Research Publication Title

Henry James’ Turn of the Screw and the Dangerous Ambiguity of Transcendental Belief

Presenter Information

Elise O'NealFollow

Major

English, Literature Concentration

Faculty Mentor

Dr. Katie Simon

Keywords

transcendental, spiritualism, Victorian belief, Henry James, Turn of the Screw, absence/presence, ambiguity, religion

Abstract

This paper analyzes tenets of Victorian Christianity and the rise of the alternative religion of spiritualism to discuss the issue of ambiguity in Henry James’ novella Turn of the Screw (1898). Set in Victorian England, Turn of the Screw is a ghost story involving a governess, the apparitions she sees, and a ghost-like master noted mostly for his absence from the text. I treat the over-discussed topic of the ghosts in relation to the under-discussed topic of the governess’ master, whom I view as a stand-in for God. In this paper, I conclude that James’ work is a spiritual allegory that denotes the possible dangers of transcendental reliance if the transcendental is not real. First, I view the text through the mode of Victorian Christianity. While critic Eric Voegelin blames the governess’ struggles on her rejection of God, I find that James demonstrates not the failure of the governess, but rather failure of what I term “spiritual panic,” a Victorian drive to good works and endure suffering. Actions driven by spiritual panic are ineffectual if God is like the master James creates in the image of the master, absent and unaffected. Turning toward spiritualist interpretations of the text, I find that although critic Ernest Tuveson argues the governess is unaware of her mediumship abilities, alternative belief offers the governess agency through an intentional, rather than incidental claim to mediumship. On the other hand, considering the possibility of the ghosts as hallucinations in the text points to the governess’ delusion, again suggesting how James’ text warns readers about the perils of reliance upon false transcendental religion. Ultimately, James paints both Victorian Christian and spiritualist practices as ineffectual if the transcendental (God/ghosts) is absent.

This document is currently not available here.

Share

COinS
 

Henry James’ Turn of the Screw and the Dangerous Ambiguity of Transcendental Belief

This paper analyzes tenets of Victorian Christianity and the rise of the alternative religion of spiritualism to discuss the issue of ambiguity in Henry James’ novella Turn of the Screw (1898). Set in Victorian England, Turn of the Screw is a ghost story involving a governess, the apparitions she sees, and a ghost-like master noted mostly for his absence from the text. I treat the over-discussed topic of the ghosts in relation to the under-discussed topic of the governess’ master, whom I view as a stand-in for God. In this paper, I conclude that James’ work is a spiritual allegory that denotes the possible dangers of transcendental reliance if the transcendental is not real. First, I view the text through the mode of Victorian Christianity. While critic Eric Voegelin blames the governess’ struggles on her rejection of God, I find that James demonstrates not the failure of the governess, but rather failure of what I term “spiritual panic,” a Victorian drive to good works and endure suffering. Actions driven by spiritual panic are ineffectual if God is like the master James creates in the image of the master, absent and unaffected. Turning toward spiritualist interpretations of the text, I find that although critic Ernest Tuveson argues the governess is unaware of her mediumship abilities, alternative belief offers the governess agency through an intentional, rather than incidental claim to mediumship. On the other hand, considering the possibility of the ghosts as hallucinations in the text points to the governess’ delusion, again suggesting how James’ text warns readers about the perils of reliance upon false transcendental religion. Ultimately, James paints both Victorian Christian and spiritualist practices as ineffectual if the transcendental (God/ghosts) is absent.