Catch up with past entries:

I’ll start off-topic a little, with “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  I assume that the unreliability of the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is imputed based upon his hearing the beating of the heart of a dead man while he talks to the policeman.  I do accept that in this case we have a “mad narrator,” of course, but the reader is alerted by the opening sentence and has no doubt at any point in the story about what is fact and what is fantastic.  I don’t want to incur the objection that I am moving the goal posts, so let me agree that this account is unreliable.  But when we call one of Ishiguro’s narrators unreliable, we mean something very different.  And if the governess’s account is unreliable, it too is unreliable in a far more sophisticated way.  The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a madman telling how the world seemed to him in his madness, and at every step the reader (1) understands this and (2) has no trouble sorting out what really happened.  This type of unreliable narrator goes back at least as far as Sophocles.  Ajax, covered in blood, tells the goddess Athena that he has just slaughtered Agamemnon and Menelaus and their retainers and taken Odysseus captive in order to torture him slowly to death.  (Ajax is in a lather because the kingly brothers awarded the arms of Achilles to Odysseus and not to himself.)  Actually, Athena has blinded him with madness and he has only slaughtered a herd of sheep.  This is pretty straightforward: “I’m crazy as a loon and telling you how I saw reality in my insanity.”  Yes, that could also be taken to be a crude description of the governess’s manuscript; but the reader is in a very different relationship with a narrator who writes as plausibly as she does.

For the naive reader, the crux of the case for real unhallucinated ghosts in The Turn of the Screw is the governess’s accurate description of Peter Quince to Mrs. Grose without having any way of knowing what he had looked like.  She finds the apparition uncanny and a horror, but nonetheless believes that she has seen a living man.  Mrs. Grose, from the description, knows it to be Peter Quince and no one else, though he be dead.  This would seem to settle the matter: the governess could not hallucinate the once-living man so perfectly, having never seen him.  I am assuming that all readers will agree that it would be cheating to conjecture a scene that James has chosen not to show – to say, for instance, that the governess had overheard the children describing Peter Quince or had come upon an old photograph album.  In any case, Mike does not try to make this illegitimate move.

On the other hand, I readily admit that what I call the “terror atmospherics” can be turned to support the mad governess thesis, suggesting reasons for her breakdown: the extreme loneliness, the perverse condition that the master is never to be bothered, the governess’s infatuation with him that makes her desirous of fulfilling his command to the very letter.  For me, James is merely trying to make the mise en scene as scary as possible (and succeeding pretty well – this can still be a story you don’t want to read too close to turning out the light at bedtime).  He also wants to make the governess’s decision to try to heroically save the children entirely on her own more plausible.  But I see how the exponents of the view that she goes mad can seize upon these elements as the precipitants of her derangement.

Mike is acute in noting every tic of excessive zeal and impulsiveness in the governess.  He demonstrates convincingly, I think, that James intends all these touches and that they accumulate to paint her as, let us say, dangerously vibrant.  But it is going to be a feature of the narrative that, aside from the children, only the narrator sees the ghosts.  This feature is unexplained, but I believe James just wants us to accept it as a given, as we accept Gertrude’s inability to see the ghost of Hamlet’s father when Hamlet sees it clearly.  It may be precisely the governess’s active imagination and warm susceptibilities that wire her to see dead people walking.  (Yes, I do understand that her being the only adult, and perhaps the only person, to see the ghosts is the very fount and origin of the mad governess hypothesis.)

I see the challenge to Mike this way: he is able to produce many, many grains of sand that add up to a considerable mole hill, but meanwhile I am standing on top of a single but very high mountain.  As he acknowledges, the governess gives to Mrs. Grose an accurate – nay, exact – description of Quince from her meeting with the apparition, when she would have no way of knowing beforehand what he looked like.  Mrs. Grose finds this description so apt that she immediately concludes that the ghost of Quince must be visiting the premises.  Whatever else is going on with the governess’s fragile psyche, the apparition has just been certified to be the very appearance of the dead Peter Quince.  The ghost is therefore a real entity.  I think the only way out for the mad governess theorist is to cast some sort of cloud over the governess’s account of that conversation with Mrs. Grose.  This can be done – but now we are at sea whether any of the events happened the way they are told.  We would have to entertain the possibility that the governess hallucinated the entire business while confined in an insane asylum.

We probably know more about madness today than anyone did in the 19th century, and I doubt if James was very much of an expert.  His preface indicates that he just wanted to write a ghost story and I have never heard of him doing any research for this book.  People who have had “psychotic breaks” usually have some memory of enduring them and recovering from them.  On the other hand, some people are permanently paranoid and on any day of their lives can begin talking about the FBI’s attempt to poison their food.  The governess might be interesting as the second type, in which case almost nothing in the manuscript can be trusted; but she does not work well as the first type, which she would have to be if we can trust any part of Douglas’s account of her later years.  If she “went crazy”during her first job, she would, in after years, likely know that.  She would not then write this narration.

There is one other interesting possibility – one that I find myself entertaining on this re-reading after Mike dropped a hint into one of our conversations at the beach: the ghosts are real and the governess is . . . not psychotic, but seriously undone by sleep deprivation, visions of heroism, and a too-ardent personality that sometimes seizes immediately on the wrong idea and sometimes ruminates to the point of delirium.  After all, the story ends in her abject failure.  I can see James playing this game.  At this point, I am not ready to say that I believe he did.

For me, all these touches of the governess’s throbbing personality are intended to augment the straightforward ghost-story tonality: yes, she is young and eager and susceptible, which to begin with is the temperament that allows her to see the ghosts at all, and also the engine driving all her efforts to save the children.  James is astute, I think, in giving her this personality profile.  The reader is invited, not to see her necessarily as reverently as Douglas sees her, but as a young woman who is emotionally vulnerable and in one hell of a predicament.

Answering a few of Mike’s points, I think he is right that the governess often gets too far ahead of Mrs. Grose, but I sometimes see this more as one of James’s irritating tics as a writer: two characters interrupting each other with assumptions about what the other is about to say, often to the point where I can’t even make out what is being alleged.

I’m as convinced that the tower is not phallic as Mike is that it is.  As a long-time critic of Freud, I have always noticed that a psychoanalyst will never allow you to just dream of a tower.  But what if you have visited Pisa earlier in the day?  My main reason for disallowing it, however, is my belief that the Victorians did not engage in all the heavy breathing about sex that we self-anointed moderns do.  They were comfortable enough about sex that they did not need to import it into every conversation and every scene of a novel.  If they covered the legs of piano benches, perhaps that is because they knew very well and accepted without undo fuss that young men are thinking of little else but sex every minute of the day and are easily stimulated . . . and it is not convenient to have them unnecessarily aroused.  Here’s the main point, however: Supposing the tower is a phallic symbol – what exactly is accomplished?  Part of Mike’s reading, and I don’t dispute it, is that James has made it perfectly clear that the governess is enamored of the master, in fact has just been thinking of him, and that this element in her psychological makeup is relevant to our story.  So James doesn’t need that tower to do work that he has already done with more subtlety.  Well, perhaps Mike is suggesting that, given the governess’s thoughts at that moment, where else would she conjure up a handsome man other than on the very tiptop of a phallus?  But my answer to that is, of course, that she did not “conjure up” this handsome man out of her erotic reverie.  He’s really up there.  He isn’t a figment of her overactive sexual fantasies.  He’s the real Peter Quince, now dead but still on the scene.

A final comment on this sort of thing.  Is James’s Victorian reader expected to get the tower the way Mike gets the tower?  If yes, I think most of James’s female readers would have been revolted, or at least scandalized, and many of his male readers would have pretended to be, if only because the allusion is gratuitous.  James has told us she was just thinking of a handsome man about whom she has romantic dreams.  He doesn’t need to hit us in the head with a shovel.

A giant you-know-what!  It is always inartistic to shock us just for a momentary thrill.  James will not put any four-letter words in the mouth of little Miles either.  No doubt Quince inducted him in the language of the gutter, but James knew it was better to suggest all that depravity than to stun and appal his readers.

(Freud would have said that the readers only “got it” in their unconscious.  He might have gone further and said that James himself was not aware of the phallic symbolism but nonetheless put it there as part of an unconscious intention.  That way real madness lies.)