Ambiguity In The Turn Of The Screw And We Need To Talk About Kevin
Ambiguity is the mastery of creating several meanings for a single idea. The implementation of deliberate ambiguity in literature often pushes the narrative and is a tactic used to build up suspense. This thesis is evident to be applicable to We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and The Turn of The Screw by Henry James. Despite the fact that the latter was written in 1898, whilst the former is a more contemporary read, it is a prevalent theme that is embedded in both texts. Whilst Shriver associates much ambiguous suspense around the character of Kevin and his motives behind his actions, James’ whole plot is argued to be ambiguous. We Need to Talk About Kevin incorporates this ‘ambiguous’ element with the overarching question of Nature vs Nurture; was Kevin’s actions driven due to the reciprocation of his mother’s attitude towards him, or was it the influence of his environment? However, The Turn Of The Screw plays with this ambiguous element differently, as almost every part- the plot, the narrative, the actions and even the characters, (talk about the existence of ghosts) have a shadow of doubt cast over them. Therefore, it is clear that ambiguity in literature often drives the narrative as it creates suspense.
The cause for ambiguity can often be based on the narrator of the text, and his/her reliability. Within The Turn of The Screw, the narrator is the protagonist, the governess. Much debate has risen over the reliability of this, and it can be argued that James deliberately and purposefully puts this character at the forefront of his novella. Many critics focus heavily on the characterisation of the governess, and the opinions are decisively split. Brad Leithauser (2012) offers both perspectives in his article ‘Even Scarier: On the Turn Of The Screw’. On one hand, it can be read that the governess is affected by mental health, and so, is unreliable. This theory is supported by the fact that the first person narrative can expose her own personal opinions and inconsistencies, and so the accounts she relates may not be accurate. Henry himself makes this evident right from the outset “I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops…” the fact that he bluntly indicates that the narrator is writing after the events make the readers question the accuracy of such accounts. The argument of the Governess suffering from mental health is enlightened by the fact that she hints, perhaps unwittingly, to her sexual repression, when discussing the Uncle. Due to this, Edmund Wilson (1975) famously argues that ‘the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess’s hallucinations.” Perhaps due to this, she forces to interpret harmless situations into mysterious behaviour, almost forcing the creation of ghosts from her own mind. However, of course, this cannot be proved and is just one interpretation amongst many. This in itself, highlights the ambiguity that is attached to The Turn Of The Screw; the fact that essay after essay argue different interpretations suggests that James meaningfully does not provide a definitive answer/outcome to the plot, which supports my thesis that ambiguity drives the narrative.
Similarly, the narrator of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian, is arguably also unreliable. What is interesting is the form that is adopted; an old-fashioned form (the epistolary) for a contemporary novel. The epistolary form dates back to the Eighteenth Century, and was a common layout to utilise when discussing ‘questions on morality’ and ‘private nature’. Due to the focused attention on the domestic and personal sphere within early epistolary novels, it was considered to be a female genre. This background to the epistolary form may have influenced Shriver to use this as an inspiration to mirror the voice and feelings of Eva’s personal life. However, despite the initial reaction to Eva’s letters feeling genuine and truthful, whilst delving into the novel, it becomes apparent that her characterization and narrative voice may be unreliable. Clearly, Eva’s accounts are not directed to the reader(s), but rather addressed to her husband. Therefore, her explanations will, of course, be subjective and bias as we learn she herself admits that she does not enjoy motherhood. “Motherhood,’ I condensed in the park’. Now, that is a foreign country’ sums up Eva’s dissatisfaction being a mother. Furthermore, the fact that she compares it to a ‘foreign country’ indicates that she is not used to such an environment and serves as almost a metaphor explaining that she is not ready to ‘travel’ this journey. Shriver explicitly highlights most effectively (due to the usage of the epistolary) that Eva dislikes Kevin. Therefore, her narrations are of course, based on her own opinions, and thus, are bias. Due to this unreliability of narration, the question of Nature vs Nurture looms over the reader’s mind even after finishing the novel. What is crucial though, is the fact that the reader is supplied with Eva’s point of view, and so, from a maternal perspective, one should be able to make some sort of judgement. However, Shriver, with cleverly used tactics, provides specific details through the epistolary form, but still leaves room for the ambiguity in order to grant the reader the freedom of their own interpretations, similar to The Turn of The Screw. Therefore, it is clear that ambiguity is employed by authors as a means to drive the narrative.
Children’s actions and intentions are often clouded with ambiguity, which aids in building up suspense but engages the reader to ponder beyond the scope of the pages. In light of The Turn of The Screw, the interpretations of children’s actions are divided; either they are completely harmless, reflecting innocence and/or naivety of child-like behaviour, or have a darker and more sinister undertone. The children’s actions, though often dismissed, are vital when discussing ambiguity. The question that comes to mind, as a reader is: Is it the governess who drives the children to their fate, or is it the children who push the governess to the final stages? This presents an opportunity to reframe the debate over the novel: the chief question is not whether the ghosts are real but whether the children desire (and are responsible for) collusion with ghosts (real or not). This question is left unanswered, due to James intentional disclarity with the children. A reason for this may be to hollow into the supposed ‘supernatural’ and ‘ghostly’ theme, which is intensified as soon as children are included in the lens. Thus, the mysteriousness associated with the children, as some may argue, highlight that the ghosts are real as they manipulate the children’s actions. On the other hand, others may interpret the children’s’ actions to be harmless, and perhaps Miles desire to go away and ‘see more to life’ is due to the repression they are constantly under by the governess. As Julian D. Jacobs puts it “it is ultimately up to the reader to interpret information and reach a conclusion about who is the sexually abusive actor: the ghost or the governess.” Miles’ ‘escapes’ could be child behaviour, due to him being indoors most of the time, or could be interpreted as a connection with the ghost of Peter Quint. His exclamation of “think me- for a change- bad!” has several interpretations on the meaning of ‘bad’. Thus, the ambiguous language that James adopts leads to the narrative driving forward with the readers often at conflict with the intention of James. But as Leithauser argues “the reader becomes a jury of one.” There is no definitive answers to the purposely-embedded ambiguity that James incorporates in his novella, and so, the assertion that ambiguity drives the narrative is accurate for The Turn of The Screw.
We Need To Talk About Kevin. His behaviour and actions are also painted with a touch of ambiguity. The film adaptation, despite the difficulty for the camera to capture the element of ambiguity, perfectly encapsulates this. The main scene which comes to mind is when Kevin practises his archery, and then glares at his mother through the window, with a facial expression which is hard to read. Yet, it is not only Kevin who is portrayed as an unclear character, but Eva is also a part of the ambiguity. One critic, Simon Baron-Cohen, writes that “It (the film) hints, disturbingly, at the role of psychological conflict in Kevin’s mother, about whether she is trying to love him without truly loving him.” Consequently, the principle that lies here is psychological impacts vs nature itself, just how The Turn of The Screw is a debate between apparition vs non-apparition. The fact that the reader never truly grasps the motif behind Kevin’s actions, whether they are a direct impact of his mother’s unloving nature, or whether he was just born ‘evil’, as some argue, shows that ambiguity does indeed drive the narrative.
Ambiguity is also incorporated when associated with blame and guilt. In the Turn Of The Screw, James, as the author, never offers a clear explanation over the denouement- Miles’ death and who is responsible for it. Critics have offered many alternative possible explanations- and of course, they are split between whether the ghost exists or not. Critics holding the view that the ghosts exist to argue that Miles’ death could have been as a cause of him being ‘dispossessed’ of the ghost of Quint and this has killed him. Others argue a more literal slant by arguing that the Governess suffocates him by holding him too tightly. “He drew his breath, two or three times over, as if with difficulty.” This highlights that the governess’ constant closure on the children, a mentioned earlier, leads to the penultimate, tragic ending. However, Miles death could merely be the “last unsolvable enigma to the story” (find critic) and intended to be judged by the audience themselves to come to a conclusion. Yet, it is unambiguous, without doubt, that James leaves an opaque and impenetrable resolution. Due to this, it can be argued that the genre of the novel is even ambiguous; is it that James is questioning the difference between appearance and reality, or it is a more subtle novel that interrogates the morality of the governess. Hence, it is clear that the depth of ambiguity is so vast that even the genre of the novel is unclear, paving various avenues for interpretations, which drives the narrative.
Morality is an area that links with the ambiguity of Nature vs Nurture. Shriver (2008) herself writes “Was Kevin born evil, or was the way he turned out his mother’s fault?’ and follows with the response: ‘If I spent 400 pages refusing to answer that question,’ I say, ‘why would I answer it now?’ This in itself highlights the persistent and calculated ambiguity that is planted in the novel in light of morality. Just how James wants his audience to take the seat and receive the novel as a court case, Shriver aims for a similar stance, by allowing the reader to decide the final verdict based on their interpretations. Shriver presents Eva to hold some guilt over her parenting skills but also shows Kevin to realise the consequences of his actions – by his prison sentence. However, the lack of remorse that Kevin shows is what brings the question of morality and blame into the frame of ambiguity. Is it him to blame for his actions? Shriver does not offer any perspective, so the question will forever linger over the heads of the readers. However, if she did, perhaps the narrative may have shifted dramatically, and the story could have ended earlier.
Thus, it is evident that the depth and use of ambiguity drives the narrative forward. Eva, in the early collection of her letters, writes: You make me feel bad; feeling bad makes me mad; ergo, you make me mad. […] So I blamed me, and he blamed me. This quote highlights that Eva does hold some blame over Kevin’s behaviour but blames him for the problems she faces in her life, whilst he blames her for her ‘cold treatment’ towards him. This cycle of blame and morality leads to ambiguity, as the readers are never offered a distinctive answer. So, even after the reader finishes reading, questions are still left answered. This suggests that ambiguity not only drives the narrative but expands beyond this.
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