The Turn of the Screw and Edmund Wilson

Written by: James Seaton


Reading Henry James

James Seaton, the author of Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism, discusses the iconic essay "The Ambiguity of Henry James" and how it reshaped the way we think about his literary works.


Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has generated more literary criticism, it appears, than any other piece of short fiction, and its fascination for academic critics began with Edmund Wilson’s thesis, developed in his 1938 essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” that it is not really a ghost story at all, as its early readers took for granted and as James himself claimed, but is instead a story about “a neurotic case of sex repression” in which “the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governess.” Wilson was not the first critic to offer this interpretation, but he was by far the most influential, and since that essay most of the debate about The Turn of the Screw has been about the validity of a Freudian interpretation of the story. In Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism: The Humanistic Alternative I argue that Edmund Wilson is one of the great humanistic critics, though his body of work is almost entirely ignored by contemporary theorists. One—paradoxical–indication of Wilson’s anomalous position in academic literary studies is that perhaps his most influential interpretation of a literary work, the one that has had the most resonance in the academy, is one of the few that he got wrong.

Freudian theory was much more congenial for twentieth century academic critics than any interpretation that took the spirits who come after the children to be true spirits—or, as James calls them in his preface to the story, “goblins, elves, imps, demons.” In the last fifty years, after straightforward Freudianism has been widely discredited, Lacanian and deconstructionist interpretations have filled the void. Shoshana Felman’s “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” (1977) argues that arguments as to whether the apparitions are spirits of the dead are hallucinations of a sexually repressed young woman are only a special instance of the intrinsic ambiguity of all literary works and indeed of all texts whatsoever. Kimberly Reed notes in her 2010 introduction that “more recent critics” have made use of what she calls “the insights of deconstruction and psychoanalysis” to discuss questions of “gender relations, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation” which, according to the these critics, “are called into question by the text.”

These developments are a long ways away from the essay that started it all, Edmund Wilson’s “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” Surprisingly little of that essay is devoted to The Turn of the Screw itself; for Wilson the work is interesting primarily as an example of James’s recurring portrayals of men and women who somehow are continually “missing out on emotional experience, either through timidity or prudence or through heroic renunciation.” Wilson infers from the recurrence of this motif in James’s fiction that “there was something insufficient and unexplained about James’s emotional life.” Wilson does not, however, attempt, like some recent critics, to “out” James as a homosexual, nor does he reductively explain away James’s characterizations as mere projections of his personal conflicts. Still less does he claim that the ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw is merely an example of the inherent ambiguity of all texts, a claim that relieves the critic from the arduous task of attempting to understand the meaning of a work as accurately as possible.  Instead he offers a more balanced judgment, praising “The strength of that impartial intelligence of which his hesitating and teasing ambiguity sometimes represented a weakness,” and even asserting (in 1938) that so far nobody “has yet done full justice” to Henry James’s “genius as an international critic of manners, esthetic values and morals.”

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About the Author: James Seaton


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