Critical Analysis Of Henry James’ Turn Of The Screw

The novel, The Turn of the Screw, which is written by Henry James, has always been an extremely controversial piece of literature among critics. This is mainly due to the nature of its storytelling technique, as there are many points where there can be several different interpretations to the events that occur. Now to some readers, this technique is what is captivating about the book because it allows the audience’s imagination to take the story to a different place. Other readers, however, don’t appreciate this method as they believe it to be almost ‘lazy’ of the author to leave out the details and explanations. This controversy is why I believe that William (or Wayne) C. Booth’s critical essay, “He began to read to our hushed little circle’: Are We Blessed or Cursed by Our Life with The Turn of the Screw,” is the most impactful explanatory essay to anyone that has read the story and may be having a difficult time interpreting it.

Wayne Booth’s essay focuses on and explains the concept of reader response criticism, which can be best defined as the literary theory that studies the reader, or the audience, and their experience or their response to any literary work. This is an interesting study to me, and one that especially stands out from the others because instead of focusing on the author or the contents of the story, this literary theory looks into the reader experience of a story.

In Booth’s introduction of this new rhetorical theory, he acknowledges that there are three distinct ways of interpreting “The Turn of the Screw,” which are “straight, ironic, and mazed”. He explains this concept further by giving explanations of each interpretation. For instance, he describes how the straight interpretation is more literal and that those that subconsciously use this lens do not even question the facts of the story as they are introduced. Additionally, he explains how the ironic interpretation is based more on skepticism and questioning anomalies that may be presented in the text. And lastly we have the “mazed” interpretation, which looks at the story with an expectation for confusion and misunderstanding simply because of the “intermediate truth of literature”. All three of these interpretations are important to know and understand because they individually feed into Booth’s larger theory, which emphasizes the importance of the text to provide value for the reader.

Additionally, Booth writes that without value to the reader, there would be no purpose to the debates and the analyses regarding James’ story. This involves, but is not limited to, “emotional engagement [and] thought provocation”. There is a passage from “The Turn of the Screw” that really reflects this, as the unnamed governess, speaks “No, no - there are depths, depths! The more I go over it the more I see in it, and the more I see in it the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see, what I don’t fear!” As the audience reads over this passage, they may be overcome by a feeling of dread and anxiety, which affects the way they read the story. So not only is the governess reacting the events around herself, but the reader is as well, with just as much emotion. This is where different interpretations come into play, as the more anxious readers may be applying some of their own experiences into the story, ultimately changing the way they see specific characters and even certain events vs those that do not share similar experiences.

Overall, Booth presents a strong argument, and he does so by separating his argument into three different segments, which ultimately makes his essay appear more organized, as it presents a clear theme and works on further expanding upon the main argument. Booth’s essay caught my interest over the others because as someone who is deeply affected by the emotions of those around me, I can relate to projecting some of my own life experiences into a story, and feeling what the characters feel, which truly does change the outcome if the details are left unspoken. This critical essay really gives the audience a deeper understanding of this concept of reader response criticism, which is extremely important when interpreting “The Turn of the Screw.” At the end of the day, because there is no “correct” answer to these unexplained events that occur in the story, it is imperative to understand how the story itself can be determined by the individual emotions of each person that may read the book. 

16 August 2021
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