The magic of evil

Ever since its initial publication in 1898, Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” has been the focus of perhaps more scholarly and critical debate than just about any other piece of short fiction in the English language. It is without a doubt the author’s most widely discussed work, largely because by half concealing what it half reveals, the story allows for, and even encourages, an almost endless array of  interpretive possibilities. In his 1908 preface to the New York Edition of “The Turn of the Screw,” James’s attempts at downplaying the complexity of the tale–it is, he says, “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught … , the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious”–really only serve to invite the kind of analysis and exploration he claims it doesn’t warrant. It’s not surprising, then, that “Turn of the Screw” has elicited such diverse views and opinions over the years, and that it will continue to do so for years to come.

I’ll have more to say about a few of these views and opinions later on. For now, though, I’d like to start off with some contemporary reactions to “The Turn of the Screw,” spread out over three or four posts. I hope you find these glimpses into the mind of a late-nineteenth-century American critic interesting and entertaining.

This first excerpt is taken from the October 15, 1898 issue of The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art. Note how the unidentified author of the piece refers to Miles and Flora as “accursed, or all but damned,” and Miss Jessel as “vicious.”

“‘The Turn of the Screw’ is such a deliberate, powerful, and horribly successful study of the magic of evil, of the subtle influence over human hearts and minds of the sin with which this world is accursed, as our language has not produced since Stevenson wrote his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ tale, a work to which this is not akin in any other sense than the one here specified….We have called it ‘horribly successful,’ and the phrase seems to still stand, on second thought, to express the awful, almost overpowering sense of the evil that human nature is subject to derived from it by the sensitive reader. We have no doubt that with such a reader Mr. James will invariably produce exactly the effect he aims at. But the work is not horrible in any grotesque or ‘realistic ‘ sense. The strongest and most affecting argument against sin we have lately encountered in literature (without forcing any didactic purpose upon the reader) it is nevertheless free from the slightest hint of grossness. Of any precise form of evil Mr. James says very little, and on this head he is never explicit. Yet, while the substance of his story is free from all impurity and the manner is always graceful and scrupulously polite, the very breath of hell seems to pervade some of its chapters, and in the outcome goodness, though depicted as alert and militant, is scarcely triumphant….[Miles and Flora] are accursed, or all but damned, and are shown to have daily, almost hourly, communication with lost souls, the souls that formerly inhabited the bodies of a vicious governess and her paramour, who, in the flesh, began the degradation of their vicitims. The awful ‘imagination of evil’ this fair boy and girl must possess, the oldness of the heart and soul in each young body, the terribly precocity which enables them to deceive their ‘pastors and masters’ as to their knowledge of the presence of their ghostly mentors, these set forth with perfect clearness and the sobriety of a matter-of-fact narrative are what serve to produce the thrilling effect.”


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