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Review of The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James
arts and media |
Wednesday November 05, 2014 13:34 by Paddy Hackett
Gothic Ghost Story
It does follow that truth is unattainable. However it is not easily acquired. Its acquisition is a struggle. To strip off illusion and much of ambiguity contemporary society needs replacement by a communal form that precludes social oppression
Henry James novella The Turn Of The Screw makes for interesting reading. It was first published in 1898. It is a gothic ghost story that is an eerie extension of everyday reality. However it tries one's patience because its stylistic character involves the universal use of circumlocutionary language. It could have been written more concisely. But perhaps there is good reason for its particular stylistic character of which I am not aware. By couching the novella in a circumlocutionary form he James may be endeavouring to endow everyday experiences with a less familiar form. He may, then, attempting to liberate language from its hackneyed (cliched ridden) form. His peculiar style of language may be an attempt to endow the book with a mysterious and gothic-like quality.
But its principal quality is the pervasiveness of ambiguity. Ambiguity runs right through the work. This means that there is never certainty concerning aspects of the putative reality being outlined in the little book. The governess at the large Gothic like country house called Blye starts to see ghostly images of two people that had worked there. One was her predecessor Miss Jessel. The other employee was Peter Quint. They are now dead. The governess becomes convinced that the two children, Miles and Flora, are secretly aware of the presence of the ghosts. But the reader, then, cannot be sure as to whether the governess really experiences these ghosts or whether she is delusional and that the ghosts existed only in her imagination.This is the ambiguity created by James. And in the latter part of the book we cannot be sure whether the boy, Miles, death is induced by the governess or for other reasons. Again this a result of the ambiguity created by James. The children, certainly Miles, are said to be involved in evil practices because of the influence of the two previous individuals who worked in the house. Yet there is essentially no evidence of the children being engaged in anything of an evil nature.Even Miles being expelled from school does not make certain that he had been particularly bad at boarding school.
The ambiguity permeating the story is an analogy for the ambiguity that forms an inherent part of modern society. Our conduct and experiences in society today is enveloped in ambiguity and illusion. We can never be certain of the real nature of many of our experiences because of the ambiguity in which these experiences are entangled. People that we interact with cannot be always found reliable. This is because much of what they say and do is entangled in illusion and ideology. Politicians and other public figures constantly, whether purposely or not, engage in discourse and action that is enveloped in ambiguity or illusion.Ideology from which we cannot absolutely escape in modern society is a form of illusion or ambiguity. Under capitalism ambiguity or illusion is a universal phenomenon.
The book's ambiguous nature transcends the matter of the governess and the supernatural images of Miss Jessell and Peter Quint. The ambiguity stretches into the other characters featuring in the book: Miles, Flora and Mrs Grose the housekeeper. None of them create any grounds for certainty either. They fail to confirm the character of the experiences of the governess. The illusions of the governess dominate the experiences of the governess herself along with those of the children and Mrs Grose. In a way the illusion is the dynamic dictating the (ambiguous) meaning of the novella. It is an indication of the social power of illusion. The inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Fact and fiction are mutually entwined.
Having said this it does follow that truth is unattainable. However it is not easily acquired. Its acquisition is a struggle. To strip off illusion and much of ambiguity contemporary society needs replacement by a communal form that precludes social oppression.