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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Turn of the Screw, Emma and Hamlet

In another online discussion, the old question was raised about how to read Henry James's The Turn of the Screw--are the ghosts real or not? Here is what I wrote in response:

All of the discussion about Turn of the Screw can, I claim, be boiled down to a few sentences. James INTENTIONALLY emulated Hamlet, Northanger Abbey, Emma, and perhaps some other sources by writing a novella which has both an overt story and a shadow story. And exactly as I have found in Hamlet in particular, the fork in the road in The Turn of the Screw is whether the ghost is real, or a hallucination. Walter Greg was correct about Hamlet, he just didn't understand the shadow story well enough to make his case convincingly. Read The Turn of the Screw with a real ghost, you get the overt story. Read The Turn of the Screw with a hallucinated ghost, you get the shadow story.

In 1934, Edmund Wilson, who was prescient in his focus on Hamlet, Emma and The Turn of the Screw, recognizing their kinship without understanding it, was the first to explicitly identify what I call the shadow story of The Turn of the Screw (literally, the story you find when you give the "screw" of the story another "turn"), but he did not see the anamorphism, i.e., he did not realize that the shadow story was not a replacement of the overt story, it was a parallel ficitional universe.

And Shoshona Feldman's very famous 1976 article about The Turn of the Screw is UTTERLY unreadable, I know, because I just tried to read it again, it epitomizes all that is wrong with so much jargon laden, over-theorized b.s. that passes for literary criticism--when you see the name Lacan in an article, time to run for the hills. I honestly cannot tell you what she says in her article, but I know it’s not worth the torture of trying to figure it out.

It's like explaining the motion of the planets with a Ptolemaic maze of hyperintellectualized dancing on a pin, when it all can be described without recourse to psychoanalysis of James's intentions, by simply attributing to him the intent to create a double story, but not to let on that he was doing it. That is the extent of the theory that is called for, the devil is in the discerning of the details of the shadow story, but that is another question.

So of course James was only going to tease the reader in his Preface and in any other public statement of his intentions. He would ruin the game if he said what he was doing . Jane Austen was exactly the same way, always teasing and hinting, but never being explicit, about her shadow stories.

Cheers, ARNIE

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