Turning the Screws of Story Construction with Henry James

Aimee Liu | May/Summer 2010

Aimee Liu


"The plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place."1

This quote from Aristotle's Poetics brings to mind a book that used to baffle me. What tale ever thrilled with more horror or dripped with more pity, without the aid of the eye, than Henry James's classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw? But it wasn't until I began reading James's own assessments of his "amusette" that I realized plot construction was more than his means to an end. It was also his literal subject. In other words, The Turn of the Screw is not really a ghost story at all but a work of metafiction.

Most of us recall this Jamesian classic as a novella about a governess on an isolated estate who is haunted by the spectres of a prior governess and groundskeeper. In her agitation over the ghosts, the never-named governess winds up frightening away the youngest of her two charges, and somehow—the details are maddeningly vague—she causes the other one to die. In his Preface to the 1908 New York edition, James admitted this vagueness was intentional. Using language that tantalizingly parallels the above quote from Poetics, he wrote: "My values are positively all blanks save so far as an excited horror, a promoted pity, a created expertness... proceed to read into them more or less fantastic figures."2

James's refusal to delineate the tale's "values" provoked more than a century's worth of critical speculation that the governess was neurotic, sexually deviant, or criminal. Edmund Wilson in 1934 deemed the novella "a study in morbid psychology." James, however, had a far more literary exercise in mind. He wanted to refute the so-called "laws of fiction," as laid down by his contemporary Walter Besant.

James argued in his 1884 essay "The Art of Fiction," which was published as a rebuttal to Besant's essay of the same name, that pat laws such as "write from experience" and "make characters real" were so general as to be meaningless. James pointed out that experience "is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative... it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations."3

Fourteen years later, James demonstrated with The Turn of the Screw just how the imaginative mind goes about converting those ghostly pulses into revelations. He employed the same structural principle of the narrative turn that Aristotle touted when he wrote that the most powerful shifts in plot occur through Reversal of the Situation and Recognition, both of which "turn upon surprises... Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite... Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge." Start light, end dark. Begin at the surface, then dig down. Or, as James put it, "Be generous and delicate, and then, in the vulgar phrase, go in!"4

In a letter to his friend Paul Bourget shortly after The Turn of the Screw's initial publication in 1898, James described his "monument to my fatal technical passion," as a "pot-boiling study of nothing at all." Nothing, that is, except the effect that can be created by form and idea. These two elements, James had posited in "The Art of Fiction," are the "needle and thread" with which the novelist stitches his fictional web. They are interdependent, equal in value, and mutually essential. In a successful story, "the idea permeates and penetrates (the form), informs and animates it, so that every word and every punctuation-point contribute directly to the expression."5 In The Turn of the Screw, James pushed this conviction to produce a story about the spinning of even the most insubstantial experience into story. It's as if he took Aristotle's hypothetical aside as a challenge to construct a plot that can be felt but not seen.

Just how alive are her supposedly living characters, though? Mrs. Grose and the children, Flora and Miles, are believable enough, but James never lets us forget that his whole enterprise is about fiction, and that the governess is his designated doppelganger.

The nub of this plot was a ghost-story told to James by the Archbishop of Canterbury—who himself had heard it from "a lady who had no art of relation, no clearness"—about young children in an old country house left in the care of malevolent servants who then "die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon." In this first mention in his notebook, three years before he writes his own amplified version of the ghost tale, James is already plotting: "...there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect in it. The story to be told-tolerably obviously-by an outside spectator, observer."6

The production of this effect itself is to be the story. Neither the crimes of the servants nor the ghosts nor even the children will ever be made fully concrete. All we will ever know for certain is that the ghosts and the children are alive in the governess's memory, and the governess dwells in the narrator Douglas's thoughts, and Douglas occupies the original unnamed narrator's mind—and all are suspended in Henry James's chamber of consciousness.The Turn of the Screw, James wrote in 1908, is "a perfect example of an exercise of the imagination unassisted, unassociated," stripped down and adapted to the inner structure of the piece. "To keep the stream, in a word, on something like ideal terms with itself; that was here my definite business... it is a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation."7

James announces his agenda in the very first sentence of the novella's prologue: "The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless..." Just how a story holds its audience is the question at hand. The ghostly tale had involved a child, and the narrator's friend Douglas asks, "'If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?'" The reply he receives is the essence of plot: "'We say of course,' somebody exclaimed, 'that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.'"8

Raise the stakes, turn more screws, keep turning, and the "effect" is heightened, the story becomes irresistible. Douglas, coincidentally, has a little sister, and is ten years younger than the governess, the ostensible source of the story he's about to relate. He is just like her young charge Miles—yet Douglas admits no direct role in the plot. Instead, he reads from an album in "his author's hand," thus adding a third narrative layer to the already turning mechanism. Story, James telegraphs, is the product of memory, imagination, and artifice spiraling through adaptation. Its object is suspense. In this book he means to show as transparently as possible just how the screws turn to create that suspense.

The first line of the first chapter (now narrated by the governess) defines what James means by a turn: "I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong." The language proceeds to trace the narrative "rises," "drops," and "turns" of action and emotion through the ensuing scene of the governess's arrival at Bly, the estate where her story will play out:

Driving at that hour, on a lovely day, through a country the summer sweetness of which served as a friendly welcome, my fortitude revived and, as we turned into the avenue, took a flight that was probably but proof of the point to which it had sunk. I suppose I had expected, or had dreaded, something so dreary that what greeted me was a good surprise... I had no drop again till the next day.9

Right off, the governess "turned" into the avenue to reach Bly, and her spirits took a "flight" that "surprised" her. She had no "drop" again until the next day. We are meant to notice not only that these reversals occur, but that with each turn, a glimmer of new understanding opens up. Exactly what we understand, of course, we will never know because it is the sensation of discovery rather than its substance that this pared-down structure delivers. "Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough," James recalled plotting, "and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars."10

To achieve his desired gruesome effect, James meticulously torques every scene and, within each scene, every beat. The construction is most transparent in two-character scenes such as this one in which the narrator/governess, who throughout is as nameless, faceless, and as obsessive as her author, corners the literal-minded but illiterate housekeeper Mrs. Grose to find out if she knows why her young charge Miles was expelled from school:

I overtook her, I remember, on the staircase; we went down together and at the bottom I detained her, holding her there with a hand on her arm. "I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that you've never known him to be bad."

She threw back her head; she had clearly by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. "Oh never known him—I don't pretend that!"

I was upset again. "Then you have known him-?"

"Yes indeed, Miss, thank God!"

On reflexion I accepted this. "You mean that a boy who never is—?"

"Is no boy for me!"

I held her tighter. "You like them with the spirit to be naughty?" Then, keeping pace with her answer, "So do I!" I eagerly brought out. "But not to the degree to contaminate—"

"To contaminate?"—my big word left her at a loss.

I explained it. "To corrupt."

She stared, taking my meaning in; but it produced in her an odd laugh. "Are you afraid he'll corrupt you?" She put the question with such a fine bold humour that with a laugh, a little silly doubtless, to match her own, I gave way for the time to the apprehension of ridicule.11

One of the many tricks James employs to turn a plot in which the characters physically move very little is to infuse the tracking of thought with the language of action. He draws this scene as if describing a race. The governess overtakes Mrs. Grose as they descend the stairs. She is holding her steady, but the housekeeper upsets her by throwing her head back and adopting an attitude. The governess accepts the change momentarily, holding her tighter and keeping pace, then unexpectedly leaves her opponent at a loss. She allows Mrs. Grose to catch up, but the woman surprises her yet again, forcing her to give way to a result she had not anticipated-by exposing her to a sense of ridicule. The screws of the scene tighten inexorably toward that "odd laugh," which propels the balance of power sideways, dramatically raising the stakes as we, along with the governess, realize that, if she's not careful, the story she is struggling to uncover—and to tell—will not only compel curiosity but also make her a laughingstock.

The production of this effect itself is to be the story. Neither the crimes of the servants nor the ghosts nor even the children will ever be made fully concrete.

"The best form of recognition," Aristotle wrote, "is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation." In this scene coincidence is signaled simultaneously through language, action, and perception. The governess experiences the narrative turn as a loss but recognizes in it a new source of apprehension. Like the author, she realizes she must retain a tight and conscious grip on her narrative if she is to be taken seriously, but not overtaken.

This tension escalates after the governess starts seeing ghosts. She can't let her imagination outstrip the concrete evidence on which she strings her "fancies"; at the same time, she must manipulate that evidence to achieve her desired effect. If the governess is the author's surrogate in this book, Mrs. Grose is the skeptical reader's. To persuade the housekeeper—and the reader—to suspend disbelief in the face of underwhelming evidence, the author has to paint her "fancies" with details in an arrangement that creates the illusion of truth. She must describe what she has seen "as I see the letters I form on this page," and if her description fails to persuade, she must cover her misstep as artfully as a pretending psychic. Just so, the governess closely monitors Mrs. Grose for signs of disbelief as she sketches her first sightings of the spectral groundskeeper Peter Quint:

I quickly added stroke to stroke. "He has red hair, very red, close-curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features and little rather queer whiskers that are as red as his hair... He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor."

"An actor!" It was impossible to resemble one less, at least, than Mrs. Grose at that moment.

"I've never seen one, but so I suppose them."13

This scene turns around and around the questions of whether the man the governess has seen in the window and at the top of the tower is real or imaginary, whether she can persuade the logical housekeeper that she's actually seen him, and finally, whether she can sustain her own belief in the face of escalating evidence that what she reports is utterly unbelievable. The governess's quest mirrors that of any writer striving to govern a story: she must make of the contents of her mind "a living thing, all one and continuous," as James described the novel. But the vulgar Mrs. Grose wants none of her imaginary flights. "Mr. Quint's dead," the housekeeper tells her firmly at the scene's end, trumping all those carefully assembled details and turning the governess toward a whole new authorial challenge. While maintaining both her real and perceived sanity, she must now make not only the imaginary but even the known dead part of this living, breathing story.

Just how alive are her supposedly living characters, though? Mrs. Grose and the children, Flora and Miles, are believable enough, but James never lets us forget that his whole enterprise is about fiction, and that the governess is his designated doppelganger. As such, she must "make" all the characters of her story just as he makes her. And so she occasionally admits this. Of Mrs. Grose, for instance, she says, "I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority-my accomplishments and my function-in her patience under my pain." And of Flora and Miles, "They pulled with an art of their own the strings of my invention and my memory; and nothing else perhaps, when I thought of such occasions afterwards, gave me so the suspicion of being watched from under cover."14

As any storyteller knows, characters have a tendency to develop lives of their own. They don't always obey their author. They sometimes remind her of her lost innocence, sometimes of her shame, and sometimes of impulses she cannot even name. Always, in the process of summoning them, she senses a struggle between control and surprise, between her own curiosity to see what they will do next and her fear that they might make some bewildering and monstrously inconvenient gesture that will pull the whole narrative off course. They might, for example, scheme together, creating "little understandings between them by which one of them should keep (the author) occupied while the other slipped away." Which is just what happens when the governess's obsession with Miles so occupies her that she lets Mrs. Grose and little Flora leave the story without protest.

Well before she lets Flora get away from her, however, the boy surprises her with "a consciousness and a plan." This triggers a crisis of faith that bears all the markings of an author's temptation to abandon his project. James helpfully characterizes this crisis with pointed dramatic references such as, "The curtain rose on the last act of my dreadful drama and the catastrophe was precipitated."

Miles's plan, simply enough, is to return to school. But for this to happen the governess will have "to deal with the intolerable question of the grounds of his (prior) dismissal from school." Oh, those pesky details!

I might easily put an end to my ordeal by getting away altogether. Here was my chance; there was no one to stop me; I could give the whole thing up... Were I to get off quickly this way I should get off without a scene, without a word.15

Without, in other words, another turn of the screw. The governess—and James—are sorely tempted, as they're sinking fast and deep in this well of their own sensibility. And who should save them but the ghost of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, that "dishonoured and tragic" figure whose "unutterable woe" abruptly clears the air. Abandonment of the story means failure, and the spectre of failure overrules the intolerable unknown.

The solution to writer's block, of course, is to harness that negative energy and turn the plot around to address the resistance as part of the story. The governess chooses this solution in the same way she chooses to acknowledge demon ghosts as the dark front of human virtue:

I could only get on at all by taking 'nature' into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.16

Aristotle described plot as the imitation of action, but James had set for himself the task of writing action that imitated plot. So if, as Aristotle stated, a well-constructed plot must shift the protagonist's fortune from good to bad, and this must come about as the result not of vice but of some great error or frailty, what did this mean for the ending of The Turn of the Screw? The author of a completed plot must end alone because her characters are done with her, or vice versa, but if she is also the protagonist, she must be defeated as well as abandoned. How to dramatize the simultaneous thrill, victory, and dejection an author experiences with the final narrative turn?

To achieve his desired gruesome effect, James meticulously torques every scene and, within each scene, every beat. The construction is most transparent in two-character scenes...

A story about the miracle of plot does not logically culminate in horror or pity. The screws must be given some extra torque, the characters invested with some errors and frailties that transcend logic, even if these dimensions are only alluded to. So we advance into a final spiral of heightened sexual innuendo, blazingly choreographed confusion, and emotional extremis. We feel the pending loss and guilt, the feverish rush to the finish and, through it all, those relentless leaps and drops and turns forever driving the story to its ultimate moral quandary: what right does an author have to determine whether his characters live or die when they no more belong to him than do the very pulses in the air?

I was blind with victory, though even then the very effect that was to have brought him so much nearer was already that of added separation... It was for that instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?

...I let the impulse flame up to convert the climax of his dismay into the very proof of his liberation...
The grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.17

The death of young Miles at the end of this parable of plot is as inevitable as it is preposterous. "We were alone with the quiet day," the governess concludes, "and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped."

Jorge Luis Borges once equated ambiguity with richness. James surely would have agreed. He laced his plot with allusions to Peter Quint as the devil, to Miss Jessel's ability to turn Flora from a vision of innocence into a "hideously hard" and ugly "old woman," and to the governess's own overheated passion for Miles, but none of these insinuations is ever substantiated. Such insistent ambiguity forces readers to call upon their own ample errors and frailties to explain Miles's death and Flora's abrupt departure.

Whether James meant for readers still to be debating the governess's sanity and sexual repression a century after the book was first published is an open question, but given his own statements of intent, he likely would be dismayed by the persistent failure of literary critics to recognize his exercise as metafiction. French novelist Maurice Blanchot, writing in 1959, was one of the few to observe, "The plot of The Turn of the Screw is quite simply James's talent, the art of stalking a secret which...the narration creates." As for what "really" drove Flora away and killed Miles, Blanchot suggested, the answer is implicit in the "subject of this story: the pressure the governess exerts on the children to extract their secret from them, which the supernatural, too, doubtless, exerts upon them, but which primarily is the pressure of narration itself, the wonderful, terrible pressure exerted on reality by writing."18

To turn a plot is to seduce. The ultimate message of The Turn of the Screw is that if this rotation is executed with mastery and attention to detail, with just enough pressure here and sensitivity there, and careful control of the rising and falling of desire to achieve the perfect, inevitable, and exquisite climax-well, then even without the aid of the eye, the story is bound, in that vulgar phrase, to pull us in.


Aimee Liu is the author of two memoirs, Solitaire and Gaining, and the novels Face, Cloud Mountain, and Flash House. She teaches in Goddard College's MFA program in creative writing in Port Townsend, WA.

  1. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S.H. Butcher, http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.2.2.html, Part XIV.
  2. Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1999), 128.
  3. Walter Besant & Henry James, The Art of Fiction (Boston: Cupples, Upham, & Co., 1885), 64.
  4. Ibid., 85.
  5. Besant, The Art of Fiction., 76.
  6. James, The Turn of the Screw, 112.
  7. Ibid., 125.
  8. Ibid., 1.
  9. Ibid., 6.
  10. Ibid., 128.
  11. Ibid., 11.
  12. Aristotle, Poetics. Part XI.
  13. James, The Turn of the Screw, 23.
  14. Ibid. 49.
  15. Ibid., 56.
  16. Ibid., 77.
  17. Ibid. 84.
  18. Ibid., 186.

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