The Turn of the Screw's debated phantasms: The role of the fantastic in the creation of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel
Degree Granting Department
Nancy Jane Tyson, Ph.D.
Henry James, Fantastic, Ghosts, Governess
When Henry James sat down to write his "amusette" as he called The Turn of the Screw (1898), he created various ambiguities in the text as a means of confusing and surprising his readers or, in other words, catching them off guard. Over a century later, the mysterious ambiance surrounding the novella has not become any clearer. While critics from Edmund Wilson to Edna Kenton have analyzed the work from a somewhat psychoanalytical perspective, stating that the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are merely figments of the governess's imagination, Tzvetan Todorov and Rosemary Jackson examine James's work through a fantastic approach, putting faith in the governess's narrative. From Todorov's perspective, the fantastic requires: "... the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural a supernatural explanation of the events described.
Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work- in the case of naÃ¯ve reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as 'poetic' interpretations. (33)" In other words, Todorov's concept of hesitation involves a focus on an external point, the perspective of the reader. Yet, the reader's perspective cannot be separated from the character or thematic value of the work, thus linking the two elements through hesitation itself. Todorov explains that The Turn of the Screw fits the characteristics of the fantastic genre in regard to the reader's hesitation. Indeed, it is that very quality which has created so much critical contention in the past.
Because of this hesitation, the reader must determine whether or not to believe the governess and thus, believe in the reality of the ghosts. While I will begin by defining the fantastic from Todorov's and Jackson's perspective, it is my belief that both authors fail to connect all of the elements that appear in James's text without venturing outside of the work. In my thesis, I will strictly adhere to James's novella, focusing only on the content as I connect the governess's experience to an alternative reality rather than a deviation into psychological madness. In this way, The Turn of the Screw will be revealed as a fantastic text, producing its effects on the reader through the evolution of these tendencies within the work.
Scholar Commons Citation
Lee, Susan Savage, "The Turn of the Screw's debated phantasms: The role of the fantastic in the creation of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel" (2007). USF Tampa Graduate Theses and Dissertations.