You’ll find the first entry here: “The Turn of the Screw” — Introduction through Chapter 2
I think I’ve been inveigled into this, but what the hey . . . I’m always up for defending the naive reading of an unsophisticated doofus. I see that Mike, to soften the blow of the blitzkrieg he has planned against me, says a few kind words about me at the start, including “Steve is usually right.” I suspect that he first wrote “Steve is a legend in his own mind.” Feeling that this was a little strong, and wanting to open with a formal exchange of compliments, he crossed that out and wrote “I don’t care what they say about Steve, he makes a decent cup of coffee.” Then he decided that this was too complimentary, and with the kind of irony that he is going to find in The Turn of the Screw, wrote about my record of rightness in a preface to what he intends to be a thorough dismantling of my rightness and a demonstration that I read on the level of the comic strip Nancy.
Whatever. Game on.
Now in responding to his first set of annotations, I find myself thinking that all the heavy lifting must be on his side. Let me entertain for the moment the Mad Governess hypothesis. (I should say here that it is an interesting reading and if I thought James intended it and brought it off, I would be augmenting the credit that I already give him.) The trick of it would be to make the story work on the naive level – James wouldn’t want the reader to figure out that the governess is mad until the very end, or near the end. Presumably he would plant clues so that, at the moment of realization, the reader would have the pleasure of remembering the hints that had been dropped; but if a reader “solved” it half way through, it would be the same sort of failure as a whodunit that gives away its surprise ending too soon. Therefore, I don’t need to prove that the novella works as a straightforward ghost story – it has to work as a straightforward ghost story, right up to the last moment, preferably on the last page, when James wants us to realize what he has pulled off. The burden is entirely on Mike to prove that it is more than a ghost story – tofind all the dropped hints and planted clues and make them cohere with the Mad Governess thesis.
On the other hand, every time I say to him, “But this detail is easily understandable on the ostensible level, the naive reading that everything is just as the governess says,” Mike can answer, “Of course! Every detail is always going to be compatible with the naive reading. James wants you reading naively to the very end and then having the ‘Eureka’ moment.”
So I will only lightly respond to his annotations, because the test is in the accumulation of subtle evidence that reaches a tipping point somewhere close to the last page, or perhaps even a few days after putting the novel down, when the reader is suddenly thinking “Wait a minute . . .” It’s a test for Mike and not for me to identify the hints and clues and demonstrate how they build on each other. Then he has to persuade me that this thread really is woven into the carpet–that he hasn’t, uh, hallucinated the Mad Governess proofs.
I should add that I am challenging him to make me believe that James intended it. Anyone can say “The governess hallucinated the ghosts, and her pathological desire to heroically save the children from this non-existent threat destroys them.” That interpretation makes sense out of most of the events. But it requires us to doubt the narrator, not just about seeing the ghosts, but about a number of reported conversations. What does James do to induce us to adopt this degree of skepticism?
Now the rules of the game pretty much require both Mike and me to stick to the text and discuss only the text, but I cannot forbear, here at the outset, from making one external argument for my unimaginative and dated point of view, which is that no one, apparently, got James’s trick until some years after his death. The Mad Governess interpretation dates only from the 1920s. It would seem that thousands of readers took The Turn of the Screw the way I take it, and not one appreciated the excellent feat that James had accomplished, of telling a real story of hallucination and madness over top of the distorted story told by an unreliable narrator. James must have died feeling a complete failure, or at least bereft of even one reader who could see the excellence of what he had done. Nor did he lash out on his deathbed at the incomprehension of a generation of dummies who, sadly, had read his ghost story as if that were all that it was, and with his last breath ask readers not yet born totake another look at it. I have to pity the author who writes the book that Mike is reading, and puts into it all that Mike is going to find there, only to realize that not one reader in his own lifetime has understood his real achievement.
Well, onward. For the introduction, I note that the “Mad Governess” thesis not only requires an unreliable narrator of the story itself, but for Douglas to be an unreliable witness to the reliability of the narrator. But it is easy enough to say, I suppose, that Douglas was besotted with her.
In the first two chapters, and anticipating the chapters to come, the next turn of the screw for the Mad Governess hypothesis is that either Mrs. Grose is going to have to be unreliable herself at some point, or we are going to have to distrust, not merely the governess’s accounts of seeing the ghosts, but also her reports of what Mrs. Grose says. Yet for us to deduce, at the end, what really happened – that a mad governess, let us say, has brought catastrophe upon two innocent children – some parts of the narrative must be reliable. I think the challenge for Henry James, as channeled by Mike, would be to bring off the not inconsiderable achievement of a narrative that is in part reliable, in part not, and which enables the reader to know at the end, with some assurance, which parts are which. And I’m putting my money on this being too much even for The Master to manage.