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A Tale of Two Brothers: The Reader's Emotional Response to Henry James' Turn of the Screw

Laura Sockol

Henry James' novel The Turn of the Screw has been called one of the "most effective texts of all time" (Big Books). Its efficacy lies in James' ability to create strong emotional responses in the reader despite the lack of inherently affective moments in the text. The plot of the story is not frightening in its own right. Indeed, the reader remains unsure whether the story is a ghost tale or an account of madness. James uses the structure of the novel, rather than the plot, to produce fear and tension in the reader. The means by which James produces these emotions in the reader is consistent with William James' theory of emotion. According to William James, emotions are not cognitive mediators of experience which produce bodily sensations, but rather the explanations we give to the bodily sensations themselves. Henry James engenders an emotional response in the reader of The Turn of the Screw by presenting the story in a way that provokes a physiological response. The way in which Henry James brings the reader to feel emotion in The Turn of the Screw supports William James' contention that emotions are the explanation we provide for our physiological responses.

William James' theory of emotion provides a physiological explanation for our emotional responses. James' theory provides an alternative to the naive theory of emotion: that emotions are distinct phenomena excited by external stimuli, and that emotions themselves give rise to our emotional expressions. James notes that "our natural way of thinking about these standard emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this later state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression" (William James). This theory proposes that one experiences "disgust" at the sight of an unpleasant stimulus because the stimulus brings about a "disgust" reaction in the emotion center of the brain, which then causes the physical expression of disgust. James' account of emotion challenges this view. According to James, perception of a stimulus immediately produces bodily changes which are labeled an emotion. In the case of disgust, an unpleasant stimulus immediately causes the tongue to protrude, the muscles to clench and the nose to scrunch; this response is evaluated and labeled disgust. Emotions do not mediate our responses to stimuli; rather, "bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and . . . our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion" (William James).

Henry James' novel The Turn of the Screw creates an emotional response in the reader in this manner. While traditional horror stories produce fear through the presentation of phenomena that readers find inherently frightening (By "inherently frightening," I mean stimuli that produce an unlearned fear response in most individuals; either stimuli that are/have the potential to be dangerous (e.g. snakes), or experiences which violate the norms of our expected reality (e.g. spirits/ghosts)), James' plot includes no elements which should "naturally" arouse a fear response. If it is true that the governess is mad and the ghosts are a hallucination, then they are not dangerous and the reader has nothing to fear from them. Unlike the content of a traditional ghost story, were the plot of the novel to unfold before us in reality, there is little to suggest that we would be terrified. However, as a reader, I was undeniably frightened by The Turn of the Screw. I did not find the governess, or even Quint and Miss Jessel, to be frightening in and of themselves; however, the narrative itself disturbed me.

James explicitly informs the reader that the tale is meant to provoke strong emotional responses. The tale's narrator, Douglas, decides to share a ghost story after the telling of one that was "not particularly effective" (Henry James 291). Douglas, in contrast, frames his story as "beyond everything . . . for dreadfulness" (Henry James 292). Thus, before the tale is even begun, the reader knows James' intent as an author is to make him experience dread. However, James also reveals that his story shall not do so through the traditional devices ghost stories use to engender fear in their listeners. Douglas notes that "the story won't tell . . . in any literal, vulgar way" why it is so dreadful (Henry James 294). Unlike the ghost stories his comrades have told, Douglas' tale does not make the reader fearful by confronting him with fearful situations. Instead, James creates a story which effectively creates emotional responses in the reader through subtle manipulations of the reader's physiological experience of reading.

One means by which Henry James brings about an emotional response in the reader is to manipulate the speed at which the reader encounters the tale. Early in the story, during the gradual buildup to the more disturbing moments, the calm tone is enhanced by the length and fluidity of James' sentences. When the reader is first introduced to the governess' new home, James presents it as an idyll:

it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connection with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably more than anything else to do with the restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about my room to take in the whole picture and prospect; to watch, from my open window, the faint summer dawn, to look at such portions of the rest of the house as I could catch, and to listen, while, in the fading dusk, the first birds began to twitter, for the possible recurrence of a sound or two, less natural and not without, but within, that I had fancied I heard (Henry James 300).

The reader is forced to read slowly in order to make sense of James' long, meandering sentences. James' use of multiple clauses and complex sentences alters the reader's physical experience of the text. My physical response to this style of writing was to read slowly, to sink into my chair and become absorbed in the story. Although it is possible that some readers might become agitated and frustrated by their inability to comprehend the complex text, if the reader is willing to slow down and enjoy the story, James' writing style has the opposite effect it reduces tension, slows the heart rate, and creates a sensation of calm. In this way, James leads the reader to feel emotionally calm, as well. Although the reader is aware that the tale is a ghost story, the reader is not anxious or frightened during these early moments in the text. James is able to mediate the expectation of fear that might lead the reader to experience anxiety by manipulating the reader's physical response to the work.

This fluidity and calmness contrasts sharply with later moments in the tale, particularly when the governess suspects the children in danger from Quint and Miss Jessel. At these moments, the sentences are shorter and the tone of the text is more hurried. This causes the reader's pace to quicken and become more frantic. In this manner, James leads the reader to feel anxiety. For instance, in the scene in which the governess comes to suspect that Flora has gone out with Miss Jessel, the governess confronts Mrs. Grose with a series of short commands and exclamations: "She has gone out;" "She's with her!" "we must find them" (Henry James 375). The shorter sentences, frequent breaks and added emphasis heighten the reader's arousal. This physical arousal is interpreted as anxiety. If James had written the scene in the same style as the calmer portions of the tale, the reader would not experience the same acute anxiety. The reader would objectively assess the situation as dangerous for the children, but there would be no visceral, physical response. By structuring the work so that the reader is forced to read more quickly and brokenly, James engenders a physical response in the reader which is labeled anxiety.

James also creates physical emotional responses in the reader by leaving crucial information out of the text. As Sky notes, "James left out bits . . . because he wanted us to scare ourselves" (Stegall). The absence of information creates tension in the reader's mind, which leads to physical tension in the reader's body. When we read an ambiguous passage, our stomachs clench, our muscles tighten, and we "fill in the blanks" for ourselves. By leaving crucial information unsaid, James intensifies the physical response of the reader. This leads the reader to experience more powerful emotions. This was evident in my reading of the scene in which the governess learns Quint's ghost's identity. Like the other scenes in which the ghosts figure prominently, the sentence structure is short and choppy, leading to an agitated reading. This is reinforced by the repetition of particular phrases, such as "I know!" (Henry James 322). The anxiety the reader experiences is heightened by the ambiguity of the repeated statement that Quint was "much too free" with Miles (Henry James 323). The denotative meaning of these words should not evoke a strong response in the reader; however, I had an immediate reaction to these words. I felt at once disgusted and appalled. I raised my eyebrows, I opened my eyes widely, I felt my stomach clench. Like the governess, "I forbore . . . to analyze this description further" (Henry James 323). There was no explicit evidence in the text to support my reading of this phrase to imply improper sexual contact between Quint and Miles; however, my visceral response to the phrase made this a certainty in my mind. By making the aspects of the plot which might "naturally" disturb the reader implicit, James heightens the physical response of the reader, and thus the emotional sensations resulting from the reading. Had James explicitly addressed the issue of sexual contact between Miles and Quint, I may have experienced disgust; however, it would have been less intense. Because my emotion was solely the product of my physical response, rather being mediated by objective information, I experienced "pure" disgust, uncorroborated yet intense.

Although the plot of The Turn of the Screw is not as frightening as that of many ghost stories, its readers experience acute discomfort, anxiety and fear. Henry James engenders these emotions through the manipulation of the reader's physiological responses. By changing the speed at which the text can be comprehended, James forces the reader into alternate states of calm and arousal. This tension is heightened by the ambiguity of many aspects of the plot. The uncertainty forces the reader to rely on her physical responses to the text, rather than objective evaluation of the story. These factors contribute to the efficacy of the text in producing emotional responses in its readers.

Works Cited

"Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind. Day 2." 29 January 2006 .

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels. New York: Signet Classic, 1995.

James, William. "What Is An Emotion?" Classics in the History of Psychology. Ed. Christopher D. Green. 20 January 2006 .

Stegall, Sky. Online posting, 23 January 2006. Big Books of American Literature Course Forum. 29 January 2006 .


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