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The Turn of the Screw Essay

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Henry James’ novella, “The Turn of the Screw” lends itself readily to psychoanalytical literary criticism. This type of literary criticism takes as a point of departure, the theories of the psychoanalytical tradition. As such, psychoanalytical literary theory approaches a literary work in many respects as though the text is to be interpreted the way a dream is interpreted by the method of psychoanalysis which means, most importantly, that a literary text is assumed to have both a manifest meaning and a latent meaning.

Latent meanings in literary text can be considered analogous to “hidden meanings” in dreams whereby previously subconscious content is relayed through symbolic communication to the conscious mind of the dreamer. (Bedford) In “The Turn of the Screw,” even individual scenes, separated from the whole of the text, resolve themselves into “dream analysis” with relative ease.

For example, in a scene where the governess-narrator glimpses the unknown (potentially supernatural) figure whom she does not recognize, the manifest meaning of the scene is, obviously, in the manner in which the governess, having glimpsed the strange figures, begins to think differently about her own life and her relationships, particularly with Flora and Miles. The scene also forwards the plot in a quite visible way and deepens the suspense of the entire story. However, the latent meaning can be understood in psychoanalytical terms as existing “behind” this literal interpretation of the scene.

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In order to grasp the latent meaning of the scene, the symbols and diction of the scene can be probed for association and meaning which will indicate a latent, thematic resonance. To begin with, the scene opens with the following description: “It was plump, one afternoon, in the middle of my very hour: the children were tucked away, ” (James 309); simply by separating out the words “plump,” “middle” and “tucked” a sexual connotation is apparent. The scene goes on to describe how the governess came in sight of a strange figure when she had intuited that she might meet someone on the path.

The figure is described this way: “He did stand there! — but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower to which, on that first morning, little Flora had conducted me” (James 310) and here the obvious phallic symbol of the tower with a strange male figure atop it materializes, so to speak, the “plump, middle, tucked” resonance of the earlier passage. Two towers are actually present in the scene; the unknown male stands atop the most structurally sound, the most “erect” of the two.

Next, as the narrator explains her reaction, “I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion,” (James 310) which conveys the sexual overtones of female orgasm. Finally, as though in summation and confession, simultaneously, the scene concludes “An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred” (James 310) where the words “object” and “bred” complete the sense of sexual response and “fixation” which comprises the scene’s latent, sexually-charged meaning.

The scene is therefore an expression of the narrator’s repressed sexuality. 3) “Paper Pills” is one of the stories in Sherwood Anderson’s short-story collection Winesburg Ohio (1919) which evidences the author’s expressed theme that the pursuit of truth and the holding of professed truth turns those who chase truth and hold truth into “grotesques. ” Bluntly stated, Anderson claimed that “It was the truths that made the people grotesques. ” (Anderson 5)This idea is ironic by nature and finds full expression in the story “Paper Pills.

” As the story begins, the protagonist, Doctor Reefy, has already become a grotesque. He is describes as being “a tall man who had worn one suit of clothes for ten years” (Anderson 19) and who, in his office, wore “a linen duster with huge pockets into which he continually stuffed scraps of paper. After some weeks the scraps of paper became little hard round balls, and when the pockets were filled he dumped them out upon the floor” (Anderson 19). This picture of Dr.

Reefy is typical of a grotesque which is the exaggeration of qualities in order to more fully establish their ironic or even tragic connotations. In the case of Dr. Reefy, the symbolic connotation of both scraps of paper and “paper pills” is obviously that of self-medicating; that is, Dr. Reefy is writing himself “prescriptions” which are his ideas on scraps of paper, hsi “truths” and the consuming them in his pockets, where they fall uselessly to the floor. In other words, he won’t take his own medicine, or belive in the truths he writes.

In this case, the grotesque exaggeration can be identified as having emerged from loneliness: “after his wife’s death sat all day in his empty office close by a window that was covered with cobwebs. He never opened the window. Once on a hot day in August he tried but found it stuck fast and after that he forgot all about it. ” (Anderson 18). That this loneliness has turned grotesque must be, according to Anderson’s professed theme, a consequence of ironic truth. To understand which of the many “truths” ultimately turned to irony for Dr.

Reedy, one must keep in mind the description given by Anderson of Dr. Reefy’s “self-prescriptions. ” They are described as leading to a climax of truth: “One by one the mind of Doctor Reefy had made the thoughts. Out of many of them he formed a truth that arose gigantic in his mind. The truth clouded the world. ” (Anderson 20). Without a doubt, the doctor has succumbed to Anderson’s most dangerous “sin:” that of holding a single truth too dearly. However, the nature of the doctor’s particular truth is never openly divulged but appears to be somewhat ambiguous at first glance.

The explication of the doctor’s “gigantic” truth requires an examination of the story’s symbolism. The romantic aspects of the story, what could be considered the story’s hopeful aspects are conveyed both by the pregnant young woman with whom Dr. Reefy falls in love, but also by the symbolism of the wizened apples which are the essence of their romantic love: “the sweetness of the twisted apples, she could not get her mind fixed again upon the round perfect fruit that is eaten in the city apartments.

In the fall after the beginning of her acquaintanceship with him she married Doctor Reefy and in the following spring she died” (Anderson 23). The alert reader will realize that the sweet and bitter truth which the doctor has realized as a gigantic truth overshadowing the whole world was, in fact, the truth of human mortality, the truth of death itself. With that piece of the puzzle in place, the reader understands why the Doctor cannot take his own prescriptions of “lesser” truths because their are no prescriptions against death itself.

And the irony of the story is completed by the death of the doctor’s pregnant lover which also kills the life which was growing inside of her. The close of the story “explains” how the grotesque portrayal of the Doctor in the opening scene could be so necessary and so fitting, ironically fitting, for his own immersion into the irony of great truth and the manner by which each individual impales themself on some great belief, usually through an ironic means. The final words of the story “During the winter he read to her all of the odds and ends of thoughts he had scribbled on the bits of paper.

After he had read them he laughed and stuffed them away in his pockets to become round hard balls” (Anderson 23) indicate that the Doctor will remain in perpetual irony, unable yet to understand the petty truths and prescriptions which , taken together, may have salvaged him from his tragic obsession with death. 4) The poem, “Death of a Soldier” succeeds, in part, because of the streamlined diction and for the compressed usages of traditional poetic elements such as meter, image, and alliteration. For example in the second and third lines of the poem, “As in a season of autumn.

/The soldier falls. ” (Stevens) it is the alliterative resonance between “season” and “soldier” which conveys an instant “bonding” between the unnamed soldier and nature. Similarly, Stevens’ compressed imagery creates emotional tension, by evoking in rapid succession associations of heroicism and ironic death. To grasp the nature of the irony in the poem’s imagery, it is necessary to view the sparsity of the poem’s stanzaic form and diction as an attempt to evoke the solemnity and stature of a piece of sculpture or a war memorial, but this evocation is meant to be taken ironically.

The use of a synecdoche, that of a “three-days personage” (Stevens) meant to evoke Jesus and the Biblical resurrection from the tomb implies, again by irony, that there is no consolation, not in scripture nor in nature for the soldier’s death. To further drive home this point, the elements of nature or steeped in personification: “When the wind stops and, over the heavens,/The clouds go, nevertheless,/In their direction.

” (Stevens) This turn of phrase and imagery shows a “fallen” or unnatural state with windless clouds flying away as though they are disappointed and sentient onlookers. The swift change from organic purity to a sense of disrupted rhythm, or the perversion of the natural world is the method by which Stevens’ interjects a politically profound theme. The basic thrust of the poem is that death is a natural function but war is an unnatural function. The restrained emotion and sparse, deliberate imagery are what give the poem its memorable power and lasting impact.

The unspoken aspects of the poem, that is: what is alluded to by the association of stylized images which produce a sense of collapsing sculpture, unnatural death in war as a perversion of nature, a lament for both the unknown soldier and for the disruption of humanity’s potential harmony with nature. If the unspoken aspects of the poem are taken as inferences from the nature imagery of the poem, it is quite possible to imagine the poem’s theme as being that which exposes war as a method by which not only humanity disassociates itself from nature, but how the “inhumanity” of war results in nature becoming alienated from humanity.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life. New York: Modern Library, 1919. James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw: And Other Short Novels. New York: New American Library, 1962. Murfin, Ross C. ; Ray, Supryia M. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms Bedford/st Martins, 2003.

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