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Unformatted text preview: Lecture 12 Clements 1 School of Arts and Letters, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies Summer 2009 AK/HUMA 1780 6.0A Stories in Diverse Media ANNOUNCEMENTS ♦ Congratulations on finishing the first half of the course! Today we begin our second module From Monsters to Heroes to Monsters. I will give you until next Monday to finish posting at least 3 responses for Module 1 (see the Lecture Schedule for module dates). After Monday, if you have not posted three times on the material from Module 1 then you have forfeited 1/3 of your participation grade. If you have completed your 3 postings for Module 1 and would like to start on Module 2 you can do so immediately. ♦ After you have finished reading Turn of the Screw, you may want to get a head start on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is a substantial novel in terms of length. ♦ I will post the assignment sheet for the Research Essay on Monday. ♦ The final exam date has been decided by the Registrar’s Office. It will be on Friday Aug. 21 from 7pm to 10pm in the Ross building south 137 (not on Thursday Aug. 20 as I had initially hoped). Please make plans now to attend. This is the final required component of the course. If you are off site you will need to arrange for invigilation through Distance Education. Please see the following page to get started. You are responsible for the arrangements: http://www.atkinson.yorku.ca/disted/offsiteExam/index.htm Lecture 12 Clements 2 Tightening the Noose: Henry James's Novella The Turn of the Screw I hope you enjoyed the reading for today. If you found it difficult to understand what was going on, then you are on the right track! In other words, Henry James employs several techniques to create uncertainty for the reader. Although his tactics are subtle (especially in comparison to contemporary horror and thriller films), they are effective. So do not worry if your reading experience was disconcerting. This is a typical experience so just keep reading until you get to the end, if you haven’t already (make sure you've finished before reading the lecture because there are spoilers). In what follows we will learn how James accomplishes these quite remarkable narrative techniques. But first, we need to learn a bit about this particular genre and the reader’s expectations of it. James's novella (which simply means it is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel), is your quintessential ghost story that takes full advantage of the gothic tradition. You are probably quite familiar with this genre, as it is very popular today. Just think of all of those vampire spin‐offs—the most current being Twilight—not to mention all of the horror films that are produced by Hollywood on a yearly basis. Although the vampire story has been updated, it still takes from a literary history, one that gains momentum in the nineteenth century with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We’ll be studying another classic gothic tale next when we look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But first we are taking a look at James’s psychological rendering of horror and terror. Gothic tales actually have quite a few tried and tested conventions with which you are undoubtedly familiar, whether you know it or not. For example, where does a Lecture 12 Clements 3 gothic story usually take place? Typically, in some remote and secluded location, traditionally in a castle or haunted house, but even this summer’s television series Harper’s Island is a case in point. Fear is instilled by the selection of place simply by the implied fact that no one, it seems, can rescue the main characters. Setting, therefore, is an important aspect of invoking mystery and suspense. What is the atmosphere of a gothic tale? Characteristically, it is chilling and menacing. In a word: uncomfortable or unsettling. In these stories, someone is predictably in distress, usually a woman. So James's tale partakes in this tradition of gloomy haunted houses or castles and disturbing atmosphere. See Lecture Summary Slide 2. Set in the mid‐nineteenth century, the middle of the Victorian period, James’s story only involves a few characters: a governess, a housekeeper, two children, two ghosts, and the absent employer of the governess. Before we get to the story proper, however, an introductory chapter frames the tale for us by introducing it at a party in another creepy old house. Douglas, a member at this party and a friend of the narrator, entices his listeners by telling them that he has a tremendous tale he will read to them in the form of a letter from the person who experienced the events of the story: the governess. With comments from Douglas such as, "Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard [the story]. It's quite too horrible," this little prologue serves to whip up the reader's expectations and set the stage, so to speak, for what is to come. The novella then switches narrators, from the nameless "I" who opens this first section, to the governess's point of view; she becomes the "I" in the text. Like boxes within boxes the opening section of James’s story frames the governess’s narrative. There are several Lecture 12 Clements 4 story‐tellers all together: the nameless "I," Douglas, and the governess. See Lecture Summary Slide 3. James uses this narrative technique, this first person narrator, to make the reader unsure of what is real in the story and what is not. He makes one question whether or not one can really trust what the governess says. Basically, there are two stories being told at once and it is up to the reader to decide which one is the real one. (The Introduction in the Penguin Classic discusses the development of these two stories as they arose in literary criticism, if you would like more information about them.) ♦ Scenario 1. The first story, or way of understanding the events in the text, is from the governess's point of view. If the reader trusts the governess's viewpoint, he/she believes what she is saying, which includes her version of the ghost sightings, her relationship with the children, and her relationship with Mrs. Grose. In this version, the governess really does see the ghosts even though no one else seems to (she simply has a wicked case of Sesame Street's Mr. Snufolupogus). This also means that the children are devious because they are actually having conversations with the ghosts and seeing them, but they will not admit it to the governess. You may have assumed this one while you were reading. ♦ Scenario 2. The other story is that the governess is actually obsessed with the children and hallucinates the ghosts in an effort to possess the children. In this scenario, the ghosts are only in the governess's mind and the children are innocent; they are victims of her obsession. This also turns the governess into Lecture 12 Clements 5 another one of those stereotypical, emotionally unstable, mad women whom we have encountered several times so far. James brilliantly plays with both of these interpretations throughout the story to keep the reader on the edge of his/her seat. It is his fascinating use of the first‐person narrator of the governess, the fact that we get to hear her thoughts, that maintains these two readings at once. In a novel or novella one of the most important elements of the story is the narrator. He/she determines how the story is told and is usually a character in the story, as I mentioned way back when in the first lecture. This is the case with the governess. She is both the narrator in the story proper and our main character. This is different from the plays that we have been reading so far. When we move to the world of drama—in either a play, an opera, or a film—we often lose this important element: the narrator. The story in a play is generally not told by a narrator, but through the dialogue of the characters. Plays, films, and operas can attempt to make up for this with elements such as an onstage narrator, or voice‐overs in films, but one could argue they influence the story less because, at some point or another, the narrator gives way to the actors who communicate the plot and character development through their interactions, movements, and dialogue. Whether you noticed it or not, Oscar Wilde's choice of the medium of a play, in addition to the actions and dialogue he gives his characters, leaves you outside the characters. It is difficult to understand Salome's motivations, for example, because she never has the chance to tell us straight out, "oh, by the way, my dear reader, I've always had a thing for long scraggly black hair, I just Lecture 12 Clements 6 can't help myself." Wilde could have chosen to use an aside to the audience as Shakespeare often did, but again this is not the same as the overriding voice of the narrator in a novel. A similar situation happens in Bernard Shaw's play. The lengthy, even two page, stage directions seem to indicate Shaw's distress at losing the capacity to comment on the action. In a way, his extended stage directions attempt to make up for that loss of control over the story, that ability to comment on what is going on in a narrative, often provided by a narrator. But back to this idea of having two stories running through the narrative. This trick has been quite popular in contemporary films. The audience's interpretation of the events changes when important information is revealed in such movies as The Sixth Sense, A Beautiful Mind, Vanilla Sky, or Fight Club, for just a few examples. In each case, the story is concerned with the psychology of the mind, producing characters who question what is real and what is not, but also forcing the audience to go through the same experience as the characters. The audience questions what is real and what is a figment of the main character's imagination. The narrative often leads you down one path, toward one version of the story throwing in the occasional red‐herring, but then turns that version on its head at the end. Discussion question: What other contemporary examples can you think of that employ this double‐narrative technique? There are also popular television series that use the same double‐narrative technique. One example would be The X Files. I know this is now going back a few years but hopefully some of you will remember it! The whole premise of the show depended Lecture 12 Clements 7 on two stories running simultaneously. Implicitly, each episode asked if you believed Scully's scientific version of events or Mulder's supernatural version. Typically, we do not think of ourselves in Western society as believing in magical gods anymore, yet, just to give you food for thought, isn't The X Files a modern day version of the Greek gods? Just replace the different gods and goddesses with the many green, slimy, body‐ snatching and/or cigarette smoking aliens or all powerful governmental agents, and voila, once again, humanity is the pawn of fickle, supernatural, and not so benevolent beings. In terms of the two stories in The X‐Files, the series tended to favour one story over the other, even though the show was around as long as it was, I would suggest, because it kept both scenarios going at once and often left many questions unanswered. Overall, however, it was Mulder's point of view that was favoured, hence the subtitle phrase, "I want to believe." Maybe there are aliens out there, you were meant to think, and a government conspiracy to keep them secret. Indeed, this was the fun of the show. This slight‐of‐hand, these two stories at once, can be traced back to Henry James, who was a progenitor of the novel that you know and love today, largely because of his deployment of these innovative narrative techniques and the psychological workings of the mind. James was an American writer who was born in the nineteenth century and died in the early part of the twentieth. Although he was an American he lived and worked for most of his adult life in Europe and England. And in fact, became a British citizen in 1915 because he was angry with the United States for not getting involved, from the start, in World War I. In the 1890s, that decade with which you are now familiar because of Oscar Wilde, James decided to devote his time to becoming a Lecture 12 Clements 8 playwright. He was not as successful at this as Wilde was and after the failure of his first play he decided to settle on writing novels. This would become his forte; the Turn of the Screw is one of his exceptional writings from this early period of his career. As you no doubt noticed, however, the story is not exactly "easy reading." You may never want to encounter him again, in fact, and I do understand if you were frustrated. Just be thankful that we didn't read The Portrait of a Lady (which also has a film adaptation in which Nicole Kidman plays the lead): it is 500 pages of the same sort of prose! Nevertheless, James can teach us several important things about the processes of narrative. Moreover, the adaptations made of his story—from his medium of writing to others such as operas and films, also teach us a lot about the processes of adaptation. So, what did he do that was so important in terms of the novel? See Lecture Summary Slide 4. For starters, he broke from the Victorian tradition of novelists who relied on what we now call fictional realism, which for our purposes today consists of two main components: it presents the novel from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who tells the reader about characters and events which seem to be in his or her complete control; and, the narrative gives the effect of representing faithfully (remember this word?) an actual way of life. Instead of being faithful to a source text, as we have with our notion of the effect of "fidelity," we have a writer who attempts to be faithful to "real" life. Both principles are based on the notion of fidelity; the difference is in what the narrative is faithful to. In this case, the story is attempting to be faithful to "real" life. You could even think of "reality" as a kind of source text. Lecture 12 Clements 9 Why is this important? Well, because James had a different version of realism, a different idea of what it meant to be faithful to real life, than many of his predecessors. See Lecture Summary Slide 5. His version of "realism" meant internalizing experience, and presenting events from the limited point of view of one participant. This is significant because changing the function of the narrator changes the way the story is communicated to the reader. If you have only one point a view, are you getting all of the events narrated to you objectively? From your own personal experience, you would probably admit that you could see the same event as someone else yet have a very different version of that event. Eye‐witness testimony is anything but reliable. Whenever you read a novel, ask yourself, can you trust the person who is telling you a story? Is the narrator reliable or not? And what happens if the person experiences events that do not seem to be possible? What happens if this narrator tells us that she sees ghosts? The writer can take advantage of these potential doubts that might occur to the reader. A writer can also manipulate the situation so that the events conflict with what the narrator is saying. For instance, the governess tells the reader that she is certain of the ghosts she is seeing. The frequency of their visits increases and she starts suggesting that the ghosts are as familiar with her as she is with them. Moreover, they are malicious beings. She builds their character for us. On her third sighting of Quint, for example, she describes the event like this: My candle, under a bold flourish, went out, and I perceived, by the uncovered window, that the yielding dusk of earliest morning rendered it unnecessary. Without it, the next instant, I knew that there was a figure Lecture 12 Clements 10 on the stair. I speak of sequences, but I required no lapse of seconds to stiffen myself for a third encounter with Quint. The apparition had reached the landing half‐way up and was therefore on the spot nearest the window, where, at sight of me, it stopped short and fixed me exactly as it had fixed me from the tower and from the garden. He knew me as well as I knew him; and so, in the cold faint twilight, with a glimmer in the high glass and another on the polish of the oak stair below, we faced each other in our common intensity. He was absolutely, on this occasion, a living detestable dangerous presence. If we step back from her rendition in this narrative and try to determine the events, we find that the ghost does not actually do or say anything. All it does is look at her, but it does not move toward her, does not say, "boo," or run after her, yet she attributes evil qualities to it. Add to this that no one else actually sees the ghosts, or at least they do not admit to seeing the ghosts, and we have a disparity between what happens in the story and how it is told. This is James's forte. These techniques also enable James toexplore how a person's mind works, to investigate how a mind might deal with such a terrifying experience. Slowly but surely, the narrative winds its way toward the end and with each "turn of the screw," the governess's anxiety increases, as does the reader's. The events make the reader wonder, What would it be like to have intruders inside and outside of your house? How could you sleep at night? How would you protect those under your care? Lecture 12 Clements 11 But another thing to notice here is that the narrator is a particular gender. A woman tells this story to the reader. In fact, the situation is a set‐up right from the beginning. She is alone and the sole person in charge of a large household and two children. The notable absence in the story is a husband, brother, father, or some heroic protector. In our day and age with so many single, working mothers, this does not seem to be such a big deal. I think we at least understand now that a woman is capable of looking after a household and her children without going insane, but historically, in narratives, the woman unattached to a man (whether or not he is away on business or just not in the picture) is a vulnerable and easy target for any person with malicious intent. In fact, despite very capable modern women, this is still quite prevalent in our popular television viewing. Our nightly prime time television show, such as the various Law and Orders or the myriad CSIs, are prime examples. The victims are not always women, and the perpetrators are not always men, but the majority fit into that model. Whether it is a serial killer on a campus, or a rapist on the streets of New York, the fear produced by violence to and intrusion upon women is regularly circulated for our weekly viewing. There have also been alternative narratives in recent years: the first The Silence of the Lambs is an example because Clarice saves herself in the end, the self‐ sufficient (although highly sexualized) Lara Croft from Tomb Raider or Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill series are other notable heroines. If a woman saves herself in such narratives it is significant because the damsel in distress story is so ubiquitous. Discussion question: can you recall any other contemporary heroines who save themselves? Lecture 12 Clements 12 At the very least, however, the model of a woman in distress is a popular one and has been for a long time, and it is essentially the narrative of the gothic novel. James even mentions one of the most famous of these in his text, Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. At the start of chapter four the governess mentions the book right after her first sighting of Quint: "Was there a 'secret' at Bly‐‐a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?" (166). The second reference is to Jane Eyre, another nineteenth century gothic novel that you have probably encountered. Who is the "unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement"? Bertha Rochester. Both of these books were well‐known novels in Victorian England, hence this novella alludes to them to conjure up the same atmosphere. In James's text, we have similar conventions: an old, creepy mansion and no living man in sight—we are told at the start that the governess has explicit instructions not to contact her employer. (A sort of, don't call me, I'll call you situation.) We will see the very same circumstance in The Others as well. In the television versions above, and in most gothic novels, the narrative is also driven by the resolution of the case, by a sense of closure. The viewer can be scared or mortified, but, by the end, he/she will most often feel vindicated, relieved, and perhaps even self‐righteous because this or that "mad person" has been put away by the American Justice System or the Science of Forensics. Faith in the system (or more accurately the American system) can be restored because in the end the good guys win and the bad guys lose, granted with some interesting bumps along the way. In effect, these stories chronicle the same events over and over again‐‐society is saved from Lecture 12 Clements 13 disorder by those who uphold and maintain the law. There are different characters and different themes but as one title suggests, it is all about Law and Order at the end of the day. But what happens when no one shows up to rescue the woman in distress? What happens when no one believes her and one of the children she is looking after dies? What happens when things that go bump in the night turn out to be real? Well, it isn't a coincidence, even for James, that one ending to this narrative is that the woman goes mad (we are veterans of this scenario by this point in the course). But more interestingly, as I've already suggested, this is only one reading of the story and James's novella compounds the ambiguity of this reading. His writing techniques make it very difficult to decide one way or the other, not only which story you believe, but what happens, exactly. I imagine a lot of you must have felt this way while reading it. With these narrative techniques and issues in mind, I'd like to take a closer look at the ending. The end of the novella turns the screw, as they say, tighter and tighter until it reaches a fevered pitch. All of the tension between the governess and the children, and the governess and the ghosts has been heading this way, to the final scenes with Flora and Miles. After the governess has asked Flora and Mrs. Grose if they see the ghost, Mrs. Grose agrees to take the child away because she is terrified. The two stories are in place. The reader can ask: Is Flora terrified by the governess because there is no ghost? Or, is she trying to put the nail in the coffin, so to speak, and get Mrs. Grose to turn against the governess? And why doesn't Mrs. Grose see the ghosts? Things seem to be leaning toward the reading that the governess is losing it. Or, in another reading Lecture 12 Clements 14 and as the governess informs us, has she lost Flora to the ghosts? Flora does run off to the lake after all. Why do the children keep running outside as though they are meeting someone? Flora also uses "really shocking" language, according to the text, which convinces Mrs. Grose that perhaps there really are ghosts and they have taught the children how to swear. You'll notice all of these questions remain unanswered. Similarly, what actually happens at the end with Miles? The governess and Miles are left alone and he finally admits that he has been kicked out of school because of the same sort of "bad language" that Mrs. Grose heard from Flora. The admission then prompts the governess to ask him what he actually said, and, right at this moment, Quint makes his final appearance. Please reread the second last page to the end starting with "'Is she here?' Miles panted as he caught with his sealed eyes the direction of my words" (p. 261 in the Penguin edition). A number of questions can be asked about this segment. Why, for example, does Miles turn around and say "Where?" if he is speaking to Quint and calling him a devil? Does Miles finally state the name and admit that Peter Quint is evil and in the room but just hasn't seen him yet so then he asks where he is? Or does the governess ask "where," asking where is he, so she can confirm Miles has seen him too. But then why does she say, "Then for the demonstration of my work, There there! I said to Miles." Many more questions could be asked, but we need to think about why James refuses to make it clear. All he had to do is add, "I said" or "he said" after that question "Where?" and it would be clearer, no? (Not really.) Ultimately, the reader is left with a striking lack of resolution because these last words are not explained, and, of course, Miles promptly Lecture 12 Clements 15 dies (sorry for the spoiler, if you haven't finished the book). James deliberately makes the moment—the pinnacle moment of the text mind you—exceptionally ambiguous. You cannot pin this down to one reading or the other, I would argue, if you question the governess at all. If you don't, which for 20 years after the text was written critics didn't, the story is simply a ghost story that ends with evil reigning over the innocent. But if you do, the story is a fascinating exploration of what happens to a mind under stress, although with problematic implications in terms of gender. What I admire about the novella is James's ability to keep both stories alive simultaneously, to keep you thinking and guessing about which version of the events is true. Ultimately, James withholds the answers and so the focus of the text shifts to the process of interpretation. How one sees the events, how one describes them, how one reads this novella, becomes the important issue. Next Monday you will watch The Others a contemporary version of a similar story—too similar not to be exceedingly indebted to James's brilliant novella! ...
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This note was uploaded on 04/11/2010 for the course HUMA 1780 taught by Professor Eliciaclements during the Summer '09 term at York University.
- Summer '09