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The apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy

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Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” has been the subject of a number of critical papers, lectures, scholarly articles, and debates. Such flow of analytical works is suggestive of the success of the story which has become Henry James’s most famous work. It is equally suggestive of the quality the novel has among other pieces of literary works. In fact, there is not much to be invented as far as analysing the story is concerned- throughout the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, the question of whether or not the governess is telling the truth, hence whether or not the apparitions are real, has been the subject of much debate. In this paper, I will examine two interpretations of The Turn of the Screw. The article entitled “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” written in 1934 by Edmund Wilson, is one of these two interpretations. The other article, written in 1947 by Robert B. Heilman, is entitled “The Turn of the Screw, Henry James.” This article mainly examines that of Wilson.

Edmund Wilson adopts a Freudian reading of the novella. To him, the ghosts the story talks about are mere illusions seen by the governess who is said to be in a neurotic state. In his article, Robert B. Heilman, however, questions the Freudian interpretation and regards the story as a Christian allegory. The paper in hand undertakes to examine the way the two articles proceed in interpreting the story. This examination will mostly make use of comparison and contrast. The purpose of this examination is to identify the similarities and differences between the two articles as to the points brought to the surface and emphasized by the two critics as well as to trace instances of contradiction between the one article and those shared between the two. The paper also attempts at identifying the position held by each of the two critics, determine how much validity and credibility is to be attributed to each, and find out how far each of the two approaches reasonably states its arguments. I will conclude this paper with a sort of personal comment on the two interpretations, expressing my own views and probably taking a stand in favour of or against one of the two interpretations or both, sustaining such a stand with internal as well as external evidence.

Critics, in tracing and examining the ambiguity which characterizes Henry¬†James’s works, stick to The Turn of the Screw as an example. The ambiguity of this novel consists in the question of whether or not the ghosts the governess sees are real. Wilson points out that there exists a general theory attempting to account for the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw. According to this theory, the story “conceals another horror behind the ostensible one.” (Wilson 1) Such theory conceives of the governess as a neurotic woman to whom it occurs that she sees apparitions when in fact there are none. The ghosts are, according to this theory, mere illusions maintained by a sexually repressed woman.

Wilson believes that the ghosts are hallucinations of the governess. He, however, acknowledges that “the fact that the governess’s description of the first ghost at a time when she has never heard of the valet by the housekeeper” (2) runs against this claim. The fact that her description of “the ghost she sees” is just identical to the way the valet looks like may originate in the belief that the apparitions are real. Wilson does set forth an interpretation for this: the governess has been told that there has been some other male in the house. Thus, the governess, taking into account, her interest in the master, has ambiguously confused this other male with the master, a fact which accounts for her seeing the ghost in her master’s clothes.

One of the major issues, Wilson sees in Henry James’s works, is that of women’s psyche. Wilson brings into focus patterns of women’s personality from other Jamesian novels to “demonstrate how easily the governess fits into this Jamesian gallery.” (Edward J. Parkinson 21). The Turn of the Screw is not the only novel handling women in such an ambiguous way. According to Wilson, this short novel is strongly connected with Henry James’s other fiction: “We understand for the first time its significance in connection with Henry James’s other fiction.” (Wilson 4). James’s fiction does have something in common-women’s world. The way these works approach women varies considerably. The Bostonians, The Marriages, and The Reverberator are such works. Henry James’s novels are representative of several types of women; they vary from those who are emotionally perverted or apathetic to those who are emotionally pathetic.

Wilson also examines James’s men. Unlike James’s women, James’s men are not neurotic: “James’s men are not precisely neurotic; but they are the masculine counterparts of his women.” (Wilson 4). Wilson approaches these men from an emotional perspective: Wilson writes, “They [James’s men] have a way of missing out on emotional experience, either through timidity or caution or through heroic renunciation.” (4) Wilson provides examples from Henry James’s fiction to illustrate each type of such men and concludes that the effect of the way these men are presented is ambiguous in that a number of Henry James’s stories “leave us in doubt as to whether or not the author knew how his heroes would strike his readers.” (Wilson 5) The idea meant to be conveyed by Wilson is that ambiguity is characteristic not only of The Turn of the Screw but of Henry James’s fiction in general. The ambiguity in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, for example, centres on the question of whether or not the protagonist is neurotic.

Investigating the ambiguity of Henry James’s fiction in general and that of The Turn of the Screw in particular, Wilson believes that “Henry James was not clear about the book in his own mind.” (6). Wilson argues that James’s letters written in answer to several correspondents who inquire into the ambiguity of the story tend to give evasive answers. Henry James tends to leave his readers in doubt, so is the case in The Turn of the Screw where he leaves the question of whether the governess was “horrid or nice” unspecified. Ambiguity, Wilson claims, is characteristic of James himself: “Ambiguity was certainly growing on James.” (Wilson 7). Wilson says that “he [James] seems to be dramatizing the frustrations of his own life without quite being willing to confess it, without fully admitting it to himself.” According to this belief, James’s fiction is but a reflection of his life experience.

Wilson examines Henry James’s writings. He sees that his early writings characterize him as a social historian. The Bostonians, The Princess Cassamassima, and The Tragic Muse, Wilson argues, do further characterize James as a Social historian as they document a particular social background at a particular time. These three books were widely read and thus “quite¬†triumphant.” (Wilson 10). Wilson, however, investigates all James’s writings and brings into focus the question of why Henry James gave up writing long novels and committed himself to writing plays that turned out to be unsuccessful. These plays are branded as having no serious points: “Plays which do not even aim to be serious.” (Wilson 11).

The period of playwriting in Henry James’s life is conceived of as an attempt to impose himself and gain more reputation and fame. His plays, Wilson sees, were doomed to failure; James underwent a disappointment seen by others as a kind of crisis. Wilson carries on his analysis of James’s works and says that after the play writing attempt, James somehow “enters upon a new phase.” This phase has to do with such works as The Turn of the Screw, The Sacred Fount, and In the Cage where “There are plenty of love affairs now and plenty of irregular relations.” (Wilson 12).

The psychological atmosphere does characterize a number of Henry James’s works. Wilson writes, “The characters (though usually apprehended as convincing personal entities) are seen dimly through a phantasmagoria of dreamlike metaphors and similes, which seen sometimes, as Rebecca West has said, more vivid and solid than the settings.” (Wilson 13) In novels such as The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, Wilson argues, the psychological atmosphere is very much present. Wilson says that such novels, including the turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew, which James wrote “under the oppression of defeat and self doubt.” (Wilson 13) do have a positive element. This positive element finds embodiment in the fact that “moral values begin to assert themselves again.” (Wilson 13).

Heilman stresses that the Freudian interpretation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw needs careful examination as it consist in a number of inconsistencies: “The Freudian reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which […], does violence not only to the story but also to the Preface, which, like the story, demands scrupulous attention.” (Heilman 1) The Freudian reading revolves around the idea that the governess is a psychopath; the ghosts she sees are mere illusions. The governess, according to most psychoanalysts, is a neurotic woman. In a bid to show the¬†inconsistencies of psychoanalysis, Heilman takes two representatives of this school- Edna Kenton and Edmund Wilson. Heilman points out that Kenton was the first critic to adopt a Freudian reading of the novella. “The Freudian reading was first given public expression by Edna Kenton in 1924.” (1). She believes the governess is neurotic and, thus, the ghosts do not exist in reality; they are but mere instances of the governess’s imagination.

Heilman attacks Kenton’s interpretation and questions Kenton’s reading claiming that she seems to have misread the Preface. He argues that James’s prefatory remark “To catch those not easily caught” is- contrary to Kenton’s belief that it alludes to the idea that James, by depicting the ghosts as real, has managed to fool the readers of the story- meant to establish the aim of his tale which consists in James attempting to insinuate for the idea that his piece of work is meant to target the imagination of those who are highly sceptical. Heilman writes, “He [James] is talking about nothing more […] than his having evoked the willing suspension of disbelief in those who by situation and experience might be supposed to be more than ordinarily sceptical.” (1) Wilson is the second representative. Heilman, throughout his essay, analyzes what Wilson comes up with in an essay entitled “The Ambiguity of Henry James” Heilman brings into focus a number of points which he believes, being a kind of misinterpretation of numerous passages in the story, establishes the Freudian reading as out-dated, hence no longer accepted.

Having provided insight into Kenton’s interpretation, Heilman moves on to Edmund Wilson’s. Heilman tells us that “Wilson also misreads the Preface.” (1). Heilman tries to refute Wilson’s idea that the governess has been given a narration “authority.” Heilman maintains that what James meant by “authority” is merely the fact that the story is told from the governess’s point of view. Also, Heilman heads towards refuting Wilson’s claim that the governess has hallucinations. To him, Wilson adduces no evidence to sustain his contention. Heilman comes to a conclusion centring around the idea that the Freudian reading of the Preface goes astray in that the Freudians tend to turn a blind eye on James’s letters. Heilman argues, “Indeed, the sly Freudian readers of the preface- who ignore the letters entirely- seem to miss its whole tone and import.” (2) The Freudians never considered what¬†James had to say in the matter. The psychology of the governess is of pivotal importance to the story, but still it can not be used to account for the text in its entirety. The psychological aspect used to account for the apparitions is thus conceived of as being carried too far by the Freudians.

Heilman contends that the Freudians misinterpret the internal as well as the external evidence. Heilman contends that Wilson misreads a number of passages. Heilman undertakes to examine some of these in an attempt to demonstrate how the Freudians, in their rigid approach have done violence to the novel. What is worse, according to him, is that these critics tend to rely on ambiguous passages while ignoring several other unambiguous ones that might serve their purpose well. Heilman examines a few such passages that Wilson misreads.

The Freudians conceive of the governess as a psychopath. Wilson argues that the governess’s psychopathic state, being a result of a repressed passion for the master, underlies her seeing the ghosts. Heilman rejects this view as he believes that the governess’s feelings for the master are never repressed; Heilman writes, “They are wholly in the open and joyously talked about.” (2) He thus concludes that “There is no faint trace of the initial situation necessary to produce the distortion of personality upon which Wilson’s analysis depends.” (2) He contends that the governess’s devotion to the master, which Wilson uses to sustain his claim that the governess’s feelings for the master are, throughout the story, repressed, is a mere technical procedure meant to account for the governess’s reluctance to bother her master by calling him or writing to him.

Heilman highlights the objectivity of the apparitions; the fact that the governess’s description of the ghost to Mrs. Grose enables her to identify it with Quint does constitute clear evidence that the apparitions are undoubtedly real. To Heilman, it can not be that such identification is a mere coincidence. Heilman stresses the objectivity of the apparitions and brands Wilson’s interpretation, which heads towards depicting the governess as a psychopath, as being far-fetched and lacking in evidence.

Heilman rejects the view, held by both Kenton and Wilson, that the ghosts are¬†unreal. To him, the fact that only the governess sees the ghosts, which Wilson uses to account for the unreality of the apparitions, is to be interpreted in aesthetic terms: “Like Miss Kenton, Wilson infers the unreality of the ghosts from the fact that only the governess acknowledges seeing them; he does not stop to consider that this fact may be wholly explicable in aesthetic terms.” (3).

According to Heilman, James chose to establish the governess as the only character who sees the apparition so as to attribute more reliability to her. In this respect, the fact that Mrs Grose does not see the ghosts is ascribed to her inability to detect manifestations of evil. Heilman also accounts for the children not being able to see the apparitions by emphasizing James’s tendency to create a sense of evil- “James says that he wants to create a sense of evil.” (3) He uses Miles’s dismissal from school to further support his point; this dismissal is, according to him, suggestive of a “sinister concealment of evil.”(3)

The Freudian hypothesis has proved to be a failure as far as dealing with the conduct of the children is concerned. The Freudians couldn’t account for the behaviour of children starting from their psychological perspective, a fact which proves that no matter how important it is in interpreting a particular conduct, the psychological approach is yet unable to account for all the text in its entirety. Here are three points that illustrate how the Freudian hypothesis has failed in its psychoanalytical approach to the novel. To begin with, the Freudians could not give a plausible explanation to children’s escapades in the middle of the night. Second, children’s daytime, behaviour remains inexplicable as far as the way they account for it is concerned; Flora’s trip is an example of such behaviour. Third comes the vulgarity of Flora’s language when asked about Miss Jessel. The Freudian ascribe children’s conduct to the idea of their being “Terrified and perverted by the authority of the governess.” (Wilson).

Heilman, however, sees that the children show no “Sign of unwillingness, compulsion, or fright” (Heilman 5). Children do act freely as they are under no particular pressure or influence from the part of the governess. He highlights the falseness of Flora’s fear of the governess at the end. He¬†thinks that James himself attempted at insinuating for the falseness of such fear. Heilman points out, “In fact, James emphasizes strongly the falseness of Flora’s apparent fear of the governess by giving her a ‘grand manner about it’ and having her ask ‘every three minutes’ whether the governess is coming in and express a desire ‘never again to so much as look at you’. ” (5)

Ambiguity is prevalent throughout the whole story. Heilman maintains, in his essay, which does not comment upon this apparent ambiguity in a bid to avoid breaking the point of view adopted in the novella:

“Such evidence suggests that a great deal of unnecessary mystery has been made of the apparent ambiguity of the story. Actually, most of it is a by-product of James’s method: His indirection; his refusal, in his fear of anti-climax, to define the evil; his rigid adherence to point of view; his refusal–amused, perhaps?– to break that point of view for a reassuring comment on those uncomfortable characters, the apparitions.” (5)

The Freudians, Heilman believes, have taken advantage of such ambiguity and, thus, cast a great deal of mystery upon Henry James’s tale. The ambiguity of the novel is, therefore, a means to an end; James, Heilman sees, generates ambiguity via avoiding defining the evil for fear of anti-climax.

Heilman questions the psychic ills which Wilson imputes to the governess. Wilson conceives of the governess as a psychopath who frightens the children she is superintendent to. He tries to sustain his idea making allusions to the fact that the governess is still a spinster at the age of 30, which, according to Wilson, must have influenced her psyche badly and negatively enough. Heilman, however, challenges what Wilson comes up with. He meets Wilson’s claim that the governess is neurotic with the middle-aged gentleman’s testimony in which he characterizes the governess in a way that is totally incompatible with Wilson’s interpretation of her character-the young man sees the governess a fine and gracious. Heilman writes, “But at this age she seems to a Cambridge undergraduate whom, ten years her junior, we may expect to thoroughly critical, a fine, gracious woman who can elicit liking and respect.” (Heilman 5) Heilman concludes that the governess is a¬†perfectly normal person.

Wilson highlights the purpose of the debate called forth concerning the interpretation of The Turn of the Screw. Such debates, Heilman believes, play a pivotal role in saving The Turn of the Screw as a piece of literary work distinguishing the era in which it originated. Heilman tells us that Wilson conceives of the story as having no serious points to be conveyed. Wilson’s contention is conceived of as a “fallacy of rationalism.” The novella, Heilman maintains, has very serious points. The Freudians inability to unravel the ambiguity and find out how suggestive James’s use of language is underlies Wilson’s contention.

The two articles, “The Ambiguity of Henry James” written by Edmund Wilson in 1934, and “The Turn of the Screw, Henry James” written by Robert B. Heilman, dealt with in this paper constitute the two major poles dominating the appritionist/non-apparitionist controversy. These two articles have resulted in a flow of critical works trying to synthesize the two approaches instead of taking a stand in favour of one the two. Parkinson writes, “One of the major trends I have noted in this study is the tendency of critics to move away from one-sided “stands” on the apparitionist / non-apparitionist controversy–particularly after Heilman’s 1947 essay.”

Criticism of the novella, after the publication of Heilman’s essay, was marked by an apparent tendency to synthesize the apparitionist and non-apparitionist readings. The non-apparitionist reading reached its peak with the publication of Wilson’s famous essay in 1934 while the apparitionist interpretation reached a similar climax in 1947 with the publication of Heilman’s famous essay. Taking into consideration the weighting of the two readings in the history of criticism of the novella, I believe that it is worthwhile to have an insight into the two approaches.

Wilson’s outstanding essay is representative of psychoanalytic criticism. Parkinson writes that Wilson adopts the type of psychoanalysis that focuses on the author and thus sheds light on the literary work. He sees that Wilson’s criticism always manifested his attempt to understand the work itself. Wilson, Parkinson sees, “explores the creative processes of the¬†author and the persona which the author projected in his narrative.” Wilson’s criticism tackles The Turn of the Screw in the light of Henry James’s other works: “one of the merits of psychoanalytic criticism which focuses on the author is that analysis of a particular work can then be fruitfully related to the rest of the author’s canon.” (Parkinson) Such an approach results in Wilson’s reading gaining more validity.

It is also of primordial importance to note that the psychology of James was of interest to Wilson. Parkinson writes, “Wilson’s essay sparked a great interest in the psychology of James the man and artist.” Wilson’s psychoanalytic criticism gave rise to critics’ interest in the psychological analysis of James the man and artist and in how James psychological characteristics affect the art which James produced. These critics started from the prospect that James’s personal life might be mirrored in his art.

Heilman, with the publication of his apparitionist reading manifested in both essays “The Turn of the Screw, Henry James” written in 1947 and “The Turn of the Screw as a Poem” in 1948, has clearly established himself as a representative of exponential criticism. The latter is considered to be the most famous argument for the apparitionist reading. This essay, Wilson sees, is “concerned with patterns of language–including motif, image, symbol and archetypes.” (Parkinson) Heilman’s apparitionist reading has its weighting in the history of criticism on The Turn of the Screw. It constitutes along with Wilson’s non-apparition reading a source of inspiration for other critics who have tried to synthesize the two interpretations. The majority of critics have avoided favouring one reading at the expense of the other, for the two readings are well presented as far as argumentation is concerned. Furthermore, these two interpretations are seen as completing one another. The fact that no critical paper written on The Turn of the Screw after the publication of these two essays discarded them is suggestive of their pivotal importance manifested in their invaluable contribution to a fuller understanding of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and probably other works of his.

Works Cited

Primary sources:

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Secondary sources:

Heilman, Robert B.”The Turn of the Screw, Henry James.” (essay date 1947).” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anja Barnard Editor. Vol.47. Thomson Gale, 2002. eNotes.com. 26 Apr, 2006

Parkinson, Edward J. “The Turn of the Screw:A History of Its Critical Interpretations.” 1898 – 1979. 25 Apr, 6006 < http://www.turnofthescrew.com/>

Wilson, Edmund. “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” In The Question of Henry James: a Collection of Critical Essays, edited by F.W. Dupee, Henry Holt and Co., 1945, pp.160-90 25 Apr, 2006

by tijani abdellatif ,Morocco ([email protected])

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