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  • Hesitating Readers: When The Turn of the Screw Meets Disgrace in the Classroom
  • Laura Moss (bio)

“They’re here, they’re here, you little wretches,” I would have cried, “and you can’t deny it now!” The little wretches denied it.

Henry James The Turn of the Screw

Never yet have they been so far and so bitterly apart. He is shaken.

J. M. Coetzee Disgrace

A few years ago, the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Manitoba organized a symposium on the work of Henry James. I am a postcolonialist and a Canadianist, not a James specialist, but out of deep respect for my former colleague Robin Hoople, the James scholar in whose honour the symposium was held, I turned to one of the books I most enjoy teaching, The Turn of the Screw. In preparation for the symposium, I began by asking myself some questions. What appeals to me about the ambiguous tale of an agitated English governess and her two possibly delinquent / possibly persecuted charges? Why am I drawn to teach a story where it is never stated explicitly if the governess is hallucinating or if the ghosts she claims to see are credible? Why do I, and the students in my [End Page 129] first-year university classroom where I teach the book, relish the chance to become “apparitionists” or “anti-apparitionists”? Why are we horrified by the demise of the “little wretches” of my epigraph? The answer, at least in part, is that the story provokes debate. It is precisely the ferocity with which James sustains ambiguity in the novella that draws us as contemporary readers raised on postmodern variance to it. What I appreciate most about James’s story in the classroom is the way in which students open themselves up to the difficult possibilities of multiple interpretations and of the possible simultaneity of conflicting views. This leads me to ask what kind of pedagogical lessons might be learned from the way readers in my classroom embrace, negotiate, and explore the ambiguities within this demanding text. How can I take these lessons into my South African literature course where the subject matter is often excruciatingly difficult? And, finally, might my experience of teaching The Turn of the Screw add to theories of reading with important implications for spaces beyond the classroom?

With the risk of stating the obvious, I begin by noting that ambiguity persists in much postcolonial writing as authors engage multiple perspectives, leave texts open ended, and present multiple and sometimes incommensurable forms of signification. However, arresting ambiguity is tricky to teach in a postcolonial classroom. It is always a challenge when dealing with literature arising out of politically fraught spaces with a history of violence, pain, and oppression to be at once respectful of the context out of which the work emerges, to read with that context in mind, and at the same time not to let the context overdetermine readings of the literature. I teach a detailed cultural and political history of South Africa at the beginning of my South African literature course because I do not want to foreclose conversation by students worried about wading into literature, politics, and history that they do not know. Students are always open to learning such information, but I do worry that it is perceived as implicitly directive of a necessarily politicized methodology. If one begins with assumptions about justice and injustice, albeit understandable starting points given the racist history of South Africa, the actual complexity of both the situation and of the fiction tends to be overshadowed by assumed imperatives arising out of the location. The tendency seems to be toward solving the textual problems rather than allowing for the difficulties posed by the ambiguities within the text.

Because J.M. Coetzee is South African, for example, his 1980 novel set in an unnamed empire, Waiting for the Barbarians, is often read as an allegory of South Africa written from an anti-apartheid perspective. While [End Page 130] this is arguably the case, it is not necessarily the only case. I want students to engage first with the ambiguities in a novel like Barbarians (particularly concerning the role of the...


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