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Giving Up the Realist Ghost in The Turn of the Screw

Realism is a famously tricky term. In literary studies it can denote a genre, an (anti-)aesthetic, a narrative mode, a philosophical literary attitude, or any combination thereof. It can be a cohesive ideal impossible to achieve in modernity (Georg Lukács), a tension between two systems of temporality (Fredric Jameson), or an approach to the novel that is tied to the nineteenth century (Caroline Levine). [1] Among historians of the novel, Ian Watt’s definition of “formal realism” as “the premise, or primary convention, that the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience” comprised of “details which are presented through a more largely referential use of language than is common in other literary forms” has often held sway. [2] Realism, in this sense, is a literary form that purports to reference reality as defined by empiricism, or what can be experienced through the senses. A consequence of this definition is the idea that reality, and therefore realism, never includes the supernatural. Even within an empiricist understanding of realism, this exclusion of the supernatural deserves scrutiny, as it rests upon the assumption that the boundaries of empirical reality have never been contested. As Levine notes, however, this is untrue: realism is a historical phenomenon and notions of the real shift over time. [3] His interest, of course, is in reconstructing the sense of reality that permeates late nineteenth-century novels, but if we refuse to view texts as existing within historical “boxes,” in the words of Rita Felski, and instead think of meaning as something created by a network of actors including the author, the text, and the reader, then we should be cautious about privileging one historical definition of realism over another. [4] Instead we must recognize that it is possible for a text to be written and initially received as realist, and later received as fantastic, or vice versa. [5] When determining realism based upon a relationship to empirical reality, then, we must ask whose empirical reality we are using. The answer may shift depending upon the historical context in which the text is being viewed. Put another way, the genre of a literary text, and especially its designation as either realism or romance, is not necessarily a fixed formal aspect although we often treat it as such. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) provides a useful case study of a text which puts pressure on our notions of realism and of empirical reality itself.

The Turn of the Screw, in which a governess gradually becomes convinced that she and her new charges are haunted by the ghosts of two former servants, has long been a famous (or perhaps infamous) testing ground for hermeneutic approaches. Ultimately, most readings of the novella come down on one of two sides: either the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are real, or they are not. In other words, criticism on The Turn of the Screw is centrally concerned with whether the novella is a work of fantasy (ghosts) or realism (no ghosts). The question is so prominent that Turn of the Screw critics have been designated “apparitionists” on the one hand, or “anti-apparitionists” on the other. [6] This determination of genre is generally weighted in favor of realism, as most critics dismiss the existence of the ghosts in favor of other solutions to the text’s ambiguities.

This forum cluster takes as its starting point the fact that twenty-first-century literary studies contrasts the terms “realism” and “modernism,” using them to denote literary modes that privilege truthful representation and aesthetic innovation, respectively. With respect to genre, however, both “realist” and “modernist” texts are assumed to represent, in some way, the real world: Ulysses is typically read as being set in the Dublin of James Joyce’s youth, rather than in an alternate universe; To the Lighthouse is more frequently described as an elegy than a ghost story. The new modernist studies, despite the various expansions heralded by Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz over a decade ago, has yet to significantly expand beyond this understanding of realism, a genre that remains privileged above all others (which tend to be described as “genre fiction” or “popular fiction”). [7] The Turn of the Screw is notable in that, despite the text’s clear commitment to ambiguity and the prominent critical discussion of its genre, we still consider it valid to read the novella as a masterpiece of psychological realism whose governess suffers from hallucinations. This may be a valid reading when viewed within the context of our twenty-first-century understanding of reality, but a closer examination of historical context reveals a wrinkle in the logic that leads us to assume that The Turn of the Screw is only a realist text: James’s definition of empirical reality included ghosts.

Ghosts in the Modernist Period

In “Ghostly Reference,” Elaine Freedgood explores this historical context by examining the interpretive practices, which she terms literal and allegorical reading, that determine the reality (or not) of the ghosts. Freedgood argues that we unconsciously deploy these readings depending upon whether or not we assume the author to be a “liberal subject,” an independent individual who “ha[s] private, apparently self-generated opinions” rather than ideas shaped by their culture—an assumption more freely given to white, male, canonical authors such as Shakespeare than to marginalized authors such as Amos Tutuola. [8] Freedgood’s work compels us to “explore the heterodoxy at the heart of our canon, the set of beliefs that make our ‘greatest’ writers completely unlike us, and perhaps unbearably so,” an exploration made possible by “taking literal ghosts figuratively and figurative ghosts literally” (“Ghostly Reference,” 43, 50).

The assumption of liberal subjecthood and the concomitant ignorance of heterodox belief that Freedgood traces are certainly at play in the critical history of The Turn of the Screw, despite the well-documented fact that in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and North America, the existence of ghosts was a prominent open question. As a robust body of scholarship on spiritualism and the occult during the Victorian and modernist periods in Britain and America has shown, communicating with spirits through practices such as séances and automatic writing was widely popular and many prominent literary figures such as W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and H.D. participated. [9] Furthermore, unlike the divide that exists today between science and spirituality, in late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century culture the two worldviews often intermingled, drawn together through scientists’ desire to prove or disprove the supernatural, spiritualists’ desire to legitimize their beliefs and practices, and widespread mainstream interest in both. [10] Many of Britain’s most prominent scientists of the time, such as physicist Oliver Lodge and chemist William Crookes, belonged to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded at Cambridge University in 1882, which attempted to find empirical proof of spiritual phenomena. [11] An American branch of the SPR (ASPR) was cofounded at Harvard by the psychologist William James, Henry James’s brother. [12] The SPR and ASPR viewed themselves as engaging in serious scientific work and strove to be as objective as possible, but many of the members hoped ultimately to prove the existence of the supernatural. According to Roger Luckhurst, the SPR “aimed to re-categorise the supernatural as supernormal phenomena: it was merely a matter of time before they could be accepted into the framework of normal science” (Luckhurst, 197). Tatiana Kontou notes that the SPR’s work, as well as its membership, overlapped notably with the new field of psychology: many of its investigations focused on mental phenomena (e. g. telepathy, hypnosis, and trance states), and in addition to William James’s involvement in the ASPR, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were frequent contributors to the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. [13]

Much fiction of the time reflects this cultural and scientific fascination with the supernatural, although not always in ways immediately apparent to the twenty-first-century reader. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), for instance, the famously rational Sherlock Holmes exposes a “demon hound” as a large dog smeared with phosphorescence. This plot echoes Conan Doyle’s own investigations of the supernatural, some with the SPR, but with a key difference: Conan Doyle eventually became convinced of the validity of spiritualism and other supernatural phenomena and dedicated the final decade of his life to spiritualist activism. [14] To read Hound as a triumph of rationalism over supernaturalism, of reality over fantasy, rather than a heightened representation of an investigation with more than one plausible outcome, is to read it in our contemporary context, an interpretive choice made possible by our assumption that Conan Doyle is a liberal subject, not molded by the belief systems of his time. The same thing can be said about the tendency to read The Turn of the Screw as a realist text.

James’s Incorrect Apparitions

Realist interpretations of The Turn of the Screw contrast with James’s own description of the novella in his preface to volume 12 of The New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James. [15] Here James laments that

[t]he good, the really effective and heart-shaking ghost-stories . . . appeared all to have been told . . . The new type indeed, the mere modern “psychical” case, washed clean of all queerness as by exposure to a flowing laboratory tap, and equipped with credentials vouching for this—this new type clearly promised little, for the more it was respectably certified the less it seemed of a nature to rouse the dear old sacred terror. (James, “Preface,” 169)

The Turn of the Screw is James’s attempt to write an old-fashioned, “heart-shaking” ghost story that emphasizes his readers’ emotional responses over any claim to represent the world, although in order for the tale to generate the desired affect its readers must be open to the possibility of ghosts. The passage makes clear that his ghost story exists in conscious tension with stories of “clean,” and therefore dull, “laboratory” ghosts, a reference to ghost stories influenced by scientific investigations into spiritual phenomena; the phrase “modern ‘psychical’ case” specifically invokes groups like the SPR. The “new” ghost stories to which James refers are works of realism: they depict what psychical investigators considered real interactions with spiritual entities. However, James is not interested in these realist ghost stories because they have been “washed clean,” a phrase reflecting the dull language of the self-consciously scientific SPR reports, which carefully avoided any storytelling that might evoke gothic fiction. [16] Realist ghosts, James argues, cannot produce “the dear old sacred terror.” He is forced to choose “between having my apparitions correct and having my story ‘good’—that is producing my impression of the dreadful, my designed horror” (James, “Preface” 174–75). Ultimately, he chooses to write in a genre that he terms “pure romance” and a “fairy-tale,” one that refuses to be “respectably certified” (175, 172, 169). In eschewing the discourse of psychical research, his “romance” excludes the certifiability of both the laboratory ghost and the science of psychology. According to James, The Turn of the Screw is intended to be a work of fantasy—not, it turns out, because it includes ghosts, but because it creates both horror and doubt. James’s preface therefore reveals a surprising understanding of genre that nevertheless accords with the historical practices of spiritualism and psychical research. [17]

James’s statements are borne out in the novella, which refuses empirical certainties about the ghosts: we as readers do not see them, but it is unclear whether that means they do not exist. [18] The text thus fits Freedgood’s definition of the Victorian ghost story as a genre that “refuse[s] to settle the issue of belief” (“Ghostly Reference,” 44). On first sighting Peter Quint’s ghost, for example, the governess details her daydreams, her shock upon seeing Quint, the color of the sky, the silence of the air, the architectural features of the tower upon which he stands—everything but Quint’s appearance. We are told only that she was “arrested . . . on the spot” by the “sense that [her] imagination had, in a flash, turned real. He did stand there!” [19] The text does not pin the ghost down and examine him; it does not even call him a ghost. Quint’s elusiveness and the subjectivity of the governess’s narrative generate fear and tension that would disappear if we were allowed to see this ghost through her eyes and thereby make an empirical judgment as to its reality. Within James’s own definitions of realism and fantasy, this sustained state of doubt aligns with “romance” and “fairy-tales” in contrast to the scientific certainty of realism.

Another way to examine the ghost’s existence and the text’s genre is to look at how the text positions itself through allusion. The chapter immediately following the governess’s first ghost sighting opens with references to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): “Was there a ‘secret’ at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?” (James, Turn of the Screw, 138). These allusions imply that the story might unfold in the vein of these novels, but given the different relationships Udolpho and Jane Eyre have both to genre and the supernatural, this foreshadowing only reinforces the novella’s refusal of certainty. Udolpho, a classic of the Gothic genre, ultimately reveals non-supernatural explanations for its supernatural elements; Jane Eyre, a realist bildungsroman that borrows heavily from the Gothic, explains only some of its supernatural elements. On the one hand, the mysterious groans from Rochester’s attic are revealed to belong to Bertha Rochester, but on the other, the novel sets its denouement in motion with an unexplained telepathic call from Rochester to Jane. The governess’s comparison of the ‘“secret’ at Bly” to works of rationalized Gothic and irrational realism signals a generic ambiguity: despite presenting the reader with two mutually exclusive options, Udolpho or Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw never settles the question. It hovers between, and thus belongs to neither genre.

Shifting Realism(s)

Literary criticism often takes the “real” part of “realism” for granted, but as Henry James’s scientifically incorrect ghosts demonstrate, both terms deserve scrutiny and a deeper awareness of their historical contingency. Although still based upon what science deems true, James’s definition of empirical reality included “laboratory” ghosts that our twenty-first-century ontology does not accept, and a text that reads as psychological realism now was originally conceived as non-psychical fantasy. It could be argued that one reading is better or more valid than the other, but that argument lies outside the scope of this piece, and risks rushing past the point on which I want to dwell: that divergent interpretations of genre can emerge from reading one text in two historical contexts.

The idea that texts can shift genre when placed in different contexts has important consequences within modernist literary studies: calling attention to overlooked critical assumptions about reality, questioning the privileged status conferred upon realist fiction over so-called genre fiction, and illustrating one of the ways in which the meaning of a text is created through a network of human and nonhuman (and formerly human) actors. The case of The Turn of the Screw shows the interpretive stakes of recovering now-abandoned scientific and spiritual contexts, for we cannot assume that today’s definitions of realism and reality were the same in an earlier historical period, even one as relatively recent as the fin de siècle. As definitions of reality change, so too must the catalog of fictions considered to be realist.


[1] See Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971); Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (London: Verso, 2015); George Levine, The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[2] Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 32.

[3] According to Levine, “Writers and critics return to ‘realism,’ from generation to generation, because each culture’s perception of reality changes and because literature requires ever new means to intimate the reality” (Realistic Imagination, 7).

[4] Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 154.

[5] Felski’s postcritical methodology is “interest[ed] . . . in the puzzle of how texts resonate across time” and offers an “alternative[] to seeing [texts] as transcendentally timeless on the one hand and imprisoned in their moment of origin on the other” (Critique, 154).

[6] C. Namwali Serpell describes the “infinite regress of the apparitionist/anti-apparitionist debate” as turning on the question, “is she insane or are there ghosts?” “Mutual Exclusion, Oscillation, and Ethical Projection in The Crying of Lot 49 and The Turn of the Screw,” Narrative 16, no. 3 (2008): 223–55, 229. Thomas J. Bontly refers to these two camps as the “apparitionists” and the “psychoanalysts” (“Henry James’s ‘General Vision of Evil’ in The Turn of the Screw,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 9, no. 4 [1969]: 721–35, 722). One notable variation on this pattern is Tzvetan Todorov’s claim that The Turn of the Screw “sustain[s] [its] ambiguity to the very end,” so that the reader can never clearly determine whether the ghosts are real or hallucinated, and the text remains in the mode of the “fantastic” (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975], 43).

[7] Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz characterize the “new modernist studies” as seeking to expand the field “temporal[ly], spatial[ly] and vertical[ly]” (“The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 [2008]: 737–48, 737).

[8] Elaine Freedgood, “Ghostly Reference,” Representations 125, no. 1 (2014): 40–53, 46.

[9] See Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Roger Luckhurst, “Knowledge, belief and the supernatural at the imperial margin,” in The Victorian Supernatural, ed. Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 197–216, for information on Victorian spiritualism, and Helen Sword, Ghostwriting Modernism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002) on spiritualism in the modernist period. The Occult in Modernist Art, Literature, and Cinema, ed. Tessel M. Bauduin and Henrik Johnsson, (London: Palgrave, 2018) covers modernist occult practices. Leigh Wilson, Modernism and Magic: Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2013) covers the importance of magic in Modernist literature, a topic that is avoided in other discussions of spiritualism and the occult. See Leon Surette, The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and the Occult (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993) for Pound’s connection to the occult and Matte Robinson, The Astral H.D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H.D.’s Poetry and Prose (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016) on H.D. Many scholars have written on Yeats and the occult, including Surette.

[10] Technology was also part of this cultural overlap. A striking example is Jill Galvan’s argument that telephone and telegraph operators, typists, and spiritualist mediums played parallel roles—all of these vocations were feminized because Victorian ideas of feminine passivity led to the belief that women were the perfect vessels to channel communications both earthly and spiritual (see The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859–1919 [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010]).

[11] In addition to Lodge and Crookes, other notable members included authors Lewis Carroll and Arthur Conan Doyle, the criminologist Cesare Lombroso, the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, the anthropologist Andrew Lang, philosopher Henri Bergson, and Prime Minister William Gladstone.

[12] The importance of the SPR to James’s work has been discussed by critics at least as far back as Francis X. Roellinger, Jr. in 1948 (“Psychical Research and The Turn of the Screw,” American Literature 20, no. 3 [1948]: 401–12). Ernest Tuveson details the James family’s engagement with psychical investigations and occult beliefs. However, he takes Henry James’s reference to psychical ghost stories too far, reading The Turn of the Screw through psychical research and Swedenborgianism despite James’s assertion that he did not make his “apparitions correct” (see “The Turn of the Screw: A Palimpsest,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 12, no. 4 [1972]: 783–800; Henry James, “Preface to ‘The Aspern Papers,’” in The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011], 159–79, 174). Galvan in Sympathetic Medium reads another short James work, “In the Cage,” in relation to the occult and mediumship.

[13] Tatiana Kontou, Spiritualism and Women’s Writing: From the Fin de Siècle to the Neo-Victorian (London: Palgrave, 2009), 16, 19.

[14] See, for example, Andrew Lycett, The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (New York: Free Press, 2007).

[15] Issued in twenty-four volumes from December 1907 to July 1909 by Scribner’s. The prefaces were subsequently collected and published in 1934 as The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. In that edition, the preface to volume twelve is called “Preface to ‘The Aspern Papers.”

[16] See Kontou, Spiritualism, 20, 22.

[17] Of course, I am interested in James’s statements as evidence of the novella’s connections to its larger historical context, rather than as determinants of the text’s meaning.

[18] The novella’s refusal of empirical certainty contributes to its later reinterpretation as realist in a context that assumes an unseen ghost does not exist. Our contemporary desire to label The Turn of the Screw “realist” undoubtedly also stems from James’s status, in conjunction with Percy Lubbock, as one of the foundational theorists of the realist novel.

[19] Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, in The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories, ed. T. J. Lustig (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 113–236, 135.