Review of The Turn of the Screw (1898)


Henry James (writer).

Read in 2021.

James nailed the profound ambiguity on each level. The thoroughgoing nature of his experiment implicitly equates each such ambiguity. The question, for instance, of how Miles was expelled from school is a mystery in roughly the same way that the existence of evil or ghosts is a mystery, running through the same portion of the novella. Later imitators of James have tended to favour the human drama in such epistemological tensions, and even James shows no real interest in the enormous ontological ramifications of the supernatural, but he plays the game so perfectly that his disregard for impersonal ramifications becomes a clever comment, in my mind, on fundamental theory of knowledge, in a way that “Green Tea” (1872) is not.

Modern religious authorities are routinely forced to imitate James. Like James’s governess protagonist, but for different reasons, they must assert that supernatural forces are real. Because this is unsupportable, religious claims of supernatural forces are continually readjusted and recontextualized to remain appealing and be superficially plausible in the absence of evidence, skirting and minimizing direct contradiction without ever finding support. James does exactly that for the governess, but with an elegance never found in religion. This correspondence laminates all sorts of spurious claims to truth: Gothic fiction, horror fiction, fiction in general (the process of building any world separate from reality for an audience in reality), religion, moral realism, ignorance, duplicity, the free imagination of the narrative’s two children, self-serving biases, and true insanity. James lures the reader to take up the work of sustaining insanity.

By default, parsimony suggests that the ghosts are not real, but that’s OK; this isn’t fantasy fiction but high modernism. It isn’t overwrought or overloaded because the setting is small, the characters are few, the story is short and the intellectual tone has just enough pathos in it to keep it moving. It doesn’t lose my interest because it isn’t internally contradictory: No possible interpretation of “what is really going on” eliminates the other interpretations, but nor is the truth irrelevant to the stakes. It’s a hugely impressive balancing act.

References here: “The Jolly Corner” (1908), The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970), Valis (1981), “Recitatif” (1983), “Cause and Effect” (1992), Horse Girl (2020), The Invisible Man (2020).

text fiction