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The Turn of the Screw is the most mysterious shining star of Henry James's literary canon. To sketch in a few words, Reed truly holds this novella as "neither novel nor short story, neither ghost story nor realistic narrative, narrated by a woman neither servant nor family member, featuring (somehow) beings neither living nor dead" (100). None of James's other literary works seems so capable of getting the reader face such a dilemma over the interpretation task as does this hydra. Willen correctly notes that "certain works of literature like certain inventions, give rise to flourishing industries" (qtd. in v). Since the number of the critical material dedicated to this short fiction is magnificently extensive, one may take James's The Turn of the Screw as one of the flourishing industries in the history of literature. It seems that over the past one hundred years, none of its readers, either usual or competent ones, could find their way out of this charming labyrinth; and so the correct way to read it is still a matter for debate.
Nevertheless, this text like all the other ones, does tell a story: an anonymous narrator recollects a Christmas Eve, when everybody is enjoying the tradition of telling the ghost stories. Then, a guest named Douglas recounts a ghost story which has apparently been written by a former anonymous governess. As Douglas begins to read from the written manuscript the story shifts to the governess's point of view. She is hired to take care of two children whose parents are dead. The boy, Miles, is sent to a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country house named Bly. The governess's new employer let her have the full responsibility for everything under the condition that he should not be bothered in any way at all. Having arrived at the intended place, she finds Flora a lovely creature and Mrs. Grose a kind companion. Yet this mirror of heavenly happiness starts to crack when a letter arrives from Miles's headmaster, announcing his expulsion from school. Soon Miles returns, an adorable boy whose loveliness enchanted the governess so much that she decides not to mention the issue to him though she was firstly hesitant about this matter. Shortly thereafter, the governess comes to see the figures of two strangers: one man and one woman. These figures come and go without ever being seen or challenged by other members of the household. Hearing the governess's explanation and account of the two figures, the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose immediately concludes that they bear a resemblance to the former vale, Peter Quint, and the previous governess, Miss Jessel. But the awesome point is that it is almost a year they have both died! Apparently, Miss Jessel, who was a respectable lady from a good family, came to be corrupted by drunken Quint; and finally she went on holidays from which she never returned.
Time passes; the yellow autumn replaces the green summer while the children proceeds to be paradigm of two angels. The governess is, though, increasingly, distraught. Because of the repetitive emergences of Quint and Jessel, she has gradually become convinced of their having impious connection with Miles and Flora. So she tries neurotically to protect the children through forcing them to admit their complicity. Later, following the strange sequence of events, Flora is missed. She is found by the lake, on the other side of which the governess sees the apparition of Miss Jessel, quickly points it out to others, and then forces Flora to accept that she was talking to her. To her great surprise, Mrs. Grose disregards her fanatical actions and Flora denounces her. Being resentful of her obsessive control, the little girl turns out to be sick and is sent to her uncle in London. With Flora and Mrs. Grose gone, the governess is determined to save her only left fellow, Miles. Under her pressure, he confesses that he had been dismissed from school for saying things and he had also stolen her letter intended for his uncle. At that moment once more Peter Quint appears at the window, the governess covers Miles's face in order to safeguard him from Quint's sight: "it was like fighting with a demon for a human soul" (James 125). An instant later, Miles shouts, "Peter Quint, you devil!" and falls into her arms, dead (126).
The story ends whilst the reader is left with an open book in hand, trying to put things together and figure out what exactly has happened. How was the relationship between Quint and Jessel in the past? How much were the children affected by them and their actions? Are they still two innocent souls? Is the governess protecting them from real evil, or is she actually putting them through her fanatic motives? Is she sexually repressed and all are her Freudian fantasies? And last but not least, the key question which is at the base of forming all these question marks: Are there any ghosts really out there or they just live in the governess's imagination?
Henry James is an astute observer who "analyses the twists and turns of the relations" based on the characters' reactions (Freedman 5). Although at the outset his writing was untrained and clear, it gradually transforms into a more weighted and complicated prose, replete with allusiveness and imagery. His influence has been pervasive; Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene are among the many novelists whose techniques or aesthetic ideas are driven from the fount of Henry James (Edel 5-7). He was one of the few exceptional writers who perceive this psychological truth that "a novel creates the greatest illusion of truth when it grows out of the personage's observation and perceptions." It is why, in James, we find "an insistence upon the fundamental truths of human behavior" (16).
It was between 1895 and 1900 that James established his series of stories concerned with the theme of innocence in a corrupting world. The most acclaimed in this set is The Turn of the Screw: a mixture of tormented childhood and ghostly components (Edel 29). During his life
"The Turn of the Screw was published in five authentized forms: as a serial in Collier's Weekly early in 1898, as the first of two tales in separate English and American books in October, 1898, as the second of four tales in a volume of the New York Edition in 1908, and as the first volume of The Uniform Tales of Henry James published by Martin Secker in London, April 1915" (Kimbrough 89).
It is essentially believed that he stuck to the authentic punctuation of the New York Edition because the major revisions appear in this version (Kimbrough 89). Here, James seemed determined to shift "the center of attention away from the details of action observed by the governess to the reactions felt by the governess." Besides, he removed commas to get closer to the stream of the governess's consciousness. All in all, James tries to draw the reader into the course of the governess's narrative via "increasing the use of the possessive pronoun 'my'" and substituting the verbs of perception and thought for those of feeling and intuition (91).
Although, later, the novella was disregarded by James as banal, insignificant, and a "down-on-all-fours pot-boiler," it immediately caught its readers' imagination and has held it ever since. Having believed in the theory that "a nightmare is most frightening to the persons who dreams it", James, from time to time, proclaimed how he has intentionally been seeking ambiguity so that "his reader would imagine his own 'horror'" (Edel 29). Most of James's contemporaries accepted the story at face value as a particularly terrifying ghost story. Soon, however, the current of criticism changed course. As a whole, the apparitionist/non-apparitionist controversy has predominated the history of the criticism of The Turn of the Screw. In fact, it has been especially the publication of Edmund Wilson's prominent non-apparitionist essay in 1934 which brings this dispute into focus (Parkinson, Introduction). Expanding on the argument, he believed that the governess was "a neurotic case of sex repression and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all, but merely the governess's hallucination" (Ch. 3).his essay opened the floodgates to the critics who held that the governess was mad, delusional or evil herself. In 1948, the publication of Heilman's eminent article provoked other apparitionists who accused the non-apparitionists of ignoring some important sections of the novella which would change the reading of the governess from an insane, delusional lady to a sane governess entrapped by real ghosts (Introduction).
Later on, the best critics such as Lydenberg, instead of taking side in the dispute, turned their attention increasingly to combining both sides, which brought about some perfect syntheses out of amalgamating psychoanalytic, sociological and theological approaches. In addition to this, the advent of structuralism in sixties has made quite an impact on perceiving the story as impenetrably ambiguous; so, the focus comes to be on clarifying how the structure of the text gives rise to such ambiguity and how it affects the readers and their reading (Parkinson, Introduction).
With such a well-known, charged, and delicate critical background to the story, the contemporary readers most probably bring a hermeneutical bias to their primary reading of this tale. Yet, this mysterious text is a labyrinth which demands its readers to review, question, revise, and mostly deny their original interpretation in favor of another one.
Henry James's novella has also turned out to be an exceptional resource for filmmakers; so, over 100 films and television adaptations have been inspired by this short fiction. "Film versions of The Turn of the Screw have featured Deborah Kerr, Ingrid Bergman, Lynn Redgrave, Amy Irving, and Valerie Bertinelli as the governess, Linda Hunt and Marianne Faithfull as narrators" (Griffin, James and Film 472). Out of many film adaptations, the ones which made the best use of cinema codes and conventions to reveal the novella's interpretive possibilities are considered to be Ben Bolt's The Turn of the Screw (2000) and, remarkably, Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) (Read 104).
As the variation in the responses may show, they could be founded on the historical, social, and individual conditions, which determine the reading. Nonetheless, in the opinion of Wolfgang Iser, the guide of this research, it is first the text which form the responses (before everything else). Therefore, studying various contradictory responses to The Turn of the Screw is the initial point of this research. In other words, how is one single text, that is considered to be the chief provocation of responses, is received differently by different people?
Consequently, following Iserian theories as an Iserian critic, a survey of the scholarly responses is firstly presented. The selected and reviewed responses are the ones which have mainly discussed the issue of the apparitionist/non-apparitionist nature of the Turn of the Screw. Following this, the researcher tries to explore the gaps and indeterminacies which have led to these disparate responses. That is, it can be partially understood what kind of potentials exist in the text waiting to be actualized.
The research in the final step of its process have a look at two versions of the novella's adaptations in order to see how every one of them in its aesthetic reception undertakes the process of actualization and attains meaning.