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The Search Behind James's Pasteboard Mask

Alison Reingold

"Hark ye yet again,--the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough." Moby Dick Chapter 36


The "visible object" that confounds me most about "The Turn of the Screw" is the language that acts as a pasteboard mask to the text's significance. The mask is sometimes interesting to look at but is unchanging. James's style of writing acts as a barrier between me and the story, preventing me from reaching into the text while discouraging and boring me as well.


Skimming has always interfered with my reading, my eyes floating down the page waiting for strange new words, conversation, or plot points. For "Turn of the Screw," I made an effort to look at every word. However, while reading this story, again and again I would see the individual words but never link them together in a relationship, much less give them a nuance or purpose. Frequently, I only see significance in a certain phrase paragraphs later, making me double back and wonder what other pieces of interest I had missed. The following passage is one example of words I took in without seeing the motive behind them, an interesting problem as they are the Governess's thoughts in the middle of her first encounter with Quint;


"The great question, or one of these, is, afterward, I know, with regard to certain matters, the question of how long they have lasted. Well, this matter of mine, think what you will of it, lasted while I caught at a dozen possibilities, none of which made a difference for the better, that I could see, in there having been in the house and for how long, above all? a person of whom I was in ignorance." (p 311, Signet Classic)


After reading, rereading, and typing these two sentences with great care, I still cannot see their value and special position within the score of text. So many commas, so many qualifiers, and so many prepositions. If I were skimming the words, my brain would only alight on "lasted," "dozen," "house," and "ignorance." After what is supposed to be the first great shock of the story, I cannot see how James can give the narrator such bland words. Trying to break past the mask of the text, I could translate the words and condense them to "How long did the encounter last? It continued while I realized there was a stranger in the house." However, I feel a strong opinion in literature academia that translating text to one's own vernacular is vulgar and missing the author's intentions. After I puzzle out a translation, I wonder if there is a tone in the phrase that should signal the character's opinion that will give these words weight. However, James inserts so many qualifiers that the Governess seems to have no distinct opinions about what she is saying. I jump further from the words to look for James's motivation for choosing these words and placing them. The most I can postulate is that James wants the Governess to appear a timid storyteller, which sounds obvious and shallow.


Having such a small conclusion about the words makes me feel like I must have missed something or am lacking the sophistication to see something greater. I always take my difficulty retaining or "appreciating" the text as my personal failure rather than any fault of the author. To say that Henry James bores me sounds so presumptuous because James's mastery as an author has been confirmed by thousands of intellectuals, while my intelligence is still debatable so I readily admit stupidity rather than say, "Yes, I understand what James wrote and I don't find much of it noteworthy." In the classroom environment, we debate the author's motives and influences but we give the text a special glow of purpose that cannot be debated. I do not believe any student and most teachers would ever say "The Turn of the Screw" is a terrible story because rejecting James looks like disrespecting our distinguished superiors.


"The Turn of the Screw" is not a useless story that people respect out of habit and for pretentious reasons. The plot is reasonable, the characters are detailed, and the pacing is appropriate for a nineteenth century story. The book allows for discussion of its ambiguities which is interesting for modern audiences who may not relate to the setting easily. I am frustrated because I feel there is merit in the story but James is purposefully blocking it with a style and language. Though I understand his style, I certainly do not think it is what makes the story noteworthy and see it only as an obstacle to getting to what makes "The Turn of the Screw" a Classic.


Some authors are lauded for their language specifically, some for their intriguing subject matter and others for their command of plot devices. After punching through the pasteboard mask of language, I want to see what makes "The Turn of the Screw" special but the rules for what makes a classic is still unclear to me. Behind the mask I see carefully chosen ambiguities, intriguing frames, and interesting characters. Is that combination what makes this story so special? I still cannot help feeling that I have missed something crucial. To me, reading "The Turn of the Screw" should provoke intense feelings of like or dislike, with an underlying layer of respect. Though I have respect for the story and its author, my reaction is mostly bland boredom with a touch of annoyance. I will continue to wonder about what people find in "The Turn of the Screw" until I can see the root of their passion for it.


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