Sunday, June 12, 2005

Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism:The Turn of the Screw

ISBN: 0-312-08083-2

Priscilla L. Walton reminds us that The Turn of the Screw has been called the “small problem child” of Henry James’s fiction. We remember James for the intricacies of his psychologically woven plots, both in novel and in short fiction. The Turn of the Screw is one such instance of his work. The novella (or novel) is a first person account of a young governess in the house of a rich widower with two children. The hook in the story is the apparent presence of a ghost in the house which, at times, seems to possess one of the children. The duality of interpretation lies in whether it is a ghost story (the ghost is real) or a case study of madness (the governess is psychotic).

The series ‘Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism’ does more than explaining the meaning of James’s story. Published by Bedford Books (1995; Boston, New York), the book presents practical criticism on The Turn of the Screw in the form of essays, edited by Peter G. Beidler.

Preceding the story are the biographical and historical contexts. After the story’s text, a critical history of the work outlines the significant situations and briefly relates them to different schools of literary criticism.

Four important schools of criticism are first defined and explained, and then a critic from each field interprets The Turn of the Screw by his/her respective approach. Wayne C. Booth comments on the reader-response interpretation of the story followed by the specialized Deconstructionist perspective of Shoshana Felman. Stanley Renner takes a Psychoanalytic view of the governess’ encounters with the ghost. Priscilla L. Walton poses the issue of Feminine Subjectivity with reference to the experiences of the young governess. Bruce Robbins offers a Marxist view of the governess’ position in a rich man’s house.

A glossary of Critical and Theoretical Terms, at the end of the book, helps the reader understand the basic concepts addressed in the essays. Still, the book is essentially an academic read. For students of literature and writers, especially those who adhere to Structuralism, it is a Bedford gift that makes more meanings of works like James’s; works that need critical exploration to appear meaningful at all.

The last thing to note about the book is, perhaps, its glossy title cover: a front view of the same house appearing in four squares; graphically, a signal to multiply one’s viewpoint.

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