Monday, October 5, 2015

The story won't tell: beginning "The Turn of the Screw"

In the framing prologue there are several statements which seem to prefigure what kind of story we will read. The tale is categorized as a "ghost story," and yet distanced from that facile label: "It's beyond everything." In describing the governess's feelings for her employer, Douglas remarks that, "I saw it, and she saw I saw it; but neither of us spoke of it." This statement could sum up a great deal of the "action" of the story: a series of "knowing" looks where everything is, and isn't, said. The narrator suggests that any mystery will be cleared up once Douglas reads the manuscript aloud and that "The story will tell." But Douglas is quick to reply, "The story won't tell...not in any literal vulgar way.

We begin, then, with a story which "won't tell," won't reveal. A story about a young woman hired under condition that she "but never, never...appeal or complain, nor write about anything."

This is a narrative of gaps and silences. Of letters whose contents are momentous, but of which we never exactly learn. A story of monstrous, shameful actions which are constantly hinted at, but never revealed.

It is also a story about a story---the prologue establishes that we are "hearing" a story through three sets of narrators: the governess (who has written her story down), Douglas (who reads the governess's manuscript aloud to the house guests) and the narrator who is transmitting to us "an exact transcript of my own made later." And this haunting story about the dead is "haunted" by death before it's even begun---not only has the governess died years before Douglas tells her story, but Douglas himself has died prior to the narrator's re-telling of the story read out to the "hushed little circle" of expectant listeners.

It is a story of returning presences--ghosts--and characters who replace/displace each other. The governess is initially hired as replacement, as a kind of double replacement for both the governess and the absent Master. Moreover, she is constantly stepping into the position of---replacing---both Miss Jessel and Quint (at the window, at her desk, sitting at the bottom of the stairs, standing on the shore of the pond, etc.)

It is also a story of people slipping out of their "proper places." Part of Quint's "evil" is that he overstepped or didn't know his place (he wore his master's clothes, he presumed relations with his betters). And part of Miss Jessel's "evil" is that she, too, "fell" from of her place through her alliance with a social inferior. And yet the governess, clearly marked as "not evil" in the (her) story, is also out of place, invested by the Master with a proxy authority well beyond a governess's traditional duties.

And finally, it is a story about...well, what is it a story about?

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