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Comparing Writing and Reading in The Art of Fiction and The Turn of The Screw

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Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw and his literary essay The Art of Fiction are entirely unalike in form, but contain thoroughly alike themes. Overall, a fascination with the acts of reading and writing is presented; these things are treated as “most beautiful” and are given the greatest of respect by James.[1] However, in this elevation of art and exploration of literature, James sometimes falls back on classist stereotyping and ideology, and suggests that the joy of reading and writing is for a select, privileged few. James presents a high regard for writing in both his essay and his novella.

Throughout The Art of Fiction, James makes lexical choices which significantly elevate the practice. He discusses the novelist Anthony Trollope’s suggestion that fiction is merely “make-believe”; James describes this as a “betrayal”, the legal connotations of which are reinforced by his following assertion that it is “a terrible crime”[2]. The tone of outrage is furthered by the plosive sounds within the metaphor; this indicates a great respect for writing, as James is clearly dismayed at Trollope’s simplification of the art. Additionally, James depicts fiction as “a sacred office”.[3] The religious connotations of the adjective display his ardent reverence and attribute immense power to the art of writing. As French critic Maurice Blanchot notes, James uses similar language to refer to the writing process in his private writings, referring to the “blessed hours” of creation and the “divine light” of plot.[4] These strong feelings were predominantly expressed in the middle and later years of his career, as reflected in The Art of Fiction and The Turn of the Screw – first published in 1884 and 1898, respectively.

The opening of The Turn of the Screw parallels and extends the essay’s veneration of writing, as well as reading. The novella’s opening foregrounds a sense of power in narrative, as the narrator describes how it “held us”, a verb denoting captivation and connoting awe.[5] These states of being are typically assigned to devout Christian worshippers whose attention is wholly focused on the pastor and his sermon. Thus, the first line of the text links to James’s earlier expressed belief that the art of narrative is ‘sacred’. It is also noted in the text that the audience are “sufficiently breathless” – an onomatopoeic phrase, due to the sibilant sounds and soft fricatives – and this suggests they are overcome.[6] The religious imagery related to literature is here extended, as the holding of breath implies an atmosphere of wonder and transcendence. Whilst in both texts James values reading and writing highly, he also acknowledges that the written word is not necessarily moral. In The Art of Fiction, he insists that “the only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel […] is that it be interesting”, and insinuates that it is “arbitrary” to evaluate a text on the basis of its morality.[7] The Turn of the Screw’s prologue illustrates this point. The character of Douglas is very clear in his warnings that the tale is “quite too horrible”, the intensifier signifying that it should not be told.[8]

He stresses the “ugliness and horror and pain” of the story, and the multiple co-ordinating conjunctions create the sense that the awfulness is infinite.[9] Furthermore, he appears to stutter, displaying his distress over the subject, when speaking of the “dreadful – dreadfulness!”[10] However, rather than convincing the audience that they do not wish to hear about it, this heightens their enthusiasm. They agree that it is the horror of the tale that “give[s] the thing the utmost price”[11], a sentiment which reflects James’s idea – there is nothing that people “ought to like or to dislike” from a moral perspective, there are only preferences and interests.[12] One of the women listening to Douglas’s preamble imagines that the gory details will be “delicious”[13], not because she lacks concern for the horrors which promise to unfold but because she is one kind of ‘reader’ – one who likes a tale to be “full of incident and movement”, and takes pleasure in mystery.[14] This pre-empts criticism of the novella, as many contemporary reviews of The Turn of the Screw insist that it contains “the very breath of hell”[15] and is “distinctly repulsive”[16], whilst failing to recognise the merits of the work.

James’s implicit assertions within the novella, and explicit explanations throughout The Art of Fiction, that fiction has the potential to be both wonderful and horrible defends his work from such criticism, which appears basic and incomplete. His insistence that there is “no limit” to literary possibilities – that it is more complex and sophisticated than the simplistic ideas which his critics present – is a subtle but strong demonstration of James’s personal passion for reading and writing.[17] However, the high status James gives to reading and writing – and his disregard for a sense of morality in fiction – is often problematic. In The Turn of the Screw, the elevation renders literature inaccessible to the working-class. Mrs Grose, the only named and living – thus, the representative – working-class character in the novella, is illiterate. She tells the governess that “Such things are not for me, Miss”, a sombre statement which does not merely indicate that she is unable to read, but implies that she is deprived of the privilege of reading.[18] Her body language reinforces this, as she “put[s] her hands behind her” and “shook her head”, both of which are physical symbols of denial.[19] This is undeniably linked to her class, as in Victorian England a lack of financial privilege meant a lack of access to education.

Furthermore, the governess is evidently shocked by the revelation that Mrs Grose cannot read, as indicated by the exclamatory nature of her thought “my counsellor couldn’t read!” – which highlights the gulf between their experiences, a result of their different class backgrounds.[20] Although in The Art of Fiction, the exclusion of the working-class is not as explicit as in the novella, James’s grand ideas about literature make it ultimately inaccessible to the working-class. He declares that art “lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints.”[21] The syntactic patterning of this sentence demonstrates that a reader must have multiple talents, as to engage with a text require many attributes. The abstract nouns ‘discussion’, ‘experiment’, and ‘curiosity’ are particularly striking, forming a semantic field of scholarliness which suggests that this is a pursuit for those who have been well-educated, and who have the time to enjoy such activities. Therefore, the image of a reader, as created by James, omits the working-class.

The common thread running through James’s work is the unadulterated admiration for fiction, in both the processes of reading and writing. He is aware – as a writer himself – of the complexities of creating a piece of literature, and so is able to appreciate the art immensely. Unfortunately, his expression of appreciation frequently relies on the exclusion of the working-class, as he assumes a reader must possess certain skills – such skills that require access to an education unaffordable to many. Although the financial barriers to education which Mrs Grose in The Turn of the Screw faced are no longer quite as acute, the inherently classist system remains an issue over 100 years later – the exclusivity of knowledge which James demonstrates is not as removed from the modern situation as many readers might believe.

  1. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p. 2
  2. Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, ed. by Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), pp. 744 – 759 (p. 746)
  3. James, p. 746
  4. Maurice Blanchot, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ in The Turn of the Screw, ed. by Deborah Esch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), pp. 186 – 191 (p. 189)
  5. James, p. 1
  6. James, p. 1
  7. James, p. 748
  8. James, p. 1
  9. James, p. 2
  10. James, p. 2
  11. James, p. 1
  12. James, p. 754
  13. James, p. 12
  14. James, p. 747
  15. The New York Times, ‘Magic of Evil and Love’ in The Turn of the Screw, ed. by Deborah Esch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p. 149
  16.  The Outlook, ‘The Story Is Distinctly Repulsive’ in The Turn of the Screw, ed. by Deborah Esch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p. 151
  17. James, p. 748
  18. James, p. 10
  19. James, p. 10
  20. James, p. 10
  21. James, p. 745

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