Finding Meaning In The Turn Of The Screw, By Henry James

3015 words - 12 pages


    At first glance, Bly appears to be a rather lonely place. The vividly bleak backdrop for The Turn of the Screw houses a handful of servants, two orphaned children, and ghosts who fade in and out of view. But there are others present who are less obtrusive yet just as influential as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Peering into and out of Bly's windows and mirrors, engaging with the text and the lingering trace of author Henry James, a crowd of real and virtual readers hope to catch a glimpse of a specter or to unravel a clever Freudian slipknot that will tell them something: They may be looking for that which they think James intended as the text's truth - a transcendental center - or maybe they subconsciously wish to see a reflection of themselves, somehow transformed by the reading, smiling back from the gilded, glassy panes.

Whatever they are seeking, this crew of interactive observers might be surprised to find out that there is not only one answer to James's literary mystery and that the worth of their readings centers on effect, not meaning. It is futile to seek the "answer" that is supposed to tell because, as Douglas forewarns, "the story won't tell." The langue of Bly is based on deceptions and ambiguities, ways in which "truth" is kept at bay. But many readers are unaware that they are really seeking effect, and thus experience effect only when they think they are

searching for meaning. Whatever the motivation, the pack should not be deterred from the quest, for the creation that Wolfgang Iser calls the text's "esthetic pole," --its true value--depends upon a conscientious reader to notice the text's gaps and ambiguities, fill in some of the holes, and to revel in the pleasure, finally, of an expectation that must remain unfulfilled.

 

In the essay, "Henry James and the Ghostly," T.J. Lustig asserts that James's story "uses its blanks to undermine all attempts to establish relations and to join references into a coherent pattern" (255). This "coherent pattern" is what the New Critics believe a text's essential organizing principle to be, and that it is present in the text whether a reader notices it or not. For formalists, a text's essential effect lies in the text alone and is completely independent of a reader's response to elements that create effect in him. Likewise, Lustig's precise analysis of form and subsequent deconstructionist reading of The Turn of the Screw does not mention what a possible reader's process might be when faced with the twists of Bly. But for whom is the effect valuable, if not the reader?

 

As Iser explains in "The Reading Process," readers situate themselves within their responses, in effect "awakening [the] responses within himself" (51). He further argues that "if a reader were given the whole story...his imagination would never enter the field," and yield nothing but "boredom" (51). To Iser, the life of the text depends on a reader's...

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