How Does James Seek To Disturb and Involve The Reader In The Turn Of The Screw? The Turn of the Screw, written by author Henry James, although defying many gothic conventions remains one of the most suspenseful and sinister tales of the Victorian Era. The novella’s enthralling nature effectively seeks to disturb and involve readers and this is made evident through James’s successful use of a variety of structural and literary techniques to create and prolong suspense and ambiguity.
James first establishes a strong and intimate connection between reader and protagonist through the use of first person in order to actively involve the reader. This is achieved through the governess’s use of syntax and complex sentences when describing her first impressions of Bly. For example when the governess says “I remember as a thoroughly pleasant impression the broad, clear front, its open windows and fresh curtains and the pair of maids looking out” readers are provided with clear imagery of what the governess is seeing, therefore enabling readers to identify with the protagonist and view the situation from her perspective.
This intimate identification with the governess later contributes to the disturbance of readers as, when the reader reaches the possible conclusion of the governesses emotional instability and tendency to catastrophise situations (when the governess says “His not reading to her, I declared, they’re talking of them, they’re talking horrors!
”) readers begin questioning the governesses judgement, which for the majority of the novella has also been their own as a result of the reader being provided with a limited perception and knowledge of the happenings of Bly (as the tale has been told from the governesses viewpoint) This results in readers questioning every assumption they have previously made as they take into account the unreliability of the governess as narrator.
The inclusion of ambiguous dialogue throughout the novella also contributes to the disturbance and involvement of readers by causing readers to question the true motives of characters. For instance when Miles says “of course, we’ve the others”, when speaking to the governess it is unclear whether Miles is referring to the maids and various other servants in the house or to the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Another example, towards the end of the novella is when Miles and the governess are discussing Miles schooling.
The governess is finally attempting to piece together the reason for Miles’ expulsion from boarding school when Miles says “Well-I said things”. This causes the reader to question the true meaning of dialogue, forcing the reader to draw their own conclusions and opinions based on limited and somewhat flimsy evidence. This therefore leads to judgements on the motives and reliability of characters being made and subsequently impacts on the readers personal opinions of characters, in especial the protagonist as well as the characters of the children, Mrs Grose and the ghosts themselves.
It is important to note the use of ambiguous dialogue (or lack thereof) between Miles and Flora, particularly in the first half of the novella significantly contributes to the validity of the governess’s theory of Miles and Flora being corrupt. By not supplying the reader with dialogue between Flora and Miles it is assumed by the reader that the children are communicating in private, and as a consequence have something to hide, further validating the governess’s theory and sparking a sense of fear in readers.
The further involvement and disturbance of the reader is instigated by James’s inclusion of long pauses and gaps in dialogue to further the tales suspenseful atmosphere and in turn, draw readers in. When Miles says to the governess “think me-for a change-bad! ” the pauses in between his dialogue heighten the mounting suspense and ambiguity of the moment, in turn disturbing and distressing the reader. A further example of this is when, during a discussion of the relationship between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel between the governess and Mrs Grose, Mrs Grose says “oh he couldn’t prevent-“.
The governess then interjects with the dialogue and rhetorical question of, “Your learning the truth? ”. This interjectory on the governesses part contributes to the ominous nature of the novella and further disturbs and concerns the reader through leaving the reader with an unanswered question which readers are then forced to draw their own conclusions on. The pauses and use of rhetorical questions also allows the reader time to ponder underlying questions and possible motives of characters (such as that of Mrs Grose and her part in the tale) and whilst actively engaging the reader, encourages them to anticipate the ‘next turn of the screw’.
An additional way the novella seeks to horrify and capture the attention of readers is through plot and the ‘hooks’ at the end of each sequential chapter. The governess’s unnatural desire to control the children fascinates and involves the reader as they continue to question the sanity of the governess and, simultaneously the nature of the children. This desire of the protagonist is conveyed to readers through the actions and dialogue of the governess such as when she listens at Mile’s bedroom door during the night and says “what under my endless obsession, I had been impelled to listen for was some betrayal of his not being at rest”.
Actions and ambiguous dialogue such as this disturbs the reader as it is regarded to all, (except the governess) as strange behaviour and acts as further proof of the probable insanity and overactive imagination of the governess. The ‘hooks’ at the end of each chapter are yet another way James uses plot to involve the reader and seeks to disturb them. These hooks or revelations by the narrator act as ambiguous snippets of information that is vitally important to the reader in order for some sort of conclusion or opinion to be reached.
For instance at the conclusion of chapter 19 the governess finally voices her theory of Flora being in communication with Miss Jessel to Flora herself when she says “Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel? ”. This creates a sense of terror and anxiety in readers as James has carefully built up suspense through plot to this moment and so ambiguity is at its peak when the governess finally voices her theory to Flora. The use of juxtapositions and hyperbole throughout the descriptive and emotive language of the governess is yet another way James strives to disturb and involve.
The descriptive language and passion with which the governess tends to use to describe Flora and Miles, for example “I was dazzled by their loveliness”, “real rose-flush of his innocence” and “he was therefore an angel” makes the later revelation of the children’s corruption caused by the ghosts all the more disturbing and surprising to readers as the children are written about in such a pure and angelic light. This captures the attention of the reader and causes them to question the theory of the children’s corruption and consider the evidence (or lack thereof) from which it has been convened.
The juxtaposition “to gaze into the depths of blue of the child’s eyes and pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning” is another example of how James uses descriptive language to convey the emotional stress of the protagonist to readers as this is a strong contrast to the governess’s initial views of the children as being of “angelic nature”.
“I seemed to see in the beautiful face with which he watched me how ugly and queer I looked” again contrasts the beauty of Miles with that of the governess and so draws the attention of the reader to the governesses tendency to be easily influenced by appearance, evidence of her own innocence, inexperience and naivety which could possibly contribute to her overactive imagination and hallucinations. Setting is a superfluous method to which James meritoriously pioneers to disturb and involve the reader.
The in depth descriptions used to create imagery for readers of the protagonists environment is a powerful method used by James in capturing the attention of readers and providing them with a window to the governess’s thoughts.
“Driving at that hour, on a lovely day, through a country, the summer sweetness of which served as a friendly welcome” is an example of how setting is used to inform readers of the governesses opinions and inner feelings (here she feels relaxed and excited for her arrival at Bly)
In addition “It was a crisp, clear day, the first of its order for some time, the night had brought a touch of frost and the autumn air, bright and sharp” is another excellent example of how James uses setting to establish the mood and atmosphere of the novella and of the governess and therefore actively involve the reader by causing the reader to feel they are more than an objective viewer but an actual participant in the tale.
The use of the adjectives “crisp” and “clear” could also possibly convey the emotional state of the governess and consequently contribute to the later disturbance of the reader as the emotional state of the protagonist recedes further and further into turmoil and chaos. It is evident, throughout the Turn of the Screw Henry James has pioneered a variety of both structural and literary methods to seek to disturb and involve the reader. By doing this James has allowed his tale to remain a classic one that can relate in almost every society and time period as it continues to force readers to reach their own conclusions and subsequently, allows the novella to remain a mystery for all those involved.
Courtney from Study Moose
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