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"WHY CAN'T THEY TELL YOU WHY?' A CLARIFYING ECHO OF THE TURN OF THE SCREW Stanley Renner Illinois State University One of the most popular activities in the vast critical enterprise over the years to elucidate the meaning of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw has been to trace the echoes in the tale of its sources in the author's reading and experience.1 But no one has yet noticed the existence , sixty years after its publication, of a remarkably faithful echo of The Turn of the Screw itself, one that may tell as much or more about how to approach the story than its own echoes of various source materials : James Purdy's "Why Can't They Tell You Why?" published in the late fifties in Color of Darkness. Both "Why Can't They Tell You Why?" and The Turn of the Screw dramatize a troubled relationship between a maternal figure and a pre-pubescent male child. In both cases the conflict is precipitated by the apparition of an adult male figure, now deceased, that exercises over the boy an influence regarded by the maternal figure as revolting and malign. But in attempting to purge the male child of contamination, she inflicts on him a terrible damage. In view of the almost unequalled multiplicity of opinion on The Turn of the Screw and the still unsettled state of criticism on the story,2 it seems worth while to see what a later writer might make of essentially the same materials. Reading the two stories side by side tends to corroborate the view that The Turn ofthe Screw dramatizes the lasting damage done to children—males especially—whose natural sexual development is blocked in upbringing by a maternal figure averse to sexuality who refuses her own female role and attacks the emerging masculinity of the male child with hysterical vehemence.3 Of course, the stories are not identical. "Why Can't They Tell You Why?" is a spare short story of about 2,000 words; The Turn of the Screw a novella of between forty and fifty thousand words. Purdy's story is presented in the third person with some omniscience; James' is told in the first person by its female protagonist. In "Why Can't They Tell You Why?" there is one triangle of conflict: the mother, the son, and the specter of the male parent. In The Turn of the Screw there are two: the maternal figure in conflict with two children, a male and a female, and corresponding male and female ghosts. But just as an echo tends to damp out subordinate features, reproducing only the essence of the original, so "Why Can't They Tell You Why?" narrows its focus to the main story of The Turn of the Screw: the ordeal of the male child 206Notes maimed in his natural development by the sexual fear and revulsion of the female parent. It is clear from the cultural context of The Turn of the Screw why Miles' story rather than Flora's would be James' central concern, for the brunt of the Victorian sexual ordeal fell upon the male rather than the female. In the last half of the nineteenth century the idealism that is so much a staple of the cultural history of the era had reached its peak of influence. And in that climate of spiritualized womanhood, love, and marriage, with its corresponding revulsion against sexuality, it was male sexuality that came to be reviled as the villainous threat to the purity embodied in the female. Presumably asexual, she was idealized as the angel in the house. The main weapons of the Victorian mobilization against sexuality, therefore, were trained against the stronger, stubbornly irrepressible sexuality of the male. James deserves credit for knowing better than his time: in The Turn of the Screw the female protagonist struggles with almost equal horror against the ghost of her own sexuality. She recognizes that what took place between Miss Jessel and Peter Quint "'must have been also what she wished!'"4 and thus she fears her own susceptibility to sexual impulses and their consequences of pregnancy and shame. Still it must be acknowledged...


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pp. 205-213
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