Homodiegetic Homicide: The Murder of the ‘Lucid Reflector’ in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed.

— Sigmund Freud, “Dora”

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw exposes the essentially murderous impulse behind an act of homodiegetic narration. The critical controversy over this work has turned endlessly upon the question of the governess’ sanity. However, given James’s habitual preoccupation with the victims–rather than the perpetrators–of psychic aggression, perhaps it is more useful to read the story as a thwarted “What Miles and Flora Knew”, in which the efforts of the children (Miles in particular) to understand what is happening to them is eventually screened out by the governess’ conclusions. In this respect, The Turn of the Screw lends itself quite well to a comparison with Freud’s “Dora”. In each case, the narrative becomes a smothering web of associations that crushes the life out of its victims. Dora (and Flora) withdraws from the process before it terminates, but Miles bears the full brunt of the governess’ “treatment” and, in the final scene, succumbs to her interpretation. However, this homodiegetic homicide cannot erase the tortured sound of Miles’s voice, embedded in the narrative, which is the rack itself.

Ever since Edmund Wilson’s suggestion, in “The Ambiguity of Henry James”, that “the governess who is made to tell the story is a neurotic case of sex repression” and that “the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governess”, no critic has been permitted to ignore the possibility that the governess is an unreliable narrator. The most famous rebuttal to the “Freudian reading” of the story has come from Robert Heilman. In “The Turn of the Screw as Poem,” Heilman insists that

the story means exactly what it says: that at Bly there are apparitions which the governess sees, which Mrs. Grose does not see but comes to believe in because they are consistent with her own independent experience, and of which the children have a knowledge which they endeavor to conceal.

Other critics have attempted to steer a moderate course between the equally reductive interpretations propounded by Wilson and Heilman. The latter naïvely transforms The Turn of the Screw into a re-run of the Garden of Eden story; never, in his essay, does he acknowledge that it is the Governess, not “James”, who turns the children into “symbols of the spiritual perfection of which man is capable” . However, the “Freudian thesis” also runs the risk of reducing the story to a hysterical melodrama which takes place entirely within the governess’ head. Shoshana Felman addresses this problem directly when she examines the story as a trap, set by James, to capture both the naïve reader and the sophisticated reader.

The most astute commentators upon the text have managed to balance an awareness of the governess’ unreliability with an understanding that “the center of horror [in the story] is not the apparitions themselves . . . but is the children, and our sense of what is happening to them.” Perhaps an even more horrifying question is: who is responsible? According to Heilman, the answer is: “Quint and Jessel.” John Lydenberg, on the contrary, replies: “what is happening to them is, clearly and terribly, the governess herself.”

Shoshana Felman’s “Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation)” takes its cue from this helpful suggestion. Lydenberg argues that

the governess is essentially a Puritan . . . [marked] by a refusal to accept the shaded grays that are necessary for any true human understanding and sympathy . . . [and who] turns the screws of Puritan discipline and suspicion until the children fatally crack under the strain.

Felman translates the “Puritan thesis” into language more pertinent to turn-of-the-century discourse by describing the governess as “a therapist, a soul-doctor . . . [who] brings about the story’s denouement in the form of a confession intended as a cure.” However, she is not content to drop the matter there. In fact, the notion that the governess’ role might be more akin to that of analyst than hysterical analysand is merely an offshoot of her master-argument that all attempts to impose a definite meaning upon a text must do violence to that text. At the risk (the certainty!) of joining in the bloodshed, the present essay will focus on an element of the story that has been neglected (when it has not been blatantly misunderstood) by all of the participants in the critical debate: the victims themselves.

It is a testament to the enduring power of the controversy aroused by Wilson’s essay that so little attention has been paid (in a Henry James story!) to the “innocents” whose suffering is at the heart of The Turn of Screw. Whether one prefers to think that Quint and Jessel, or the governess, or Douglas, or the first narrator, or even the critical combatants themselves are responsible for what is happening to Miles and Flora, no one has treated the children as subjects in their own right. There are powerful reasons for this. Most significant is the fact that their existence–as dramatized characters–is restricted to the governess’ manuscript alone. The Master and the governess are contextualized by Douglas’s prologue; but the children are only referred to (as “poor chicks”, “the little girl”, “the small boy”, and also by their Christian names) , not presented.

Nevertheless, the children are quite definitely dramatized in the governess’ narrative; Miles, in particular, is given more than enough opportunity to establish himself as an alien presence in the governess’ otherwise-airtight story. There is a marked contrast between her characterization of the boy and the dialogue he speaks. The real challenge to the “ruminant reader”, therefore, is the riddle of this discrepancy.

Robert Heilman examines the “pains” that “James” (read, “the governess”) takes to “give [the children] a special quality.” Heilman correctly stresses the fact that the “recurrent imagery of light” which surrounds the children is intended to intensify the shock when they prove to be “capable also of damnation.” Of course, the children’s beatitude is a “policy and a fraud” . However, the con is not perpetrated by the children, but by the governess, and no one (with the possible exception of Robert Heilman) is more taken in by the illusion than the governess herself.

However, there is no reason to single out Heilman among the critics on this score. There appears to be a consensus that the governess’ narrative gives a coherent picture of the children as beautiful innocents who gradually come to embody or reflect something sinister. Some accept it at face-value; others reject it out-of-hand as an hysterical fantasy. Neither of these extremes is typical of the current debate, but the nuances introduced by recent criticism have left the fundamental assumption untouched. Thus, Granville H. Jones writes that:

Flora and Miles are sophisticated, self-sufficient, and calm until hounded by a conscience such as they do not have to confess to a guilt they have not felt; and as they deny it, they recognize it and are consumed by the realization.

More to the point, Shoshana Felman argues:

It is the governess’s madness, that is, the exclusion of her point of view, which enables Wilson’s reading to function as a whole, as a system at once integral and coherent–just as it is the children’s madness, the exclusion of their point of view, which permits the governess’s reading, and its functioning as a totalitarian system.

But what if the governess’ reading is less totalitarian than the critics, across the spectrum, have assumed? What if the governess is actually a more reliable witness than even she knew? What becomes of the entire debate if a flaw is discovered in her perfect system?

It is my contention that a flaw exists, and the cracking is audible in Miles’s voice. The fact that he does not speak until the eleventh chapter of the story probably accounts for the lack of attention paid to his dialogue. By this time, the reader has been thoroughly indoctrinated by the governess’ point of view and is not likely to catch the fact that the Miles who speaks is quite different from the Miles who is described. Her first impression of the boy, upon meeting him at the station, is that “he was incredibly beautiful . . . [with an] indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love.” This comes as quite a shock to her, after the news of his expulsion, from which she had previously (unfathomably) concluded that “he’s an injury to others.” Miles and Flora strike her as “beginning anew each day” and the governess feels that if Miles had ever been wicked he would have “caught” it, and I should have caught it by the rebound–I should have found the trace, should have felt the wound and the dishonour.

It is this gut feeling about Miles that persuades the governess to do “nothing at all” about his expulsion from school.

This decision is undoubtedly the pivotal moment of the story, for it cannot be coincidence that she sees Quint’s ghost immediately afterwards. The governess is torn between her certainty that if Miles had ever done anything wrong she would know it and the contradictory reality of his expulsion. In fact, it seems fair to say that her resort to the supernatural became inevitable, once she determined to reconcile the irreconcilable. So far, this interpretation of the events of the story is fairly standard. However, what is not generally remarked is that Miles understands the nature of the governess’ dilemma, and makes attempts to reach her. The first dramatized conversation between the two characters occurs the day after he has been discovered out, at night, on the lawn. The governess believes that he has been lured out for a conclave with Quint, but she says nothing of this, she merely asks him: “What were you doing there?” Miles’s reply (his first quoted words) is: “If I tell you why, will you understand?” He explains: “It was just exactly in order that you should do this . . . [she asks “Do what”] Think me–for a change–bad!”

Far from attempting to deceive the governess into believing that he is an angelic child, Miles (with Flora’s help) actually contrives to convince her that “when I’m bad I’m bad!” It is significant that, when Miles decides to be “bad”, the worst thing he can think of to do is to disobey an arbitrary rule, “just to show you [the governess] I could!” The issue of Miles’s schooling recurs continually in his dialogue with the governess. He demands to know: “When am I going back?” She responds by evading the issue. She deflects his questions expertly, leaving him completely at a loss, as is evident in the following passage, worth quoting at length:

“I want my own sort!” It literally made me bound forward. “There aren’t many of your own sort, Miles!” I laughed. “Unless perhaps dear little Flora!” “You really compare me to a baby girl?” This found me singularly weak. “Don’t you then love our sweet Flora?” “If I didn’t–and you too; if I didn’t–!” he repeated as if retreating for a jump . . . “Yes, if you didn’t–?” . . . “Does my uncle know what you think?” I markedly rested. “How do you know what I think?” “Ah well of course I don’t; for it strikes me you never tell me.”

By disregarding the narrator’s oppressive characterizations in favour of an exclusive focus upon the interchanges between Miles and the governess, it is possible to construct a strange counter-story that simply does not fit into the governess’ “totalitarian system”: it is the story of a young boy, placed in an unusually chaotic environment, under the care of inscrutable adults (an uncle who takes no notice of him and a governess who answers his questions with more questions), struggling to make sense of his world. In short, the story can be read as a twisted variation and commentary upon the theme and technique of What Maisie Knew.

In his Preface to What Maisie Knew, James explains that his “lucid reflector” would become, despite “the best faith in the world . . . a centre and a pretext for a fresh system of misbehaviour, a system moreover of a nature to spread and ramify.” Misbehaviour is indeed rampant in that novel; however, it all happens directly in front of the child’s eyes, and does not “corrupt” Maisie (in fact, it simply gives her more to “reflect” upon). The heterodiegetic narrator of What Maisie Knew remarks cheekily that as Maisie

was condemned to more and more, how could it logically stop before she should know Most? It came to her in fact as they sat there on the sands that she was distinctly on the road to know Everything. She had not had governesses for nothing: what had she ever done but learn and learn and learn? She looked at the pink sky with a placid foreboding that soon she should have learnt All.

Yet, in a way, Maisie’s foreboding is accurate. At the very least, she learns how to maintain her autonomy throughout the novel. Perhaps she is only able to achieve this because none of the adults in her life has the time or energy to dominate her completely, and they are all at each other’s throats. The only real threats to Maisie’s independent development are Sir Claude, whose magnetic charm threatens to pull her into his orbit, and Mrs. Wix, who, with her “straighteners”, continually bemoans Maisie’s lack of a “moral sense”.

The Turn of The Screw begins to appear, in this light, as the story of a prospective Maisie (Miles) who comes under the exclusive jurisdiction of a younger and more determined Mrs. Wix (the governess). In the later work, the adult misbehaviour “spreads and ramifies” in the “depths, depths” of the governess’ mind, and Miles has no chance even to perceive it, much less to assimilate it into his understanding of his “terribly mixed little world.” It is telling that the main controversy between Miles and the governess (so far as Miles is concerned) revolves around her refusal to enable him to return to school. She seems to exist in order to block his progress toward knowledge, even remarking, at one point, “you hint that you know almost as much [as me]?” Miles replies: “Not half I want to! . . . I want to see more of life.”

“Life”, in its infinite variety, is precisely what Maisie is permitted to see. The tragedy of the story is that its “lucid reflector” cannot grow in the barren soil of the governess’ homodiegetic tale, which is neither lucid, nor reflective. As we have seen, it is not even a coherent projection of a mad fantasy, because Miles is given the opportunity to break the spell every time he speaks.

As the narrative progresses, it becomes manifest that the governess’ aim is to eliminate its internal discrepancies. She can only do this by forcing the children to succumb to her interpretation. Shoshana Felman writes that “to prove that the children are mad (that they are possessed by the Other–by the ghosts) is to prove that the governess is not mad.” Perhaps this is so, but it is also true (and far more shocking, in a way) that the governess must silence Miles before he exposes her incompetence in dealing with the vexed question of his schooling.

Shoshana Felman has shown how Edmund Wilson’s attempt to force the text to “speak in clear language . . . reveals the terroristic status of his psychoanalytic exegesis” and, as The Turn of the Screw progresses toward its conclusion, the governess’ methods become equally ruthless. Early on, she tries to cajole the children into admitting their knowledge of Quint and Jessel; her glimpses into the unconscious minds of her interlocutors are coldly noted and reserved for future use. From the beginning, the governess’ most successful conversations are those conducted with Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. By close-reading the older woman’s dialogue, she is able to infer Quint’s existence (and disreputable character), Jessel’s status as a “fallen” woman, and the contact between Quint and Miles. None of these details are willingly surrendered by Mrs. Grose; she gives them up involuntarily through a series of parapraxes.

However, when the governess attempts to apply her analytical methods to the children, she finds them less congenial subjects. They have questions of their own that she cannot–or is unwilling to–answer, they are more self-conscious than Mrs. Grose, or perhaps they merely have less to conceal. In any event, the governess cannot depend upon slips and elisions in their dialogue to aid her in constructing her model of their unconscious minds; she is forced to rely solely upon their denials or refusals of her suggestions. In this sense, the governess’ “case study” is remarkably similar to Freud’s “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria”, better known as “Dora”.

The Dora Case, published in 1905, but written just two years after the serial publication of The Turn of the Screw, shows Freud driven to his wit’s end, spinning his analysand’s “nos” and “i didn’t think that’s” into an incredibly complex web of associations, almost none of which are ever confirmed, but which arouse, in the analyst, a triumphant tone that is reminiscent of the governess. Freud admits that the case is, ultimately, a failure, but he ascribes this largely to the fact that the treatment was broken off, not that it wasn’t going anywhere in the first place. It is true that he is forced, by reflecting upon the dynamic between himself and Dora, to broach the subject of “transferences” for the first time. The phenomenon, as he describes it, is inevitable in the analytical setting: “practical experience, at all events, shows conclusively that there is no means of avoiding it, and that this latest creation of the disease must be combated like the rest.” Freud anticipates that the reader “may even be tempted to infer from the existence of transferences that the patient will be injured by analytic treatment. But these suppositions would be mistaken.”

The redirection of a neurotic impulse away from one object and toward another does not intensify the (turn the screws) magnitude of the illness. “Psychoanalytic treatment does not create transferences, it merely brings them to light, like so many other hidden psychical factors.” Freud concludes this digression by confessing

I have been obliged to speak of transference, for it is only by means of this factor that I can elucidate the peculiarities of Dora’s analysis. Its great merit, namely the unusual clarity which makes it seem so suitable as a first introductory publication, is closely bound up with its great defect, which led to its being broken off prematurely . . . the transference took me unawares, and, because of the unknown quantity in me which reminded Dora of Herr K, she took her revenge on me as she wanted to take her revenge upon him.

However, what is missing from Freud’s post-mortem of the case is an acknowledgment of his aggressive actions as an analyst (not as an imago) that incur Dora’s wrath.

At any number of points, during the course of the treatment, Freud vaults to conclusions without waiting for any corroboration from his patient. (Perhaps this is not strictly true, but since Freud considers her disagreement with him as corroborative as her agreement, not to mention that if she remains silent he also considers that corroboration!–the concept of “corroboration” loses all of its generally accepted meaning). Freud’s most glaringly unfathomable inferences grow out of his interest in her nervous coughing. The first “breakthrough” is worth quoting at length:

She had once again been insisting that Frau K. only loved her father because he was ‘ein Vermögender Mann’ [‘a man of means’]. Certain details of the way in which she expressed herself (which I pass over here, like most other purely technical parts of the analysis) led me to see that behind this phrase its opposite lay concealed, namely, that her father was ‘ein unvermögender Mann’ [‘a man without means’]. This could only be meant in a sexual sense–that her father, as a man, was without means, was impotent.

Upon this dubious foundation, he builds to the conclusion that the cough is a gag reflex, brought about by her imaginative assumption of Frau K’s place in her father’s erotic life. Repeatedly, at difficult moments in the text, Freud begs parenthetically for the reader’s understanding that he cannot go into the technical reasons behind his more imaginative, but illogical, constructions. This is scarcely different from the governess’ oft-used formula for explaining her preternatural insights: “I know I know I know!”

Steven Marcus’s essay, “Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History”, is especially helpful in providing a framework for understanding what Freud is doing in writing this case history (and, by extension, for understanding the governess’ rhetorical strategy in constructing her own case history). Marcus compares Freud to an “unreliable narrator of modernist fiction” . Although he admires the analyst’s “virtuoso . . . series of referential leaps and juxtapositions”, Marcus concludes that “the demon of interpretation has taken hold of [Freud], and it is this power that presides over the case of Dora.” Ultimately,

it becomes increasingly clear to the careful reader that Freud and not Dora has become the central character in the action. Freud the narrator does in the writing what Freud the psychoanalyst appears to have done in actuality.

The story that he tells erases the principal complicating factor in the case, which is not (as Freud argues) that he failed to deal with the transference in time, but rather that he failed to take any account at all of the counter- transference (the unanalyzed part of himself). According to Marcus:

Although Freud describes Dora at the beginning of the account as being ‘in the first bloom of youth–a girl of intelligent and engaging looks,’ almost nothing attractive about her comes forth in the course of the writing. As it unwinds, and it becomes increasingly evident that Dora is not responding adequately to Freud, it also becomes clear that Freud is not responding favorably to this response, and that he doesn’t in fact like Dora very much. He doesn’t like her negative sexuality . . . her ‘reallyremarkable achievements in the direction of intolerant behaviour . . . Above all, he doesn’t like her inability to surrender herself to him.

Freud, in the Dora case, succumbs to what he himself will later call “wild psychoanalysis”; his readily-admitted “predilection for discovering a means of satisfying . . . a particular requirement [of his theory]” gets the better of him. Dora quite understandably chafes at this rough treatment, and her desire to avenge herself upon Freud comes to seem far from irrational. She acts out, ultimately, by abandoning her treatment. However, her finest hour (her only moment as an autonomous subject, in her own right) comes earlier, when Freud expresses his satisfaction (self-satisfaction) with his interpretation of her second dream; to this, Dora replies: “Why, has anything so very remarkable come out!”

The remarkable quality of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (which renders it far more complex than even “Dora”) is its ability to create a number of moments that far exceed Dora’s bemused statement in their capacity to undermine the narrator’s totalitarian system. According to Miles, the “queer business” at Bly is not the presence of ghosts, but “the way you [the governess] bring me up.” His dialogue continually threatens to redirect the reader’s attention away from the specters of Quint and Jessel, toward the question of why the governess refuses to act upon the matter of his dismissal from school. A few brief dramatized sequences deconstruct the entire narrative, offering the possibility of an alternate reading that neither “traditionalists” nor “Freudians” have considered: namely that The Turn of the Screw is actually Miles’s story. While he is not a “lucid reflector” in the sense that Maisie Farange is–the events of the story are not filtered through his consciousness– he is the only character who cogently challenges the governess’ assumptions (her rhetoric deals easily with Mrs. Grose’s direct objections–these only valorize the acuity of the governess’ perceptions). The existence of an alternate (and sane) “centre of consciousness” in the midst of the governess’ paranoid manuscript is the problem that drives the narrative forward. Miles’s final cry of “Peter Quint–you devil! Where?” can be interpreted in two ways: depending upon whether one prefers to think of Quint or the governess as the “devil”. However, it is significantly unambiguous, in the governess’ mind (which could never entertain the possibility that she is the devil), to allow her to close the book on the queer events at Bly. Unfortunately for Miles–unlike Maisie–he is up against a homodiegetic narrator in full command of her medium (if not her mind) and the punishment for his rebellious lucidity is death.

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