No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!
That's the typical reader's reaction to reading major-phase James. Actually it's a quote from Turn of the Screw
, but it aptly fits both descriptions anyway. Henry James has depths (depths!) and the more you go over him, read him, learn to love him, the more you see in his writing. He's intimidating, certainly, he has that kind of Hamlet's-Ghost spook to him, the eminent Dead White Author. But despite his labyrinthine prose, or more likely, because of it, he has so much to offer to his readers in psychological matter. Like Shakespeare, like many others, James is a character-writer, not a plot-writer, which is probably for the best because most of his plots are so subtle they're barely there. But what James catches that so many authors don't is the subtlety of life. In Fitzgerald, in Hemingway, in Wharton, we find compelling stories of compelling characters, but they are always the exceptions, they are special, they are a lone case file in the library of society. In James we find dissected the subtle dramas and psychological spirals of the "normal" people, in relatively common scenarios. Turn of the Screw
is a unique little Jamesian bauble, it's a ghost story! With (maybe) real ghosts!
James is a brilliant ghost-story writer: Turn of the Screw
, "The Jolly Corner" and others. And in many of his major novels we find living ghosts, terrible figures which shade the whole narrative with their chilling presence or absence: Mrs. Newsome in The Ambassadors
most memorably has a ghostly aura, despite her physical remoteness in the narrative, Kate's father in The Wings of the Dove
as well, though in a minor key to Mrs. Newsome. What makes Turn of the Screw
such a brilliant ghost-story, and a brilliant story par stories, is James' mastery over the art of ambiguity. Throughout the tale we "don't know what we don't see-don't know what we don't fear" - and ultimately it is because we don't know what we don't know!
There is a vagueness to James' language that is at once both precise and hazy: exact in his analysis of people's reactions, changes in temperament, thoughts, etc. but existing in a physical world which seems always shrouded in mist. In Turn of the Screw
our narrator is a young governess, and as her psyche reaches closer and closer to the breaking point, we trust her story less and less. Charged to care for the young Miles an Flora, with who she is taken quite in a fancy, she begins to suspect they are being corrupted by their dead governess, Ms. Jessel, and her womanizing lover, Peter Quint. She claims to see Quint in odd flashes: between the crenelations of the mansion roof, in the window looking in; Ms. Jessel she sees crying in a dark stairwell, and watching from across the lake. The ghosts themselves are vague towards her, they never approach her, never speak to her, they are specters: watching.
The character of the governess is one which leads many to interpret the ghosts as Freudian manifestations of her suppressed sexuality. Daughter of a country parson, very young, and quite enamored with her attractive bachelor boss. While the ghosts are a manifest terror to her, their threats of corruption only seem to increase her worry for her boss' approval. When she learns of Miles' expulsion from school for lewd behavior, which she suspects he has learned from Quint in the past or present, she burns the letter and decides not to tell his uncle (her boss) for fear of his disappointment in her governessing abilities. If the ghosts are not real, she is very much overwhelmed with the pressure of being in charge of two young children, and her conflicted feelings about her own loss of innocence is projected onto her two young charges, Miles and Flora. She begins to interpret childhood play as a sort of ribald rough-housing, learned from their corrupt guardians. Her strong religious background makes the loss of innocence even more conflicting to her: on the one hand, sexual attraction is a normal part of life, but on the other a corrupt lover brings on a distinct fall from grace. Her master is remote, removed from the isolated countryhouse of Bly, and so she can never resolve her attraction for him (and his supposed mutual attraction). Whether the ghosts are a manifestation of those repressions is subject to debate, though I would hold that they are real (as James offered himself).
Both arguments are of, maybe equal, validity. The first sighting of Quint is before the governess has ever heard of or seen him, though she could have seen a picture of him in the house or in her boss's office in London. Ms. Jessel is often veiled. Her comprehension even of the physical bearing of the ghosts is extremely vague: like supposing you see something move out of the corner of the eye, only to turn and find the room empty. What is so fearful about Turn of the Screw
is that we don't know what to believe: are the ghosts real? could it happen to me? Reading this book, I was quite happy not to be living in an old English countryhouse. And even the ending remain's vague, leaves the mystery at the peak of its horror before cutting away. The final exchange between the governess and Miles is James at his consummately-veiled best:
"It's not Miss Jessel! But it's at the window--straight before us. It's there--the coward horror, there for the last time!"
At this, after a second in which his head made the movement of a baffled dog's on a scent and then gave a frantic little shake for air and light, he was at me in a white rage, bewildered, glaring vainly over the place and missing wholly, though it now, to my sense, filled the room like the taste of poison, the wide, overwhelming presence. "It's he?"
I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. “Whom do you mean by ‘he’?”
“Peter Quint—you devil!”
The relentless confusion of pronouns, the vagueness of Miles' responses, and the violent determination of the governess (to prove what? that the ghosts were real, or that she wasn't insane?) terrify us with a vague power of ambiguity, such that the text is almost a ghost of itself.