"Almost a Sense of Property": Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, Modernism, and Commodity Culture
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"Almost a Sense of Property":
Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, Modernism, and Commodity Culture

Metaphorical, if not literal, homelessness has seemed to many to be a defining condition of the life and work of Henry James. His friend Edmund Gosse, for instance, wrote that James was a "homeless man in a peculiar sense," one who was never truly settled either in England, his adopted country, or the United States, his country of origin.1 More recently, John Carlos Rowe has related James's deracination to cosmopolitanism, outlining how the concerns of his fiction foreshadow recent efforts within the humanities to renovate the cosmopolitan ideal of respect for international and intranational differences.2 And John Landau has argued that James's complex late style both highlights and attempts to compensate for a general sense of cultural "homelessness"—that is, the increasingly unstable "grounds" of belief and knowledge in late-Victorian and Edwardian culture.3 In this essay I relate James's experience of metaphorical homelessness to his novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), the longest and most terrifying of his several ghost stories. I proceed from the contention that homelessness is this text's founding narrative and semantic condition. Homelessness here refers to the textual instability in late James that other critics have characterized as groundlessness or fluidity, and I go on to consider the interpretative potential of these alternative descriptors. Considering the text in relation to homelessness, however, makes possible an understanding of how the text's treatment of property is connected to the interrelated phenomena of sociocultural modernity and literary modernism. As a haunted house story, The Turn is concerned with claims to property: its sense of homelessness is paradoxically, uncannily contained within the home. The text's representations of house, home, and homelessness, I suggest, enable an exploration of cultural uncertainties concerning the relations between property and identity at a historical moment in which the established model of such relations—masculine possessive individualism—was in conflict with the [End Page 455] emerging model of the feminized consumer citizen. These conflicting conceptions of property are perhaps most strikingly negotiated in James's figurations of authorship both within the novella and in the preface he wrote to the volume of the New York edition of his work in which The Turn appears, and consequently I conclude with a discussion of the author in and outside The Turn.

Authorial Identifications

The Turn of the Screw begins with a framing prologue in which an unnamed first-person narrator relates how guests at a country house entertain themselves one Christmas Eve telling ghost stories. In response to a tale involving a "visitation . . . fallen on a child," one of the guests, Douglas, states that he knows of a story involving two children that is unmatched "for general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."4 The story, he says, was written down by his sister's governess, who gave the manuscript to him before she died, twenty years ago. In response to the clamor of interest from the other guests, Douglas sends to London for the manuscript, which, a few nights later, he reads to those of the party still there. The rest of the novella is taken up by the governess's first-person narrative, which the frame narrator copied down "much later," after the death of Douglas (6).

The governess relates how she was put in charge not only of two young orphans, Miles and Flora, but also the entire household of Bly, a large country residence. She is given this position of "supreme authority" (8) because the children's guardian, their uncle, who lives in London, sends her to Bly under the strict provision that she "should never trouble him—but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything" (9). Soon after her arrival at Bly, the governess encounters, or believes she encounters, the apparitions of two recently dead former members of the household at Bly: Peter Quint, a manservant who had previously been left in charge of the house by the uncle, and Miss Jessel, her predecessor as governess. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the governess's interlocutor and sounding board, tells her that...