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Naivety and Experience in The Turn of The Screw

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The Book of Genesis establishes the archetypal tale of the fall, and through it, develops the literary significance of a fall. In Genesis, the characters Adam and Eve are banished from paradise due to the seizure of knowledge. The fall they experience refers to their condemnation to a world in which they recognize pain and suffering, apart from their existence in the idyllic Garden of Eden. The concept of a fall is rather vague and lends itself to many stories and interpretations. The idea of a fall is not new, nor, in modern literature, original. Authors use the theme to explore human nature, and the implications of the term itself, through the shift of associations in narration and language. A fall is generally construed as a loss of innocence. This may represent a movement towards maturity or a gain of knowledge, and may be expressed as a change that is either detrimental or beneficial. One such reinterpretation is Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. James’ fictional children come to understand their environment through their loss of innocence, which draws a parallel to Eve’s consumption of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge because it results in a furtherance of knowledge and an expanded perspective.

A logical effect of the gain of knowledge is a transition of perception. The motivation for this phenomenon, and its development, is expressed by Kieran Egan in The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. Mythic understanding is an early method of comprehension that relies on binary oppositions to form interpretations of the world, as an effect of the structure of language. This device is recognizable in the communications of children who are beginning to utilize spoken language, and so this type of awareness is associated with a younger demographic. As humans begin to utilize written language, understanding expands into forms of thought categorized by Egan as romantic, philosophic, and ironic. The primary effect of this advancement of understanding is the ability to reflect upon reality in increasingly sophisticated terms. Thus, the progression may be referred to in correlation with the shift from innocence to experience, especially when the progression is addressed as a lack of knowledge and the subsequent gain. Therefore, the meaning of the fall in The Book of Genesis and Turn of the Screw may be considered through Egan’s theories.

Genesis’ tale of the fall is a mythic representation of the gain of knowledge that is characteristic of human experience, and is established in simple terms that follow the basic attributes of mythic understanding, which allows for reinterpretation. The narrative accommodates Egan’s mythic understanding largely through binary oppositions. The creation of the world is based in distinct terms such as light/dark, water/earth, and male/female. It is also significant that the Tree of Knowledge is known as a tree of good and evil, a classic binary opposition. Equally, the pair have the free will to select knowledge against blissful ignorance by eating from the Tree. In a perfunctory analysis, the literary purpose of the binary oppositions is to create a simple world of calm and order, indicative of a paradise. This world is easily definable and easy to comprehend because it establishes morality and responsibility without the need for mediation between polar interpretations of reality. The human capability to harbor ambiguity develops with knowledge, as established by Egan’s characterization of mythic understanding and the subsequent evolution of thought. In Genesis, this development occurs as Eve and Adam taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, and they become aware that they are naked, an expression of their new level of consciousness and a simplification of the process of accruing knowledge.

However, God had told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree, and as a result of their disobedience, Adam and Eve are condemned to exist outside the Garden of Eden, the present state of humanity. Adam and Eve receive punishment as the direct result of the consumption of the fruit, which allows them to gain knowledge. Thus, it is suggested that without the intake of knowledge, Adam and Eve would have retained the benefits of eternal life and a general lack of suffering. God’s punishment communicates that awareness is harmful and detrimental to character. Yet Adam and Eve were presented with the option to eat from the tree from their creation, which calls into question the superficiality of the binaries. After the consumption of the fruit, human life becomes more complex, as the pair are exposed to fixtures of human existence such as the necessity of labor, hunger, and emotional turmoil. Though the fall is arguably the cause of human suffering, it is also the cause of human pleasure and happiness, when considered in terms of binaries. Binary oppositions are used universally to order and comprehend the world. Human logic relies on oppositions because the structure of language creates discriminate categories for ease of communication and thought. In the context of Genesis, good cannot exist without evil, pleasure cannot exist without suffering, and so forth. The development of complexity allows further comprehension of the world, an inevitable result of a loss of innocence, if innocence is considered opposite learning and knowledge. So, it is arguable that a loss of innocence is essential to appreciate and distinguish reality.

Henry James’ Turn of the Screw presents manipulations of abstractions and binaries to design a tale of a fall within a convoluted reality. The novella presents an intentionally subjective point of view through vague dialogue and first-person narrative. This allows for multiple interpretations of the account and creates an ambiguous ending which leaves the audience to question whether the governess is insane and what role the children play in the events that transpire. Though the plotline is intricate, there is a connection between the characters’ knowledge of the symbolic ghosts and the fall. The means by which the children acquire experience is enigmatic, but the novella ends with Flora’s sickness and Miles’ death, which alludes to the detriment of knowledge. Though it is unclear whether the children fell prior to the introduction of the governess, their experience is revealed as the plot progresses. The children in Turn of the Screw are young and the governess consequently expects that they are naive. Throughout the novel, the children are disobedient and it becomes clear that they know far more than is expected. The children’s use of advanced forms of understanding and communication forms a juxtaposition and conveys their abnormal character to the audience. The children’s anomalous behavior may be analyzed through abstractions, a characteristic of mythic understanding. Comprehension of abstract binary concepts, such as security/danger and obedience/disobedience is a function of early thought processing, and thus, when an event or character does not follow expected structure, it is notable and is seen as unnatural and harmful.

The tale is complex in comparison to the fall depicted in Genesis, which is logically simplistic, a sensible characteristic for an archetype. The account of creation in Genesis is allegedly unbiased, though all accounts are affected by human perception. Therefore, the obvious uncertainty within Turn of the Screw creates a more honest narrative because it forces the audience to recognize and explore the ambiguity. It is difficult to reflect upon and accept doubt within reality, as it is difficult to accept it within a narrative. To process a novel as a third person outsider is similar to the experience of human interaction, where one may witness and understand only select portions of other’s lives based upon what information is provided. The fall in Turn of the Screw allows the reader to cogitate their own perceptions in order to process the complexity of human existence. For example, it is possible to entertain multiple interpretations of the plot by inflecting theoretical plot points. This can facilitate the reader’s rejection of a simplistic world view through the recognition that multiple means can lead to a singular end. Furthermore, the children’s duality indicates their nature, but also necessitate the reader’s conciliation of binary oppositions in order to accept the narrative’s uncertain reality. The reader must recognize the young children’s lack of innocence to consider the implications of innocence and experience for the characters, and within the reader’s own reality.

The binary opposition of innocence/experience holds multiple connotations, as innocence may mean a freedom from sin or a lack of knowledge. The interpretation of innocence affects the meaning of experience, and thus affects the significance of the fall. Genesis and Turn of the Screw relate in their expression of the binary as a shift from ignorant innocence to experience through a personal expansion of knowledge. Analysis of the texts through the lens of Egan’s mythic understanding indicates that a loss of innocence is characteristically detrimental. The expansion of knowledge as a loss of innocence reflects the pattern of development Egan discusses as a shift from mythic to further forms of understanding. The shift in cognitive processing allows the mediation between oppositions, recognition of the complexity of reality, and the transcendence of a simplistic perspective of the world. Egan argues that the losses caused by this development are the product of an inevitable and worthwhile exchange, and that they are minimizable. Modern society facilitates the expansion of knowledge, due to the structure of social and education systems. The development of perception, in accordance with or regardless of Egan’s definition, reflects the passage from innocence to experience and consequently, the understanding of the terms themselves. Thus, recognition of the effects of a loss of innocence is a movement towards combating the harm central to the biblical fall and many subsequent narrative reinterpretations.

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Naivety and Experience in the Turn of the Screw. (2018, April 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from
“Naivety and Experience in the Turn of the Screw.” GradesFixer, 27 Apr. 2018,
Naivety and Experience in the Turn of the Screw. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 May 2022].
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