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Clarifying Ambiguity- warning: video heavy

fabelhaft's picture

Wai Chee Dimock’s article “Subjunctive Time: Henry James’s Possible Wars” broaches the idea of a “time-line that makes a subsequent event an important context for a text written prior to it” (249-250). The idea that literature is not temporally bounded is fascinating to me, and it is through this lens that I explore the connection between Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and an episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Normal Again.”

Throughout the essay there will be clips from "Normal Again."



Background Information

The Turn of the Screw, short story by Henry James, published in 1898, is the tale of an unnamed governess who believes she is seeing ghosts.  Ostensibly a ghost story, the reader is uncertain whether the governess experiences real encounters with the supernatural or if she is mentally unstable.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which in this paper shall be referenced as BtVS, is a Joss Whedon show which aired from 1997-2003 and chronicled the life of Buffy Summers, the vampire slayer. Categorized as urban fantasy (, BtVS pits humanity against the supernatural.

In “Normal Again,” episode seventeen of season six, Buffy suffers from flashes, delusions if you will, of an alternate reality, one in which she is in a mental institution. During the episode Buffy must decide what is real: her life as a Slayer or the visions of her in an asylum.

It seems to me that perhaps this episode, produced over a century after The Turn of the Screw, portrays the internal dilemma of the governess. Surely she wrestled with the idea that she was going crazy, but Henry James withholds her doubts. “Normal Again” serves as a representation of these issues.


Clarifying Ambiguity: The Turn of the Screw meets “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

The governess, during an afternoon stroll, idly ponders that “it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone. Someone would appear there at the turn of a path and would stand before me and smile and approve” (26). She then witnesses a man, a specter, standing on the roof. This is the beginning of the governess’s visions.



 “What arrested me on the spot—and with a shock much greater than any vision had allowed for—was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real” (27). The governess does not expect reality to bend to her imagination, but that is what appears to happen. Dimock argues that “out of these rhythmical variations, a set of vectors are released, directional arrows that send time looping along different pathways” (246). So perhaps out of the governess’s musings comes the physical manifestation of her thoughts. While the governess pauses at the sight of the man, I believe her mind plays over the same concern Buffy feels:

Underneath the governess’s fear of the ghost lies a deeper fear that she is truly crazy. 


Both Buffy and the governess represent a type of hero. Buffy saves the world on a regular basis, but the governess views herself as a hero to the children. Mrs. Groves, the housekeeper, questions, “‘Do you fear for them [the children]?’ We met in another long look. ‘Don’t you?’” (37).



Much as Buffy’s mother, Joyce, instructs her daughter that “say[ing] it…. will help you believe it,” the governess forces Flora and Miles into confrontation with Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, respectively. The governess manipulates Flora in a way that should verify the presence ghosts, and compels Mrs. Groves “to see [Miss Jessel] exactly as we see” (103). Because the ghost is drawn to Flora, the governess believes that Miss Jessel would be revealed due to her proximity to Flora.

There is a similar situation between the governess and Miles. When the governess confronts Miles, she feels “some sequel to what we had done to Flora” (125). She tells him she “just want[s] [him] to help [her] save [him]” (94). Admitting the truth is the first step in ridding the children of these spirits.


Times of stress cause Buffy to blackout, much like important moments force the governess to pause momentarily or split her attentions. When the governess confronts Miles about him stealing her letter, “my sense of how he received this suffered for a minute from… a fierce split of my attention…. Peter Quint had come into view” (121). The intense emotions surrounding this exchange lead the governess to blackout, much as Buffy collapses while her friends fight.


I believe that the governess is aware of both possibilities: that she is either crazy or fighting off the supernatural. After looking at Turn of the Screw through "Normal Again," I propose that the governess chooses to believe that she has a connection with these ghosts. She chooses a “reality” in which she is a hero, much as Buffy does. The governess comments that “of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to my pain” (32). While this refers to her relation with the children, I argue that this also applies to her desire to protect the children. If, in “protecting” the children, she must fend off ghosts, then so be it.


The Turn of the Screw spells nothing out for the reader. Henry James leaves the reader struggling to make sense of the ending. Did the governess save Miles from ghosts, and he accidently died during this impromptu exorcism? Or was the governess a loon and gave the poor kid a heart attack? Either way, Miles is dead and the reader might want to sleep with the lights on.  BtVS explores "a world resting just below the threshold of actualization" (Dimock 242). Using "Normal Again" and Buffy's response to her blackouts, one can reexamine The Turn of the Screw and discover that the governess is aware of the possibility of her madness. "Normal Again" dramatizes the pauses for deliberation that Henry James does not express.


 Works Cited

Dimock, Wai Chee. "Subjunctive Time: Henry James's Possible Wars." Narrative 17.3 (October 2009): 242-254. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: Dell Publishing, 1974. Print.

"Normal Again." Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 12 Mar. 2002. Television.





Anne Dalke's picture

"Much madness is divinest sense"


"Much Madness is Divinest Sense"  t-shirt

the very end of your essay is cut off; can you fill in the missing sentence/paragraph?

So! You've really taken on w/ a vengeance my request that you "read Henry James forward," that is, think through his relevance for our culture today. I'm not very familiar with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and I'm having trouble playing your embedded videos), but I think that the parallels you demonstrate between the 19th c. tale and this episode of a 20th c. t.v. show are compelling ones.

The real question, once you've brought those similarities to our attention, is what to do with them.

The main possibility you explore here is that familiarity with "Normal Again" gives us a way of reexamining James's story: "The Turn of the Screw spells nothing out for the reader," and "'Normal Again' dramatizes the pauses for deliberation that Henry James does not express." If we re-read the story through the lens of the t.v. episode, we can then "discover that the governess is aware of the possibility of her madness." 


But what if we turn this around, and make the comparison operate bi-directionally -- trying also to re-read Buffy the Vampire Slayer through the lens of James's tale? Doing so might bring into question, for example, the binary around which you structure your whole analysis. "Spelling nothing out" avoids the dualism you construct, that the governess is "either crazy or fighting off the supernatural," that she "experiences real encounters with the supernatural or ... is mentally unstable."

Can we explore, for a moment, the space inbetween those two options? That "much madness is divinest sense,"* i.e., that those who are called mad by society actually see the world more wisely?

That, perhaps, a real encounter w/ the supernatural is read, socially, as mental instability, by those who have a narrower range of experience, who don't have access to a larger world, one not rooted in the material or physical?

Maybe the governness, like Buffy, "chooses a 'reality' in which she is a hero." Maybe we all "choose the reality" in which we operate, in which we most like the roles we can perform there? And some of those selves, and those realities, are socially more acceptable than others?

* Here's the whole poem, from Emily Dickinson (1862):
Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —                   
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —