Turn of the Screw
This dissertation is a history of the criticism of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw from its publication in 1898 to the end of 1979. I attempt to show a progressively deepening understanding of the novella as the twentieth century proceeds and to relate trends in Turn of the Screw criticism to developments in literary criticism and literary theory--thus elucidating certain patterns in the development of the critical mind.
The history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw is dominated by the apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy--most obviously after publication of Edmund Wilson's famous non-apparitionist essay in 1934, although the controversy existed in some form from the very beginning. After the publication of Heilman's famous apparitionist argument in 1948, the best critics--such as Lydenberg and Firebaugh--tended increasingly to synthesize the two approaches rather than exclusively affirm one side of the controversy. This led in the sixties and seventies to very rich syntheses--often integrating psychoanalytic, sociological, and theological approaches. Also, in the sixties, largely due to the influence of structuralism, we see an increasing 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. James's critical remarks can be said to anticipate this reader-response criticism because of James's failure to take sides in the apparitionist/non-apparitionist debate and his emphasis on the psychological effects of insoluble ambiguity. Early criticism--before the formalists--tended to be impressionistic and subjective. Kenton's phenomenological criticism was related to this. Authorial--psychoanalytic and otherwise--and reader- response criticism can be better understood if contrasted with Kenton's phenomenological approach, as can personal narrative criticism which later flowers under the influence of structuralism.
This dissertation is a history of the criticism of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw from its publication in 1898 to the end of 1979. I attempt to show a progressively deepening understanding of the novella as the twentieth century proceeds and to relate trends in Turn of the Screw criticism to developments in literary criticism and literary theory--in the process, elucidating, I hope, certain patterns in the development of the critical mind.
This dissertation, upon first consideration, may seem to be an excessively long comment on an admittedly short literary work (The Turn of the Screw comprises approximately 50,000 words). The comment is long, however, for several very good reasons. The first is the almost incredibly vast volume of critical material. Willen correctly notes that "certain works of literature, like certain inventions, give rise to flourishing industries. In modern literature, Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, and James's `The Turn of the Screw,' have, in a sense, been industrialized" (v). It is possible--although I am not making the claim--that The Turn of the Screw has produced more critical comment than the two aforementioned Joycean works. Short, popular, controversial works make especially tempting subjects for writers on literature--whether they be professors, creative authors, or journalistic critics. The second reason is the in-depth nature of this study. I have attempted, for example, to pinpoint subtle but important distinctions between various psychoanalytic approaches and pinpoint certain influences from philosophy, linguistics, and literary theory which would not be obvious upon casual perusal of many of these critiques of The Turn of the Screw. This has required discussing these critics in depth. First rate literary critics are like first rate philosophers--to summarize them is, frequently, to distort them in subtle but important ways. And, if we think in depth, the subtle distinctions are important--this is why Thomists are expected to be fluent in Latin and why Aristotelians, to be credible, must be thoroughly conversant with ancient Greek. I am, as far as I know, the first writer to classify Edna Kenton's famous essay as an example of phenomenological criticism. Such a claim cannot be made without support, and supporting it requires quite a bit of explanation. And, finally, histories, in general, tend to be long--for many complex reasons related to the nature of history.
I wish to call attention to two important terms so as to avoid confusing readers of this study. I use the term apparitionist to refer to interpretations in which the ghosts are seen as real--i.e., veridical apparitions or manifestations of some paranormal reality existing independently of the governess's subjective apprehension. I use the term non-apparitionist to refer to interpretations in which the ghosts are viewed as non-veridical, merely subjective hallucinations of the governess. This is standard terminology in Turn of the Screw criticism.
The history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw is dominated by the apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy--most obviously after publication of Edmund Wilson's famous 1934 essay, although rumblings of the controversy can be heard from the very beginning. The pattern takes a major turn after the publication of Heilman's famous apparitionist argument in 1948, with the best critics, in various ways, synthesizing the two approaches, rather than affirming the exclusive truth of one position or the other. Then, in the sixties--largely due to the influence of structuralism--we see a new trend: 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 culminate in the seventies in the reader-response structuralist criticism of Felman and the linguistically based criticism of Brooke-Rose and Rimmon.
If, with the above story in mind, we read Henry James's critical remarks on The Turn of the Screw, we can hardly fail to remember T.S. Eliot's prediction:
For James's 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. On the other hand, we find his statements abundant evidence--particularly in the Prefaces--that his intention was to effect an unresolvable ambiguity--and we have, in this study, made a case for placing James in the reader-response camp. Thus, in one sense, the critical history can be seen as a journey to the place where James began.