Henry James, the Art of Fiction and the Turn on the Screw

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1. Henry James’s theory of the novel, introduced in his critical essay The Art of Fiction, has been considered as “playing an important part in the definition of the new conventions of the modernist novel” (Dobrinescu, 203). The theory’s central point or main concern has to do with, as Hopkins considers, “taking the novel (and, consequently, theoretical discussion of the novel) seriously”. For James, the novel corresponds to the ultimate art form and it should have a position the community as such. The theory presented by Henry James contains a number of principles the author introduced in his own stories. In the following paragraphs we will revise some of the main ideas presented by James in The Art of Fiction, and how these reflect on his novel The Turn of the Screw.

One of the most important points discussed by James in his essay is the idea of the fictionality of fiction. A novel as an art form to exist must contain the essence of reality; James goes even further by saying that a novel should be life itself. In order to achieve this purpose, the writer “must write from experience"[1]. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is a framed narration; at the beginning we are introduced to a group of people gathered in an old house telling ghosts’ stories, a common practice during the Victorian period. One of them had just finished telling a story about a boy and his mother’s encounter with a spirit when Douglas, the narrator’s friend, introduces a story he will tell later that involves ghosts and two children. The story is later on told in first person by the children’s governess who experiences the events. Personal experience is then one of the elements that oblige us to consider the narrator’s story as factual and truthful, unlike the previous narrations at the old house which lack that condition.

Related to the idea of experience, although less explicit in James’s theory, is the notion that “inner reality is more complex that outer reality” (Dobrinescu, 206), thus the rendering of mind is a key factor to take into consideration if we want to achieve the perfect depiction of life. This becomes evident if we consider that most of the story in The Turn of the Screw occurs inside the governess-narrator’s mind, which not only comprises events, but also emotions, impressions and perceptions that are shown to the reader from her (and only hers) point of view. This unidirectional presentation of events affects the reliability of the governess’s narration, thus generating the sense of ambiguity we will refer to in the following section.

Henry James also discusses the idea of the novel as a living creature, that is to say, observing all its parts functioning and helping each other as a whole. According to the author, the constituents of this living entity, description, dialogue and incident must be balanced with narrative, descriptive and illustrative intentions respectively. In The Turn of the Screw, the richness of these elements and their connections is shown consistently through the novel. A good example is the continuous encounter the governess has with the ghosts; the apparitions are in essence something considered dreadful, unwanted, and James emphasises this impression by surrounding it with mysterious, unsettling events. Peter quint’s first appearance is marked by the physical illusion of time freezing and the third, which occurred at night, by the governess candle suddenly going out. Similarly, Miss Jessel’s apparition occurs in a certain place and at a certain hour the governess never expected someone to be. Although the narrator is brave enough to confront the ghosts and finally try to speak one of them at the very end of the novel, they never communicate with her. These three elements then, description, dialogue and incident, collaborate together in order to project the novel’s atmosphere.

Another important point in James’s theory of the novel is the role of the reader. According to Dobrinescu, in The Art of...
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