From Theory to Literature: Henry James

Henry James wrote the quintessential novel and buried it in the most dizzying quagmire. Many turn-of-the-century authors admired his method including Joseph Conrad. James drizzled intricate structures, sustained irony, and the sophisticated manipulation of point of view in The Turn of the Screw. Unlike Conrad’s novels whose settings journeyed all over the world, James remained locked on the British social and economic scenes and layered the social-economic structure from the wealthiest (the owner of the mansion) to the poorest (servants). This short paper intends to apply the Marxist Literary Criticism to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw as it explores important concepts in that theory: “from theory to literature.”

One of the notable Marxists, Friedrich Engels, would probably applaud James for attempting to hide his own opinions for the betterment of art. As cultured and as highly educated as James was, he attempted to bring about other realities: culturally, economically, socially, and gender wise, far removed from his own circumstances. On the contrary, Marxism would decry such an attempt. “Marxist literary criticism maintains that a writer’s social class, and its prevailing ‘ideology’ (outlook, values, tacit assumptions, half-realised allegiances, etc.) have a major bearing on what is written by a member of that class.”

According to Peter Barry’s interpretation, instead of Marxists seeing authors as primarily autonomous “inspired“ individuals whose “genius“ and creative imagination enables them to bring forth original and timeless works of art, the Marxist sees authors as constantly formed by their social contexts in ways which they themselves would usually not admit.

Applying The Turn of the Screw to Marxist criticism (or vice versa), it is imperative to acknowledge the significance of social and economic factors. As indicated earlier, the story is populated by the lower class: Mrs. Grose and an assortment of hired help, living or dead. Despite her attempt to see herself differently as above all the others in the house, and by virtue of her not being a relation, a guest, a mistress, nor a servant, the governess is still in the lower class because she received financial benefits.

Marxist theory sees progress coming about through the struggle for power between different social classes. There was a stream of conflicts in the novel: between the governess and Miles, between the governess and Flora, between the governess and Mrs. Grose, and between the governess and the ghosts. Additionally (and according to Marxism), one social class always exploits the other. Miles’ uncle has economic, social, and political advantage over the governess and all the people working for him, even if the power is from afar. The machination he put in place and set in motion churns in his absence to ensure that all parties contribute to the success of his home management and his peace of mind.

The result of this exploitation, according to Marxism, is the “alienation” of the worker (the governess) who performs “tasks whose nature and purpose ‘she’ has no overall grasp.” The governess finally confesses to not wanting to prolong “the fiction that I had anything more to teach him.” She had no overall grasp anymore as Miles’ teacher, caregiver, and protector. She knew she no longer possessed the skill necessary to teach Miles. She has been, according to Marxism, “deskilled.”

To Mrs. Grose (who is below her class by education, station, and by birth), the governess enjoys the conflict tremendously by becoming sarcastic, insulting, and by using tacit invectives. Class dynamics and conflicts are very prevalent and critical in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Sometimes the references are implicit. Other times they are immersed in dialogue. Even though the governess is of Victorian gentility, she is heavily exploited and is thrust into extremely demanding expectations and roles which cause her alienation and her ultimate breakdown.

Although Karl Marx and Engels themselves did not put forward any comprehensive theory of literature, other Marxists did. Marx and Engels’ views, Barry notes, seem relaxed and undogmatic: “Good art always has a degree of freedom from prevailing economic circumstances…” Henry certainly created a piece of good art in The Turn of the Screw.

From Theory to Literature: Applying Narratology to The Turn of The Screw

Narratology holds an enticement for me because I am not only a creator of literature, but I also am a curator of literature. I suppose my selection of the literary theory of Narratology to analyze Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw would be foreshadowed. My recent journey into Narrative Discourse wetted my appetite. In this discussion, I will explore how the theory illuminates relationships among “the narrated story text, the significance of narrated text, and the narrating act” and also demonstrate if and how Narratology exemplifies itself in the narrators in James’ novel into borderline, mixed, and ambiguous.

The theory that most suitably applies to Henry James’ The turn of the Screw is Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse. After reading the theory of, and after discovering the gaps in my own approach to literature (being ensconced in the formal modes of the story level), I became aware of what Genette meant, more aware of my superficial/traditional handling of literature.

This new theory opened up a window into these old three: the narrated story/event (intradiegetic), the signifying narrative text, and the narrating act (extradiegetic). Actually, as a result of the exposure to Narrative Discourse, I became annoyed with Henry James in The Turn of The Screw for giving his narrators the penchant for forcing suspense. I also was irritated at Douglas for holding his listeners/audience captive and using upper handedness in being extremely present in the narrated world (homodiegetic).

As a reader straddling the two worlds of reading the novel and applying it to theory, I recognize and appreciate James’ ingenious narrating tactic which took me aback. He kept the reader confused yet interested enough to try to muddle through the circuitous narrated story text and its 19th century brand of English. Additionally, as it pertains to the narrating act itself, Douglas’ proclivity for inserting himself dominantly in the narrated story (a story inside another story—Woody Allen’s forte) forced me to acknowledge Genette’s immeasurable gift to literature/Narratology. Genette drew a fine distinction between “who sees?” (focalization) and “who speaks?” He “re-conceptualized the relationships between speaker and the focalizer” and introduced “the necessity of accounting for focalization at the micro- and macro- level(s)”.

Genette acknowledged that the narrator should have a degree of narrator presence in the story, but even he could not have envisioned that authors like Henry James would give characters like Douglas the most liberal latitude in the narration. Apparently, James intentionally made Douglas to be seen and to be heard with theatricals of kicking the fire log, pausing mid-air in speech, fixing his listeners with a look of discontent, verbally putting down his listeners, and dominating the narration that was not about him, but he made it so as a right someone owed him.

Douglas features prominently in “the narrated story text, the signifying narrated text, and the narrating act.” That James kills off Douglas caused an indecipherable feeling in me. I was impatient to read the story without Douglas’ further theatricals and wished the unnamed narrator would take it up, but Douglas’ death shocked me, and even at that, it seemed unjust for James to give it a one-sentence allusion.

For the second topic of this essay, I examined Genette’s three distinctive classifications of characters into degrees of presence: borderline, mixed, and ambiguous narrators. I am not shirking my duty as a student of literature by refusing to classify Douglas into one of the three established categories. Douglas does not fall willingly into any of the three narrator categories. He fakes ambiguity but is not particularly borderline or a mixture of two or all narrator types.

Never in all the novels I read do I recall an author casting most or all of the characters into questionable and disparaging personalities. Douglas would be classified as homodiegetic since his narration is more limited. He does not appear to read minds. The opposite of that is the governess whom I would classify as heterodiegetic because she claims that she knows instead of allowing the reader to come to that conclusion. When the governess narrates her own story, as questionable as her personality is, she easily pigeonholes herself and can be classified as an ambiguous narrator since she is everywhere. Her lunacy causes her to seem to have dual personality and makes her appear schizophrenic as she badgers Mrs. Grose or anyone else in her hyperactive state in trying to solve situations that are clearly over her ability. She really is limited in her perception of anything and does not know the children are manipulative or when they choose to ignore her, which, in her state of delusion, she considers them “leaving her alone”.

In summation, Genette inaugurated many terms in his focused discourse about narration. His pervasive and influential treatise “set a new standard by providing” me with “comprehensive and well-articulated approach” to understanding his unique theoretical models. Genette forced me to reexamine literary relationships in deeper levels, a paradigm that every teacher of English should allow to shift him or her from traditional questioning of text to adopting innovative techniques when analyzing and when teaching text and other narrative devices.

When I applied Narrative Discourse to James’ The Turn of the Screw, Genette equipped me with the terminologies I needed and the invigorating confidence to examine the narrated story text, the signifying narrated text, the narrating act, and allowed me the self-assurance to plot narrators (Douglas and the governess) into these categories: borderline, mixed, and ambiguous. This journey of analyzing Genette has fulfilled my appetite of needing more knowledge of Narratology, especially Genette’s Narrative Discourse.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: The Project Guttenburg. 2008. eBook.

Knudsen, Stephen. “Beyond Postmodernism. Putting a Face on Metamodernism without the Easy Clichés.” Web. 27 September 2014.

Pier, John. “Gerard Genette’s Evolving Narrative Poetics,” Narrative, Volume 18, Number 1. January 2010, 8-18.