumstances, in the reports, mark these cases; different things are done--though on the whole very little appears to be--by the persons appearing; the point is, however, that some things are never done at all: this negative quality is large--certain reserves and proprieties and immobilities consistently impose themselves. Recorded and attested `ghosts' are in other words as little expressive, as little dramatic, above all as little continuous and conscious and responsive, as is consistent with their taking the trouble--and an immense trouble they find it, we gather--to appear at all. Wonderful and interesting therefore at a given moment, they are inconceivable figures in an action--and The Turn of the Screw was an action, desperately, or it was nothing. I had to decide in fine between having my apparitions correct and having my story 'good'--that is producing my impression of the dreadful, my designated horror. Good ghosts, speaking by book, make poor subjects, and it was clear that from the first my hovering prowling blighting presences, my pair of abnormal agents, would have to depart altogether from the rules. They would be agents in fact; there would be laid on them the dire duty of causing the situation to reek with an air of Evil. Their desire and their ability to do so, visibly measuring meanwhile their effect, together with their observed and described success--this was exactly my central idea; so that, briefly, I cast my lot with pure romance, the appearances conforming to the true type being so little romantic (xix-xx).

The meaning of this passage for the interpretation of the story is quite puzzling. Upon a first consideration James seems to be asserting that the ghosts are objective entities--not hallucinations--but entities different in kind from those studied by the Society for Psychical Research, of which his brother William was president for two years. However, as Francis X. Roellinger and E. A. Sheppard point out, Quint and Jessel are very much like the apparitions frequently studied by the Society. As a matter of fact, they particularly resemble the scientific apparitions in that "very little appears to be [done] by the persons appearing" in The Turn of the Screw. Quint and Jessel never speak, perform any noteworthy actions, or even approach the governess or the children; they each time simply appear and stare at the governess or at one of the children. For example, recall the governess's conversation with Mrs. Grose in chapter five immediately following the second appearance of Quint in chapter four. In their discussion of the first apparition, Mrs. Grose asks, "What was he doing on the tower?" The governess answers, "Only standing there and staring down at me" (188). Later, in chapter seven, describing to Mrs. Grose the first appearance of Jessel, the governess says, "She just appeared and stood there..." (204). Indeed, it sometimes seems that one of the most eerie things about Quint is that he does so little. In relating her vision of Quint on the staircase just before dawn (chapter nine) the governess goes out of her way to stress this point:

It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, its only note of the unnatural. If I had met a murderer in such a place and at such an hour we still at least would have spoken. Something would have passed in life between us; if nothing had passed one of us would have moved (223).

Roellinger goes so far as to assert that Quint and Jessel "conform precisely" to the typical patterns found in psychical research:

In the majority of cases reported to the Society, the ghost does not appear at any known fixed time of day or year. It is usually seen distinctly `in all kinds of light; from broad daylight to the faint light of dawn.' It is described in detail, and appears `in such clothes as are now, or have recently been, worn by living persons.' ... Sudden death, `often either murder or suicide, appears to be connected with the cause of the apparition' in many cases .... If several persons are together when the ghost appears, `it will sometimes be seen by all and sometimes not, and failure to see it is not always merely the result of not calling attention to it' (405).

It is easy to see how closely Quint and Jessel fit the above criteria. The ghosts appear in both summer and fall and in various kinds of light. Quint appears on the tower near twilight (chapter three), outside the parlor window in late afternoon (chapter four), on the staircase before dawn (chapter nine), and outside the dining room window while Miles and the governess are having their evening meal (chapter twenty- four). Miss Jessel appears by the lake twice in the middle of the afternoon (chapter six and chapter twenty), once in the schoolroom in the middle of the afternoon (chapter fifteen), and once on the staircase shortly before dawn (chapter ten). Quint's clothes are described in considerable detail, and it is partly on the basis of this description that Mrs. Grose is able to identify the man the governess claims to have seen. Both Quint and Jessel have died recently and perhaps violently when the apparitions begin--Quint in an apparent accident which may have been a murder, and Miss Jessel possibly through suicide or as a result of complications of childbirth. Miss Jessel's final appearance is not seen by Mrs. Grose, even though the governess frantically calls her attention to the apparition, and the governess frequently suspects that Quint and Jessel are in the same room with herself and the children, unseen by the governess but in full communication with her "little charges."

"Agents in Fact" and the "Action of the Story"

How then are we to interpret the author's disclaimer that Quint and Jessel are ghosts of psychical research? In view of the above striking parallels, Roellinger suggests that James viewed the story as

an interesting tour de force, an attempt to recreate ... `a lost form,' and rouse, as he puts it, `the dear old sacred horror' [sic] without departing any more than artistically necessary from the then current knowledge of psychical phenomena (405).

Since the ghosts are never seen to perform any extraordinary physical actions, the nature of this departure, it seems to me, and the source of the "dear old sacred terror" (Preface to V.12 xv) must be the effect the ghosts have on people--i.e., on the governess and on the children. The anguish of the governess, the moral deterioration of the children leading to Miles's expulsion from school and Flora's obscene ravings near the story's end--these are effects which might distinguish Quint and Jessel from "psychical case" ghosts whom they otherwise resemble. Thus, the destruction of the children is the central "action"--"The Turn of the Screw was an action, desperately, or it was nothing"--and, because the ghosts are responsible for this destruction, they are "agents in fact" and they fulfill their "dire duty of causing the situation to reek with an air of Evil."

Such a view is consistent with James's remarks about ghost stories in the Preface to Volume 17 of the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James:

... the safest arena for the play of ... strange encounters, or whatever odd matters, is the field ... rather of their second than of their first exhibition. By which, to avoid obscurity, I mean nothing more cryptic than I feel myself show them best by showing almost exclusively the way they are felt, by recognizing as their main interest some impression strongly made by them and intensely received (xix).

This is Glenn A. Reed's interpretation of James's insistence that the ghosts are "agents in fact": "... the ghosts carry the burden of creating an atmosphere of horror and of exerting the worst possible action on the children ..." (417). Charles G. Hoffman, another apparitionist critic, comments thus on James's remarks on "psychical" apparitions:

Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not `stage' ghosts who clank chains and whirl across the stage in white sheets in order to frighten a character and thrill an audience. They are agents who create an atmosphere of evil. It is their evil effect, not their appearance, that is important ("Innocence and Evil" 102)

Likewise, Robert Heilman sees the central "action" of the story as "the children ... our sense of what is happening to them." He continues,

What is happening to them is Quint and Jessel; the governess's awareness of the apparitions is her awareness of a change within the children; the shock of ghostly appearances is the shock of evil perceived unexpectedly, suddenly, after it has secretly made inroads ("Poem" 178).

Since Heilman reads the story as a moral and religious allegory, he sees the ghosts as "symbolic ghosts" (178). According to him, they differ form the ghosts of psychical research in that "we are never permitted to see the apparitions except as moral realities" (182).

We might assume, then, that--because of their similarities to the ghosts of the psychical research current at the end of the nineteenth century--Quint and Jessel are not hallucinations but objective entities, differing from the former type of apparitions in the evil effects they produce on the human beings who come in contact with them. However, if the governess's visions resemble paranormal apparitions--as Roellinger and Sheppard have pointed out--they also resemble the hallucinations of mentally ill people--as Cranfill and Clark, Harold C. Goddard, M. Katan, M.D., C. Knight Aldrich, M.D., and Oscar Cargill have demonstrated in detail. All of these critics have pointed out the "intense hush" or abnormal silence that accompanies the visions and the fact that they seem to come in response to the governess's needs--e.g., she sees Quint for the first time while she is daydreaming about the employer; she sees Miss Jessel in the schoolroom when she is preparing to leave Bly after her disastrous confrontation with Miles on the way to church and is probably subconsciously looking for an excuse to stay; she sees Miss Jessel by the lake for the last time and Quint by the dining room window for the last time when she is doubting her own interpretation of the events at Bly and needs the ghosts for reassurance. Discussing her last vision of Miss Jessel, the governess tells us,

She was there, and I was justified; she was there, and I was neither cruel nor mad ... I consciously threw out to her--with the sense that, pale and ravenous demon as she was, she would catch and understand it--an inarticulate message of gratitude (278).

And, before the final vision of Quint, the governess appears beset by anxiety and guilt which only some definitive proof of Miles's depravity--e.g., an appearance of Quint--can alleviate: "If he were innocent, what then on earth was I?" (307). Cargill, in both of his studies, presents detailed analogies linking the history, psychology, and behavior of the governess with one of Freud's case histories and also with the schizophrenic reaction of the author's sister, Alice James. The psychiatrist Katan compliments James for demonstrating in this story "an imagination which conceived a picture very close to the description of hallucinations as they occur in our patients" (481).

Viewing the ghosts as hallucinations does not preclude our seeing them as "agents in fact" who fulfill the "dire duty of causing the situation to reek with an air of Evil." Indeed, as we contemplate the disasters which end the story of Bly, we are "visibly measuring ... their effect, together with their observed and described success," for, if the children have been destroyed by an insane governess, certainly it can be said that Quint and Jessel--the "abnormal agents" of her diseased mind, the "hovering prowling blighting presences" of her hallucinations have succeeded in "causing the situation to reek with an air of evil."

Numerous critics have seen the "action" of the story-- "The Turn of the Screw was an action, desperately, or it was nothing," --as the destruction of the children through the agency of an insane, possessed, or self-deluded governess. Harold C. Goddard, one of the pioneers of non-apparitionist Turn of the Screw criticism, considers the story "one of the most powerful ever written ... dreadful, but also beautiful." He asks,

Are Peter Quint and Miss Jessel a whit less mysterious or less appalling because they are evoked by the governess's imagination? Are they a whit less real? Surely the human brain is as solid a fact as the terrestrial globe, and inhabitants of the former have just as authentic an existence as inhabitants of the latter (32).

John Lydenberg also holds that the "action" of the story is the destruction of the children through the agency of a deluded governess: "What is happening to the children is clearly and terribly the governess herself ("Governess" 40). Similarly, Oscar Cargill refers to "the central motif in his story, the horror of children betrayed by their protectress" ("Turn and Alice" 249). Cargill considers Douglas's reference to "Griffin's ghost or whatever it was" to be an expression of doubt concerning the supernatural and an indication that his own story will be about ghosts of another kind--i.e., about creations of a hysterical mind ("Turn and Alice" 240).

We find, then, in James's critical remarks no clear and unequivocal stand concerning the nature of the apparitions which infect the atmosphere at Bly, "causing the situation to reek with an air of Evil."

We cannot, however, dismiss the question as non-essential, for, while James has been primarily interested in their effect on the governess and the children--"I feel myself show them best by showing almost exclusively the way they are felt, by recognizing as their main interest some impression strongly made by them and intensely received"--almost any interpretation of the meaning of the story hinges on the question of the reality of the apparitions and their relationship to the governess. In Goddard's words,

This is the crucial point. Everything else is incidental. Believe that the children saw, and the tale is one thing. Believe that they did not see, and it is another--as different as light from darkness (33).

The reader is called upon to respond to what has happened to the children and their governess, and the reader's response will vary, depending on whether the tale is perceived as "a tale of corrupted childhood" or "a tale of incorruptible childhood" (Goddard 33), depending on whether the governess is "an innocent mad woman" (Cargill "Turn and Alice" 249) or as a "savior, not only in a general sense, but with certain Christian associations" (Heilman "Poem" 184). The answers to these questions in turn depend on the answer to the prior question: Are the ghosts objectively real and evil entities, or do they exist only in the mind of the governess? To this question James gives no definite answer.

"A Fairy Tale Pure and Simple"

James made several references to fairy tales in his discussions of The Turn of the Screw. In the Preface to Volume 17 of the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, James cites the "straight fairy tale" as the "ideal" type of story for "the creation of alarm and suspense and surprise and relief ... that blest faculty of wonder..." He then contends that

the ghost story,' as we for conscience call it, has ever been for me the most possible form of the fairy tale. It enjoys, to my eyes, this honor by being so much the neatest--neat with that neatness without which representation, and therewith beauty, drops (xvii).

In the Preface to Volume 12 James terms The Turn of the Screw "a fairy tale pure and simple" and adds that it belongs to the sub-category of "the short and sharp and single, charged more or less with the compactness of anecdote (as to which let the familiar tales of our childhood, `Cinderella' and `Blue Beard' and `Hop o' My Thumb' and `Little Red Riding Hood' and many of the gems of the Brothers Grimm directly testify)," rather than to the other subcategory,

the long and loose, the copious, the various, the endless, where, dramatically speaking, roundness is quite sacrificed--sacrificed to fullness, sacrificed to exuberance, if one will: witness at hazard almost any one of the Arabian Nights (xvi).

Finally, after the discussion of the insufficiencies of "psychical ghosts," James asserts that,

Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are not `ghosts' at all, as we now know the ghost, but goblins, elves, imps, demons as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft; if not, more pleasing, fairies of the legendary order, wooing their victims forth to see them dance under the moon (xx).

Like other Jamesian statements about The Turn of the Screw, these remarks about fairy tales can be variously interpreted. Glenn A. Reed, for example, cites these statements as evidence that James considered the apparitions to be real entities and the governess to be a reliable narrator of "objective horror with no attempt to explain it away." According to Reed,

There is hardly a fairy story that does not contain objective, pictorial evil--evil that is in the world for no good reason and that lures innocent victims to their doom. This interpretation makes it as unnecessary to explain the demons as psychological phenomena as it would be to explain in psychological terms how a wolf could dress up in woman's clothing and talk to Little Red Riding Hood (422).

Reed admits that the story contains quite a bit of ambiguity and quite a few unanswered questions (for example, the reason for Miles's expulsion from school and the causes of Quint's and Jessel's deaths), but he sees in the story no justification for the critical controversies concerning the reliability of the governess.

There are, as in fairy stories, many questions left unanswered. James uses the technique of the fairy tale in leading the reader on step by step to accept impossible happenings without ever attempting a rational explanation of them. Thus if there is little possibility of ambiguity of interpretation regarding the governess, there is intentional and calculated lack of explicitness in identifying the evils that pervade the story. To James this obscurity was of the utmost importance in allowing the reader's imagination fertile ground in which to pullulate (422-23).

Edmund Wilson, on the other hand, in his 1934 essay, chooses to emphasize James's remark that the story's supernatural entities are "as loosely constructed as those of the old trials for witchcraft." Wilson seems to be comparing the governess to those fanatical witch hunters of the Inquisition and the seventeenth century Salem trials, for, in the next paragraph, he interprets James's statements that the governess has "`authority,' which is a good deal to have given her" as meaning that she is able to inflict on others "her somber and guilty visions" because of "the relentless English `authority' which enables her to put over on inferiors even purposes which are totally deluded and not at all in the other people's best interests" (389-90).

Leon Edel, in discussing the same remarks of James, points out that the fairy tales James specifically mentioned were all "psychological": "Little Red Riding Hood," "Hop o' My Thumb," "Cinderella," and "Blue Beard." The governess is, like Cinderella, a "daydreaming daughter" who has "rivals in the family circle," and the employer is her Prince Charming. The sexually repressed governess is tortured by insatiable curiosity like Blue Beard's wife Fatima. Finally, although James did not specifically mention "Hansel and Gretel" in connection with The Turn of the Screw, Edel sees in the governess "some of the attributes of a witch." The orphaned children depend on the governess just as Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by their parents, depend on the hospitality of the witch in her house made of gingerbread, cakes, and sugar. The governess, like a witch, is "a persistent, badgering, prying creature" who contributes to the destruction of the children (Ghostly Tales xx-xxii). Yet another interpretation was offered by Oscar A. Cargill in 1956. According to Cargill, while James cited the "public source" of the story as his conversation with Archbishop Benson at Addington on January 10, 1895, the "private source" was the case history of his mentally ill sister, Alice James. James's way of "shielding Alice's memory" was the employment of "seemingly artless phrases as `my bogey-tale,' `irresponsible little fiction,' and `fairy tale pure and simple,' behind which he could hide" (29).

The Governess: Guardian Angel or "False Friend"?

Concerning the governess herself, James made several statements which are susceptible to more than one interpretation. For example, in a letter to H.G. Wells dated December 9, 1898, James appears to give the governess a rather flattering character reference and to vouch for the authenticity of her account:

...I had, about my young woman, to take a very sharp line. The grotesque business I had to make her picture and the childish psychology I had to make her trace and present, were, for me at least, a very difficult job, in which absolute lucidity and logic, a singleness of effort, were imperative. Therefore I had to rule out subjective complications of her own--play of tone, etc., and keep her impersonal save for the most obvious and indispensable little note of neatness, firmness, and courage--without which she wouldn't have had her data (Letters IV 86).3

Glenn A. Reed (418) and Oliver Evans (178) both cite this passage as evidence that James considered the central point of interest in the story to be not the governess and her "subjective complications," but rather the supernatural entities whose activities she accurately reports.

On the other hand, however, Goddard reminds us that the "neatness, firmness, and courage" which James ascribes to his heroine do not necessarily require us to accept her account of events because "mental aberration may go hand in hand with strength and beauty of character" (34). Goddard also reads this passage in the light of "a very charming and good-humored, but a nonetheless very unmistakable, side-stepping of questions or comments which had evidently been flung at him" by those correspondents with whom James exchanged letters about The Turn of the Screw. As evidence he cites James's repeated depreciation of the story in these letters (35-6). Goddard perhaps also should have mentioned James's reply to a question of F.W.H. Myers: ...I scarce know what to say to you on the subject on which you wrote, especially as I'm afraid I don't quite understand the principal question you put to me about `The Turn of the Screw.' However, that scantily matters; for in truth I am afraid I have on some former occasions rather awkwardly signified to you that I somehow can't pretend to give any coherent account of my small inventions `after the fact,' (Letters IV 88).

Edna Kenton and Oscar Cargill see such positive references to the governess as attempts by James to mislead readers concerning her real nature. In this connection, Edna Kenton reminds us of James's criticism of Thackeray for not sufficiently "loving" his character Becky in Vanity Fair and his praise of Balzac because, in Kenton's words, "Balzac loved his Valerie; he did not expose her; his instinct was to cover her, to protect her..." She suggests that

James is never so guileful, so suave and so honied as when he is busily engaged in `protecting.' ...if one is making a collection of his agents of evil, they are not to be found among those endowed with the usual stripes and markings; he loves them even more than Balzac loved his Valerie, and protects them with far finer dexterity (251).

Cargill, of course, maintains that James attempted to deceive his readers in order to "protect" the mentally ill Alice James, whose case history is one of the story's principal sources.

James's letter to Paul Bourget dated August 19, 1898 seems to be a negative evaluation of the work itself (James calls the story "a poor little pot-boiling story of nothing at all"), but it can also be read as an unflattering appraisal of the governess and a denial of the veracity of her account of events. In this story, he says, "Something I have supposed to be a subject turns out on trial really to be none." Does James mean that he began to write a ghost story, but, as the creative process proceeded, the ghosts ceased to be real ghosts, and the governess's account ceased to be a true one? He then says, "The small book in question is really but an exercise in the art of not appearing to oneself to fail" (Lubbock Letters I 290).4 James could, of course, be referring to his own failure as an artist; he could also, however, be referring to the failure of the mission of a self-deluded governess bent on saving the children from what are, in the last analysis, only her own hallucinations and delusions.

James is similarly ambiguous in his letter to Dr. Waldstein dated October 21, 1898: he refers to "the exposure, indeed, the helpless plasticity of childhood that isn't dear or sacred to somebody" and adds, "That was my little tragedy..." (Letters IV 84). Robert Carlton Cole observes that this statement "can be used against the governess" but adds that the word was suggests a possible change--that the author's original intention and his interpretation of the finished work were not the same (134). Oliver Evans, on the other hand, after citing this passage form the letter to Dr. Waldstein, concludes,

That was, indeed, the tragedy: the corruption of the two children by the living servants, and the possession (in the supernatural sense) of them afterwards by the ghosts of those same servants (178).

This passage, of course, could also easily "be used against" Mrs. Grose in support of the interpretation of C. Knight Aldrich, M.D., who sees the housekeeper as a villain who deliberately takes advantage of the governess's initial instability and drives her into insanity out of possessive jealously toward the children. We might add, also, that this passage can be construed as an indictment of the absent and indifferent uncle--as in the interpretation of John Lydenberg, among others.

The same ambiguity appears in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales in the course of James's discussion of the reader's response to The Turn of the Screw. He refers there to the reader's "own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends)" (xxi). Cole interprets "false friends" as "the governess and Mrs. Grose" (137). On the other hand, Glenn A. Reed (423), Oliver Evans (181), and Charles G. Hoffmann ("Innocence and Evil" 102) also cite this passage but assume that the children's "false friends" are Quint and Jessel.

And, finally, in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition, James seems simultaneously to give with one hand and take back with the other:

It was `deja tres-joli,' in `The Turn of the Screw,' please believe, the general proposition of our young woman's keeping crystalline her record of so many intense anomalies and obscurities--by which I don't, of course, mean her explanation of them; a different matter; and I saw no way, I feebly grant (fighting, at the best, too, periodically, for every grudged inch of my space) to exhibit her in relations other than those; one of which, precisely, would have been her relation to her own nature. We have surely as much of her own nature as we can swallow in watching it reflected in her anxieties and inductions. It constitutes no little of a character indeed, in such conditions, for a young person, as she says, `privately bred,' that she is able to make her particular credible statement of such strange matters. She has `authority,' which is a good deal to have given her, and I couldn't have achieved so much had I clumsily tried for more (xix).

James terms the governess's account of the events at Bly "crystalline," but then seems to suggest that her interpretation may be faulty. This could mean that she accurately describes her own thoughts and visions (which may be hallucinations) and the words and actions of herself and others but is deceived about the realty of the apparitions and the corruption of the children. This is the view of Edmund Wilson. "..... these words seem impossible to explain," he says, in his 1934 essay, "except on the hypothesis of hallucination" (389).

Glenn A. Reed, on the other hand, cites the same passage in the course of arguing for a straightforward supernatural interpretation in which the governess is the hero. "...her job is to keep a clear record of these strange happenings at Bly, but she is not to explain them away..." Rather, says Reed, she "records, yet is mystified," in order to "keep the reader held to the very end in the vise of expectant disclosure" (419) as the reader of fairy-tales is led "on step by step to accept impossible happenings without ever attempting a rational explanation of them." We find here, says Reed, "as in fairy stories, many questions left unanswered" (422).

Expanding on the latter point, Roellinger reminds us that members of the Society for Psychical Research frequently considered many different theoretical explanations for what were considered bona fide apparitions (410-418). Anent that, of course, Muriel West ("Death" 288) maintains that the governess, not the children, is possessed by the evil spirits. Similarly, John Lydenberg contends that the ghosts--some of whose activities the governess accurately records--are evoked by her own mediumistic powers because of her subconscious need for them, a need rooted in her pride and sense of mission, as well as in her attraction to the uncle. Consequently, in Lydenberg's words, "Just as her words suggest that somehow she calls up the ghosts, and with them the evil, so they suggest that she imposes the meaning upon the events" ("Governess" 46). This is also the position of Katherine Anne Porter.

James's assertion that he did not intend to "exhibit" the governess "in relation to her own nature" has been cited by some critics--for example, Oliver Evans -- as evidence that James did not see the psychological problems of the governess as the central focus of the story but rather saw the governess as an objective narrator of supernatural events. Their position seems to be undercut, however, by James's next statement: "We surely have as much of her own nature as we can swallow in watching it reflected in her anxieties and inductions." We have already noted Edmund Wilson's interpretation of the passage's last sentence as an indictment of unreasonable "English authority" as exercised by the governess. This interpretation, however, is vigorously disputed by other critics--for example, Oliver Evans, who insists that James "does not mean that the governess has authority where the children are concerned but where the reader is" (180).

"To Catch Those Not Easily Caught"

There has also been considerable controversy about James's categorization of the story as

a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the fund of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small), the faded, the disillusioned, the fastidious (Preface to v.12 xiv)

In 1924 Edna Kenton quoted this passage to suggest that James saw the story as she did and delighted in catching even otherwise very discerning readers in the vise of an apparitionist interpretation, while rewarding the most astute, such as Edna Kenton, with the pleasure of divining the real secret--"not the children but the little governess was haunted by the ghosts" (254).

Nathan Bryllion Fagin agrees with Kenton that the surface structure of The Turn of the Screw hides a meaning accessible only to the most perspicacious. He, however, considers this deeper level to be not a psychological study but a moral allegory in the Hawthorne tradition. The story is dubbed an amusette, says Fagin, because "James considered allegory to be `one of the lighter exercises of the imagination'" (199). Louis D. Rubin, Jr., on the other hand, quotes this same passage from the Preface to support his contention that Douglas and Miles are the same person; all readers who fail to perceive this identity, says Rubin, have been "caught," even if they, for the most part, fall within the category of "those not easily caught" ("One More" 326). An entirely different suggestion is advanced by E.A. Sheppard. Sheppard considers the word amusette to be "merely a rather affectedly depreciatory term" consistent with James's characterization of the story as a "potboiler" and a "jeu d' esprit." She finds in this passage no "implication that James intends to hoax the reader." On the contrary, says Sheppard, James merely "wants to `catch' their attention and interest" (15).

The Author's "Questionable and Ambiguous" Correspondence

James frequently referred to The Turn of the Screw in correspondence. However, the meanings of many of these references are unclear because James burned the original letters of inquiry to which his letters were replies.

Consider, for example, James's apology to the psychiatrist Dr. Louis Waldstein in a letter dated October 21, 1898:

I am only afraid, perhaps, that my conscious intention strikes you as having been larger than I deserve it should be thought. regards a presentation of things so fantastic as in that wanton little Tale, I can only rather blush to see real substance read into them--I mean for the generosity of the reader (Letters IV 84).

It is impossible to know what interpretation James is denying--i.e., what "conscious intention" and "real substance" Dr. Waldstein saw in the story because Dr. Waldstein's letter is not extant. Similarly, we have, in a letter to F.W.H. Myers dated December 19, 1898, this evasive answer to we know not what question:

...I'm afraid I don't quite understand the principal question you put to me about `The Turn of the Screw.' However, that scantily matters; for in truth I am afraid I have on some former occasions rather awkwardly signified to you that I somehow can't pretend to give any coherent account of my small inventions `after the fact.' ...The one thing and another that are questionable and ambiguous in them I mostly take to be conditions for their having got themselves pushed through at all (88).

We do not know, of course, in the absence of Myers's letters what "questionable and ambiguous" elements are being discussed and what James means by "conditions of their having got themselves pushed through at all." James could be referring to creative processes within his own psyche--he could be saying that production of a very imperfect work--"a very mechanical matter"--was the best he could do. On the other hand, he could be saying that he had to treat circumspectly some emotionally charged topics--having to do, for example, with sexuality or religion--in order for his novella to be publishable.

"Shameless Potboiler" or "High Degree of Art"?

We cannot be sure of James's assessment of the literary value of The Turn of the Screw.

Certainly James expressed negative assessments. In a letter to H.G. Wells dated December 9, 1898, we find a very sharp depreciation of the story:

Bless your heart, I think I could easily say worse of the T. of S., of the young woman, the spooks, the style, the everything, than the worst any one else could manage. One knows the most damning things about one's self... But the thing is essentially a potboiler and a jeu d' esprit (Letters IV 86).

In the letter to F.W.H. Myers which we have already quoted, James denigrates the novella as "a very mechanical inferior, a merely pictorial, subject and rather a shameless potboiler" (88).

In the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales, James refers to the work as "this perfectly independent and irresponsible little fiction" and opines that, among literary works, it is "the very kind, as happens, least apt to be baited by earnest criticism, the only sort of criticism of which account need be taken" (xiv).

On the other hand, a very good case could be made for the contention that James highly esteemed the work. James thought highly enough of the work to insist in a

letter to J.B. Pinker dated September 11, 1914 that Martin Secker be allowed to republish the tale in The Uniform Tales of Henry James only with the

distinct understanding, please, that he conform literatim [the New York Edition] text. It is vital that he adhere to that authentic punctuation--to the last comma or rather, more essentially, no comma (Kimbrough 89).

In the Preface to Volume 17 of the New York Edition, James congratulates himself for constructing several tales, among them The Turn of the Screw, "in earnest aversion to waste and from the sense that in art economy is always beauty" (xx). He sets high standards for a story of the supernatural, standards which he considers Poe's novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym not to have met. The supernatural story must captivate the reader by realistically "looming through some other history--the indispensable history of somebody's normal relation to something" (xix). The Turn of the Screw, he suggests, is successful in this regard. Similarly, in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition, James emphasizes the difficult task he had set for himself in attempting to construct this story of the supernatural and concludes, "The merit of the tale, as it stands, is accordingly, I judge, that it has struggled successfully with its dangers" (xvii). The difficulties were formidable: he wanted to construct a story which would compare favorably with traditional ghost stories and scientifically correct apparitions ("I had to decide in fine between having may apparitions correct and having my story `good.'") (xx); he wanted to "make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough" that the reader's "own experience, his own imagination...will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars...released form weak specifications" (xxi-ii); he wanted to create "the tone of tragic, yet of exquisite mystification...yet strain the expression of it so clear and fine that beauty would result" (xviii); he wanted to construct a fairy tale which would "short and sharp and single, charged more or less with the compactness of anecdote" (such as "Cinderella," "Blue Beard," "or "Little Red Riding Hood") rather than "the long and loose, the copious" type such as we find in the Arabian Nights (xvi). James expresses satisfaction that the novella has met all of these high standards. He assures us that Quint and Jessel are indeed, in the novel's final form, the type of non-traditional, non-psychical ghosts he aimed for: "Here it was...that I felt a high degree of art really required; and here it is that, on reading the tale over, I find my precautions justified" (xx). James rejoices that he has constructed a tale of non-specific evil which forces each reader to fill in the blanks from his own experience "with a success apparently beyond my liveliest hope" (xxii). So successful was he, he maintains, that readers, finding in the story the sexual and other indecencies which their own psyches put there, proceeded to attack the author "with the charge of a monstrous emphasis, the charge of all indecently expatiating." This reaction must come from their "own experience...own imagination" because in the text itself, he maintains, "there is ...from beginning to end of the matter not an inch of expatiation" (xxii). He was so successful, he says, in constructing a narrator who could "make her particular credible statement of such strange matters" that "I couldn't have arrived at so much had I clumsily tried for more" (xix). He praises the tale for exhibiting the compactness and tight structure of those fairy tales to which he has approvingly alluded: "It is an excursion into chaos while remaining, like Blue-Beard and Cinderella, but an anecdote--though an anecdote amplified and highly emphasized and returning upon itself: as, for that matter, Cinderella and Blue-Beard return" (xvii-xviii).

Furthermore, the sincerity and seriousness of James's depreciatory assessment of the story are questionable. Goddard finds in James's letters "a very charming and good-humored, but a nonetheless very unmistakable, side-stepping of questions or comments which had evidently been flung at him" and suggests that, by the time he wrote the Prefaces, his estimation of the tale had risen (35). Anent that, Cole makes an interesting point: "The New York Edition in itself makes James's comments before 1908 almost irrelevant because he finally revised Turn of the Screw extensively, and it is that revised version we study, not the original" (135). Robert Ginsberg suggests that the disparaging references in the letters should not be considered literary criticism at all. Ginsberg chides James scholars for having

manifested an obstinate disregard of the differences between what an artist a critic (in this case composing his Preface), and what he does in other domains of his private and professional life, such as writing letters to friends or admirers, such as coping with readers who have come up to him with comments about his story... (269-270).


We see, then, that James took no unequivocal stand on many of the central problems of interpretation, those questions which critics have debated ever since the story's publication--for example, the reality and nature of the apparitions, the sanity and moral stature of the governess, the innocence or corruption of the children, the moral or religious message if there is one. Rather, we have seen that critics of opposing views frequently cite the same passage from James to prove that, were he alive, he would be on their side in a critical debate. Even his estimation of the artistic worth of the novella is open to serious question, although the preponderance of the evidence seems to suggest that his ultimate opinion of the work was very high.

Graham Greene has very succinctly summed up the problems we encounter when we read James's statements about The Turn of the Screw: "We must always remain on our guard while reading..., for at a certain level no writer has really disclosed less" (40). In a similar vein, Mark Spilka has referred to "James' evasive labels" (Kimbrough 253), and J.A. Ward has declared, "James' remarks on The Turn of the Screw are typically paradoxical" (26). Commenting on James's statements about the story, Peter Coveney remarked, "One feels the evasion of all this" (166). In this James is perhaps representative of his age. John Enck has remarked, "James, like most important twentieth-century authors, described his books not at all or inscrutably" (qtd. in Cole 139).

We have not searched James's comments in some misguided attempt to discover the "true" meaning of the story by ascertaining the author's intentions in writing it. To do that would be to fall into the intentional fallacy as so many critics have done--for instance, Nathan Bryllion Fagin, who dismisses the psychoanalytic approach of Kenton and Wilson because "it clearly has no relation to James's intention" (198). We agree with Robert Carlton Cole in deploring the approach of those critics who "write almost as if they were influenced more by a concept of property rights than by literary critical judgment" (133). Our purpose, rather, has been to begin our history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw with a discussion of the critical statements of Henry James himself and to indicate how susceptible they have been to varying interpretations by critics who have taken opposing positions. For this reason we have not discussed here the often-cited notebook entry of January 12, 1895. While this entry may be of value to a student of the creative process, it cannot be considered literary criticism because, at the time the entry was made, the work had not yet been written.

We can, however, make one very definite and very important statement about Henry James as a critic of The Turn of the Screw: James can be said to anticipate the reader-response criticism of Norman Holland, David Bleich, Wolfgang Iser, Jonathan Culler, Stanley Fish, and others. James would almost certainly not have agreed with Alexander E. Jones's criticism of Goddard for including in his critical reading his own "irrelevant" (116) experience as a child in the care of an insane servant. Instead, James might well have agreed with Willen, who suggests that James "appears to be probing a crucial and enormously complicated facet of his central narrator's elemental being" and that the similarities of the governess to the reader's mother as remembered from childhood (because the governess is a mother figure) "sets up a certain receptiveness in the reader" and that, therefore, "each objective conditioned by the reader's childhood experiences and emotional responses to them." The seemingly studied ambiguity of James's comments is consistent with Willen's tolerance of a multitude of interpretations: "I would say then, that the variety of interpretations accorded `The Turn of the Screw' originates in the variety of these experiences and responses." Willen suggests that the "frame" of the story, which critics have discussed so extensively, the multiplicity of narrators, is necessary for a certain distancing which is "absolutely essential if we are to hold on to our illusions and consequently our sanity" (vi-vii).

The last two paragraphs of James's discussion of The Turn of the Screw in the Preface to Volume 12 of the New York Edition of The Novels and Tales indicate that James would have been very much at home with reader-response criticism. In constructing the tale, James said, he aimed to produce in the reader "that sense of the depths of the sinister," that "portentous evil" which seems "promised and announced as by the hot breath of the Pit" (xx-xxi). He then suggests that such a sense of evil cannot be adequately effected by "the offered example, the imputed vice, the cited act, the limited deplorable presentable instance" because no particular evil would be bad enough but, rather, would constitute a "waiting anti-climax" (xxi). He continues,

One had seen, in fiction, some grand form of wrong-doing, or better still of wrong-being, imputed, seen it promised and announced as by the hot breath of the Pit--and then, all lamentably, shrink to the compass of some particular brutality, some particular immorality, some particular infamy portrayed: with the result, alas, of the demonstration's falling sadly short (xxi).

After speculating as to what might be "the very worst action small victims so conditioned might be conceived as subject to," James concludes,

There is for such a case no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to fifty other elements, a matter of appreciation, speculation, imagination--these things moreover quite exactly in the light of the spectator's, the critic's, the reader's experience.

He then suggests, as does Frank Kermode in The Genesis of Secrecy, that the literary work--at least this type of literary work--contains a lacuna which each reader must fill in for himself, drawing on his own experience. 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, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications (xxi).

James obviously considered the finished product to be suggestive of various readings to people with different experiences, for he claims to have applied this formula "with a success beyond my liveliest hope" (xxii). He offers as evidence, as we pointed out previously, the indignation of some readers over what they perceived to be material of an objectionable nature--i.e., sexual material.

How can I feel my calculation to have failed, my wrought suggestion not to have worked, that is, on my being assailed, as has befallen me, with the charge of a monstrous emphasis, the charge or all indecently expatiating? There is not only from beginning to end of the matter not an inch of expatiation, but my values are positively all blanks save so far as an excited horror, a promoted pity, a created expertness--on which punctual effects of strong causes no writer can ever fail to plume himself--proceed to read into them more or less fantastic figures (xxii).

This passage makes more understandable the evasive answers to letters of inquiry and the ambiguous statements which are cited by critics arguing diametrically opposed cases. Perhaps James was deliberately ambiguous to encourage a variety of responses, thinking that specific interpretations, while they might constitute valid readings, would not be correct to the exclusion of alternative interpretations. This is why, perhaps, so many scholars have felt frustrated reading James's criticism of The Turn of the Screw.

This interpretation is also consistent with James's statement to his physician, Sir James MacKenzie, that ambiguity was essential in The Turn of the Screw because "so long as the events are veiled the imagination will run riot and depict all sorts of horrors, but as soon as the veil is lifted, all mystery disappears, and with it the sense of terror" (qtd. in Cole 138).

To sum up, then, we find in James's statements about The Turn of the Screw no definitive position on the major questions of interpretation which have continuously exercised the critics but rather pervasive ambiguity in his statements so that the same statements can be quoted as evidence for conflicting claims and evasive replies to letters of inquiry the originals of which he destroyed. A very good case can be made, however, for placing him in the reader-response camp, and such a placement can easily explain at least some of the ambiguity and evasiveness I have discussed.


Throughout this dissertation the Prefaces (to Volumes 12 and 17 of the New York Edition) and the story itself are cited from the 1962-65 reprint which appears in Works Cited under "Primary Sources.

Non-apparitionist" critics interpret the ghosts as falsidical hallucinations; "apparitionist" critics see them as veridical hallucinations or objectively existing entities. See Preface to this dissertation.

Usually, I cite James's correspondence from Edel's edition of James's Letters. Accordingly, in these instances the editor's name does not appear in the parenthetical documentation. A few letters, however, are not included in Edel's almost comprehensive collection. In citing these I include the editor's name -- Lubbock or Kimbrough -- in the parenthetical documentation. Edel's and Lubbock's editions of Letters -- and Kimbrough's Norton Critical Edition of The Turn of the Screw -- all appear in Works Cited as "Primary Sources"; Kimbrough is also listed under "Secondary Sources" because his volume -- in addition to the text of The Turn of the Screw, some Jamesian correspondence, and selections from the Prefaces -- includes reviews and initial articles by various authors, as well as critical comments of Kimbrough himself.

See preceding note.

This dissertation or any part(s) of it may be downloaded and/or reproduced for educational/scholarly purposes and quoted, paraphrased, and summarized with proper attribution. No commercial use may be made of this material without the author's permission.
You may contact Dr. Edward Parkinson via e-mail. Click here!