The many essays and critiques of Henry Jamess Turn of the Screw presents us with several different approaches of how we can interpret and what we should make of this unusual ghost story. James creates a sanctuary that allows the readers imagination to run wild, bringing up the questions of whether there exists a crazy or sane Governess, heterosexual or homosexual boy, and ghosts or just terribly hidden guests. Upon a first reading of such a story, one might overlook all of these details. Each individual reader brings to the text their own experiences, values, and interpretations making their own first reading unique. This essay will attempt to dive deeper into the why it is that Turn of the Screw brings up such immense number of questions and interpretations in a first reading and what is it about Jamess writing that allows these opposites to happen so easily.
I would like to start off this essay by addressing why it is that Im talking about the readers first reading and not their overall interpretation. After discussing The Turn of the Screw in the reader response criticism group, but also when discussing any literature with people whos analysis may differ from your own, you are obligated to begin to question your initial reading. I for example, went through the entire text taking it not as anything other than a simple ghost story. As Wayne Booth talked about in his reader response oriented essay, the straight reader assumes that whether or not ghosts actually exist in real life, they can be real at least in ghost stories(292). The straight reader is also one who will question what their experience of the reading was intended to be and if it was worth it. This straight reading allows the reader to look at the text as a piece of work and essentially assume that all things written were exactly as James intended. For example, during the finals passages of the book Miles and the Governess discuss the reasoning behind his being removed from the boarding school he attended. Midway through the altercation, Miles very suddenly asks, Is she here? (86) referring to the ghost of Miss Jessel. This results in the Governess believing that Miles can see the ghosts as well, and she must save him from them but in the end smothers him. This straight reading of the ending offers up no puns, no innuendos or underlying meanings, just a spooky ending of a ghost story meant to thrill and entertain those it was being read too. This is how I would define my first reading of The Turn of the Screw: a straight reading based on the idea of a horrifying ghost story and nothing else.
After much debate and discussion with my group members and listening to the opinions of classmates, my initial reading of the story began to bend and take shape with more of their opinions mixed in with mine. No longer am I assuming that this is just a ghost story, but suddenly I am aware of many other ways that you could interpret what is going on in the text. The same ending that I discussed above could be seen in several different ways. Some choose to read into Miless problems at the boarding school as his being homosexual. This terrifies the Governess and the result is her trying to get Miles to look away from his homosexuality (spoke about as the form of the ghost Peter Quint) and to look to her as an example of heterosexuality. The result that the reader could conclude in his death is that she saves Miless innocence from this unnatural homosexuality being thrust upon him by Quint. These new interpretations that I, the reader, form according to our text are said to be brought on by our ability to fill in the gaps that powerfully affect the reader, who is forced to explain them; to connect what they separate, to create in his or her mind aspects of a poem or novel or play that arent in the text but that the text incites.(274) It is these unknown factors that lead the reader to draw quick, abridged versions of their opinion on their first reading. In order to fully navigate what it is that I, the reader, am trying to understand about the many different ideas being tossed my way by my peers I need to separate what is considered to be agreed upon norms by my interpretive community and what are unique thoughts can lead to a new reading.
Lynn talks about the idea behind the readers interpretive community being a group where meaning is always created in a particular context by particular people. Our values, in other words, are a kind of reader response to our cultural history.(69) This would mean that the many different interpretations of The Turn of the Screw that my peers presented as their first reading interpretations, whether they be feminist, Marxist, or post-colonial are all based somehow on the cultural norms that they are or have been familiar with. This brings me back to the original question I posed in this essay of how several readers can come up with several unique readings before they come in contact with any interpretive communities. Each reader somehow connects with and brings to the reading their values and experiences. A reader who initially has a Marxist reading of The Turn of the Screw would bring to the table the issues of class and economic differences presented in the text. They talk about the true danger being posed by Peter Quint as not being a sexual threat, but one of class as he is threatening the boundaries between servant and master. This argument could be substantiated with evidence from the text when the Governess is trying to describe Quint to Mrs. Grose. The Governess says,He gives me sort of sense of looking like an actor. Mrs. Grose questions this look and the Governess then comes back with, Ive never seen one, but so I suppose them. Hes tall, active, erect, but never no never! a gentleman.(23) The description the Governess uses describing Quint as being like an actor is demeaning according to the time the novel was written. To be an actor meant he was free-spirited and obeyed no one, much like a gypsy. She pushes for Mrs. Grose to know that he was not a gentleman in hopes that she will maintain her class in Bly and not be thought of as below anyone else, especially Quint. A reader who has been taking classes in psychology or studies closely the actions and intentions of those around them may come away with a completely different interpretation of this same excerpt. Their first reading of The Turn of the Screw would include a psychology-based analysis and would argue the Governess as having repressed sexual feelings that she is projecting onto Quint. By describing him as looking like an actor the Governess imagines Quint as some type of Casanova. He seems more exotic. When she tells Mrs. Grose that he could never be a gentleman, the Governess implies that there is an element of danger related to Quint, which is exciting to her otherwise bland situation at Bly. So why is it we as readers relate to these different kinds of reading such as Marxism or psychological criticism. This could be because each reader brings with them a set of personal situations that would inevitably affect their reading. According to our text the difference between a formalist and a reader response critic is the formalists inability to account for a reader who is turning the pages and being moved, or affected, by the lines that appear and disappear as the reader reads. The strategy then for each of these individual readers and their similar communities is to persuade those around them to agree with their reading.
The many different interpretations a reader of The Turn of the Screw encounters can and most likely will have an affect on an individuals reading. As I stated in the beginning of my essay my first reading was very straight. No puns, no innuendos, no searching for a class system being corrupted by unruly servants. My questions regarding the text were very basic to what a straight reader would ask of a text. Why was I willing to believe and trust the Governess, assuming that the ghosts were real? This was because the textual evidence allowed me to do so. James tells us in the beginning of the novel that there is a group of guests trading ghost stories around the fire. Immediately we are put in the mind set that the story about to be told is written as fiction and that there is nothing else but sheer terror to come. While this is what initially fired my first reading to be that of a straight reader, one of my group members interjected with the aspect of Douglass story having been written as an account by someone else. Making The Turn of the Screw a work of non-fiction. Douglas tells the others waiting patiently around the fire that the manuscript, Is in old, faded ink, and in the most beautiful handA womans. She has been dead these twenty years. She sent me the pages in question before she diedShe was my sisters Governess.(2) Suddenly the straight reading that I had initially had has taken a turn because the elements in the story could be assumed to be real. The element of reality is what motivates me to read deeper into the death of Miles and the sanity of the Governess. Our text tells us that some critics can argue, that the readers feelings and experiences provide a kind of reality check, a way of testing the authenticity of emotions and events represented in literary works.(273) When James presents the element of reality into the ghost story, I, as a reader, choose to question the authenticity of these different actions and reactions that take place.
This new reaction that I had to The Turn of the Screw was taking into account the interpretive communities that introduced new themes and ideas of class and the importance one places on the of knowing their place in the world. There are numerous references to class throughout the Governess's tale, but even the characters in the prologue seem to be concerned with this idea. Douglas is careful to explain the Governess as "the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson"(4) and her prospective employer was a "proved a gentleman . . . such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage" (4). His superior station in life is at least as much a part of the seduction that the Governess may have for her employer, but needless to say are quickly set up to realize that she is below him.
Once stations and working at Bly, the Governess is highly aware of class in the way that Mrs. Grose is below her but the children are above her. This is complicated by the fact that Mrs. Grose is older and has more experience at the house, while the children are younger and under her authority. Yet, both the Governess and Mrs. Grose are very much concerned with the idea of the classes mixing. The very first indication that the ghost is Quint is by her description of knowing he is lower class but he is still wearing a gentlemans clothes. The very fact that he would disrespect the class systems marks him as an evil person. When Mrs. Grose finally speaks of the affair between Quint and Miss Jessel, both of them mourn that the dead Governess was involved with a man of lower class. I can begin to see past my initial straight reading and discover that the characters in The Turn of the Screw are overly distressed to see people of different classes interacting. Yet at the same time they are very intimate with each other. Even though they are doing different jobs, Mrs. Grose and the Governess are close. Even though Miles and Flora are superior to her, the Governess considers herself close to them as well. At the same time that she is appalled by people of different classes mixing, she herself is guilty of attempting to mix with other classes. She is both attracted to and repelled by the idea of mixing with people of different jobs. Without the interjections of my reader response group and the several other types of criticisms presented about in class, the reader may settle for their first reading like I was about to. Now after understanding other peoples interpretations I am better able to make my own interpretation of the text. The death of Miles was not just the smothering of a child in fear of a ghost, but could be the idea that the Governess represents a higher class than Quint and his death represents her saving him from the lower class he could fall into after being kicked out of his school and not having any parents to act as mentors.
How and why is it an individuals reading can have a before and after interpretation? By allowing yourself to realize that your first reading may not be the only way to view a text and bringing in outside sources or consulting interpretive communities the reader can open themselves up to a new response to any piece of literature. The Turn of the Screw has been a particularly interesting piece of work because of the several different questions the text asks us to navigate through. This story is one where no one knows exactly what James wanted us to notice and how he wanted us to interpret his meaning. The meaning of the text itself is a ghost that the reader must search for in hidden meaning and can find in the most unexpected places.
Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts. 6th ed. South Carolina: Pearson Longman, 2011. Print.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Dover Thrift Edition. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1991. Print.