Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Turn of the Screw: The storytelling setting, then and now

At long last, roused from a torpor of varied and largely uninteresting origins, I am ready to begin dissecting Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." For readers new to the Borrowed Fire series on this blog, my goal here is to read works of classic literature, not primarily for their themes or meanings, but to learn the craft of fiction writing. There are techniques these old guys use that I suspect contemporary writers, including me, haven't thought so much about--or never really thought of as techniques. So I'm hoping to awaken and inspire new (old) ways of writing in us all.

Here we go with James.

The Turn of the Screw is a framed story (actually a novella), meaning that a storyteller and his listener(s) are introduced to us before the story itself actually begins. We've seen this before, with Wells's "The Door in the Wall," which is also a fantastic tale. The frame offers the writer a couple of opportunities. In "Door," Wells plays up how the narrator (to whom the original tale was recounted by a friend, which is also the case in "Turn,") struggled with whether or not to believe the story, because it is so fantastic. He also mentions, tantalizingly, that the friend has since died under mysterious circumstances--which we must assume are connected to the story. The story killed him! We have to read it now! So, Wells has built up our desire to read on, while also calling into question whether the story is true.

For Turn, James creates a more elaborate set-up. It's Christmas Eve, and friends are gathered around a fire, telling each other scary stories. Two tales have been told already by the time we get to the party, and we get the gist--only the gist--of one of them:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him. It was this observation that drew from Douglas—not immediately, but later in the evening—a reply that had the interesting consequence to which I call attention. Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw he was not following. This I took for a sign that he had himself something to produce and that we should only have to wait. We waited in fact till two nights later; but that same evening, before we scattered, he brought out what was in his mind.

"I quite agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children—?"

"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that they give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them."

Rather than just plunking him down in front of us (as Wells does), James has his storyteller emerge a bit more slowly, from the shadows. This is one way in which James's storytelling scene is more psychologically complex that Wells's from the get-go. The narrator and his friends, first of all, are sophisticates--too clever for sentimentality on Christmas Eve, they insist on "gruesome" tales for the occasion. They're also aware that they are such clever people, and are pretty pleased with themselves for liking awful stories about children. In addition, they're critics; they like some tales better than others.

Douglas, the storyteller-to-be, takes this self-awareness to another level (or gives it another turn):

I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at his interlocutor with his hands in his pockets. "Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It's quite too horrible." This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it."

"For sheer terror?" I remember asking.

He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. "For dreadful—dreadfulness!"

"Oh, how delicious!" cried one of the women.

He took no notice of her; he looked at me, but as if, instead of me, he saw what he spoke of. "For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."

"Well then," I said, "just sit right down and begin."

Douglas is playing to his audience "with quiet art." He knows that they know he is playing them; they expect it, and play their own parts knowingly. At the same time, though, we get the sense from Douglas's gestures and facial expressions that he really is disturbed by the story. It has the power to overwhelm his playful sophistication. Our anticipation rises, as does our sense of Douglas (and the narrator, to a lesser extent) as complex human beings with stories of their own.

We soon learn that the story actually exists as a manuscript, written down by Douglas's sister's governess, with whom--his listeners glean--Douglas had been in love. But Douglas needs to send for the manuscript by post before he can tell the story (which he will read aloud to the group), and after announcing this disappointing news, he goes to bed. So there is literally a postponement, and the listeners use the occasion to ramp up their anticipation even more:

From our end of the great brown hall we heard his step on the stair; whereupon Mrs. Griffin spoke. "Well, if I don't know who she was in love with, I know who HE was."

"She was ten years older," said her husband.

"Raison de plus—at that age! But it's rather nice, his long reticence."

"Forty years!" Griffin put in.

"With this outbreak at last."

"The outbreak," I returned, "will make a tremendous occasion of Thursday night;" and everyone so agreed with me that, in the light of it, we lost all attention for everything else. The last story, however incomplete and like the mere opening of a serial, had been told; we handshook and "candlestuck," as somebody said, and went to bed.

But then James turns the screw again: the narrator tells us that these events--the telling of the tale--happened long ago, that Douglas is now dead, and that he gave the manuscript to the narrator before dying. We then return to the storytelling scene, which is in fact two days later (and which we now know is in the distant past), and Douglas begins to read the manuscript aloud. The narrator says, he "read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author's hand." In other words, he's become a ventriloquist for the governess, and that is how we are to hear (and read) the rest of the story. Which is kind of odd.

Like Wells, James creates a frame that both sets the story in relief, and blurs it. In both stories, we are warned not to fully trust the tale or the teller, because origins and motivations are obscure. James gives us a more complex setting for the tale to be told in than Wells does; the setting itself implies relationships and motivations that we may or may not fully understand later. But we do anticipate that Douglas's story will have bearing on the setting in which it's told. It will not only affect the listeners and the teller outright in some way, but it will comment upon the whole social situation into which it is emerging. The frame is no mere device in James; it's something we are meant to pay attention to and integrate into our experience of the story.

So: suppose we writers want to create a framed narrative like this one. How would we go about it? First off, how would we create a credible contemporary scene of people sitting around trying to scare each other with ghost stories? Does it even happen at summer camp anymore? Or would it only occur in the event of some drastic failure of technology, like the power going out so other forms of entertainment weren't available? Where and when, in our time, would such a storytelling situation arise? Then: what would the story itself be, and how would it reflect back, in complex, interesting ways, on the setting in which it's told?

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