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The Governess and the Ghosts in The Turn of the Screw by John J. Allen, University of Florida Were it simply a question of coming finally to a decision about the "reality" of the ghosts in James's tale, one might be inclined not to raise Peter Quint and Miss Jessel yet again from their troubled graves. Surely they have suffered enough for their sins at the hands of the critics these fifty years. But their story is a classic text for the discussion of the problem of narrative reliability, and, as Christine Brooke-Rose has recently demonstrated in detail, the history of its interpretation provides a lesson as to the way in which our theories draw us away from the examination of the text itself.1 Since Brooke-Rose herself has affirmed again the consistent ambiguity of the narration, and since her contention has been adopted in a recent article in PMLA,2 it becomes necessary once more to argue the unacceptability of the hallucination theory, and hence of interpretations of the story as fully and finally ambiguous. James said in his preface to the story: "It constitutes no little of a character indeed, in such conditions, for a young person, as she says, 'privately bred,' that she is able to make her particular credible statement of such strange matters. She has 'authority,' which is a good deal to have given her."3 Despite Edmund Wilson's willful misrepresentation, James here clearly 1. Christine Brooke-Rose, "The Squirm of the True. Part I: An Essay in Non-Methodology," PTL: A Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature, 1 (1976), 265-94, and "Part II: A Structural Analysis of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw," 513-46. 2. Patricia Merivale, "The Esthetics of Perversion: Gothic Artifice in Henry James and Witold Gombrowicz," PMLA, 93 (1978), 992-1002. 3. The Novels and Tales of Henry James, New York Edition, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907-1917), XII, xix [italics mine]. 4. I refer to his reference to "the relentless English 'authority' which enables her to put over on inferiors even purposes which are totally deluded" in "The Ambiguity of Henry James," The Triple Thinkers (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1948). I quote from the text as reproduced in Gerald Willen, A Casebook on Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, I960), p. 121. Wilson's misrepresentation was noted by Oliver Evans in "James's Air of Evil: The Turn of the Screw," also included in Willen's Casebook, pp. 204-05. 73 means credibility, that is, sufficient lucidity, perceptiveness, sensitivity, perspective, and judgment for us to accept her deposition. But this authority cannot, of course, simply be conferred on the governess by James; it must be established in the fiction. Let us try to see what James meant in his preface in terms of technique. Part of the problem of the delivery of information in the frame is the profusion of layers of indirect discourse. When Douglas reminisces about the young governess's interview in Harley Street, for example, her prospective employer is described as "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."5 This is the implied James's characterization of Douglas's characterization of the governess's characterization of her former self. When Douglas characterizes the man in Harley Street as "a lone man without the right sort of experience or a grain of patience," one begins to hear the voice of the man himself, mediated through the governess, Douglas, and James, and in the sentence "It had all been ... on his own part doubtless, a series of blunders, but he immensely pitied the poor chicks" (p. 20), one hears quite clearly now the sound of his voice, his choice of words. This then becomes the perspective for the characterization of Miss Jessel , the former governess: "She had done for them [the children] quite beautifully—she was a most respectable person" (p. 21). This comment is ironic for James, Douglas, and the governess at the time she related it to Douglas, but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 73-80
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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