SOURCE: “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” in The Question of Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by F. W. Dupee, Henry Holt and Co., 1945, pp. 160–90.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1934, Wilson presents a psychoanalytical interpretation of The Turn of the Screw in which he regards the ghosts of the story as illusions seen only by the governess.]
A discussion of Henry James's ambiguity may appropriately begin with The Turn of the Screw. This story, which seems to have proved more fascinating to the general reading public than anything else of James's except Daisy Miller, apparently conceals another horror behind the ostensible one. I do not know who first propounded the theory; but Miss Edna Kenton, whose insight into James is profound, has been one of its principal exponents, and the late Charles Demuth did a set of illustrations for the story based on this interpretation.
According to this theory, 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 hallucinations of the governess.
Let us go through the story from the beginning. It opens with an introduction. The man who is presenting the governess's manuscript tells us first who she is. She is the youngest daughter of a poor country parson, but “the most agreeable woman I've ever known in her position,” who would have been “worthy of any whatever.” She had come up to London and answered an advertisement and found a man who wanted a governess for his orphaned nephew and niece. “This prospective patron proved a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage.” It is made clear that the young woman has become thoroughly infatuated with her employer. He is charming to her and lets her have the job on condition that she will never bother him about the children; and she goes down to the house in the country where they have been left with a housekeeper and some other servants.
The boy, she finds, has been sent home from school for reasons into which she does not inquire but which she colors, on no evidence at all, with a significance somehow sinister. She learns that the former governess left, and that she has since died, under circumstances which are not explained but which are made in the same way to seem ominous. She is alone with the illiterate housekeeper, a good and simple soul, and the children, who seem innocent and charming. As she wanders about the estate, she thinks often how delightful it would be to come suddenly round the corner and find that the master had arrived: there he would stand, smiling, approving, and handsome.
She is never to meet her employer again, but what she does meet are the apparitions. One day when his face has been vividly in her mind, she comes out in sight of the house and sees the figure of a man on the tower, a figure which is not the master's. Not long afterward, the figure appears again, toward the end of a rainy Sunday. She sees him at closer range and more clearly: he is wearing smart clothes but is not a gentleman. The housekeeper, meeting the governess immediately afterward, behaves as if the governess herself were a ghost: “I wondered why she should be scared.” The governess tells her about the apparition and learns that it answers the description of one of the master's valets who had stayed down there and used to wear his clothes. The valet had been a bad character, who used “to play with the boy … to spoil him”; he had been found dead, having slipped on the ice coming out of a public house: it is impossible to say that he wasn't murdered. The governess believes that he has come back to haunt the children.
Not long afterward, she and the little girl are out on the shore of a lake, the little girl playing, the governess sewing. The latter becomes aware of a third person on the opposite side of the lake. But she looks first at the little girl, who is turning her back in that direction and who, she notes, has “picked up a small flat piece of wood, which happened to have in it a little hole that had evidently suggested to her the idea of sticking in another fragment that might figure as a mast and make the thing a boat. This second morsel, as I watched her, she was very markedly and intently attempting to tighten in its place.” This somehow “sustains” the governess so that she is able to raise her eyes: she sees a woman “in black, pale and dreadful.” She concludes that it is the former governess. The housekeeper tells her that her predecessor, though a lady, had had an affair with the valet. The boy used to go off with the valet and then lie about it afterwards. The governess concludes that the boy must have known about the valet and the woman—the boy and girl have been corrupted by them.
Observe that there is never any real reason for supposing that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts. She believes that the children see them, but there is never any proof that they do. The housekeeper insists that she does not see them; it is apparently the governess who frightens her. The children, too, become hysterical; but this is evidently the governess's doing, too. Observe, also, from the Freudian point of view, the significance of the governess's interest in the little girl's pieces of wood and of the fact that the male apparition first appears on a tower and the female apparition on a lake. There seems here to be only a single circumstance which does not fit into the hypothesis that the ghosts are hallucinations of the governess: the fact that the governess's description of the first ghost at a time when she has never heard of the valet should be identifiable as the valet by the housekeeper. And when we look back, we see that even this has been left open to a double interpretation. The governess has never heard of the valet, but it has been suggested to her in a conversation with the housekeeper that there has been some other male somewhere about who “liked everyone young and pretty,” and the idea of this other person has been ambiguously confused with the master and with the master's possible interest in her, the present governess. And has she not, in her subconscious imagination, taking her cue from this, identified herself with her predecessor and conjured up an image who wears the master's clothes but who (the Freudian “censor” coming into play) looks debased, “like an actor,” she says (would he not have to stop to love her!)? The apparition had “straight, good features” and his appearance is described in detail. When we look back, we find that the master's appearance has never been described at all: we have merely been told that he was “handsome.” It is impossible for us to know how much the ghost resembles the master—certainly the governess would never tell us.
The apparitions now begin to appear at night, and the governess becomes convinced that the children get up to meet them, though they are able to give plausible explanations of their behavior. The housekeeper tells the governess that she ought to report these phenomena to the master, if she is so seriously worried about them. The governess, who has promised not to bother him, is afraid he would think her insane; and she imagines “his derision, his amusement, his contempt for the breakdown of my resignation at being left alone and for the fine machinery I had set in motion to attract his attention to my slighted charms.” The housekeeper threatens to send for the master herself; the governess threatens to leave if she does. After this, for a considerable period, the visions no longer appear.
The children become uneasy: they begin to wonder when their uncle is coming down; they want to write to him—but the governess suppresses their letters. The boy finally asks her frankly when she is going to send him to school, intimates that if he had not been so fond of her he would have written to his uncle long ago about her failure to do so, threatens to write him at once.
This upsets her; she thinks for a moment of leaving, but decides that this would be deserting them. She is apparently now in love with the boy. The ghost of the other governess immediately appears again, looking “dishonored and tragic,” full of “unutterable woe.” The new governess feels now—the morbid half of her split personality is getting the upper hand of the other—that it is she who is intruding upon the spirit instead of the spirit who is intruding upon her: “You terrible miserable woman!” she cries. The apparition disappears. She tells the housekeeper, who looks at her oddly, that the soul of the former governess is damned and wants the little girl to share her damnation. She finally agrees to write to the master, but no sooner has she sat down to the paper than she gets up and goes to the boy's bedroom, where she finds him lying awake. When he demands to go back to school, she embraces him and begs him to tell her why he was sent away; appealing to him with what seems to her desperate tenderness but what must seem queer and disquieting to the child, she insists that all she wants is to save him. There is the sudden gust of wind—it is a windy night outside—the casement rattles, the boy shrieks. She has been kneeling beside the bed: when she gets up, she finds the candle extinguished. “It was I who blew it, dear!” says the boy. For her, it has been the evil spirit disputing her domination. It does not occur to her that the boy may really have blown the candle out in order not to have to tell her with the light on about his disgrace at school. (Here, however, occurs the only detail which is not readily susceptible of double explanation: the governess has felt a “gust of frozen air” and yet sees that the window is “tight.” Are we to suppose she merely fancied that she felt it?)
The next day, the little girl disappears. They find her beside the lake. The young woman now for the first time speaks openly to one of the children about the ghosts. “Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?” she demands—and immediately answers herself. “She's there, she's there!” she cries, pointing across the lake. The housekeeper looks with a “dazed blink” and asks where she sees anything; the little girl turns upon the governess “an expression of hard, still gravity, an expression absolutely new and unprecedented and that appeared to read and accuse and judge me.” The governess feels her “situation horribly crumble.” The little girl breaks down, becomes feverish, begs to be taken away from the governess; the housekeeper sides with the child, and hints that the governess had better go. But the young woman forces her, instead, to take the little girl away; and she tries to make it impossible, before their departure, for the children to see each other.
She is now left alone with the boy. A strange and dreadful scene ensues. “We continued silent while the maid was with us—as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding-journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter.” When the maid has gone, and she presses him to tell her why he was expelled from school, the boy seems suddenly afraid of her. He finally confesses that he “said things”—to “a few,” to “those he liked.” It all sounds very harmless: there comes to her out of her “very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?” The valet appears at the window—it is “the white face of damnation.” (But is the governess condemning the spirits to damnation or is she succumbing to damnation herself?) She is aware that the boy does not see it. “No more, no more, no more!” she shrieks to the apparition. “Is she here?” demands the boy in panic. (He has, in spite of the governess's efforts, succeeded in seeing his sister and has heard from her of the incident at the lake.) No, she says, it is not the woman; “But it's at the window—straight before us. It's there!”…“It's he?” then. Whom does he mean by “he”? “‘Peter Quint—you devil!’ His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication. ‘Where?’” “What does he matter now, my own?” she cries. “What will he ever matter? I have you, but he has lost you forever!” Then she shows him that the figure has vanished: “There, there!” she says, pointing toward the window. He looks and gives a cry; she feels that he is dead in her arms. From her point of view, the disappearance of the spirit has proved too terrible a shock for him and “his little heart, dispossessed, has stopped”; but if we study the dialogue from the other point of view, we see that he must have taken her “There, there!” as an answer to his own “Where?” Instead of persuading him that there is nothing to be frightened of, she has, on the contrary, finally convinced him either that he has actually seen or that he is on the point of seeing something. He gives “the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss.” She has literally frightened him to death.
When one has once been given this clue to The Turn of the Screw, one wonders how one could ever have missed it. There is a very good reason, however, in the fact that nowhere does James unequivocally give the thing away: almost everything from beginning to end can be read equally in either of two senses. In the preface to the collected edition, however, as Miss Kenton has pointed out, James does seem to want to put himself on record. He asserts here that The Turn of the Screw is “a fairy-tale pure and simple”—but adds that the apparitions are of the order of those involved in witchcraft cases rather than of those in cases of psychic research. And he goes on to tell of his reply to one of his readers, who had complained that he had not characterized the governess sufficiently. At this criticism, he says, “One's artistic, one's ironic heart shook for the instant almost to breaking”; and he answered: “It was ‘déjà très-joli’… please believe, the general proposition of our young woman's keeping crystalline her record of so many intense anomalies and obscurities—by which I don't of course mean her explanation of them, a different matter. … She has ‘authority,’ which is a good deal to have given her. …” The italics above are mine: these words seem impossible to explain except on the hypothesis of hallucination. And note, too, in the collected edition that James has not included The Turn of the Screw in the volume with his other ghost stories but in a volume of stories of another kind, between The Aspern Papers and The Liar—this last the story of a pathological liar; whose wife protects his lies against the world, acting with very much the same sort of deceptive “authority” as the governess in The Turn of the Screw.
When we look back in the light of these hints, we become convinced that the whole story has been primarily intended as a characterization of the governess: her visions and the way she behaves about them, as soon as we look at them from the obverse side, present a solid and unmistakable picture of the poor country parson's daughter, with her English middle-class class consciousness, her inability to admit to herself her sexual impulses and the relentless English “authority” which enables her to put over on inferiors even purposes which are totally deluded and not at all to the other people's best interests. Add to this the peculiar psychology of governesses, who, by reason of their isolated position between the family and the servants, are likely to become ingrown and morbid. The writer knows of an actual case of a governess who used to frighten the servants by opening doors and smashing mirrors and who tortured the parents by mythical stories of kidnapers. The poltergeist, once a figure of demonology, is now a recognized neurotic type.
When we examine The Turn of the Screw in this light, we understand for the first time its significance in connection with Henry James's other fiction—(the story, on any other hypothesis, would be, so far as I remember, the only thing James ever wrote which did not have some more or less serious point). We see now that it is simply a variation on one of James's familiar themes: the frustrated Anglo-Saxon spinster; and we remember that he has presented other cases of women who deceive themselves and others about the sources and character of their emotions. The most obvious example is that remarkable and too-little-read novel, The Bostonians. The subject of The Bostonians is the struggle for the attractive daughter of a poor evangelist between a young man from the South who wants to marry her and a well-to-do Boston lady with a Lesbian passion for her. The strong-minded and strong-willed spinster is herself apparently quite in the dark as to the real reason for her interest in the girl; she is convinced that her desire to dominate her, to make her live with her, to teach her to make speeches on women's rights, to prevent the eligible young Southerner from marrying her, is all ardor for the feminist cause. But James does not leave the reader in doubt—and he presents Olive Chancellor in a setting of other self-deluded New England idealists.
There is a theme of the same kind in the short story called “The Marriages,” which amused Robert Louis Stevenson so hugely. But here the treatment is comic. A young English girl, described by one of the characters as of the unmarriageable type, much attached to an attractive father and obsessed by the memory of a dead mother, breaks up her father's projected second marriage. She goes to his fiancée and tells her that her father is an impossible character who had made her late mother miserable. When her brother calls her a raving maniac, she remains serene in the conviction that, by ruining the happiness of her father, she has been loyal to her duty to her mother.
James's world is full of these women. They are not always emotionally perverted. Sometimes they are emotionally apathetic—like the amusing Francie Dosson of The Reverberator, who, though men are always falling madly in love with her, seems never really to understand what courtship and marriage mean and is apparently quite content to go on all her life eating marrons glacés with her father and sister in their suite in a Paris hotel. Sometimes they are emotionally starved—like the pathetic Milly Theale of The Wings of the Dove, who wastes away in Venice and whose doctor recommends a lover.
James's men are not precisely neurotic; but they are the masculine counterparts of his women. They have a way of missing out on emotional experience, either through timidity or caution or through heroic renunciation.
The extreme and fantastic example is the hero of The Beast in the Jungle, who is finally crushed by the realization that his fate is to be the man in the whole world to whom nothing at all is to happen. Some of these characters are presented ironically: Mr. Acton of The Europeans, so smug and secure in his neat little house, deciding not to marry the baroness who has proved such an upsetting element in the community, is a perfect comic portrait of a certain kind of careful Bostonian. Others are made sympathetic: the starved and weary Lambert Strether of The Ambassadors, who comes to Paris too late in life.
Sometimes, however, the effect is ambiguous. Though the element of irony in Henry James is often underestimated by his readers, there are stories which leave us in doubt as to whether or not the author knew how his heroes would strike his readers. Is the fishy Bernard Longueville of the early novel Confidence really intended for a sensitive and interesting young man or is he a prig in the manner of Jane Austen? And some of James's later heroes are just as unsympathetic. The very late short story “Flickerbridge,” in which a young American painter decides not to marry a young newspaper woman (the men are always deciding not to marry the women in Henry James) because he is afraid she will spoil by publicizing it a delightful old English house, the property of her own family, in which he has greatly enjoyed living without her, affects us in the same unpleasant way.
But “Flickerbridge” seems merely a miscue: evidently James intends it to be taken seriously. How is The Sacred Fount to be taken? This short novel, surely one of the curiosities of literature, which inspired the earliest parody—by Owen Seaman—I ever remember to have seen of James and which apparently marked his passing over some borderline into a region where he was to become for the public unassimilably exasperating and ridiculous, was written not long after The Turn of the Screw and is a sort of companion piece to it. There is the same setting of an English country house, the same passages of a sad and strange beauty, the same furtive and disturbing goings on in an atmosphere of clarity and brightness, the same dubious central figure, the same almost inscrutable ambiguity. As in the case of The Turn of the Screw, the fundamental question presents itself and never seems to get definitely answered: what is the reader to think of the protagonist?—who is here a man instead of a woman.
It would be tedious to analyze The Sacred Fount as I have done with The Turn of the Screw—and it would be a somewhat more difficult undertaking. The Sacred Fount is mystifying, even maddening. But I believe that if anyone really got to the bottom of it, he would throw a good deal of light on Henry James. Rebecca West has given a burlesque account of this novel as the story of how “a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows.” A gentleman, who tells the story, goes to a week-end party in the country; there he observes that certain of his friends appear to have taken a new lease on life whereas others seem to have been depleted. He evolves a theory about them: the theory is that the married couples have been forming new combinations and that the younger individuals have been feeding the older individuals from the sacred fount of their youth at the price of getting used up themselves.
This theory seems obviously academic: older people feed younger people with their vitality quite as often as younger people feed older ones—and does James really mean us to accept it? Are not the speculations of the narrator intended to characterize the narrator as the apparitions characterize the governess? As this detached and rather eerie individual proceeds to spy on and cross-examine his friends in order to find out whether the facts fit his theory, we decide, as we do in The Turn of the Screw, that there are two separate things to be kept straight: a false hypothesis which the narrator is putting forward and a reality which we are supposed to guess from what he tells us about what actually happens. We remember the narrator of The Aspern Papers, another inquisitive and annoying fellow, who is finally foiled and put to rout by the old lady whose private papers he is trying to get hold of. In the case of The Aspern Papers, there is no uncertainty about James's attitude toward the narrator: James lets us know that the papers were none of the journalist's business and that the rebuff served him right. And the amateur detective of The Sacred Fount is foiled and rebuffed in precisely the same manner by one of his recalcitrant victims. “My poor dear, you are crazy, and I bid you good-night!” she says to him at the end of the story. “Such a last word,” the narrator remarks, “the word that put me altogether nowhere—was too inacceptable not to prescribe afresh that prompt test of escape to other air for which I had earlier in the evening seen so much reason. I should certainly never again, on the spot, quite hang together, even though it wasn't really that I hadn't three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.” But why did he lack her tone?—why would he never again hang together? What are we supposed to conclude about his whole exploit?
Mr. Wilson Follett, the only writer on James who has given The Sacred Fount special attention (in “Henry James's Portrait of Henry James,” New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1936), believes that the book is a parable—even a conscious parody—of James's own role as an artist. The narrator may or may not have been right as to the actual facts of the case. The point is that, in elaborating his theory, he has constructed a work of art, and that it is a mistake to make the validity of works of art depend on a correspondence with actuality. Art has only its own kind of validity, and a collision with actuality would destroy it and put an end to the activities of the artist.
Certainly James has put himself into The Sacred Fount, and certainly he has intended some sort of fable about the imaginative mind and the material with which it works. But it seems to me that Mr. Follett's theory assumes on James's part a conception of artistic truth which would hardly be worthy of him. After all, the novelist must know what people are actually up to, however much he may rearrange actuality; and it is not clear in The Sacred Fount whether the narrator really knew what he was talking about. If The Sacred Fount is a parody, what is the point of the parody? Why should James have represented the artist as defeated by the breaking in of life?
The truth is, I believe, that Henry James was not clear about the book in his own mind. Already, with The Turn of the Screw, he has carried his ambiguous procedure to a point where it seems almost as if he did not want the reader to get through to the hidden meaning. See his curious replies in his letters to correspondents who write him about the story: to what seem to have been leading questions, he seems to have given evasive answers, dismissing the tale as a mere “pot-boiler,” a mere “jeu d'esprit.” Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians, though tragic perhaps, is horrid, and she is vanquished by Basil Ransom. But he was willing to leave his readers in doubt as to whether the governess was horrid or nice. And now in The Sacred Fount, we do not know whether the week-end guest, though he was unquestionably obnoxious to the other guests, is intended to be taken as one of the élite, a fastidious, highly civilized sensibility, or merely as a little bit cracked and a bore. The man who wanted to get the Aspern papers was fanatically inquisitive and a nuisance; but many of James's inquisitive observers who never take part in the action are presented as most superior people. James confessed to being this sort of person himself. Ambiguity was certainly growing on James. It was to pass all bounds in those scenes in his later novels (of which the talks in The Turn of the Screw between the housekeeper and the governess are only comparatively mild examples) in which the characters are able to carry on long conversations with each consistently mistaking the other's meaning and neither ever yielding to the impulse to say any of the obvious things which would clear the situation up.
What if the hidden theme of The Sacred Fount is simply sex again? What if the real sacred fount, from which the people observed by the narrator have been drawing their new vitality, is love instead of youth? They have something which he has not had, know something which he does not know; and, lacking the clue of love, he can only pedantically misunderstand them. And they, since they have the forces of life on their side, are able to frighten him away.
This theory may be dubious, also; but there is certainly involved in The Sacred Fount the conception of a man shut out from love and doomed to barren speculation on human relations, who will be shocked by direct contact with reality.
Hitherto, it has usually been quite plain what James wanted us to think of his characters; but now there appears in his work a morbid element which is not always handled objectively but has invaded the storyteller himself. He seems to be dramatizing the frustrations of his own life without quite being willing to confess it, without always fully admitting it to himself.
But before we pursue this line of inquiry, let us look at him in a different connection.
Who are these characters of Henry James's about whom we come to be less and less certain as to precisely what he means us to think?
The type is the cultivated American bourgeois, like Henry...
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