James: Another Sense of an Ending

The following essay is a Heideggerian reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. In Appendix C, I point out explicitly some of Heidegger’s insights that I am finding among James’s insights here.

Critics have characterized language in The Turn of the Screw1 as “ambiguous” since Edmund Wilson provided the epithet and the “diagnosis,”2 as Shoshana Felman put it (105), of the governess’s—or James’s—case. The term has come to mean “undecidability.” The story ends where the moderns always lead us and leave us—in “ambiguity.” The word betrays a trace of irritation, a sense of giving-it-up, that seems to suggest that one should be able to decide, and beyond that, that the issue should be decidable. Both the reading and the story seem to be somehow at fault—weaker than they should be in general muscle, strength to do the job, or know-how, skill, or character, will. There is a sense that the issue is decidable—it is only language that cannot decide; or that if it is not decidable, then effort is lost, wasted, in trying to understand. Ambiguity that implies loss of an object and failure of an action is haunted by ghosts of the notions of being as presence, of teleology, form, meaning, the rational—the Western metaphysical paradigm before Nietzsche. As John Carlos Rowe observes, undecidability itself has become a critical concept, inadvertently defining a new center, reasserting the logocentrism it thinks it deconstructs.3

Felman takes the issue to its rational conclusion in her reading of the James story: she concludes not that language in this story is ambiguous, but that in this story James figures and enacts the dilemma of literary language per se:

[Literary] mystification is a game, a joke; to play is to be played; to comprehend mystification is to be comprehended in it; entering into the game, we ourselves become fair game for the very “joke” of meaning. The joke is that, by meaning, everyone is fooled. If the “joke” is nonetheless also a “worry,” if … mystification is also “tragic,” it is because the “error” (the madness of the interpreter) is the error of life itself. “Life is the condition of knowledge,” writes Nietzsche; “Error is the condition of life—I mean, ineradicable and fundamental error. The knowledge that one errs does not eliminate the error.” (202-03)

Felman’s conclusion (Nietzsche’s) does not resolve the issue: it dissolves it, the question along with the answer; only the questioner remains, inaccessible, silenced. For, as she lucidly but helplessly points out, her own discourse, the discourse of linguistics or psychoanalysis, answers to the same description and diagnosis. The whole linguistic project falls apart in this reading, and if there is anything left in its place it must be anguish.

It is this impasse of Felman’s (not the irresolution but the stoppage) that my reading of the story questions. I shall agree that when language is taken to be representational—words corresponding in some wise with the thing (Aristotle) or words agreeing in some wise with the concept, which is intrinsically different from the thing and therefore lying, like the words that signify them, outside the possibility of essential correspondence with things themselves (Kant, Saussure)—then the “joke” of “meaning” is unavoidable. But when that notion is abandoned, as Felman’s work brilliantly argues that it shall be, it becomes possible to take language to be Heidegger’s non-representational worlding, decision-making (playful but not capricious), Being-granting “it gives.” Or, to describe my method here more accurately (and more soberly), it becomes possible to suspend judgment about the nature of language and, according to Heidegger’s “letting-be” approach, allow James’s “literality” to speak for itself.

That we cannot know the nature of language—know it according to the traditional concept of knowledge defined in terms of cognition as representation [nach dem überlieferten, aus dem Erkennen als Vorstellen bestimmten Begriff des Wissens]—is not a defect, … but rather an advantage by which we are favored with a special realm [wir in einen ausgezeichneten Bereich vorgezogen sind], that realm where we, who are needed and used to speak language [die zum Sprechen der Sprache Gebrauchten], dwell as mortals. (Martin Heidegger, “The Way to Language” 134)

Now language can hope to move beyond Felman’s point of impasse.4

That point of impasse is the point of subject-object confrontation. “Seeing”/Knowing (meaning) belongs to the subject-object relationship; we understand or “grasp” something when we stand outside it, get it in its totality in view and in hand, command it.5 Stories, like all entities, have depended on the ending (totality) for definition since the Greeks proposed the identity principle. The notion of ending as definition (totality) has prevailed until this century, when thinking may be represented by Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea, who reconceptualizes “story” as the error at the origin of the modern dilemma. “Life,” “existence,” is not a story, contains no stories. Stories are human representations employed to veil the void, diversions from the knowledge of meaninglessness. The “end” as definition slips away from the thing, object, and becomes “end” as human purpose. The principle extends from story to concept to form (though Roquentin salvages something, a scrap of melody, an antinovel). If there is no source from which to draw the ending, if no connections intervene, if the “ending” occurs with no valid relation to anything preceding, then the story, the concept, the form, is indeed from “beginning” to “end” a gruesome Christmas Eve “joke” to conciliate or titillate the ladies.

But even in a multiverse that tends to chaos, the mind insists on “seeing”; though we relinquish “truth,” we cling to focus. Endings (definition, form) are useful as a knife-edge test technique, if not to identify entities then to approach them, to get them in view.

Sense of an Ending: Genre

The customary sense of an ending (as definition) in regard to literature is the literary form, genre. We set the story against generic form to get its measure. There are thousands of clues. There is the gothic set, the biblical, the psychological, or the romantic. The romantic set has not been exploited as thoroughly as the others, but its significance is primary in my view. In brief, the governess—ignorant, young, and sentimental—reads life like the novels she finds in the library at Bly; but just as among the romances she chances upon Fielding’s Amelia, so she falls into something at Bly more real than romantic. The disaster in the ending is, in this reading, the shattering of the attempt to bring “evil” to account in romantic terms. Though I shall not offer a systematic explication of such a reading, I shall imply and embellish one when I turn the screw one more round to interpret the governess as romantic artist, below. Our problem here, however, is to determine the significance or function of generic structures. The genre summoned above cannot give us a sense of ending, definition, of ground or grounding—for they have been uprooted themselves in this century. These historic, religious, literary, and social paradigms are no longer taken to convey an original archepattern (theologic, mechanic, organic), signature of the universal. In this case, what is their source or ground and what does it signify for us?

For modern thinkers, as I suggest above, cultural paradigms serve subjectivity; form inscribes point of view.

Sense of an Ending: Subjectivity

If we consider The Turn of the Screw as a representation of subjective point of view, we seem to have found the key to its structure. The story presents—and undermines—the governess’s personal narrative imbedded in a social, cultural, historical perspective.6 The Eden myth, for example, belongs to the governess’s tradition and personal history (and James’s, ours), though it is revised, deviated from, or reversed in the story. The romantic motif mimics and satirizes the literary tradition (and especially the state of the novel as sentimental Victorian claptrap). The psychoanalytic pattern is James’s modernist turn of the screw; he plays with this latest “lie” and subverts it, dumps it into the same subjective wash with the rest. He has concocted a modern polyglossia that performs before our very eyes a polished little all self-conscious suicide.

But we cannot settle on the usual death sans resurrection theme in this case, for we find that subjectivity cannot satisfactorily account for the matter here.

First a Heideggerian account of the subject-object concept7 and a review of the modern situation. Descartes grounded the objectivity of objects in the subjectivity of the thinking “I,” giving ontological priority to the subject (and to its mathematical mode of knowing, pure reason), but at the same time separating it ontologically from the objects of its knowledge. Now the subject stands opposite objects and sees them in their entirety. But Kant “saw” that subjects had genuine—objective—access only to objective phenomena. The mind cannot bring itself into agreement with things in themselves but can see them only as they stand in agreement with itself. The subject’s access to objects is limited, thus deficient. Hegel united subject and object in a dialectical convergence tending inevitably, historically, to transcendence; and the collective romantic imagination, political and social as well as literary, exploded into Renaissance. But revolutions and world wars would ravage the possibility of certainty and of hope, and in the West all the patterns that had comprised a universe would seem to disintegrate, and with them the feasibility of pattern itself. Modernists in art and literature have been interpreted as presenting fragments of perspectives on a world that fell apart.

What philosophy has called subjectivity modern psychoanalysis defines in terms of the unconscious. The “I” in subjectivity is here the projection of a self-image that occurs as one of several stages of displacement, all of which represent a vain attempt to return to or to replace an original totality of unity with the mother in the womb. Whose projecting, attempting, returning? Psychoanalysis goes behind the subject to a pre-conscious (pre-language) entity or energy. In Julia Kristeva’s use of Lacan’s neo-Freudian analysis, the “subject” is continuously reposited, reconstructed, by the generating activity of physical drives, is never present or permanent but is always “in process/on trial.”8 This always-being-posited subject is the precondition for the development and function of language, and language is necessary to receive and guide the force of the drives (failing means revolution or destruction of language, of subjectivity—means madness, death). This conception of subjectivity is compatible in part with the view that the James story evokes, except that it stops (with Felman’s) at the threshold of the story, of the matter, with a distrust for the use of language to differentiate beyond that point. In my reading of The Turn of the Screw psychoanalytical notions assert themselves again and again, partly no doubt because James is making deliberate use of such notions and partly because they are often compatible with his insights into human phenomena. But my attempt is to follow James as he makes a way past theory, I claim, and by means of language.

The site and indeed the element of the story is the governess’s subjectivity. At the beginning the governess characterizes her position along with the others’: “… I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!” (302). Indeed her progress through the story suggests the movement of the prow of a ship projecting itself ahead of itself:9 an anticipation moving now hopefully, now fearfully—“a succession of flights and drops,” as she calls it, “a little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong” (298)—an expecting that gets surprised, stopped, diverted, aided, and obstructed by other things. We may take these interruptions as the suggestion of the fact of objectivity; yet it is impossible to disentangle objects from her subjectivity.

… The terrace and the whole place, the lawn and the garden beyond it, all I could see of the park, were empty with a great emptiness. There were shrubberies and big trees, but I remember the clear assurance I felt that none of them concealed him. He was there or was not there: not there if I didn’t see him. I got hold of this; then, instinctively, instead of returning as I had come, went to the window. It was confusedly present to me that I ought to place myself where he had stood…. (316-7)

This is indeed the element we wish to examine—the shifting, ephemeral human site, and dilemma. Things which according to our paradigm exist in themselves occur here inside and inter-related with her consciousness. We know that we are restricted to the governess’s story (convenient lie), the embodiment of subjectivity, cut off and entrapped in its delusion. We suspect also that the governess represents the fallen romantic, half-fabricating what she half-perceives.

We find the central clues to the meaning James gives to subjectivity in the governess’s relationship with the ghosts, for in Freudian terms they represent projections of the governess’s actual and unrecognized nature, the unconscious, and James is making use of such concepts. The figure on the tower makes its advent as a literal displacement of the master in the governess’s fantasy (her imagination turns real, she says). He appears to be a total stranger, an Other who, however, stares into her own gaze in a profoundly disturbing, knowing exchange. The relationship established in this encounter deepens in the second meeting when he appears at the dining room window, more familiar and at closer range. Then at the third confrontation, at the “heart” of the “darkness” on the stairway to the bedrooms just before dawn, she meets him and knows and denies him measure for measure. She is drawn to, into, his seeing-knowing (his seeing-knowing her) as fully as she is coming to, into, seeing-knowing his nature as “evil.” Her gathering decision to oppose the evil, to offer her self to shield the children, is at the same time—and not in a separate conflicting tendency—a drawing into, absorption of and by, the evil. Thereafter a kind of relish for its appalling depths infects even her solicitude for the children.

How can I retrace today the strange steps of my obsession? There were times of our being together when I would have been ready to swear that, literally, in my presence, but with my direct sense of it closed, they had visitors who were known and were welcome. Then it was that, had I not been deterred by the very chance that such an injury might prove greater than the injury to be averted, my exultation would have broken out. “They’re here, they’re here, you little wretches,” I would have cried, “and you can’t deny it now!” The little wretches denied it with all the added volume of their sociability and their tenderness, in just the crystal depths of which—like the flash of a fish in a stream—the mockery of their advantage peeped up…. (356-7)

The event: obsession, possession. Her resistance to the evil is not a Hawthorne making-do with making-way among complexities and contradiction or a Conrad-Marlow restraint, but a total opposition, as she believes: a rigor of denial, suppression, which is at the same time a total drawing toward/into the evil, identification (342).10 She absorbs the evil—into the timeless silence that is the force of her own rigid will. The governess possesses Quint, or the evil possesses her. In the end she is the violator if she is not the savior, and this uncertainty is the horror of the story. The possibility of innocence is by this time as dreadful as the presence of evil.

The second ghost, Miss Jessel, appears to the governess after she has with Mrs. Grose’s assistance interpreted the first one; this time the governess identifies the ghost for herself, as herself: as beautiful young woman, as governess implicated in a relationship with Quint, as guilty, mad creature, doomed. But the governess resists the fatalism in this ghost in a different and more effectual opposition: outbreak, outcry, which clears the air so that she recovers her self (365-6). The self-image that Miss Jessel re-presents to her seems insubstantial, unelemental, can disperse and disappear. Subjectivity as self-image is a secondary, refutable adversary, whereas the attraction-repulsion of a libidinal Other is altogether essential and formidable. Both appear to be purely subjective, offer no clues or connections to objectivity except as they are effectual.

The governess’s relations with the ghosts intervene in her relations with everyone and everything. Her duty is to shield the children from them. Her relationship with Mrs. Grose becomes a collaboration for the purpose of bringing the ghosts to terms (literally). Her relations with the children are bi-level; beneath a surface of order and conventionality and congeniality runs an undercurrent of difficult and troubled and contradictory intercourse. The consequence of these duplicitous intercommunications is an inner excitement and a rich resurgence of intelligence and creativity. And the movement of the story occurs among and takes its direction from these “subjective” interrelationships.

But if we have only the governess’s story from which to ascertain events, happenings, can we ascertain them at all? The governess is on her own testimony easily “carried away,” “led on.” With a proclivity for gothic or sentimental novels she “reads into” things meanings that they then, obediently perhaps, enact. She “sees” with absolute clarity at dusk or in the middle of the night and by the light of the moon, candles, matches. What she actually sees “in clear noonday light” is Miss Jessel, that specter, who can be made to disappear at a “wild protest,” above (365-6). We watch while innocuous, perhaps random, suggestion turns into “monstrous” event. We see that everyone and everything is a mirror to everyone and everything else, reflects itself back from what it takes to be Other. The story seems to be a set of random reflections set in motion and crazily perpetuating and perplexing a single ungraspable tautology. Subjectivity, the element of the story and the setting, is also the ground and the motivation for and even the “reality” of fact and event.

When we take subjectivity to mean interpretation, the content of consciousness, and when “truth” is attributed to objectivity, then subjectivity means “lie,” since it fails to correspond with truth. But subjectivity in James’s work encompasses human event or the happening of human reality, and it enters the realm of objectivity on something of an equal footing, not that the two become identical but that they co-operate or inter-operate in the making of “reality.” The story is loosening its grasp on the Cartesian-Kantian paradigm.

The governess is a naif—a truthsayer; she asserts with absolute self-certainty the truth of her observations. (Indeed her observations are often so sensitive or incisive that we can not dismiss her as a fool or a madwoman.) But her “truth,” her account—her justification—is somehow inadequate to the events it sets forth, for the doubt and all the complexities to puzzle or contradict her claims lie open in her narrative among the things she thinks she presents. It is in her connections and self-justifications and exclamations of certainty that we find the possibilities of breaks, gaps, lapses, coverups.

Miss Jessel stood before us on the opposite bank exactly as she had stood the other time, and I remember, strangely, as the first feeling now produced in me, my thrill of joy at having brought on a proof. She was there, and I was justified; she was there, and I was neither cruel nor mad….

… The revelation then of the manner in which Flora was affected startled me, …. To see her, without a convulsion of her small pink face, not even feign to glance in the direction of the prodigy I announced, but only, instead of that, turn at me an expression of hard, still gravity, an expression absolutely new and unprecedented and that appeared to read and accuse and judge me—this was a stroke that somehow converted the little girl into the very presence that could make me quail. I quailed even though my certitude that she thoroughly saw was never greater than at that instant, …. (380-81)

Perhaps her story is a sheer gauze over the happenings she actually relates, a respectable facade under cover of which she can present the horrors that are the burden of her communication. The governess can not hope to, though she may intend to, convince anyone of her story, but by means of its machinery (machination) she can “confess”; the real stuff can “come out.” “Story” seems to be a shield through which the governess dares to look at things, like the paper masks we cut to watch an eclipse of the sun. Function is the objectivity in the story. The lies and evasions and excuses are part of the same objectivity as the “truth.” Reality in the story is not a world of objective facts which collide with the objective fact of the governess (whose nature is subjective), so that an objective (pure) view could discover, distinguish, dissociate them. For “objective” event occurs in the “subjective” human encounter, enters into existence in reference to it and in relationship and interrelationship with it. The human “subjectivity” is as effective, as real, as much agency and consequence as un-human “objectivity.” Our knife-edge technique, setting the subject-object paradigm against the story, has brought a Jamesian difference to view. The Cartesian-Kantian paradigm seems to pertain in that subjectivity is prior and “truth” is out of the question. But James takes the “subjective” to the limit where it is no longer a notion and where both subjectivity and objectivity are transformed. When the identification of subjectivity with consciousness is abandoned, then subjectivity becomes a kind of activity, co-instigator of the event called “reality.”11

Stories mean form—no one more exacting than James on this point. I am approaching this story using the question of form—generic, conceptual. Genre has given way to subjectivity, and subjectivity has passed outside the limits of formality. What, then, is the nature of form, of ending, definition? Let us examine James’s conception and appropriation of literal forms in the story and attempt to derive the principles of form that operate in the story. We do not abandon the site-element-function of “subjectivity”; we approach it more closely.

Sense of an Ending: Forms


One literal form, already mentioned, is the mirror, the “glasses” at Bly in which for the first time in her life the governess can see herself “from head to foot” (299). Freudian theory identifies the mirror-stage as a crucial step in the development of self-consciousness. This is the principle that brings us round by the end to the beginning of this story, for the story is the governess’s self-portrait, her attempt to make out definition and value, i.e., proofs and justification. But self-portraiture is an ironic figure, for seeing herself is what the governess does not do.

We trace the pattern. The story delineates a developing self-consciousness. In the interview between the governess and the master, as Douglas relates it in the prologue, a new sense of self is awakened in the governess, reflected to her from the master’s charming manner, the pressure of his hand, his appeal for the assistance of someone capable of independence and judgment. A surprising, flattering self-image, one which somewhat allays her apprehensions, is suggested to her by the manner in which Mrs. Grose and Flora receive her at Bly “as if I had been the mistress or a distinguished visitor” (299).

And the sense of “greatness” that marks her first impressions reflects to her the vision of a fulfilling duty ahead, “To watch, teach, ‘form’ little Flora” (300). In further iterations of these preliminary self-appraisals, her duty to the children and her motivation of earning the master’s approval deepen and widen to sinister proportions. She sees herself reflected in the ghosts—in Quint’s progressively more challenging, more dangerous exchanges; in the mournful figure of Miss Jessel. She comes to see her cruelty reflected in Flora’s distress, her ugliness in Miles’ beauty. But all the mirrors in the world set up about her on all sides (and the phrase seems to describe her situation) can not show her her own monstrous metamorphosis and effect, though they reflect them to her.

The governess’s incapacity and imprecision can be explained, however, if not “justified,” by the complicacy of her situation. That is, the awakening and intensification of the governess’s self-seeing is one thread in a veritable web of reflections and cross-reflections, in which all the characters and situations and events catch each other in perpetual, essential, and actual inter-view, inter-course. The web is discernible, for example, in a kind of remark that punctuates the story. “I saw him [Quint] as I see you,” the governess says to Mrs. Grose (319), and again later, “Oh, for the effect and the feeling, she [Miss Jessel] might have been as close as you!” (329). Such remarks set up a series of equations, identifications, which serve to illuminate or obfuscate the nature of the ghosts and/or the nature of the governess’s “seeing.” The two examples above associate Mrs. Grose and the apparitions, especially in the governess’s apperception. And indeed the source and the meaning of the ghosts is inextricably bound up with the memories and fears and dreads of Mrs. Grose. Further passages of the same kind associate Mrs. Grose with whoever is present and with the reader, who by a similar cross-reference has been identified in the prologue with the evil in the story, “general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain” (292). In the web of counter-reflections, it is equally possible to “see” that Mrs. Grose and the children are reflecting the evil from the deluded governess, and that the simple governess is reflecting the evil that preceded her at Bly, from Mrs. Grose, the children, or perhaps from the reader of the story.

Other cross-indexes associate situations, actions, events. Here the perspicacity of the governess is brought into doubt: “I saw him [Quint] as I see the letters I form on this page,” she writes (312). One implication is that when she thinks that she is “seeing” (reading), she is projecting (writing). What the governess offers as proof of authenticity doubles back to cast doubt on her grasp of reality (both romance theme and subject-object paradigm subverted).

Now mirrors give inaccurate reflections. And mirrors mirroring mirrors, multiple mirrors, multiply the errors and overwhelm the understanding. The reflections and counterreflections that complicate and variegate the surface of this story can not verify or clarify objective “reality”; instead they create a delightful or distressing confusion where our instinct struggles for focus. Nor can objectivity be located in an original figure, fact, or source. It is possible to turn the story about the figure of the governess or Mrs. Grose or Quint, or even Miles, so that the reflections seem to emit from that center; but each temptation is a trap. (The trap is a motif that surfaces into literal language as the governess and Miles engage each other in a chesslike complex of moves and checks, challenges and captures.) There is no point of origin that can accurately or adequately account for the rest. But the issue goes beyond a subversive subjectivity or an undecidable ambiguity. Despite the irreality of appearances, the lack of verifiable connections—cause, cohesion, linearity of sequence—a “reality” seems to be originating or moving, changing, all the time. Certainly event, disaster, makes its discernible approach and shatters illusion, the ideal of literal coherence, in the end, enacting the rational tautology that this work is setting forth—and setting off against a vision of form as function.

The complex of mirrors is a trap to catch and to entangle not only the governess and the seeming constituents of her situation and story, but also the reader and life outside the story. The most immediate “proof” besides this sentence I have begun is the similarity in all my sentences and in those that other critics have written about the story.13 Our interpretations are all “seeing” and “proofs,” justification and self-justification. As deluded and destructive as the governess appears to be, her motives, her seeing and saying, even her actions, seem to reflect something essential in the human condition:

The great thing is indeed that the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities, that it also has colour and form and character, has often in fact a broad and rich comicality, many of the signs and values of the appreciable. (1934 “Preface to ‘What Maisie Knew’” in The Art of the Novel, Northeastern UP ed., 1984, p. 149)

The most significant aspect of this essential reality for my study is its comprehensiveness. That is, pure objectivity has no more separate integrity in James’s world than psychological subjectivity, fact no more than fiction; they are caught together in the same network, comprise an interacting, inter-changing “reality.”


Another literal form in the story is the frame, which figures form itself and demonstrates the function of form not only to contain and close but to disclose, to open.14 To the governess the figure on the tower appears “as definite as a picture in a frame” (311). I began to discuss definition in terms of endings, as limitation, identity. Now when the governess is concerned with the problem of identity outright—the identity of the apparition—she avers her clarity, lucidity, and certainty by an appeal not to factual objectivity but to a picture in a frame. Of course, the governess is a romantic; what she takes for “real” is a “picture” (a mimetic representation is suggested, a concept not consonant with James’s notion of art) separated from life by that frame. The frame marks the difference between the real “real” and the governess’s concept of it. Her remark serves to satirize sentimental “art” and its debilitating effects on weak, young things. Art is fallen in the story too.

Frames mark boundaries, differentiate. Quint appears twice in frames that admit him to view only from the waist up; we have noted that he displaces the master in the governess’s imagination. He appears at first on the tower high up and far away (ideal, remote) framed by the turret wall and the tower. His next appearance, at the window, brings him nearer—right up to the glass (again like a painting, the glass another frame—and mirror, medium of and barrier to access) and broadens his significance when the governess senses that he is looking for someone else, Miles. The governess rushes outside and, missing the intruder, stands in his place outside the window frame looking in—looking in, it occurs to her, as he did earlier—just as Mrs. Grose comes into the room. Now the governess is framed in the window behind the glass. The glass works both ways: Mrs. Grose’s stricken face mirrors to the governess what her own face must have shown to Quint (“I had the full image of a repetition of what had already occurred”); and now the governess is the apparition behind the window framing and mirroring for Mrs. Grose something dreadful of hers (“I wondered why she should be scared” 317).15 From this time the governess is intermediary between Mrs. Grose and Quint, frames and mirrors him to her (as the story mediates between the reader and something of his/hers). Now Mrs. Grose hurries out, joins the governess on the outside of the window, and applies her face to the glass. The glass as frame intermediates—delays while it facilitates confrontation; separates while it communicates. The glass as frame brings something to view, gives it definition, while it inhibits unity, the merge (loss) of identity. Note what happens in the story when the frame is missing at Quint’s third appearance.

The governess meets Quint the third time on the stairway just before dawn. There is no frame—no barrier, no distinction. Each time they have met they have exchanged a mutual challenging stare; this time she meets him totally and denies him—subdues and absorbs him. He disappears into the silence which is the “element” (342) of her strength. Formerly frames (tower, window) worked to separate, to distance, rendering Quint’s appearance partial, selective. Absence of the frame means the loss of differentiation, of mediation, means merge of identity. The form—apparition—of Quint becomes an empty form, an “it” that now belongs to her (see the final chapters where Quint is often “it,” “the thing,” and something that she no longer “[has]” outside the window, 401-03). And merge of identity means loss of distancing, of point of view, of seeing, loss of “I,” subjectivity. The governess thinks that she triumphs—but she is possessed now.

As the governess noted, a frame makes definite-ness appear (“as definite as …”). Without a frame a painting, say, is not prohibited from integrating into the rest, into what is not-painting. A frame functions to set off a work of art from the “real world.” It makes a distinction, a difference, a boundary; and it makes a beginning, an introduction, a point of encounter. Art has been taken to represent life, to reproduce it, to interpret it, to transcend it, to attempt and fail to meet it, to miss it; but it is always conceptualized in reference to it. When art is not set off by a literal frame, as in music where time inheres but space more problematically, or as in the novel, as Bakhtin, Lukacs, Ortega y Gasset, and others define it as a form that opens onto life, then the difference dims and the antagonism or community of life and art is harder to discern.

We can put the question to test immediately. The story in our hands is a prodigious little work of art, and it is set into a frame by the prologue.

In The Turn of the Screw “story” gets separated from “life” not by the governess, not by her sentimentality or ignorance or naiveté, nor by her error or delusion, but first and essentially by death, by time, by historicity, memory or forgetting, by the story’s passing from hand to hand, from generation to generation. In a Jamesian analogy (“Preface to ‘The American’” 33-4), when the rope connecting the earth with the balloon of experience (to which we are connected in the car of the imagination) lengthens or disappears, then “experience” becomes “romance.” In the prologue we watch the process occurring as the story passes from experience to record, from record to story, from story to ghost story. It drifts farther from its origin or source and from personal memory or association; the story moves on and leaves the governess’s life behind.16 Each re-telling accumulates story, acquires and accretes new voice, motivation, setting, each rendering bearing less of whatever fidelity the governess’s little narrative ever bore to an original experience. This story is “romance” by its distance from “life,” and the more romance as it drifts farther away. The prologue and the series of prologues demarcate as frames do a kind of distinction, separation, between the story and life, a separation associated with death, forgetting, the passage of time; or perhaps more essentially with suppression, repression, locking up (precipitating ghosts, breaking out, the return of the dead).

On the other hand, each prologue by which the story is passed along offers itself as a new presentation of actual life outside the story. As the story loses touch with experience, the prologue seems to continue to renew its hold, and to provide a new measure of the widening gap between the two. As each prologue moves farther from the story, adding a new threshold, a new audience, for a new perspective onto the story, the increasing difference should continually “correct” the romance, error, of the tale. But instead each prologue presents another reflection or, indeed, reduplication, reiteration, of the original story. In each segment of the chain of re-presentations, all the themes and motifs of the governess’s tale are repeated, or introduced. The problems of seeing and the nature of seeing, inter-view, interchange of view; problems of interpreting, of writing and reading; the problems of ghosts, the return of the dead (already the governess and Douglas have joined the ranks of ghost), of good influence and “evil,” the latter identified in mirror-exchanges between the respective narrator and his/her audience, eventually with us as the last audience in the chain, as “uncanny ugliness and horror and pain…” (292). These problems suggest in turn the problems of memory and forgetting, suggesting also the question of the influence of art, that repository of the dead, of the forgotten or suppressed, the unconscious. Above all, the prologue enacts the theme of story as form (and art) and form (art) as containment (the Grecian urn enigma so compelling to moderns)—containment in and by and against which the matter contained breaks out. Each prologue enacts such an outbreaking.

The prologue to The Turn of the Screw is a frame which appears to distance the story from life; but language which tries to present the difference between fiction and life can only reflect or repeat not life but its own attempt; form forms. However, though art is separate from life and different in its character as form, it is at the same time form that works to disclose the difference, life. Life is not captured, circumscribed, not reflected or repeated; but it is connected or engaged via this tenuous, confrontational negotiation.

Frames are a principle of seeing as interpreting—differentiating something from other things, and connecting and relating it to them. We noted above the frame of expectation. Bly exceeds the governess’s expectations, and we have described her progress through the story as an ongoing projection of expectations. But though what appears upon the horizon of expectation may appear by dint of its difference, its appearance does not dissolve the expectation; instead, what appears maintains its appearance in relationship to that projection. Expecting (desiring) the master’s face the governess sees the apparition on the tower; but though she quickly adjusts her impression, the displacement underlies and colors her subsequent reflections and reactions. Expecting Miss Jessel out the window she sees Miles, but, as we note below, her dread is not eased but redirected. Expecting Flora at the lake she finds her, a rare, treasured “proof” of her own prescience. Her expectations, we may conjecture, stem from her limited previous experience, her youth, her sentimental proclivities, private fancies, and later from her need for justification. The most inclusive frame for her seeing/interpretation is the commission that the master gave her and her hope of fulfilling it, winning thereby his “grateful” approbation (295).


Another frame, as we have mentioned, is the window. We have considered the window as glass, as mirror, but it figures more essentially as aperture, opening, and as limiting structure, point of view (frame). We take for example the scene cited above (345f.): the governess awakens; Flora has blown out the candle, arranged her bedclothes artificially, and is partially hidden behind the curtains at the window peering out at someone—the governess “knows” whom, Miss Jessel—on the lawn below. The governess steals out of the bedroom, hovers for a moment at Miles’ door, and spurred by one of those fearful glimpses at the possibility of his innocence, passes on to dispose herself at a window that will give her another view of the lawn. To her utter dismay, the figure she sees below is little Miles, whose gaze is fixed on something above her window, on someone, she suddenly “knows,” standing on the tower where she last saw Quint. Though she sees this “lovely upward look” (357) as a proof of Miles’ ongoing guilty relationship with Quint (we note that he turns the same sweet gaze up into her face shortly afterward back in his room), she finds later that it is merely a part of the “trap” which the children have set for her, a little dramatic invention—to catch a king, perhaps. (There are many Hamlet echoes in the story, and in this one the governess all but betrays herself—as does Miles, 349-51).

A window is an aperture; one looks out a window onto “the real world.” But not all of the real world. A window is already situated to “take in” a certain limited vista. It is situated in a place, from which it opens out and into which it brings the things it opens to view. The governess chooses a particular window for the purpose of taking in a certain view in a certain way; i.e., she chooses a window in the bedroom of the old tower, chill and musty with disuse (but kept in perfect order by Mrs. Grose), and she approaches the window with a particular, fearful expectation—that she will see Miss Jessel below, that “horror.” From this perspective, the past steeped in tradition, and anticipating evil, she looks out below. As we have noted, with the discovery of Miles her horror is not simply vanquished or corrected but is transferred. What she sees is “aided” further by the restrictions of her window. She sees Miles’ gaze directed past herself to a point above, to, as she is immediately and horribly certain, Quint on the tower. But she cannot look directly at the tower; what she brought to the window, associations of memories and fears and desires, for example, informs her vision. The knowledge and capacity (which windows figure) which are the only means and guides to identifying and interpreting appearances work here to rush upon and overwhelm the small figure. The place where her perspective is situated does not disappear and become inoperant when the governess looks out from it; the meanings, associations, that inhabit the place are the functional and limiting means and manner of taking in the view of what is outside. Window is a way of approaching and also of appropriating. It brings the place and its furniture with it and by means of these it meets and engages, articulates and appropriates, what it opens to view.17 James expresses similar notions in the New York edition of “Preface to ‘The Portrait of a Lady’” when he compares “a number of possible windows” in the “house of fiction” to as many novels, and at each window the particular consciousness of an artist, restricted and enabled by the particularities of his window to see what he sees (45-6). What psychology calls “projection” is indeed “pro-ject,” throwing out before, but here it is not essentially or merely flawed subjectivity; it is essential mode of access.18

Screens, Bars, Fences

Windows are a principle of seeing, of reciprocity, engagement. Though windows may be used as mirrors, in which case they reflect a self image, when they are used as windows proper they open the view onto an outside, though limited and easily turned to the service of preconception or prejudice. A counter-device to windows is the screen. The governess undertakes to screen the children from the vision of evil; she herself will be the screen, shielding them by intercepting the view. After her third encounter with Quint, however, she feels barred, herself, from the evil with which she “sees” the children freely communicating. Bars and fences are more counter-devices to windows. The governess fences the children about more tightly than ever; she hardly sleeps, never lets them out of her sight. Fences enclose them now, and yet the governess feels that it is she who is “barred”: from the vision of evil.

Of course she is contained, fenced about, too; the children are “in possession” of her now (355). She and they are bound together—on the wrong side of the fences, bars. They are closed in—with evil. The governess cannot see evil because it is within her now. The children are in presence of evil for she (and not only she) brings it with her. The surprising consequences, noted above, are that the children are more radiant than ever, outdo themselves—and her—in creative invention and in feats of intelligence and learning. But the governess continues to tighten the vise of her obsessive possessiveness, and something must out.

Screens and bars are doubtlessly effective, but not to contain evil. They are part of some essential tendency to hide, lock up, close off, and they function not so much to contain or prohibit things as to construct and proclaim a limit; and eventually in each case they precipitate a reaction.

Perhaps Miles’ is the primary case. After Miles has betrayed signs of impending rebellion, the governess sets him free—relatively. He is freed from their regimen and from a kind of delay or suspension of normal expectations. For a couple of days he ranges over Bly. Though he has told the governess that he wants her to “let [him] alone,” that he wants to go away to be with people of his “own kind,” he seems to equivocate now, comes back to be near her, needing, she feels, to break their silence. He proposes that they stay on together (395). In the final scene in the dining room before the windows through which the evil broached (via the governess) the children and Bly, the governess senses that Miles feels barred by the windows and screens (figures of her means of receiving and containing the evil) from something he needs to see. The media that mediate seeing are forms (frames) of the governess’s kind, belong to a limiting, defining capacity, not to the freedom that Miles knows to distinguish his kind. Miles manifests something like human potentiality, whose essence is freedom but whose realization requires seeing as well, whose seeing requires forms.

Form as ending, as definition or as enclosure, works in the story as frame (frames per se, windows, screens, fences, bars), and frame works not merely to mark a place, but to work an intermediation and to produce an action, reaction.19 This story eludes or escapes the very forms it uses. It uses forms to get past them. But my description so far falls short of a certain violence which forms mark and precipitate in the story.


Propriety is a form at whose borders lie the gross, the queer, monstrous. Quint, for example, is no gentleman, wears no hat, is “too free … with everyone.” Near the end of the story when forms are rupturing all round, the governess and Mrs. Grose dash after Flora—all without hats; even the appearance of decorum is abandoned. But impropriety is not all of a kind in the story. The women exhibit one kind. In the scene at the lake all of them—the governess, Miss Jessel, Mrs. Grose, and even Flora as she makes her choice—share in their separate and several senses a “gross” character, i.e., a tendency toward the vulgar, the ordinary, the literal.

Mrs. Grose represents an essential aspect of it. “Grose” suggests “gross,” and descriptions of the housekeeper link her unmistakably with ordinary common sense. Unable to read or write,20 she depends upon the spoken word for knowledge (303-04, 329). As for understanding, seeing into things, she takes (or the governess takes her to take) the spoken word of the governess.

I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority—my accomplishments and my function—in her patience under my pain. She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch’s broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan. (348)

Mrs. Grose is intent on holding truth at the level of appearances (“See him, miss, first. Then believe it!” … “You might as well believe it of the little lady. Bless her,” she added the next moment, “look at her!” —But Mrs. Grose is dissembling.) Thus she is content with the appearance of well-being, with orderliness, propriety. She is presented in capsule in this passage:

I found her sitting in pained placidity before the fire. So I see her still, so I see her best: facing the flame from her straight chair in the dusky, shining room, a large clean image of the “put away”—of drawers closed and locked and rest without a remedy. (366)

Mrs. Grose’s lack of refinement of sensibility, her proclivity for suppressing or ignoring the troublesome, suggest that “grossness” tends toward the undifferentiated, toward stasis, inertia. This “grossness” is mitigated, however, or modified by another aspect of her character, also suggested in her name and in the portrait above. “Grose” given a “rose” pronunciation says “grows.” She is the mother-protector of children and the home. There is something fundamental in Mrs. Grose’s unexamined impulses toward propriety (propriety as what is proper to something in its nature, ownness). Indeed the governess depends upon the “justification” of Mrs. Grose’s commonsense experience.

There could have been no such justification for me as the plain assent of her experience to whatever depth of depravity I found credible in our brace of scoundrels. (352)

“Grose” as “grows” puns “rose.” The word “rose” and rosiness appear in the story in connection with appearance, mere appearance (e.g., 302, 314, 360). Appearance is the measure Mrs. Grose takes of things and the object of her concern. “Grows” also brings Flora into association with Mrs. Grose as it links both of them to nature, the natural. In the scene at the lake Flora identifies herself and is identified by the language of the narrative with Mrs. Grose and the “gross.” Flora “falls,” losing her radiance, her beauty, her youth—“with a strange, quick primness of propriety” “united” with Mrs. Grose “in pained opposition” to the governess: “I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have…” (382). I interpret Mrs. Grose’s commonsense grossness and Flora’s nature principle as different kinds of fundamental resistance to “seeing” or to the radical change that vision might precipitate. In the scene here the governess, hopelessly entangled in “seeing,” responds bitterly to the opposition of these two: “I’ve been living with the miserable truth, and … you’ve seen … the easy and perfect way to meet it.”

Thus “grossness” in the story is an unseeing, unreflecting, unassailable predilection for mere appearance; propriety in a fundamental sense fallen to ordinariness. Now when the borders defined and maintained by “gross” propriety are violated, another kind of “grossness” appears. The governess and Miles follow Quint past these borders and wander into the “unnatural,” the ugly and the manacing, the “hideous obscure.” The governess, the commissioned guardian and perpetuator of propriety, oversteps, violates, its borders in its service. Against the reality and force of evil she sets her rigid will, but though she is violated and becomes violator, she never relinquishes her original motivation: the hope of justification—in her view the fitting of her “truth” inside the borders of propriety, respectability. Alongside or underneath this motivation is, of course, the desire for the master’s approval, which carries the governess past the border once again to the fundamental potentiality principle that she finds so compelling in Quint and in Miles.

Miles’ character presents the clearest definition of both propriety and grossness. Throughout the story he manifests propriety in its most refined possibility: even after he announces his intent to rebel, the narrative notes that his table manners are impeccable (393). But in the last violent scene he mirrors the “coward horror” of the Quint apparition: his “white rage” reflects Quint’s “white face of damnation”; the movement of his head as “of a baffled dog’s on a scent” echoes Quint’s “prowl of a baffled beast” (398-403). Perhaps the soberest question the story raises is whether the artist should open the eyes of “the children” to evil, whether it were not best to suffer its ill effects along with its fertilization, and to do so in the dark.

Propriety, I am claiming, is one of the forms used in this work to declare and use borders, not for ending but for crossing. Propriety per se is not a form with essential qualities, but a way of forming a border for living, for “reality”—a way of justifying ways of moving or not moving about. Mrs. Grose uses it to define a limitation of “reality,” a point of far-enough, the governess to move into the strangest of fabulous worlds. Propriety works like a border for Mrs. Grose and defines safety; but for the governess—easily carried away, fanciful—it is more; it stands as both an ideal form and as an unexamined appeal to the master. Propriety, mere appearance, is what the governess most adores. But her own initiation into the vision of evil, a seeing past mere appearance, carries her to the border between form and disaster which is the site of the story.

Propriety belongs with the many dissimulations, pretenses, and the governess’s rigorous imposition of her “rigid will,” all attempts to control or order or end (define) things as they are—i.e., without order, end (definition)—and to control by means of form, appearance. It is the notion of propriety that defines the violation in Quint’s impersonation of the master, his hinted relationship with Miss Jessel and/or with Miles, or in the governess’s subliminal attraction to the master, to Quint, and to Miles, or in her relationship with Mrs. Grose.

The principle in propriety is literality, which is characterized in the prologue: “The story won’t tell,” said Douglas; “not in any literal, vulgar way” (294). Felman has worked out this definition of the literal as the limited consciousness, language. But the story reveals another aspect of literality as well. I shall examine literality, grossness, first for something essential in it. Literality is crude as Mrs. Grose and the governess evince it, yet in itself is not necessarily or merely so. Mrs. Grose, seeing only the “literal,” represents a mundane, coarse sensibility; yet, as I have suggested, she represents at the same time an organic and a vital mothering principle. The governess, “seeing” with visionary conviction what she needs to see, represents literality as deficiency; yet in crossing the borders of the “natural” into a grossness that is ugly and monstrous discovers for our sensibilities something fundamental: the border and what borders.


There is a literality in the story which can be examined like frames and mirrors—the fact of letters. In the beginning there is the letter from the master, which contains another letter from the headmaster at Miles’ school. Later the children write letters, never posted, to the master. Finally there is the governess’s letter to the master, destroyed. And there is talk about letters: first Mrs. Grose and later Miles threatens to write to the master.

After the initiatory communication from the master, all the letters imply impulses (blocked) to get in touch with the master, impulses to reach outside Bly or the story to a responsible authority or power. The problem of the absent master invites analysis from several perspectives (see especially Felman 144ff. and Rowe 125ff.).21 The phrase “presence of absence” has been overworked, but it was fresher when Todorov traced the figure in this story,22 and it predicted a predominant theoretic preoccupation that followed a few decades later. It names the uncanny, the demonstrable existence in some wise of what we “know” cannot “exist.”

In James’s story, letters are addressed to the absent master, but, except perhaps in Mrs. Grose’s view, it is not his absence itself that motivates the acts of writing; it is the particular deteriorating state of affairs which occurs in his absence. The master to whom Mrs. Grose would appeal is the figure of propriety institutionalized: he is the embodiment of the principle of legitimacy. The master to whom Miles would appeal or the master that the governess is enjoined against addressing represents what remains of mastery (the original master is dead) as underlying source, as origin, and as enduring potentiality (not-language, below). The master seems to represent a point where the literal as we have discussed it occupies the same space as lawless potentiality. The master—such as he is: absent surrogate of dead father—embodies in one uncertain point of unstable equilibrium two adversarial human features: (1) the propensity for institution, legitimation; language, law, the literality-compulsion in my discussion; and (2) an underlying state, which seems to suffer no deterioration at all: pure potentiality (freedom). However, the attempts to solicit the intervention of the master are little more than hapless gestures after a receding past. It is altogether unlikely that they can effect a return to or a restoration of the legitimacy or integrity of an original mastery. The appeals to the master signify a desperate tactical resolve in the face of catastrophe, a last ditch effort to avert (“skirt”) disaster.

One characteristic common to all the letters, even the first packet that reaches its destination, is that they are not so much communications in themselves, as indications of communications withheld. The master’s note accompanying the letter from Miles’ school, the packet sealed with such a heavy seal that the governess must spend some time and effort to get to it, reads:

‘This, I recognize, is from the headmaster, and the headmaster’s an awful bore. Read him, please; deal with him; but mind you don’t report. Not a word. I’m off!’ (303)

This note introduces the enclosed letter. But it also refers to and reaffirms the terms of employment established in an earlier interview between the governess and the master in London, of which we know from Douglas’s introduction. The master’s letter does not communicate, but rather indicates, the complete withdrawal of the master from whatever shall happen at Bly (from the story), giving the governess total authority and responsibility for it, and giving her, perhaps inadvertently, her primary motivation as well: the underlying guiding principle of all her courage and decision as well as her temerity and indecision. It is (as she interprets it) the hope of winning the master’s grateful appreciation or (as we, more likely, do) a libidinal compulsion we labor these days to analyze.

The conditions at work in the story, that found and guide and limit it, proceed from an original interview, to which the literal terms of this letter point in confirmation. At the same time this note introduces the headmaster’s letter which introduces the problem which it will be the governess’s duty to resolve. The master’s letter is functioning as a frame, to enclose and to set off, to connect and to separate, to relate and to distinguish, to begin by ending and to end by beginning. And we can see in this framing the violence that frames do: in literally setting off the story from its origins, Bly from the master, the frame founds a new order: the governess as (unlikely) governor.

The letter from Miles’ school, the governess says, states that Miles is dismissed and absolutely may not return after the holidays. This is a statement of literal terms which in their literality attempt to contain or limit the matter to which they pertain. But the major impact of the letter is its indication of what is unstated, the matter that remains contained, locked up: i.e., the reason for the dismissal, the nature of Miles’ misdemeanor—the mystery which will be the focus of all the governess’s occupation and preoccupation in the story. The letter in its effort to contain provokes the first eruption into view of the matter it would conceal or restrain. Letters, not simply or directly but inadvertently, as it were, not “literally” but functionally, indicate.

The governess’s letter to the master signifies to Mrs. Grose and to Miles the direct action that they both have urged her to take, which they both have threatened to take themselves. Things, the ending, having gone out of her control, only outside intervention can prevent the catastrophe. But the letter is construed by each to signify a different action. For Mrs. Grose literal letters are a secondary reality, measures of emergency; the governess’s letter is the means of invoking the contravention of the master; that is, the power of “respectable” order, appearance, to dominate or destroy the “monstrous,” the “horrible,” i.e., mystery, ambiguity, uncertainty. For Miles, however, the letter to the master means the possibility to escape the literality-compulsion of the governess, which “unnaturally” (339-40, 359-63) encroaches more and more upon his freedom, blocking his access to an appropriate education for an appropriate future among others of his “own sort,” i.e., male, powerful, free. And yet a contradictory impulse draws Miles to the governess’s literality: “love,” he calls it (362), perhaps his own need to see. When he steals and reads her letter, what he wants is “to see what you said about me.” (Later Mrs. Grose will identify Miles’ original misdemeanor at school: “He stole letters!” 389-90.) Here it is himself he wishes to see and hopes to see by means of her letter. But the letter does not say something about him; it merely indicates that there is something to be said. Later, as we have noted, he feels the need for the governess’s assistance again in order to see something outside and Other; but in both cases the governess’s literality itself bars him from seeing what he wants to see.

Mrs. Grose desires the reign of literality and Miles desires freedom from literality. To both, the master represents correction of reality—to Mrs. Grose institutionalized respectability (order) as representation of reality, a principle of “gross” literality; to Miles power, freedom, a potentiality principle. Both desire rescue, deliverance, from the state of affairs at Bly and take the governess’s letter to be the means of access to that end. But both desire from the letter more than it provides. Measured against their expectations her letter indicates a mere intention to act, a substitute for action, at most future, delayed action. But for the governess the measure of their disappointment is the measure of her success, for the ultimate literal achievement for the governess would be not-writing the letter, indicating positively her faith to her charge and implying successful governorship. The governess’s procrastination in composing and posting the letter succeeds at least to delay defeat; for the “action” which the others desire would mean self-extinction for her (see tomb images, 363f.), whose literal function (as governor) is, according to her sense of the office, to manage, control, contain what-is and what-happens at Bly. The letter to the master which states “nothing” would, if it were posted, indicate the governess’s failure and impending disaster. It would act to sound the alarm, to announce, as the headmaster’s letter did, the existence or the advent of something. It would act to violate the conditions of the governess’s employment, to break her commitment to the master. Here the literal functions not only to indicate and to evoke, but also to maintain or violate the contract which is the basis for the order of things at Bly.23

But there are the letters to the master which are written by the children and valued and preserved by the governess as “but charming literary exercises … too beautiful to be posted.” In view of the master’s injunction against direct petition, these letters are purposeless “exhibitions” of meaningless potentiality inspired by false hope. The letters are merely beautiful and thus irrelevant to what really happens. They belong to the story’s satiric treatment of the romantic governess, of the romantic. Art, represented in these letters, has the venerable esthetic character of existing for its own sake, but in the governess’s hands art is nonfunctional or dysfunctional. In a time of need, when these letters might work (work literally, according to our definition) to make connections and change the course of the story, they are suppressed by the governess in her own interest, to indicate positively by their absence her commitment to the master’s charge. The essential difference between these letters and the others is their (Kantian) purposelessness (“I let my charges understand that their own letters were but charming literary exercises,” 358) and their beauty (“too beautiful to be posted”). The governess “preserves” these letters (locks them up), she claims; but it is herself she is attempting to preserve. These beautiful letters are capable of the literal function of indicating, announcing, and precipitating event.

Beauty is mere appearance, a delusion, trap, in the governess’s view; the beauty of the children themselves is deceptive, for she associates it with divinity and purity, according to her frame of reference, and when she perceives that the children are not the paragons they appear to be, she becomes “disillusioned.” Even so, she sometimes flees into the beauty of their presence for sheer refuge against the doubts and dreads that beset her (314-15).

But the story offers other clues to the character of beauty.24 When Flora opts for mere appearance, the everyday, her beauty falls away. When Miles looks directly on “evil” in the last scene, he mirrors the mad, bestial “thing” at the window. As the beautiful young governess slips deeper into her obsession, she sees a progress of ugliness mirrored back to her. Beauty occurs in the story most radiantly along with the creativity, intelligence, and vitality that mark the community the governess and the children sometimes share, all the more richly as that intercourse, defined by expressions of geniality and care, is fertilized by the influence of the ghosts. Either order or chaos, language or not-language, the governess’s option or Miles’—either alternative alone is inimical to beauty, which seems to belong to the potentiality in things that inheres in a commingling of both.25

Douglas has said, “The story won’t tell, not in any literal, vulgar way.” Telling in a literal, vulgar way would be the bailiff’s way. When Mrs. Grose threatens to write to the master (Mrs. Grose cannot write), the governess asks her how she communicates. “‘I tell the bailiff. He writes.’” The governess returns sarcastically, “‘And should you like him to write our story?’” At this, Mrs. Grose “[breaks] down”: “‘Ah, miss, you write!’” An express distinction is made between writing in a literal way and writing a story.26 If the bailiff writes to the master, his letter will certainly sound the alarm, announce and precipitate the defeat of the governess, after which the master must intervene at Bly, take matters, the ending, into his own hands. The problem, which the women see at once, is that such a letter cannot “write [their] story.” The literal will not do justice, the ladies sense, to what is happening. Is the literal merely inadequate, or is it antagonistic, to the ladies’ needs? We must of course inquire into the ladies’ needs.

We know that the governess needs justification. She “sees” what no one else verifies. Her justification for her role in the unraveling of “health” and “security” at Bly is the “horrible proofs,” foremost of which is Mrs. Grose’s identifying the governess’s apparition as Quint. Inasmuch and insofar as Mrs. Grose identifies, or identifies with, the ghosts, she too is responsible for what happens (368). Justification would mean that the ladies’ behavior would prove manifestly appropriate to, commensurate with, the facts of the matter. Now the bailiff’s letter would bring the situation at Bly to light, precipitate change, but it would not supply the master with the proper, i.e., justifying, point of view, interpretation. (Of course, we could show that the bailiff’s communication too will be an interpretation, as are all of the “literal” letters above, as all assertions and implied assertions are. But the bailiff’s effort will be clearly minimal, and serves us like the others to reduce and expose the literal about as far as possible.) The literal as we have defined it is not in itself hostile to point of view, but is simply inadequate, in its essential function, to produce it. For that, as the ladies agreed, one needs a story. Stories, the ladies imply, may represent the “truth”—an appropriate interpretation of life providing the appropriate focus, coherence. Vulgar literality is the covering-over (locking up) of life by language that substitutes itself instead—language as representation (romance).27

There are other instances in the story where the essential function of the literal to evoke event is suppressed for the sake of coherence, order, ease. The governess locks away in her room the “horrible letter” from Miles’ school; its “grotesque” suggestion of a “bad name” is “swept away by [Miles’] presence” (307). The governess chooses to deal with this matter in Mrs. Grose’s characteristic manner, i.e., to settle for appearances. (“It doesn’t live an instant. My dear woman, look at him!” 307) But the charge discharged in the letter is not rendered nonexistent by the governess’s suppression; it lives in and moves the story more vigorously, and more insidiously.

The “vulgar way” of literality is the way of the plans, framed proposals, and theories (schema, the literal, which may function essentially or secondarily) set out at the beginning of the summer in regard to studies and lessons for Miles, all thwarted by what just happens when the governess assumes authority for the first time (308). Again, the governess’s “literal” self-indulgent self-analysis (“my discretion, my quiet good sense and general high propriety,” 309) is already at odds with the impulsive, egoistic tendencies which are moving her toward the obsessed, aggressive possessor/savior she will become. Her scheme to screen the children by intercepting the evil hovering about them is mocked soon enough by her own hovering evil. Her romantic impressionism is yet another example of the same phenomenon; things appear to her first invariably in a cloud of fiction, then more problematically, and finally more cruelly as they near.

These instances and others signify in a motif of oppositions between languag-ing which draws toward form (in the romantic governess the tendency toward mere appearance, re-presentation as coherence, story as en-closure) and life (not-language, chaos, abyss): oppositions which occur at and by means of a border.

Sense of an Ending: Border

… there were times when it might have struck us that almost every branch of study or subject of conversation skirted forbidden ground. Forbidden ground was the question of the return of the dead in general and of whatever, in special, might survive, in memory, of the friends little children had lost. (355)

I shall call this point where language, formal or informal, skirts forbidden ground a “border.” This border defines a difference between language, form-tending, and something forbidden to language that resists it.28 At this border lies (1) “the question of” the return of the dead, the general question, and (2) the particular question of the possibility of the survival in memory of the friends of children, e.g., Quint, Miss Jessel, eventually the governess (355). “[The] return of the dead” as a general question encompasses the question of survival of the dead in memory. Both returning and surviving defy death, surmount or reverse or conquer it. Thus they transform it, since death that one can pass through and out from again is not death. Now the question that lies at the edge of language seems to be the question of the relationship between the present and the past—the present governess and the former governors, for example—and the effects this conjunction has upon “little children.” No language can represent the relationship, for language stops at the question, “skirts” it. Language avoids not-language, and not-language is forbidden or forbidding to it—a double injunction, from inside and out. The border between language and not-language does not limit, define, separate, end: the border is where language stops before a questioning, an opening—which is the chief preoccupation of the governess and the story and our interpretation: the question of occurrence and recurrence. We cannot “say” whether Quint is a projection of the governess’s or she is an instrument of his, though we can say that his evil recurs in her as Miss Jessel’s “poisonous” presence does.

An interesting problem is the entanglement of past and present time in this vision of border as question. The question as to whether the present projects the past or vice versa, and the evidence justifying both ways, unsettles our usual concept of time as a sequence of now’s and replaces it with a vision of time as involvement of past and present and future in each other, inter-counter-involving—the past appearing in a futural perspective (desire) or the present occurring as the past’s (the ghosts’) making its (their) way via the governess into the future. Time is not the issue; yet time is unseated and revitalized in this question of the border.29

The question as quest, as dreadful searching farther into not-language (the venture of consciousness, call it, or subjectivity, into not-language) is the adventure of the governess in this story. As her “seeing” moves reciprocally against and into not-language, relationships among things conceptual and factical change, break up, reform to re-break-up: reality happens. Once again the concept of subjectivity loses its integrity. The interdependence that mirrors mirror in this work is the figure of the happening of reality (here and in the Jamesian element generally). There is never a direct seeing or a pure knowing or an independent action or event. Subjectivity reaches into extrasubjectivity, involves and changes objectivity. All is entanglement, interdependence (note the motif of aid, assistance, to seeing and interpreting). Nothing is. All is happening.

The problem of not-language and its repositories—the past, memory, history, art—and the function of the border are all implicated in the governess’s first encounter with the first ghost. When the governess “sees” this apparition, she sees the uninterpreted “evil” more immediately than it will ever appear again. The stranger displaces the master in her imagination, noted above, interrupting her general consciousness with a sense of immediate presence. He appears in the place of her futural expectations (desire), but in many ways his appearance in the context of the tower and the evening brings with it the past—a history of incongruous ancient-to-new structures, “battlements,” which “[loom] through the dusk” unified with her in one moment. There are evidences, as we have noted, that the apparition is a projection of her own fancy. The governess’s first impression is that her “imagination had, in a flash, turned real” (310). “I saw him as I see the letters I form on this page,” she writes. The passage details a dawning of subjectivity, “I”-ness: a total solitude, the projection of an object of desire, a point of view (he appears, as we noted, “as definite as a picture in a frame”). What the subject “sees” is, however, not her self as self (Miss Jessel will provide that view) but her self, or someone else, as Other. There are evidences that the stranger is not or not merely an extension of her own nature. Her second impression which she senses as a correction to the first is that he is not what she at first took him for, the master, but is a total stranger, at least to her knowledge. He looks back at her with an intensity like her own; their inter-penetrating gaze is a mutual challenge. When he finally turns away he “still markedly fixed me. He turned away; that was all I knew” (312). This language evokes another ghost on battlements calling from beyond the grave, “Mark me”—calling young Hamlet to another quest beyond the same borders. The point is that this encounter does not resolve into pure subjectivity; the question of the nature of the ghost is the question of the border between language and not-language, e.g., between present and past.

What the first meeting between the governess and the apparition figures in small, the story—as the governess’s self-portrait, self-consciousness—treats from start to finish. The comprehensiveness of the story’s elaboration of this network of inter-reflecting and interacting returns us again to the problem of form. The complexity of design in this work achieves the esthetic effect of poetry or of tapestry, embroidery, painting, to use the work’s own similes—the effect of perfected form. Not only does the work present itself as the governess’s story, perhaps a projection of her unconscious, but it brings along with it a series of similar pretensions or projections—Douglas’s, our narrator’s, James’s. This widening image brings us to the most fundamental form available to our examination, the figure of story as work of art and the governess as author.

Sense of an Ending: Work of Art

The governess is an author literally in that she is writing her story. Within the story she is author figure as she assumes responsibility for Bly and author-ity over what happens there. She represents the author, perhaps primarily, in her “dreadful liability to impressions” (321), in her extraordinary capability of seeing as well as saying (introducing into reality) what others cannot see, i.e., the actual presence and influence of the dead.

The governess as author takes on the task “authorized” by the master (we have mentioned the master’s remote, reluctant relation to original authority above). The substance of the task is to govern (“form,” as she terms it) the children at Bly—with the assistance of Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, whom I take to represent the reader, an unlikely interpretation since Mrs. Grose cannot read (303-04). But though Mrs. Grose cannot see beyond mere appearances as the governess can—an active, participating reading that is half writing—she does seem to the governess to receive what the governess “writes” with perfect passivity (noted above), and her collaboration seems essential to the governess’s own reading/writing, seeing/saying. Of course, Mrs. Grose is not as purely passive or receptive as the governess imagines. Though the governess-author “sees” best and interprets most confidently and cordially with the “assistance” of Mrs. Grose, i.e., with her reactions and remarks and silences, we see that the governess often misses or ignores or revises these to her own purposes. We may say that Mrs. Grose represents the reader in the working imagination of the author.

I take Bly, Be-lie, to be the place of fiction. Much is made of the “place”; it is in itself a large part of the problem in the story: “healthy and secure,” says the master (296), but infected and endangered by the return of the dead, by guilt, desire. Whether the governess as author (Mrs. Grose as reader, aiding) is diagnostician or carrier of the infection or both is uncertain, but we can say that the story brings the question to a fine focus. Mrs. Grose, the matriarch of commonsense, removes the absolutely irreconcilable Flora (blind nature principle) from the story to the safety of the world from which Bly is cut off (of course, it is never verified that such a world is still attainable or secure); and the elemental contenders, form and freedom—the governess and Miles—carry their differences to the limit: and do so within the confines of Bly, i.e., the place and condition and function of fiction.

The governess purports to retrace her conscious experience as governor at Bly (the author gives an account of her work as author—according to our figure a double exposure of the image). Along with a certain uncertainty that attended the venture from the outset, a doubt so persistent that it assumes in retrospect the aspect of foreboding, the governess remembers the appeal that the task held for her: the dignity of such an enterprise (“the making of a happy and useful life”); the richness, the elaborateness, of the possibilities in the adventure (“the scene had a greatness that made it a different affair from my own scant home”). Add an intoxicating sense of freedom, and sweet remuneration (308), and these heady possibilities effect a profound temptation:

… a trap—not designed, but deep—to my imagination, to my delicacy, perhaps to my vanity; to whatever, in me, was most excitable. The best way to picture it all is to say that I was off my guard…. (308-09)

She speculates about the “situation” she has accepted and the course of events that can be expected to follow, anticipating with satisfaction her own power to compel them: “I was under a charm, apparently, that could smooth away the extent and the far and difficult connections of such an effort.” She senses the ending toward which events must tend (“how the rough future [for all futures are rough!] would handle them and might bruise them”), and recognizes the proper genre for the project, romance (309). But the simplicity of this design is disrupted by the sudden intrusion of something “Other,” some potentiality beyond her authority:

It may be, of course, above all, that what suddenly broke into this gives the previous time a charm of stillness—that hush in which something gathers or crouches. The change was actually like the spring of a beast. (309).30

Her attempt to exclude this element from the garden (her fiction, in our analogy) is the problem of the story, whether “story” is taken as her experience as governor (author) or as her written memoir. “Evil,” shall we call it, appears first as perhaps an hallucination (Quint on the tower), which she must handle personally without relation to the story. But when it reappears at the window, looking past her for, she “knows,” the children, she confides in Mrs. Grose, who identifies the apparition as Peter Quint. Quint belongs to the (hi)story of Bly, to Mrs. Grose’s memory of that hi/story, to Mrs. Grose’s hi/story, at any rate (for Mrs. Grose is haunted too). Bly has a memory, a past, a guilty past, and the governess is relieved to think that the evil is not an aberration of her own but an aberration of Bly’s, a threat to the children, giving new purpose to her commission to govern them. Dealing successfully with the evil will solve the problem of Bly (the story), achieving at the same time the grateful appreciation of the master. The two projects (fiction and “life”) elide into one.

At first she is psychologically detached from her charges (characters, story). The children invent their own stories, using her as an occasion or a prop; her character and her history seem irrelevant. Gradually, however, she becomes personally involved and enthralled. Miles is the very epitome of the force in the master and in the Quint apparition that compels her. We recognize in Miles the traditional male principle (mīles, militis, Cain)—freedom and privilege, power, shadowed or colored by the potentiality for evil. Like Miles, Flora represents an elemental force that compels while it baffles the governess’s artistic intention. Flora (flower), like nature, exhibits an inscrutable and unbroachable beauty. It is she who introduces the governess to Bly, “[telling] me so many more things than she asked” [302]. Of the Quint episode that shadows Miles’ and Mrs. Grose’s consciousness Flora “never heard or knew” [323], and in her final scene she persists—stubbornly, in the governess’s view—in seeing nothing. But something in the nature of the male—irresponsibility, perhaps, or freedom, potentiality—engages the governess more profoundly. The combat between Miles and the governess will figure the combat between the author’s authority and the subject’s freedom in the making of a work of art.31

But the configuration is not static. The governess does not represent form or form-tending as a distinct and separate entity or tendency, nor Miles freedom as a pure or fixed state or function. The governess exercises freedom in a fundamental way in her function as author, and the “evil” that haunts her is the very potentiality that Miles reflects to her; in counterpoint Miles manifests decorum in a primary way, noted above, as the master represents respectability at its height. Still, in the design of the novel the dominant tendencies in the character and behavior of the governess and Miles figure the respective forces of form-making and freedom-seeking.

The governess’s narrative is the story of the author entering into her characters. We may call this invasion an unconscious one, or an invasion of her unconscious (her unrecognized potentiality, freedom, her “evil”). Ostensibly her story is about her attempt to separate her characters from their guilt, memories, past. But progressively she herself enters into the story, becoming obsessed with it, possessed by it (342). The author psychologically violates, and is violated by, the characters; she submerges in the story. Meanwhile she and they contest control of the event.

Miles, the most compelling character, is stronger, more intelligent and more creative than the governess-author herself. She cannot master him and she cannot follow him in his freedom. In the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers of these two contenders in the last chapters, their fundamental conflict is worked out in the open. The “eternal governess” (360, form-maker, author as master-principle fallen to romantic authoress as female principle, gross literality) engages in mortal combat with the potentiality principle—power, freedom. In the governess’s compulsion to force Miles’ confession, to her, she attempts to en-close him; in each case he manages to elude her. The movement of each against the other precipitates eruption, explosion. (We note that the smothering syndrome, locking-up, is the very tradition from which the governess escaped into the story in the first place, suggesting fiction as repetition, mirror, or recurrence, or story as frame, above.)

The governess’s effective maneuvers are verbal, Miles’ nonverbal. When her insistent inquisition brings him to the brink of confession, he shrieks and blows out the candle, plunging them into darkness. He wins (373). Or he wins time for Flora to slip away to the lake when he lulls or lures the governess into forgetfulness with his music (373).

The governess-author attempts by means of form to master the unruly element in her story. She succeeds. Winning Miles’ confession, forcing the evil into the open, the governess dispels the beastly apparition at the window. The governess’s narrative figures the event of stories: the need and the attempt to govern, to formalize a potentiality that exists outside language (“evil,” “love”), the effect of which is to necessitate and to provoke the escape, outburst, of the matter under compression. Though the story is a constraining, a forming, what it constrains—not-form, freedom (evil, love)—is at work inside it. The story (work of art) sets forth the struggle of these antagonists. But to what end?

At the end of the story (confession) lies the abyss.

With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. (403)

This ending, which depicts recovery and possession, does not define, limit, totalize the story; the success of the governess’s literality does not spell the triumph of story. The triumph of story is not victory or transcendence but the “exhibition” (as the governess is fond of calling the children’s inventive facades) of its own defeat.

… at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped. (403)

Containment succeeds to contain only with the absolute surrender of what it contains, and at that point it contains nothing—the final vignette of the story. Absolute containment is not containment. Story cannot exist purely, alone, cannot “triumph.” Story as containment, possession, stops where non-story, disaster, abyss, death, begins. At the end (everywhere story is, it is ending), where the battle wages, where story moves against life, there the nature of both story and life is declared; there “reality” works its meaning (i.e., happening). But though their nature is exhibited in the confrontation, their separation is prohibited. Non-story—the stuff, call it “life”: all that containment wants to contain—demands story in a strange way. Both the master’s original appeal to the governess and Quint’s unnatural visitation have shown that the males in the story have found it convenient or desirable to appropriate the offices of the governess. We have noted Miles’ case; when the governess grants him freedom he returns to her, feeling barred from what he wants to see (394-95). For its own differentiation, its escape from chaos, freedom, which cannot see, requires “seeing.”32

Sense of an Ending: Outbreak

Perhaps the fundamental principle of “story” and of the work of art is the principle that we have found at the end of every path of exploration: “outbreak,” as the prologue terms it, “coming out” (294, 297), “saying.” The prologue presented the governess’s story as a manuscript that had been locked away for years; Douglas’s reading and his prologue were characterized by the listeners as an “outbreak after all these years …” not only of the governess’s love story but of his. In general The Turn of the Screw is a story about love locked up breaking out. Miles’ secret guilt is the primary case, his secret “capacity” locked up and gathering against the governess’s “rigid will”— to catastrophe. The ghosts as they appear to the governess in silence are already an outbreaking, but the governess’s anxious or mad attempt to contain them is the problem of her story.

Saying as outbreak is a complex phenomenon. As speaking, saying belongs to the literality principle in this work and has the effect of ending indeterminacy. Compare an essential encounter between the governess and the two ghosts. In her third meeting with Quint the governess does not speak and Quint does not, and their silence is the element of their interview, the element into which he disappears, becomes locked up, hidden: absorbed. Her “self” is no longer her own. On the other hand, when the governess has decided to flee from Bly (as Miss Jessel did) and upon entering her room finds Miss Jessel at her desk, the very image of herself, she “[recovers] [her]self and [clears] the air” by “actually addressing her” in a “wild protest” (365). Thereupon she discovers, moreover, that she has decided not to run away. Both these apparitions bring something dreadful of hers to appearance along with something compelling of an Other. In the first case she seeks merge/emergence, in the other insists upon difference. The contest between language and not-language wages not at the border between human subjectivity and not-human objectivity, but seems to occur everywhere “reality” is occurring, in intra-human, as well as inter-, perhaps extra-, human experience.

Another effect of saying is that it brings along more saying and more seeing. When the governess “tells” things to Mrs. Grose, brings them into the open, and again later as she writes her story (projects it into the letters before her on the page), she “sees” things she missed at the time the thing happened, and with the (qualified, above) “aid” of Mrs. Grose’s responses, spoken and intimated, sees more; the saying-projecting enables and engenders more seeing, for good or ill.

The ultimate effect of “literal” saying is to bring the ghosts into the open among people. After the governess tells Mrs. Grose about the apparition, they two are “in presence of what we had now to live with as we could.” In the churchyard Miles alludes to the forbidden topic of school; speaking outright is not his forte, as we have noted, and his seemingly “harmless” speech is remarkable here for“something in” its “intonations” rather than its articulation as speech, yet this “saying” evokes “something new, on the spot, between us…. The whole thing was virtually out between us” (360). Having followed Flora to the lake the governess “[brings out]” the dreaded name of Miss Jessel and “the whole thing was upon us . ..” (380). Saying projects, as writing does, the appearance of something. In the last chapter of the novel the principle is carried to the limit when Miles’ guilt is forced into the open, word by word, down to the dreaded names themselves.

Miles was expelled from school for “saying things… to a few … whom he liked… ,” things “too bad … to write home.” Flora is taken out of the story, away from Bly and the governess, after a night of feverish raving (“I’ve heard…. From that child horrors! … On my honor, miss, she says things—!” 388). The governess too is saying things, things “beyond everything. … For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain” (292), as Douglas put it in the prologue. Douglas, now deceased—a “ghost” then—is himself a primary character in the ghost stories drawing an audience before the fire in the prologue, a character whose own love story is “coming out” (“outbreak” 293-94) as he introduces and reads the governess’s story to our narrator and a select few [“select” since the silly ladies have left]. Eventually it is James who is “improvising” this little “excursion into chaos” for “those not easily caught …, the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious” (“Preface to ‘The Aspern Papers’” 172).

There are two principles at work in each of these renderings. The “gross” literality principle (language as representation) which the governess forces upon Miles is the principle that James’s authoring of Douglas’s reading and our narrator’s “exact transcript” of the governess’s beautifully handwritten account all engage in order to fabricate and maintain the story. But against this principle of form another literality principle is at work: saying happens. From “forbidden ground,” the “element of the unnamed and the untouched” (354-55), the dead return, eruptive, destructive. Gross literality is containing; saying as projecting is doing more.33 Gross literality is the movement of form over against life to find it, force it; saying bursts through form. Form precipitates appearance as it pushes life to its own limits. But what appears is not form; instead, against form not-form appears. The frame of language makes possible and actual the saying of not-language.

This effect of “saying,” the effect of this story, is a release of things locked up—for the governess exorcism, and since the governess stands in the place of the master and eventually of James as author, for them exorcism too: discharge of, call it, guilt. What this story releases into appearing (the question that opens onto not-language at the end of the story) is the disastrous effect of “saying” upon “the children.” (The culpability of the artist is a familiar Jamesian theme.)

… to “put” things is very exactly and responsibly and interminably to do them. Our expression of them, and the terms on which we understand that, belong as nearly to our conduct and our life as every other feature of our freedom; these things yield in fact some of its most exquisite material to the religion of doing.

… the whole conduct of life consists of things done, which do other things in their turn, … (Preface to “The Golden Bowl” 347)

The “literal” function of language in the “The Turn of the Screw” is to bring living mysteries out into the open. Not that it resolves the mysteries, as though mystery were a cloud that could be dispelled so that something could stand clear; language reveals mystery in its mystery, and admits it here “in the midst” of us (perhaps a biblical allusion to the upper room where the dead Christ appeared to his disciples, 329). This novel’s language, its own form-tending literality, declares a new sense of an ending—ending as ambiguity, as prow, as frame, as border, as outburst: ending as a kind of leverage that language (counter-) exerts against not-language, i.e., the past, the dead, the unsaid, to force its appearance, its re-appearance—a sense of ending as the perpetual turning of a screw.

Appendix C: Heideggerian Insights

Longing is the nameless, but this always seeks precisely the word [Die Sehnsucht ist das Namenlose, aber so gerade das Wort immer Suchende]. The word is the elevation into what is illuminated, but thus related precisely to the darkness of longing [das Wort ist die Erhebung ins Gelichtete, aber so gerade auf das Dunkel der Sehnsucht bezogen]. (Martin Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom,Trans. Joan Stambaugh, Ohio UP, 1985, 127)

In his criticism as well as his fiction James articulated his artistic vision with such fineness of detail, richness of nuance, that a phenomenological exploration of his work can never exhaust its paths and mazes. (A rational analysis could make shorter work of the project, for it would reduce or discount a great deal of the matter.) Against critics who have faulted him for excess verbiage I maintain that there is scarcely a word to spare. The scope and complexity of his rendering of things could support a Heideggerian comparison of equal scope and complexity, but comparison is not my purpose here. I can, however, point to some Heideggerian issues and characteristics which I encounter when I read The Turn of the Screw34 as one is forced to read Heidegger—suspending habits of thinking and following as closely as possible: the language.

We usually agree that subjectivity is the realm that James inhabited and explored. Heidegger, as we know, eschews the concept. One of the major events in Being and Time is the destruktion of the Cartesian-Kantian subject-object paradigm. Yet the operation of subjectivity in The Turn of the Screw is resonant if not consonant with Heidegger’s extrasubjectivity, particularly in his early works where we find, e.g., the structures of Being-in-the-world, Being-with, Being-toward, Being-there, and the “there” as language, as the “open” of Being and history. The terms subjectivity and objectivity have no referent in Heidegger; I can find no referent for them in The Turn of the Screw, where relations among characters (including the dead, the ghosts) involve such mutual reflecting-projecting interrelating that a definition of “reality” has to settle on such movement and change as these structures will allow—and produce.

In a similar re-vision of the rational tradition, Heidegger unties time from the clock and sets the past and future in motion (and that means: into the present); historical time becomes a futural having-been. In James’s story the active presence of the ghosts, their intervention into present affairs from fore and aft, and their intercourse with the living, work to invite a similar reconsideration of the question of time.

What I explore in James primarily is the nature of language. I take language not only as writing or as speech, but as a principle of literality that the novel employs in an elaborate complex or array. James’s uses of formal structures in the story—from literal forms to figurative ones and on to the governess’s motivating principle—invite several comparisons. For example, an implicit analogy is drawn between James’s uses of literal forms in the story (taken figuratively) and certain structures that Heidegger defines in Dasein’s approach to the interpretation of entities and the world (fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception),35 presuppositions and preconceptions that anticipate and guide the understanding.

Formality per se belongs to the metaphysics Heidegger seeks to overcome; in his work forms become beings and work primarily instead of secondarily.36 His ontology of the work of art and some of the notorious stylistics of his literary hermeneutics declare the difference (metaphors are not read figuratively, e.g.; such things as colors, marks of punctuation, or placement of structures are read not according to literary convention but as they lead and are led by the reader’s listening questioning). In my reading of the James novel the ultimate disclosure is a similar overturning of linguistic representation and literary expectations in favor of a “literal” function: to bring to appearance, to do.

The nature of the governess herself figures the issue, her anxious determination to contain or deny what draws and eludes her (“love,” “evil”). Hers is a form-tending nature that works in opposition to a fertile, formidable formlessness. It is James’s familiar principle of art—the artist insisting, the stuff resisting: the contest between the two appearing to be the very ground and the nature of the work of art; and it recalls the worlding world contending against the sheltering earth in the work of art in Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” or the violent “wresting [entreißen]” of being from nothingness in An Introduction to Metaphysics (110, 161f.), where the same practical as well as philosophical consequences are at stake. Heidegger’s radical destruktion of totality, unity, closure, is dramatized in the climactic collapse of these notions in the last lines of the story, while the event of the story enacts a Heideggerlike function of language to give, to do.

I explore literality as a motif, a figure, and an idea, and interpret many aspects of it articulated in the story as well as the principle (or the event) of its operation. In many respects Heidegger’s explications of language, of the word as “it gives,” and of the work of art are comparable. This chapter attempts a kind of Being and Time introduction to the other readings in this book, exhaustive (exhausting as well, alas), elementary, and essential in its reconsideration of language and “reality.”

The ambiguity of this poetic saying is not lax imprecision [das Ungenaue des Lässigen], but rather the rigor of him who leaves what is as it is [die Strenge des Lassenden, who has entered into the “righteous vision [gerechten Anschauens]” and now submits to it. (Martin Heidegger, “Language in the Poem” 192)

  1. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels (New York: Signet, 1962), Sixth Printing, 291-403.

  2. “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” Yale French Studies 55/56 (1978): 105. Edmund Wilson, “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” The Triple Thinkers, rev. and enl. ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 1948) 88-132.

  3. The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James (Madison: U of Wisconsin, 1984), chap. 1.

  4. My objective here, to move beyond Felman’s conclusion, has been attempted with some success already by Ned Lukacher in a Freudo-Heideggerian reading which in a fashion something like the Jamesian use of forms I describe above uses the thought of Freud, Derrida, Heidegger, Felman, and others, to go on to a position of his own, Primal Scenes: Literature, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986).

  5. Heidegger explores and rejects this concept throughout his works (as the present-at-hand in Being and Time, e.g.) and re-envisions the site of this human-other confrontation in several ways: as existential horizon; as Kant’s ob-jectivity revised; as a human letting-be of beings or bringing beings to stand-before; as the appearing (eidos), arising (phusis), or presencing of beings, e.g. At perhaps its most violent the relation is given in An Introduction as “wresting” being from nonbeing: “being-human is logos, the gathering and apprehending of the being of the essent: it is the happening of that strangest essent of all [das Geschehnis jenes Unheimlichsten], in whom through violence, through acts of power [Gewalt-tätigkeit], the overpowering [Überwältigende] is made manifest and made to stand” (171).

  6. Compare Heidegger’s they-self (Man-selbst) in Being and Time H. 129, for example.

  7. Heidegger discusses this concept in work after work, beginning with Being and Time. It is treated in detail in What Is a Thing? trans. W. B. Barton, Jr., and Vera Deutsch (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery-Gateway, 1967). Kant is interpreted directly in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, trans. James S. Churchill (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962), and Hegel in Hegel’s Concept of Experience, trans. Kenley Royce Dove (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1970).

  8. Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia UP, 1984). Kristeva’s analytic attempts to salvage subjectivity for science by including it in objectivity. The effect is that language-making is recognized, but what language says is discounted. As Felman points out (199), this assumption negates itself since psychoanalysis, like science, objectivity, exists in or via language.

  9. Compare “projection” in Being and Time H. 145 as an existentiale of Dasein, wherein “it is its possibilities as possibilities [es seine Möglichkeiten als Möglichkeiten ist]” not in understanding or planning ahead thematically, but in Being-toward its own Being, significance, and world. This structure does not belong to “subjectivity.”

  10. Compare Felman’s Freud-Lacan concept of sexuality as “division and divisiveness,” 112.

  11. See Heidegger’s comparison of realism and idealism in Being and Time H. 202-208, for example, or his account of the encounter of objects in the context of Being-in-the-world, H. 366. See H. 318-323 for a summary of Kant’s subjectivity and Heidegger’s revision of the concept.

  12. For a Heidegger-Schelling account of a kind of mirror-stage in God’s emerging as self, bringing Himself before Himself in His own image, see Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Athens: Ohio UP, 1985) 125-26. There are no reflections, displacements, in this mirroring, but active self-seeing/achieving instead. Heidegger describes mirroring of the fourfold in “The Thing” (179-80), but again the effect is not illusion or refraction. Each participant mirrors the presencing of the others and in doing so is also presencing. All are involved in “mutual appropriation [Vereignung]” within which each is “expropriated [enteignet] … into its own being [zu einem Eigenen]” in its freedom while it is bound to the others in essential mutual belonging. This “mirror-play [Spiegel-Spiel]” Heidegger calls “world” [die Welt].

  13. Felman elaborates this point (98-102). The mirror image of the reader has become a received component of the story.

  14. See “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Poetry, Language, Thought (64f.) for Heidegger’s account of figure (Gestalt) in the context of placing (Stellen) and framing (Ge-stell). Framing or Enframing as the technological in “The Way to Language” (131f.) and in “The Question Concerning Technology” (Basic Writings 283-317) is a particular use of the term, not comparable here except in its contradictory nature. Enframement has the effects of concealing, blocking, and threatening being and truth, and yet it belongs to the grant of destining, to unconcealment, and thus to the human again as guardian of being.

  15. For Bruce Robbins (“Shooting Off James’s Blanks: Theory, Politics, and The Turn of the Screw,” The Henry James Review 5.3 [Spring 1984]: 192-99) the conflation of identities among ghosts and servants discloses a latent utopian thematic, the desire for a classless, otherless, society. In Tobin Siebers’ reading (“Hesitation, History, and Reading: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25.4 [Winter 1983]: 558-73) the ordinary displaces the uncanny when Mrs. Grose becomes identified with the ghosts and the governess, not to dissipate evil but to reveal it, both thematically in the story and functionally by the story, as the “moment of hesitation” in which the reader may discern the threat of violence that inhabits and haunts history and literature.

  16. Lukacher has made the point: “By presenting his text as a veritable palimpsest of a multiple scene of writing, each layer of which distances us from the voice of the governess, James at once discloses and conceals the question of the origin” (128). This problem of the lost origin is Lukacher’s subject, which he addresses using Freud’s psychoanalytical strategy, i.e., by constructing (not re-constructing) the primal scene to serve in its place. The analysis is subtle, but constructing a primal scene in The Turn of the Screw means supplying the fact of what really happened, who is really responsible, brushes dangerously near dreaded presence.

    In any case the unknowability and irretrievability of the original event (“the real”) do not in themselves efface or change its ontological status as “truth”; it is that status that delivers the alienation in its “unknowability,” its “irretrievability,” and requires a substitution, the fictitious primal scene that will allow the thinker to go on as he would have done with ontological certainty. Here his security is removed, but his metaphysics is not.

  17. Tony Tanner offers this etymology: “‘Speculation’ was a key word for James and it is perhaps fitting that the etymology of the word gives us specula—a watch tower, and speculari—to watch. More than that, of course, the word means to reflect, conjecture, theorize: it also means, to borrow the OED phrasing,”to undertake a business enterprise or transaction of a risky nature in the expectation of considerable gain." And a speculum is “a reflector for seeing inside people, a surgical aid” (Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1965) 310.

  18. See Heidegger’s “projection [Entwurf]]” as a structure of the understanding in Being and Time H. 145 and esp. H. 151 in terms of “framework [Gerüst]”; see also “The Essence of the Mathematical Project (Entwurf)” in What Is a Thing? (88-95) and a footnote by the translators regarding Heidegger’s use of the word “project” in terms of “frame” (88-89).

  19. Siebers suggests that the story restores the historical sense of hesitation between the rational and the supernatural and contends that a relationship between the supernatural and violence is the fact against which the rational and the fantastic are opposed and are structured. His notion of the “radical discontinuity” of “founding oppositions,” which inhabits or haunts social and literary structures, and his characterization of literature as “[teaching] … what literature is” (571-72), i.e., a response to and an incorporation of the violence of superstition, accord at least in large with my reading here.

  20. The word “illiterate” could be applied to this character, whom I take to figure the literal. But the “literal” and “literal-minded” often imply an overly-literal grasp of things, an understanding not up to symbolism or abstraction.

  21. Psychoanalysis proposes that the symbolizing faculty, thus language, is made possible and necessary by the loss, absence, of an original totality, unity with the mother. This loss and absence secretly motivate, control, and limit (define) the nature, and in particular the linguistic aspects, of human being. Idealism is transferred to a new physical, quasi-scientific ground. In the James story the absent master may be seen as surrogate father, as the natural and legal fact of an historical link to the existence of authority that at one time inhered naturally and politically in the father. However, John Carlos Rowe’s Derridean analysis raises problems of legitimacy, of illegitimacy, indeed finally of “the essential ambiguity of illegitimacy” (135) in the story, that break up or preclude the possibility of predicating reliable lines of relationship here. After Lacan’s problematization and fertilization of Freudian thought, Felman interprets the master in this story as fundamental indeterminacy governing, i.e., disrupting governance, in all the master metaphors/displacements in the story.

  22. Tzvetan Todorov, The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977) 143-178.

  23. The literal is operating as a frame about the human condition founding its difference from and its interrelating intercourse with “life.” In Heidegger’s works language is given as the open, the clearing, world, which is always actively contested by self-refusing, self-containing, “irreducible spontaneity [Zunichtsgedrängtsein]” (earth). “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Basic Writings, trans. Albert Hofstadter, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1977) 143-87. References to “The Origin” hereafter, as heretofore, cite the essay in Poetry, Language, Thought unless otherwise indicated.

  24. Compare beauty in Heidegger’s “The Origin” 56, 81; An Introduction 131-32.

  25. Compare Heidegger’s account of “creation [Schöpfung]” when “the ground [as longing] … comes to word,” Schelling’s Treatise 129, and the enriching effect of the tension in the unity.

  26. Compare the preference that early James critics expressed for “story” (a reliable idealism) over “analysis” (a threatening realism to be resisted), in Tony Tanner, Henry James I: 1843-1881 (Burnt Mill, England: Longman Group Ltd., 1979) 5-8. It is this popular preference that the governess figures.

  27. One aspect of falling [Verfallen] (an existentiale of Dasein) is “idle talk [Gerede],” Being and Time H. 167-70, which “serves … to close [Being-in-the-world] off [verschließen], and cover up [verdecken] the entities within-the-world” (213). In H. 214-26 Heidegger distinguishes truth as Being-uncovering [Entdeckend-sein] from truth as agreement between “an ideal content of judgment [idealem Urteilsgehalt] and the Real Thing [realen Ding] as that which is judged about” (259).

  28. Heidegger’s vision of the hostilities at the border between language and not-language is affirmative; in the violence of this confrontation lies the possibility of the emerging of essents. The governess’s (inauthentic) form-imposing tendency is fundamental in the achieving and establishing of world (An Introduction 161ff.). See also “The Origin” 54f. For language as abyss see “Language,” Poetry, Language, Thought 191f.

  29. Compare Heidegger’s “‘ekstases’ of temporality” in Being and Time H. 329-331; see On Time and Being (New York: Harper & Row, 1972) 10f.

  30. The “spring of the beast” will reappear in “The Beast in the Jungle” (The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels [New York: New American-Signet, 1962] 404-51) where again “beast” represents some richness and strangeness in “life.” John Marcher postpones life for the sake of a “sense” he has “of being kept for something rare and strange,” etc., something he is “to meet, to face, to see suddenly break out,” changing, perhaps destroying, everything. At the end of the story he “sees” himself and his life as void. This “hallucination” gathers as the long-awaited beast to spring. In his (characteristic) attempt to evade event, Marcher hurls himself face down upon the tomb of his (missed) beloved. Choosing not to “face” what he “sees,” he fulfills his fate: to be “the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.”

    In our story the all-“seeing,” all-will-ing governess defies, contests, denies (absorbs), the beast, and by way of her “gross” application of the literality principle diverts its force, surviving the ordeal, for good or ill, to govern another little girl with another brother. Miles, however, facing all, seeing all, loses all; coerced by the governess to yield all his “potentiality” to her “seeing,” his total self-confrontation means total annihilation.

  31. Compare James’s notion of the work of the artist with Heidegger’s, e.g., in “The Origin” 62f., where the work is a “figure [Gestalt]” wherein is established the conflict between world and earth.

  32. Compare Heidegger’s description of the relation between longing (a “‘nameless’” “striving” [Streben] without understanding which is “lacking the possibility of words [ihr fehlt die Möglichkeit des Wortes]”) and the word (“Longing is the nameless, but this always seeks precisely the word”), a relation and a unity denominated “Spirit” here, “the unity of the ground in God and his existence [diese Einheit des Grundes in Gott und seiner Existenz]” in Schelling’s terms (Schelling’s Treatise 124-29).

  33. James’s “saying” “recalls the worlding world contending against the sheltering earth in the work of art in Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ or the violent ‘wresting’ of being from nothingness in An Introduction to Metaphysics.” (From Appendix C).

  34. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels (New York: Signet, 1962), Sixth Printing, 291-403.

  35. Being and Time Sect. 32, e.g.

  36. From An Introduction to Metaphysics: “Form as the Greeks understood it derives its essence from an emerging placing-itself-in-the-limit [dem aufgehenden Sich-in-die-Grenze-her-stellen].” My redefinition of “ending” in this chapter is akin to Heidegger’s definition of this limit or “end.” “Here ‘end’ is not meant in a negative sense, as though there were something about it that did not continue, that failed or ceased [etwas nicht mehr weiter gehe, versage und aufhöre]. End is ending in the sense of fulfillment (Vollendung). Limit and end are that wherewith the essent begins to be [Grenze und Ende sind jenes, womit das Seiende zu sein beginnt]” (60).

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