GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.3 (2003) 367-391
[Access article in PDF]
Screwing with Children in Henry James
"I quite agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?"
"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them."
—Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
If you were one of the children in The Turn of the Screw, whom would you want to paddle around with in your own, personal "flat-bottomed boat," the governess or the ghosts? 1 I think I would opt for Peter Quint, myself. I always did. Quint is one of the rare instances of working-class testosterone in James's fiction, but mysterious and brooding though he may be, he has never succeeded as a romantic hero. In the criticism on James's 1898 novella, he remains guilty without proof, a fiend without a definite crime, and I suspect that his dalliance with the little boy, Miles, has something to do with it. Miles is a literary milestone, as is his sister, Flora, in that they mark a most distinguished beginning to the tradition of the sexual child as gothic conundrum in the English novel. The Turn of the Screw is indeed "the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child" (1), given that earlier gothic novels occupied themselves primarily with the psychosexual mysteries of repressed women and demonic men rather than of wayward children. In the cinema we have to wait until the late 1950s and early 1960s for the species to make a significant appearance: The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton's film adaptation of a play based on James's novella, was one of a spate of virtually [End Page 367] unprecedented films about kids who are perversely sexy, devious, and knowing—among them, The Bad Seed (1956), Village of the Damned (1960), and Lolita (1962). The gothic child, which is to say the modern sexual child, has in the past four decades become a cinematic cliché, having appeared in myriad Hollywood offerings such as Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and many of the films based on novels by Stephen King. By considering The Turn of the Screw alongside The Innocents, we might explore this figure in one of its earliest and most ingenious instances in two very different genres. Both in James's novella and in the film the spectral valet, Quint, embodies the desires that the reader or the spectator is supposed to find inadmissible, in particular the desire to participate with perverse pleasure rather than paranoid disavowal in the queer erotics of children. For reasons that are purely ideological, the gothic child has become a fascinating, if somewhat arbitrary, figure for erotic ambiguity itself, and I turn to queer theory, the deconstruction of sexual rhetoric, as a methodology for analyzing its peculiar charm.
Why, we might ask, is it the children who are thought to turn our screw, not to mention the screws of the servants in the story? What is the nature, the meaning, of that particular "touch" that moves us, that Jamesian caress at once linguistic and erotic that "fixes" people (transfixes, defines, repairs, punishes them) again and again in the novella? Is a touch anything like a screw? How are we worked up by these two children who are the "touches with which he had already worked us up" (4)? 2 James catches us in the frailest web of gossip when the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, drops a hint that the impropriety of Miles's friendship with Quint is a transgression not only of class but of sexuality:
"It was Quint's own...