The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels. By Henry James. New York: Signet Classics, 1995.
Henry James's short novels provide a representative account of James's career as a whole, and serve as an excellent introduction to the peculiar unity of his singular imagination. Although the difference between James's early and later fiction is alone striking – simply compare the opening paragraphs of The American (1877) and The Ambassadors (1903) to see the movement from Victorian realism to the modern psychological realism of which James is the acknowledged master – it is probably more accurate to say that James's career is one of continuity and refinement rather than one of abrupt changes. Whether in his long novels or his shorter ones – nouvelles, as he liked to call the latter, six of which are collected in the pages that follow – James's fiction is always concerned with the play of impressions upon the mind and heart. While a gradual shift in perspective over the years heightens point of view and diminishes the description of faces, objects, and scenes at which the early James grudgingly excels, James's focus remains the extraordinarily specific circumstances that structure the self, and the ways in which the structure of experience and the structure of narrative are very often the same.
In the autumn of 1897, the year before The Turn of the Screw was first published, James had moved into Lamb House, Rye, after more than twenty years of residence in London. James had settled in England in 1876 (he became a British subject in 1915, the year before his death), and soon achieved critical triumph within the same English tradition that had once burdened him as a young American writer. The influence of James's own writing upon twentieth-century fiction is, of course, inestimable. James's psychological realism remains so influential even today that it is, to use James's own description of the success of the fictional poet Jeffrey Aspern in The Aspern Papers (1888), "part of the light by which we walk." Almost every modern writer of fiction in English carries the scars of James's influence, and almost every major English and American novelist in the generation following James's own – E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, even Hemingway and Fitzgerald – can be measured by their respective turns from a strength at once enabling and potentially fatal in the decisiveness with which it reinvents the writing of fiction.
Why is James so influential? What is the nature of his power? The short novels collected here allow us to see what it is in efficient and delicious miniature. The Turn of the Screw (1898) is James's most famous and widely read short novel. Despite its unique extravagance, it contains the principal elements of James's customary world both early and late: interpretative uncertainty and an uncannily vivid sense of solitary and reflective human sadness. The Turn of the Screw shows us a writer fully at home with his powers, and one consciously concerned with central questions about the imagination and its determinations. Bly, the tale's country house, is a haunted house, and the tale a haunted tale. But haunted by what? Are the former governess and the former valet who loom as apparitions fantastic projections of the new governess's imagination? Or are they genuine ghosts, spirits of a past day? Ghosts represent both the past and a past way of thinking in as decisively secular a world as James's is. Surely the ironic brother of the philosopher William James, notorious freethinker and pragmatist, little fancied ghosts as such. Why, then, are we afraid? By means of what power does the tale promote the shudders that it does? We are afraid not only because James has the powers of illusion to do with us whatever he likes, but also because he has the power to do so while suspending all judgment as to what these witnesses of his power may mean. Testimony to James's audacity as a writer, the tale is poised between a series of interpretative alternatives that raise more questions than James thinks it right to answer. The Turn of the Screw is the turn, as it were, that reveals the archaeology or the unconscious of James's own sense of himself as a writer.
As a literary allegory, the tale is also poised between two very real alternatives as it mediates upon questions of imaginative priority. Is James's writing merely a ghost of past writing, or is it testimony to the splendid originality of his own imagination? As a writer of fiction who began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, James had to control Romanticism itself. Like his unnamed governess-narrator (what, by the way, is the status of gender in James?), James is tormented by Romanticism's representatives. Who are Peter Quint and Miss Jessel? They are strangely familiar figures; he is the Romantic male in the visionary tower and she the house-haunting madwoman, whose only place of repose seems to be the attic. Leon Edel, James's biographer, notes the indirect allusions to Jane Eyre in The Turn of the Screw, and the narrator herself wonders out loud whether "an insane, an unmentionable relative" is being "kept in unsuspected confinement." As the governess's fear and malaise attest, however, James himself is interested in neither figure; these Romantic counterparts represent ghostly and offensive burdens that his own fiction will circumvent in favor of a new kind of literary character based upon figures like the depressive governess-narrator here or the scholar-narrator of The Aspern Papers ten years earlier, milder figures for whom vision and madness alike are unacceptable, even unavailable alternatives. Life is after all too sedentary an affair for prose realism to give the glamor of either stance any credibility.
What is left, then, for the novelist to do? Uncertainty and its causes and effects are the major and unifying concerns of James's career, and his use of them as materials allows him to link style and subject, form and theme in dauntingly clear ways. What James's other short novels share with The Turn of the Screw is the pressure of situations and the overriding question within them of what the truth in each case may be. Of course, what the truth is in James's world is a legal or juridical question – a question of evidence, argument, and negotiation among alternatives – not a metaphysical one.
In The Aspern Papers (1888), the question of what the truth may be is the narrative's overt theme. Are the poet Aspern's papers hidden in the Missess Bordereau's house in Venice or not? What is the effect of each move planned by the now shrewd, now bumbling narrator as he tries to extract the truth from the situation? Toward the possession of what objects, as he himself wonders, are these feints directed? The very components of the story sound like the techniques involved in writing one. What frustrates the narrator thickens the illusion for the reader. It is the wonder that the story itself creates – the secret that it puts in place by not disclosing – that is both its motive force and its very subject. Concealing a secret is proof that there must be one. The sense of a fugitive truth gives the narrative and the lives of the characters within it goals that structure and organize both alike whether or not either receives a proper resolution. Tita Bordereau's admission at tale's end that she burned the papers after her aunt's death is part of the mystery, not an answer to it.
If James's career is one of continuity and refinement, then even the early Daisy Miller (1878) – the book that made James famous – must, like Daisy herself, be far less plain and innocent than it seems to be. Here the early James is already exploring the interior as he paints a world presumably external to private states of mind, a world to which characters seem only to react. But the legendary split between an omniscient early James and an entirely subjective later James is partly a myth. Like all of James's work, Daisy Miller is a moral tale. Its lesson is that form does indeed matter; its nonobservance can lead, quite literally, to death. Daisy's flouting of the customs of Rome results in her dying from malaria. But this experiential moral is of a piece with the epistemological lesson that the story also presents, the kind of lesson we tend to associate only with the James of the late phase. With the "ruin" and "inscriptions" of Rome's archaeology serving as the story's site, James shows that "the common forms," as he calls them in The Aspern Papers, are essential to everyone's interior life, the shared assumptions or "pretexts," as he calls them in Daisy Miller, that are one's unconscious connection to the external world. There is some irony in the fact that even solitude and loneliness are made up of social materials (how do I measure myself, for example, except in relation to others?), but it is also this kind of irony that makes James so inconsolable and his world often so torpid.
An International Episode (1878), as early a work as Daisy Miller, is by contrast a tale of ambiguity and questioning despite its fierce realism. What happens between the lovers at tale's end? It is hard to tell; many explanations are implied, but none confirmed. Ten years before The Aspern Papers, James is already writing a kind of interactive fiction, asking the reader to get involved in construing the story itself even though the reader may feel that he or she is simply observing it. However politically incorrect, one reacts, says James, according to one's "preconceptions." Thus "reference," he says, speaking technically of his use of language in the tale, is "reference to a fund of associations," "associations" or "preconceptions" that implicate the reader in the same network of assumption (the figure of the web or mesh is among James's favorite metaphors in his criticism) as the text and its characters.
While The Altar of the Dead (1895) is likely James's most moribund tale of human loneliness and uncertainty, it is also among his frankest, since it provides an undisguised model for what narrative and subjectivity actually share. In the process, James's fiction also comes to discover the nature of its own technique, and dramatizes it with even greater clarity than usual. Its key is temporality, and it is the structure of temporality that identifies experience and narrative so exactly. When George Stransom, James's dubious hero, realizes that his female friend has been grieving for the old mutual friend who did him an unspecified wrong many years before, the shock of belated recognition changes his perspective, requiring him to drop her. "It had been all right so long as she didn't know," reflects Stransom, "and it was only now that she knew too much." The slightest difference can make an enormous one. Belated knowledge that alters one's view of the past is the crucial link between the structure of experience and the structure of narrative. Let Stansom explain:
There were subtle and complex relations, a scheme of cross reference. . . . In this way, he arrived at a conception of the total, the ideal.Whether it is the self, a story, or an idea, if the parts shift their relation to one another, the whole shifts, although one sees it all only "afterward," as James describes it. So efficient is James that story and technique coincide with remarkable ease. The structure of Jamesian subjectivity is identical with the structure of Jamesian narration, and with the structure of the Jamesian sentence in particular. Like the relations among the elements in a character's life or among those in a porous Jamesian story, the components of a Jamesian sentence don't make entire sense or show surpassing beauty until the reader completes them. James's style and the effect of impressions upon the mind are structured the same way. This is James's reflexive realism, a realism whose representation of the self is at one with the active logic of the writing that describes it.
If an early tale like Daisy Miller is epistemological as well as moral, a late one like The Beast in the Jungle (1903) is moral as well as epistemological. Indeed, The Beast in the Jungle joins the two, showing how the later James really is the refinement of the identity between narrative and experience, between the reflexive and the realistic, the formal and the thematic. The belatedness of John Marcher's shock of recognition is its primary characteristic, and the source of both the story's sadness and Marcher's own. What is the beast, the secret that Marcher fruitlessly awaits his whole life long? That there is no secret, that all is as blank as the face of a grave? Or is there also another, plainer meaning? Like Stransom (François Truffaut combines The Beast in the Jungle and The Altar of the Dead in his film The Green Room), Marcher has also grown old with a friend and companion without having the brains or the nerve to see that there is a durable love between them. "She," says James, "was what he had missed." Marcher is "fit indeed," says James in his postscripted preface to The Altar of the Dead in the complete edition of his works, "to mate with Stransom." The story shows us that Marcher is, in his own words, "an ass." Like the luster of the Jamesian sentence, the shock of Jamesian recognition comes only after the fact, securing some shard of memory and desire, but leaving behind forever, as the price of knowing it, the possibility of ever having actually held it. Even the most painful cases offer the sole and ironic compensation of belated appreciation for the losses involved. "Belated," writes James, "the pain . . . at least . . . had something of the taste of life."