When reading works of literature, I often struggle with the idea that I may not be reading the text exactly as the author had intended. Even though I have always been taught that literature transcends the limits of a single meaning and more often than not, one can never fully know the authors intentions, I suffer from this neuroticism that I could still be interpreting it wrong. It’s a simple concept for me to understand, yet a difficult one for me to put into practice. This year, I have been focused on overcoming this foolish fear and works like Barthes’, “Death of an Author” have definitely helped. However, it was not until I read Henry James’, Turn of the Screw, and Brian McGrath’s critical essay, “Thomas De Quincey and the language of literature: or, on the necessity of ignorance”(5) that I was really able to move beyond this conceived notion of mine and “dare to be ignorant”. What James does is present a ghost story that is a maze of illusions, full of ambiguity and McGrath discusses De Quincey’s problem with his “preoccupation with the vast number of books that have been published and await his reading” that ultimately pose a threat to his insanity (1). In this essay I will examine how Henry James deliberately traps us into a world of the unknown, De Quincey’s “power” that McGrath explores, and how together, these texts urge a reader beyond the limits imposed when you only consider the author’s objective.
James’ novel, The Turn of the Screw, is a ghost story that centers around two children, Miles and Flora and their governess. The governess witnesses these apparitions that nobody else can see. The governess insists that these ghosts are Peter Quint, a former valet for the family, and Miss Jessel, the governess’ predecessor. She is convinced that the children see them as well, but are lying and deceiving her by saying that they don’t. She is also convinced that the apparitions are after the children and have corrupted their innocence. The majority of the novel rests on the governess’ accounts but James makes her out to seem mentally unstable and an extremely unreliable narrator. Throughout the novel, the reader can never be sure that what the governess sees is actually there or just a figment of her imagination. James provides evidence for either stance to be taken, but none that will make you feel one hundred percent confident in your decision. Continuing with his theme of ambiguity, many of the situations James writes about in this novel are unclear, unclear in the sense that they can be taken in two entirely different directions. He accomplishes this through his word choice. He picks words like “intercourse” and uses phrases like “Quint was much too free” which could be read in a sexual or innocent way. “What is was most impossible to get rid of was the cruel idea that, whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw MORE—things terrible and unguessable and that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past” (James 71). Within context, this excerpt seems to suggest that something of the sexual nature went on between Miles and Flora and Quint and Miss Jessel, but it could also be read in a more innocent manner and that Quint and Miss Jessel just corrupted the children with ideas about terrible things. There is a plethora of other examples throughout the novel but they all achieve the same effect—conflicting understandings. While often times the wording practically begs you to think of it in a sexual manner, I felt like a pervert because it is not explicitly stated as that and because there is another, completely different meaning it could also take. All in all, I just got beyond frustrated reading this novel because James made it impossible to deduce his intentions. I was so angry with him as a writer that I missed the incredible genius that James and his piece of work is.
In Brian McGraths critical essay he focuses on how Thomas De Quincey’s definition of literature shifts from only functioning as what he calls “power” to functioning as both power and knowledge. He talks about how De Quincey evokes this power as a means to overcome the “madness that results from the craving for mastery over infinite textual excess” (III). He uses this to apply to literary critics who will suffer the same madness as well. This madness is produced by the impossibility of ever completing the task of reading as we see when McGrath describes language as a tropological system where tropes only lead to more tropes. In order to successfully resist the desire for this mastery of reading, one must become a master of one’s own mind and “‘dare to be ignorant”’ as De Quincey so effectively put. We must dare to be ignorant because the way in which power functions, is the way in which it is not perceptible through the senses. McGrath explains that as long as literature is nonreferential—that is, it cannot lead to knowledge of anything coming from a source out side of the reader himself—then you avoid the madness and utilize power. Power works because it evokes emotions in us that we did not know we could feel. We are ignorant to them and so they do not lead us back to anything.
Reading ignorantly does not allow you to think in regards to the author. It does allow you to get a certain something more from every time you read, however. It’s a characteristic that distinguishes literature from other written works. In my own opinion, it gives me another reason to read a book, as I am not a literary critic, but an English major. Even more, when I read The Turn of the Screw in this ignorant mind set, I was able to get out of the maze of illusions James had woven. The thing about James’ novel is literally all tropes lead you back to other tropes and it drove me into a madness, much like the one that consumes De Quincey. I hated reading James’ novel because it was impossible for me to come to terms with the lack of conclusion. Even when the novel ended where usually the author ties everything together and the reader is supposed to come to a solid conclusion, James’ goes against this. We come to find that Miles has died, but whether or not he saw the Ghost or even how he died we are still left wondering. Luckily for my appreciation of James’, I read McGraths article right around the time I finished The Turn of the Screw and I was not compelled to throw the book into an incinerator.
So when I started reading the last bit of James’ novel, I was going into it with a slightly different outlook, trying to read ignorantly. At first the only emotion evoked in me was still anger but then I thought about what the concept meant to read ignorantly. I realized once I did that maybe I am missing the whole point trying to read James’ ghost story as a legitimate story. I thought that maybe James was purposefully doing this and if so why? Well it turns out James was making a point that it is entirely up to the reader to decide on his own what transpires in the story. James left it impossible for any plot to be completely decided based on his writings. Once I came to this conclusion, I looked back and thought about how stupid I had been trying to think only in regards to James because it never allowed me to come to any conclusions. I was only able to do this by daring to be ignorant. In my case and in De Quincey’s, McGrath was spot on with the necessity of ignorance and James taught me a difficult, yet valuable lesson. Ultimately, I have a new outlook on reading and oddly enough, I have these authors to thank.
Marcel the Shell
…with shoes on.
this made my day so much better, thank you
I want to! Anytime works for me except from 3-5:30. email is firstname.lastname@example.org
anyone wanting to get together sometime probably monday afternoon? To compare notes and such since we can use our worksheets :) If enough people take interest I will send out an e-mail…mine is email@example.com
DONT FORGET TO EVALUATEEEE :)
Questions for the final?
Reblog with your questions.
Just a few suggestions: What advice does Phyllis Schlafly give us? Who wrote The Emperor of Ice-Cream? What other style is Turabian, as explained in A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Disserations, Seventh Edition, almost exactly the same as? What was the name of the lady who taught us at the library? What is Dr. Fishman currently working to do for the field of plagiarism? What is the Antinomian Controversy? What field is Lee Morrissey writing for in his article, “Re-Reading in Eighteenth Century Literary Criticism”? What does Manganelli do in her article, “The Tragic Mulatta Plays the Tragic Muse” that “underscores the powerful connections between the the construction of racial identity and the trafficking of female sexuality in the nineteenth-century marketplace”. (502) What does the word enthymemic mean from Dr. Katz’s article, ”The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust”?
Just a few suggestions:
What advice does Phyllis Schlafly give us?
Who wrote The Emperor of Ice-Cream?
What other style is Turabian, as explained in A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Disserations, Seventh Edition, almost exactly the same as?
What was the name of the lady who taught us at the library?
What is Dr. Fishman currently working to do for the field of plagiarism?
What is the Antinomian Controversy?
What field is Lee Morrissey writing for in his article, “Re-Reading in Eighteenth Century Literary Criticism”?
What does Manganelli do in her article, “The Tragic Mulatta Plays the Tragic Muse” that “underscores the powerful connections between the the construction of racial identity and the trafficking of female sexuality in the nineteenth-century marketplace”. (502)
What does the word enthymemic mean from Dr. Katz’s article, ”The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust”?