Selected Tales of Henry James
Entertaining Dread: the Contrived Aesthetic Experience of Fear in Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”
The Turn of the Screw has been read by some analysts as a straightforward ghost story and by others as a psychologically accurate – whether pre-or post-Freudian — portrait of mental illness or repression breaking out. However enjoyable it is to consider Henry James’ short story from any of these or similar points of view, it strikes me as particularly interesting to look at it as a kind of metafiction, a story about storytelling that explores the power of language to create mood or to evoke emotional or psychological responses through the power of suggestion.
In some ways this story and its opening frame are reminiscent of the almost archetypal scenario of children sitting in the dark telling spooky stories. Also, it calls to mind a particular scene in the Wonderworks film adaptation of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. In that scene, the characters Anne Shirley and Diana Berry are alone together in a gloomy wood, and they start reciting to one another all the chilling ghost tales they can recall and talking about how “deliciously frightened” they are. In the novel, Anne confesses to her aunt that “Diana and I just imagined the wood was haunted. All the places around here are so–so–COMMONPLACE. We just got this up for our own amusement. We began it in April. A haunted wood is so very romantic.… Oh, we have imagined the most harrowing things” (Montgomery 229). Similarly, Henry James demonstrates in his Turn of the Screw a keen understanding of the delight that typically imaginative people derive from being scared and, indeed, in scaring themselves.
James’ story is a masterful sort of meta-chiller that works on the imagination of the reader while allowing events recounted by characters within the story to work on the imaginations of other characters, to effects at times obvious and at other times ambiguous. Part of the ambiguity surrounding the story involves whether the governess who narrates her own tale has effectively scared herself with phantasms and other observations that originate in her own mind. Her indirect reference to certain then-contemporary works of Victorian horror or gothic suspense (The Mystery of Udolpho, Jane Eyre) may be a hint from the author about her or about the story in which she finds herself. “Was there a ‘secret’ at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?” (James 312). Although the interpretation of the story and the question of its realism are debatable, it seems obvious that James intended, while telling a chilling tale, also to explore the complicity of the imaginative audience member in creating the effect – the pleasurable dread or terror – such tales may convey.
Whether or not these kinds of stories are true is less important than the effectiveness of the storytelling style, whether the narrative elicits the desired response in hearers or readers. Of course, James occasionally uses some fairly heavy-handed means to evoke the edgy mood in The Turn of the Screw, even beginning his story with a discussion about what makes a tale the kind of story that can hold listeners “sufficiently breathless” (James 291), what gives it each successive “turn of the screw” (James 292). Also, the author has his characters offer their own commentaries on the emotional impact of their stories – Douglas refers dramatically to the “dreadfulness” of the account he is leading up to telling, even stating that it is “beyond everything. Nothing that I know touches it,” with respect to its “uncanny ugliness and horror and pain” (ibid).
This is quite a dramatic setup for a story that has yet to be revealed. Such a characterization creates anticipation, primes the reader for a strong response and demands a payoff. It is a bold move on the part of James, since to fail to provide a sufficient emotional payoff could leave the author open to accusations of overstatement or melodramatic superfluity. And speaking of the superfluous, throughout the story there is continual repetition of emotionally evocative pejoratives like dread, horror, queer, insane, corrupt, et cetera, as well as frequent use of exclamation points and italics. The text itself seems emotionally manipulative, bent on an effect, and if the reader is unwilling or unable to go where the text is apparently leading, the effect would certainly be, from an author’s point of view, unfortunate, and the story would likely fail to satisfy.
James leaves the reader with little reason to doubt that the payoff he has set up is coming. However, one of the author’s principle means of manipulation in Turn of the Screw is delayed gratification. There is much hesitation, holding back of details after the insinuation of what is to come, inviting the listeners within the story as well as readers of the story to let their imaginations flow into the gaps. Again, the author is not at all subtle about it; he blatantly points to the technique early on (James 297), in an exchange between Douglas, his secondary–in the ordinal sense–narrator, and one of his listeners.
So far had Douglas presented his picture when someone put a question. “And what did the former governess die of? – of so much respectability?”
Our friend’s answer was prompt. “That will come out. I don’t anticipate.”
“Excuse me – I thought that was just what you are doing.”
Further down the same page, after giving out a few more thin details, Douglas makes an insinuation, a reference to some unforeseen danger in the governess’s story, of which she was unaware at the outset but of which “she did learn. You shall hear tomorrow what she learned.” Again Douglas gives out more sparse information and, as the primary, unnamed narrator states, “with this, [he] made a pause that, for the benefit of the company, moved [him] to throw in” his own titillating guess about what was still to come in the narrative. This prompts Douglas to get up, turn his back on his audience, and stir the fire before going further with his tale – that is, his setup of the governess’s tale.
While I count three main narratives in Turn of the Screw, nested like Babushka dolls, there are technically several more stories within stories in this complex narrative, and even more storytellers mentioned than there are narratives given, rather than summarized or referenced. Notably Douglas begins his allusion to the unnamed governess’s story after at least two other narrators, Griffin and another, have told their own ghost tales to the company, to varying effect. Within Douglas’ story, there is the governess’s tale, in which she speaks of what she learns from Mrs. Grose and, even before that, of being told by her master what he judged to be his own pertinent history: “He told her frankly all his difficulty – that for several applicants the conditions had been prohibitive. They were, somehow, simply afraid. It sounded dull – it sounded strange; and all the more so because of his main condition” (James 297). Meanwhile, Miles, the governess’s male charge, has a number of opportunities in dialogue to tell his story, carefully clipped as it is by his wariness and clouded by the impressions and interpretations of the governess who transcribes it.
All this underscores the likelihood that James is telling a story about storytelling, about the impact of the interplay between text and allusion, reference and repetition, insinuation and inference, hesitation and anticipation, mood and manipulation. With an audience that is willing to be guided — or capable of being mesmerized — and an author who is adept at it, as James is, a story can create impressions, misdirect or focus attention, and evoke particular and highly entertaining effects, dreadful or otherwise. In the case of The Turn of the Screw, the author has given his short story just enough masterfully contrived “turns” to encourage his readers, especially those with the right sort of susceptibility to his techniques, to give an added twist or two to a tale already fraught with delightfully chilling torque.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels. Signet Classic, New York: 1962.
Montgomery, Lucy Maude. Anne of Green Gables. Bantam, New York: 1981.
A comparison between James’s “The Last of the Valerii” and Mérimé’s “The Venus of Ille”
This essay examines the differences and similarities between two texts: The Venus of Ille and The Last of the Valerii. The first is a French short story written by Prosper Mérimée in 1835 and the second is short story written by Henry James in 1885. The essay will show that although the texts have several differences, they also share several key similarities.
The Venus of Ille is tale of a bronze statue of Venus that comes to life and kills a man on his wedding night. The story was the inspiration for Henry James’s The Last of the Valerii, where a man becomes obsessed with a marble statue of Juno. The former is primarily a supernatural story, since the Venus statue has the power to come to life. The latter is a psychological story, because the Count descends into madness and obsession without anything explicitly paranormal happening. Despite this difference, the statues in both stories are strikingly similar. This essay will demonstrate that although one story is supernatural and the other is primarily psychological, the statues are depicted similarly.
Both statues are of Roman goddesses: the metal statue of The Venus of Ille is of Venus, the goddess of love, and the marble statue of The Last of the Valerii is of Juno, the goddess of women and marriage. Both statues are incredible beautiful. The narrator in the Venus of Ille says the statue has “incredible [and] marvelous beauty” (5), and goes onto say “I never saw anything so beautiful” (5). The Juno statue meanwhile is described as “incomparable” (10), and Martha says, “She’s beautiful, she’s noble, she’s precious” (20). It is the beauty of the statues that ensnares the men in both stories. The beauty of the statue of Juno takes hold of the Count and he spends much of his spare time worshipping. Meanwhile, the Venus statue is the pride of its owner, M. de Peyrechorade, who declares, “I never saw anything so beautiful” (5). Despite his wife wanting to turn it into a bell (3) and it breaking the leg of one of his workers, he keeps the statue.
Both statues are depicted as having an evil quality. The beauty of the Venus statue is matched only by its maliciousness. There are as many descriptions of the statue’s malevolence as there are of its attractiveness: It is described as having “an utter absence of goodness” (5), “something ferocious in her expression” (5), “ill-nature to the point of wickedness” (5) and “disdain, irony, [and] cruelty” (5). All these descriptions are fitting because the statue genuinely is evil. The same cannot be said of the Juno statue, however, which is never explicitly shown as being sentient and therefore cannot be evil. However, Martha says, “I was afraid of her almost from the first” (18). The narrator sees the statue at night and says “the effect was almost terrible” (15). The statue’s effect on the Count is also insidious and sinister, causing him to commit blood sacrifices. Both statues are the cause of misery in the stories. The Venus statue kills its owner’s son, kills crops, and injures a worker. Meanwhile, the Juno statue obsesses the Count, which frustrates his wife and the narrator. The Count completely recovers from his obsession once the statue is reburied.
It is hinted that both statues are alive. While the Venus statue seems to be genuinely be alive and capable of movement, the Juno statue is only ever described as being on the verge of coming alive. The Count’s wife admits that she almost feels “as if she were alive” (20). The statue has a “beauty so expressive could hardly be inanimate” (16), “a sort of conscious pride into her stony mask” (16) and “an almost human look” (7). The narrator says her eyes “seemed to wonder back at us” (7). The statue does move once in the story, although in a dream. The Count dreams “that they had found a wonderful Juno, and that she rose and came and laid her marble hand on mine” (7).
Mérimée’s Venus statue comes to life, whereas James’s Juno statue does not. Despite this difference, the two statues share many similarities, such as their striking beauty, their realistic quality, and their ability to instill fear. They are also the antagonists in their stories. Living statues used elsewhere in popular include the Commendatore statue in the play Don Giovanni which drags the titular character to hell, and the Weeping Angels in the TV show Doctor Who. The use of statues in the James’ and Mérimée’s stories are subtly effective scary entities, and I believe that living statues are underused in popular culture.