This is a discussion sheet I wrote a few years ago and updated for students at university studying Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. It gives you a good idea of a few approaches to James’ uneasy tale and acts as a portable tutorial on the novel.
Private English tuition can boost your understanding very quickly and this worksheet is just one example of how an English tuition session might work if you were studying Henry James as an undergraduate or A Level student.
Dr Janet S Lewison, Tusitala English Tuition 2013.
The Turn of the Screw.
This shadow of a shadow.’
‘ the thing had for me the immense merit of allowing the imagination absolute freedom of hand, of
inviting it to act on a perfectly clear field, with no ‘outside’ control involved.’
‘An excursion into chaos while remaining…but an anecdote- though an anecdote amplified and
highly emphasised and returning upon itself….’
Henry James, Preface to The Turn of the Screw.
1) Consider the significance of the prologue in the novel. What type of ‘frame’ does it provide
for the text? Are we aware of the text’s representation of the problematic tension between
reading and authenticity? Or perhaps between any reading of the text and the location of the
text’s origin? Consider also the problems of anteriority and posteriority in your
understanding of the prologue.
2) If the text is produced as a chain of narratives, then how ironical might this idea be, when
we read the tale as a ghost story. Think about the text’s interest in repetition/
haunting/echoes and how finally ambiguous or imprecise the identity of the visitor(s) might
3) Shoshana Felman talks at length about the preponderance of ‘couples’ in the text and this
narrative investment is established initially in the prologue. Indeed conversation presents
itself as seduction in both the prologue and the main body of the text. Remember an old
translation of conversation is intercourse. Why should James create this labyrinthine
interest in couples/coupling? Does this reveal the presence of ongoing transference in the
text, a transference that refers as much to the way and how the story unveils itself as to any
relationship itself. Remember the exchanges between the narrator and Douglas? At different
times each are presumed to know things and this instigates the transference. And then we as
readers are also reading to know meanings, and the meanings slip away as the narrative
substitutes one exchange/transference of meaning for another.
4) If the Master of Bly is absent throughout the text, what might this loss mean? Remember he
literally transfers his power onto the governess, through a conversation that resembles
seduction? Think in terms of mastery, authority and censorship? Does this loss demand
some reaction in terms of haunting? And if the text moves forward through the death of a
protagonist then where does this leave the reader with the final death and transference of
meaning when Miles dies at the end? Is the manuscript itself a ghost? Comprehension as
death and murder?
5) Look at the moment when Quint is identified by Mrs Grose. How is he identified and what
is note-worthy about the process of naming? Do we recognise initially the probability of
Quint as a phantasy figure? Is the text also destabilised by the .ongoing battle between the
children ‘who know’ and the Governess who is presumed to know but progressively seems
more patient/anaslysand than the children who KNOW.( think of biblical meaning here too)
6) Edmund Wilson’s essay on the text remarks on the unreliability of the governesses
testimony originating as she does from a Hampshire Vicarage and uneducated in the ways of
love. Could you equate the endless ambiguities in the novel with desire? Are some
manifestations of desire more taboo than others in the text? Why? Camille Paglia not
atypically argues that the’ governess is a decadent artist, joining moral and aesthetic
extremes. Evil with beauty, A Beardsleyesque black and white…she kills in order to save,
enveloping the children in her mortifying fiction.’ Do you agree at all? Does he recall Cathy
in Wuthering Heights? As Paglia also says is the text showing ‘what must be kept out’?
7) The text ends with the death of a child, perhaps even the murder of a child. If Miles dies
once he ‘confesses’ to his knowledge of Quint, then what does this suggest about the
problem of naming in the novel and what horrors are attached to naming as comprehension.
If you look at the ending again obviously there is a MAJOR AMBIGUITY as to who is
actually the DEVIL? In other words where meaning and horror are located. You may also
like to look at the play on ‘grasp’. Why?
8) Why does James call the novel The Turn of the Screw.? (Think splinters and control and
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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