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Learning Ambiguity from "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James

Updated: Jan 3, 2023

My 19th Century American Literature professor strongly urged our class to read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. This recommendation was inspired by a classroom conversation on Mike Flanagan's 2018 "The Haunting of Hill House". The year following, season two arrived, "The Haunting of Bly Manor". It felt like the perfect time to check the novella off my reading list. I remember thinking, I can enjoy two different versions of the story at the same time.

In the first pages, James introduces the reader to the complex use of narration and its companionship with tension, the arousing nature of vague storytelling. He sets the reader's expectations on the horrors to be witnessed and thus immerses them in the intimate mind of a shrewd Governess. The deployment of ambiguity simultaneously entices and frustrates the reader, which I believe aspiring writers should take note of. James' command of the language, extensive punctuation, repetition, and the limited perception of a 1st person point of view all encompass the psychological torture of the unknown.

Let's first look at how James sets the reader's expectations. The story begins on Christmas Eve in an old house where strangers are exchanging horror tales. The narrator identifies a man named Douglas who enthusiastically offers an effective scare:

I can see Douglas before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down to his interlocutor with his hands in his pockets. "Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It's quite too horrible." This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it." "For sheer terror?" I remember asking. He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. "For dreadful-dreadfulness!"

See the lack of specificity? It almost has the Lovecraftian touch of vague word choice. Upon the first page, there is little detail we can associate with the tale Douglas will share aside from the anticipated presence of two children. Another aspect that contributes to the uncanniness of the story is the layers of narration.

First, Douglas admits the story was written by someone else:

"And is the record yours? You took the thing down?" "Nothing but the impression. I took that HERE" - he tapped his heart. "I've never lost it." "Then your manuscript - ?" "Is an old faded ink, and in the most beautiful hand." He hung fire again. "A woman's. She has been dead these twenty years. She sent me the pages in question before she died."

Then the reader is reminded that this is the narrator's account of events. He informs the audience that we are reading his statement:

Let me say here distinctly, to have done with it, this narrative, from an exact transcript of my own, made much later, is what I shall presently give.

Many details can be lost in translation, especially with saturated narration. If you have ever played the game of telephone you can imagine the possibility of inaccuracy, thus priming the reader to expect an unreliable narrator. It seems almost unfair at this point due to the prominence of 'hysteria' in gothic literature. The Governess demonstrates several instances of self-awareness and emotional intelligence which will continue to challenge the reader on how he/she perceives her.

True to the essence of The Turn of the Screw, the Governess herself admits her fear of the unknown:

The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see - what I don’t fear.

What can be gathered from this is that narration has great utility in ambiguity. It allows the writer to deny the reader all the answers. The Turn of the Screw may be an extreme example. For those that want a closer look at hysteria, allow me to recommend "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. May be good for the horror and psychological thriller writers!

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