This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Big Books Home
2006 First Web Report
Within the frame story of ghost stories told around a campfire, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw reveals the writings of a woman who is revealed to be a somewhat unreliable narrator. In order to fully understand, appreciate, or analyze James's novella, it is necessary to examine how much the governess's desire to tell a tale is shifting the narrative. Through this, James forces the reader to confront their relationship with literature in general; if the governess- the author of our text within a text- can mislead us this easily, what about the authors of all other stories? What about, perhaps, the true author of this one?
The Turn of the Screw is told incredibly slowly. The language twists and around, forcing the reader to spend far more time than eighty-five pages might normally indicate. The sentences, for example, are very carefully arranged; many of them are long, with excessive clauses, which do not feature tangents (there is not a word in the governess's story which does not offer the reader a great deal about plot, character, or tone, if not all three) but nonetheless obfuscate the plot. Like the house and the surrounding area, as the governess describes them, the story is winding and full of detours; once you are entrenched in the story, it is nearly impossible to extricate yourself. Even the sentence order contributes to this, as the characters will frequently discuss events or sightings of which the reader has never been informed. A sense of confusion therefore permeates the text, as important pieces of information are withheld and things which the governess sees are often referred to obliquely if at all. There are, moreover, gaping holes in the story; by the time the reader reaches the end of the novella, it is difficult to determine exactly what has happened and what has not.
On an extra-textual level, this works without question. James builds suspense largely by teasing the reader. Because nothing is explicit, James forces everything to become all the more clear in the reader's mind as she struggles to make sense of the clues given, and whatever explanation the reader can come up with is almost inevitably more disturbing than anything which James could have "vulgarly" stated in the text. The reader's horror mounts as she pieces together what must have happened to the characters, both before the governess arrived and after. James has constructed a story which places the burden of terror on the narrator, due to the structure he has chosen.
However, although James is the author, the mimetic storyline must also be taken into account. Within the context of The Turn of the Screw, there are several narrators through whom the story is being distilled. The first is the narrator of the introduction, who is anonymous and unremarkable. He provides the reader with an audience for the tale which will soon be told, but his chief purpose is to introduce another character, Douglas, who provides the main story to the assembled audience. Everything about Douglas serves mainly to validate the reliability of the narrator of the story which he presents; the narrator- and therefore, theoretically, the reader- trusts Douglas enough that his high praise of the governess can be read as somewhat reliable. It is tempered, of course, by his love for her, but because that is explicitly acknowledged by the text, it is possible (the reader can assume) to allow for that and have a fairly accurate representation of how she truly is. The only storyline which is truly called into question, then, is that of the governess.
Seymour Chatman's basic narrative structure chart identifies the basic structure of the simplest text: the real author writes, and this writing forms the implied author, the author at the exact time of the writing (1978). This in turn creates a narrator. The narrator writes something to be understood by the narratee, the person who the character believes is listening, but the audience the author is expecting is actually the implied reader, who is the author's idealized expectation of who might be reading their story. The actual readers are then expected to bridge the gap between the ideal reader and their own life experiences. Each story within a story, then, adds layers, and it brings up several questions about the governess: most notably, why is she writing this story, and what does it say about her?
Even though the reader can reasonably assume that the story, which purports to be a first-person handwritten account, is filtered through the lens of the governess's life and experiences, the reader knows virtually nothing about her history before she arrived to take care of the children (a fact which is evidenced by the way that we never even learn her name). Douglas reveals that at the time of the story she is twenty years old, and the reader can infer she is fairly innocent about the world at that time. She is clearly intelligent, and she cares a great deal about her charges. She is somewhat interested in the children's uncle, who she met only in interviews and has not seen since she arrived at the house. She is from a higher class than many of the other servants; she is able to read and write. Yet she also needs a job as a governess, which leaves her at an uncomfortable place where no one at the house is of the same social rank as she; like Miss Jessel before her, she is expected to only socialize with a gentleman, but those are obviously in short supply. We also know that by the end of the story, she is still alive, and capable of getting a new job, at which she meets Douglas. Other than that, however, the reader is given very little on which to base any interpretation.
This is especially important because everyone else involved is in some way incapable of sharing their story as she did. The governess is the sole author, and the only one with a voice; therefore, she is the only authority the text provides. Mrs. Grose cannot record the story because she cannot read or write, Miles dies, and the ghosts, if they are ghosts, are dead to begin with. Moreover, the only character who has been granted credentials from anyone has been the governess. The reader has no choice but to trust her tale.
By the time one has finished reading the story, however, the question of sanity is obviously at the forefront; is the governess crazy? Obviously, one beauty of the text is that it truly is up to the reader; James has left it ambiguous enough that the possibility of ghosts and the possibility of insanity are equally likely. Both theories have some holes, but not enough to fully negate them. The water is muddied, however, by the way that, within the text, the story was presumably written entirely by the governess, and thus everything we see is hers. If she is, in fact, crazy, it is not something which develops slowly from page one; the person dictating the story is just as insane on the first page as she is on eighty-five.
Where one could normally take apart a novel to analyze what the author is foreshadowing, of course here it is true as well. But the author within the text here- that is to say, the governess- has a completely different agenda than Henry James does. Clues about her sanity, or lack thereof, must therefore be analyzed differently than they might with another text. The question of what the governess is trying to prove, or why this story is being told, is important towards understanding what the novella is saying. Is her reference to Jane Eyre, for example, which explicitly refers to the madwoman in the attic, there to indicate her questions about her own sanity, to show that she can identify the difference between sanity and insanity and that she has painted herself on the other side of the line, or simply a reference to a book the character read?
There is, however, perhaps a different answer. The character knows how the story will end from the very beginning. She uses literary devices to prolong suspense, but if what she says shows herself to be crazy, presumably she knows what she is showing which does so. While she as a character within her own story grows, she as the presumed author of the text does not change as the story does. The unreliability, therefore, lies not in the governess, nor in any of the other narrators at any layer of the story, but in the reader, who is now forced to reconsider his own perceptions of the story thus far.
Peeling back the layers of the text, then, reveals far more about the reader than the real author, the implied author, the narrator, or any other level of voice with in the narrative. The Turn of the Screw is a success not for what it says about its characters, but for what it says about the person who is analyzing them. By eschewing "vulgarity", and leaving everything to the imagination, James is able to cater not just to the implied reader, but to every reader. The Turn of the Screw can thusly be read as a mirror text, reflecting more about the person reading it than the characters themselves.