Loving Between the Lines: Unrequited Love through Transmission and Retelling of Stories

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.

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Loving Between the Lines: Unrequited Love through Transmission and Retelling of Stories

Christopher Haagen

While Henry James begins his novella Turn of the Screw with a story, it often goes ignored and skipped over in an analysis of the work. While there exist multiple stories within the novella as a whole, many choose to only focus on the Governess' story, and only when that story becomes confusing, do parts of the preface get considered. This leads to a short sided interpretation because the preface is a part of the story, and must be consider in any analysis, just as all chapters in a book must be observed to understand a novel. The obvious difficulty is the limited exposure the reader has with the original characters, and the lack of identity there exhibit. For this reason they can be overshadowed by the later characters. To keep from being distracted and forgetting them, it is necessary to do a close reading of the preface, and look at how looking at the narrators as characters interacting with the rest of the novel can affect the final meaning. Through this interpretation, the theme of unrequited love and the eroticism of story telling shed light on a very confusing ending and connect the story as a whole. This connection both bridges the transition and gives the reader the possibility that maybe the ending is meant to be nonsensical or misunderstand, which is the same interpretation all of the characters in the novel are left with.
The preface to the novel frames the story in three settings, the story of Governess, the story of the Campfire told by the Narrator, and the ambiguous outside commentary as an indication of a future time. The second story is the one to be largely focused on, which is the presentation and the setting up of the ghost story about the Governess. It is a short story, only a few pages in length, told by an ambiguous narrator that remains unnamed and completely unidentified, telling the story of the presentation of a ghost story around the campfire. It is told as a memory, as we find out from the narrator that main character of the preface, Douglas, has died at a later date. What needs to be looked at it what is the result of having this preface and what are the characteristics of Douglas and the narrator when they are thought of as more than just narrators. In using a preface, it not only influences the opinions of the reader, but also makes the reader read the narrators not as an omniscient faceless narrator, but as characters with identities to be considered when understanding the entire story.
To begin the analysis, it is important to show how initially these characters work to influence the reader. The most basic role is thinking of them as a framing device is that it gives a biased view of the Governess before the reader meets her. This narrow of a reading, which is very common, will be shown to not properly take into account several details, and comes to a incomplete and unfulfilling conclusion. In a reading without the judgment of the preface, the conclusion of the novella is simply, which is the idea that the governess is crazy, and that none of the ghosts are real. The line that she is a wonderful woman is immediately validates her, and it causes the reader to go along with this idea until very late in the novella, when it almost is impossible with the details given to confirm this statement. Once the reader becomes aware of these details, the focus changes from trying to defend the governess, to being skeptical of every statement she makes, and even her perception. The reaction by the readers from this class becomes outrage that they cannot say whether the governess is lying to them, or if this is actually a ghost story. While there was suspicion with one of the narrators, and even Henry James for creating such a nonsensical story, the person who never takes any blame is the actual narrator, or Douglas, both of whom validates the story and believes in the perception of the governess.
There is an obvious problem with this if one is to take the first assumption that the governess is crazy. For the governess to be crazy, then there would have to be either some craziness or at least ignorance like Ms. Grose. While they can read, it appears they do not fully understand the story, or at least the narrator does not. For this reason, the focus of an analysis has to consider what the identity of the two narrators, Douglas and the unnamed narrator. The question that comes to mind is what is the affect they have on the narrative once considered as characters?
In answer to this question there needs to be an analysis of the identities of these characters. The first role they have, and main role is the transmitters of the text. The first characteristic of the transmission of the text is how both sacred and strange the exchange of the text is. While others around the campfire are telling stories that appear to just be made up or remember, Douglas goes through a great labor to obtain his story (291). For him to get the story, he must go into town, to send a letter to a person, who will send him the key, which he has to take and open a locked drawer that contains the manuscript in it (292). There are two devices acting here. The first is the role of acting solely as a preface to provide anticipation to the audience, both around the campfire, and the ones reading it. The other is to set up the idea of transmission, and the implied emotions and sacredness that goes along with it.
For the discussion of adding to the anticipation, Douglas frames the Governess' story by separating it from the presumed other stories that have been told. Along with the difficulty to of acquisition, the interpretation is just as hard. The one of the characters around the campfire, Ms. Griffin exclaims that the story will answer a certain question, which Douglas response by saying: "The story will won't tell.. not in any literal, vulgar way" (294). In this statement he is implying that there is not a way of understanding it through just hearing or reading the story. Instead there is really only one way to understand the true emotion of the piece, that being the knowledge of the governess. Douglas shows a great deal of admiration for the woman, and therefore, there is a sense that he has both a deeper understanding of the story and is more affected. In saying such a comment, Douglas is insinuating that unlike the others who have little emotion tied to their stories, he has a great deal invested in it, implying a deeper power to it.
Yet, the complication of retrieval is more than just a device to increase excitement for the story. The larger point deals with how this preface to the Governess' story becomes a story in itself, and creates characters and identities just as strong and important as the governess story. The reason for a greater affection for the story is explained also by the sacredness associated with the retrieval of this particular story. The retrieval is a journey, and the transmission has a sacred feeling to it. The first mention of that aspect is the ordeal Douglas has to go through to obtain it, followed by the mention of how long it took him initially to get the story. She did not write the story until ten years after, waited ten years before sharing this story, and then has been dead for twenty years (294). It is only with her death does he gain the authority to tell this story. This adds the element of death to the transmission and retelling of stories. Douglas receives the story once the governess dies, which is paralleled by the narrator getting Douglas' story when he dies. This theme is seen in many different texts, most notably, by two other 19th century texts, Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Marlowe and Ishmael are not the centers of their stories, but instead pseudo-characters who tell the story of crazed leaders. Moby Dick is much easier to interpret as the story of Ahab's downfall, as is Heart of Darkness more analyzed as the destruction of Kurtz. Yet, as both of those characters are fallen, then the story becomes Marlowe and Ishmael's to tell. Similarly, the Governess dies; and the story of the ghosts goes to Douglas, and with Douglas' death, the story of the campfire is the narrators.
Since the story is in a sense a carrying the burden of the person who it is about, there is a sense of unrequited emotion associated with the retelling. In Linda Kauffman's analysis of the preface of the text, she frames her argument with the question: Why does the governess write this story, and who is it to? Although Douglas receives the text in the end, unless several assumptions are made, it is impossible that he could have been the intended reader as she does not meet him until ten years after writing the text. Instead Kauffman's interpretation is that the intended audience is her employer . There are two main ideas that go with this interpretation, is the idea of dealing with unrequited love and governess continual creation of images . The first idea is that if her love with the employer was requited, then there would be no need for a story to be written. He will never read it, so it is in a way her dealing with the fact that she cannot have him. While she is directed the story at her failed love, she is really writing about her own passion. This projected passion leads into the next idea, which her intending it for the employer displays her projective personality. As Douglas points out, the governess had only met her employer twice (297). Therefore, the person she is in love with must have been a created image, and similarly, the ghosts who she purports to see can be seen as projections of her fear.
Along the same lines, Douglas retelling of the story can show his love for the Governess or his image of her. Similar to the relationship of the Governess and her employer, there is a lot of the same feeling that exists between Douglas and the memory of the governess. While he is not particularly moved the love for the employer, but instead, he is moved by "the beauty of her passion" (297). In his act of turning his back while describing her passion, there is a sense of anguish on his part, like something has been left incomplete or unrequited. For there is limited interaction that is described between the two, the woman who he loves is not the actual governess, but the character in the story, but the narrator of the story. This point can be seen prominently in the erotic manner in which the beginning of his reading is described, "that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author's hand" (298). While Douglas cannot be with her, there is a sexual aspect to his reading of her story. In his reading of her words there is an intimate act of touching, displayed both the in touching of the words on the manuscript she has written, and the taking on of her thoughts and passion. Through his reading, he transforms into her, takes on her words, worries and passions, the very same passion and worries he so dearly loves.
While this explains Douglas as the narrator of the Governess' story, there still leaves the question of why the narrator is narrating of Douglas story of telling the Governess' story. Before going into this peculiar question, it makes sense to just touch base and go over what is known about the narrator. The narrator has no name, no age, and most importantly, no gender. While readers across the board view the narrator as a male, there is nothing other than the implied andocentricism that would lead the reader to this conclusion. The only action as a character the narrator exists as is an admirer of Douglas' pursuit and telling of the story. The greatest emotion that is seen out of this ambiguous character is that when he/she receives the manuscript from Douglas (295). When looking at the governess reason for writing, as well as the Douglas' choice for telling the story, there is an easier interpretation for intent because they are both presented as more complete and rounder characters. On the other hand, the unnamed narrator is almost completely blank. Therefore to try and understand his or her role, the main focus has to be to focus on the patterns already discussed in conjunction to Douglas and the Governess.
The key similarity between all three story tellers is how they go unnoticed by the one they care for. While they all exhibit desire and emotion towards something, it always goes unnoticed and unrequited. The reader can more clearly see this with Douglas and the Governess, yet it can be seen with the unnamed narrator as well. The pure anonymity of the narrator in the story of Douglas can be paralleled by the pure anonymity of Douglas in the story of the Governess. Both instances indicate an unrequited passion that goes unconsummated, which serves as inspiration for the telling and retelling of stories. With that said, the telling of the story of the governess is Douglas' tribute to her, similarly the story of the camp fire is the unnamed narrator's tribute to Douglas .
As they all repeat their stories, it does not bring them to any conclusion. The story that is told and the reader is left with has no literal conclusive ending. While some have explained it as a highly erotic ending with the falling in love of miles (who would become Douglas) and the Governess , this interpretation does not explain the use of the initial story, or why include the unnamed narrator. Instead, the stronger, fuller interpretation is the one that literal reading leaves the reader with, that is, a sense of emptiness and confusing. Why would Miles die of a sight that we all believe he has seen before. Why would he die after he has repented for doing wrong by stealing the letter? In scrambling attempts at interpretation, some will say that the narrator is a liar or crazy, and therefore her narration can not be trust. Others look at the story as a commentary of the fear of sexuality . Yet, I think the most helpful interpretation is the interpretation the there is confusion in this story. There is confusing for the governess never being with the employer, there is confusion for Douglas for never requited his love with the governess, there is confusion for narrator who never shares his or her love with Douglas, and lastly for the reader, there is confusion why the story does not come to an explanation. An important idea is while all of the stories start at different times, they all end at the same place, with the stopping of Miles heart (403). The beauty of the story is that all characters are left in confusion, even the reader who is not given any outsider preference.
As a concluding point, the failure of Ms. Griffin's story is not that it only features one child instead of two like in Douglas' story, but that it presents the story in a tight and vulgar way. The spookiness of this story is not because of ghost, but because of the questions left over. Ghosts are the representation of the end of reason and interpretation. In a similar way, the text operates on that principle, and the success of Governess, Douglas, the unnamed narrator, and of course James, relies on this devices. Once a story is understood, then the reading can stop, and the thinking can stop. Yet, because we have an unsuccessful, unrequited relationship with the text, there is a need to keep reading it, just as each of the narrators has to keep retelling their stories. The last desire that exists in the text is the readers' unrequited love with the unnamed narrator, whose story we will continue to tell, not necessarily to solve any puzzle but to focus on our own passion for searching.

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