The Connections Between Text and Discourse:

A Critique on Felman’s Turn of Interpretation

by Robert Russell


In her essay “Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation),” renowned literary scholar Shoshana Felman relates the plenteous debates surrounding James’s The Turn of the Screw to the ghosts themselves that live within his work. “Could the critical debate itself be considered a ghost effect?” (Felman 200). Comparing the various discourses inspired by the text, what could be considered as extensions or “traces” of the text which in their own right, exist separately from the text, as autonomous entities, works within themselves, is a compelling concept. However, what Feldman seems to ignore in her essay are the ways in which these “ghostly” debates are more closely reminiscent not of the ghosts of Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel, but the governess herself. The debate among scholars regarding various interpretations of the text, especially psychoanalytical readings, are not as “ghostly” as Felman contends, but rather more “humanly,” and thus those engaging in such widespread debate unwittingly exhibit traits that more closely mirror the governess than the ghosts to which Felman draws connections to. In the repetition of discursive motifs, in the avoidance of “vulgarity” in discourse, and in the “tact” associated with sexuality, are these connections ever more present.

            Felman begins with the claim that the contentious debate and discourse inspired by James’s short novel finds its agitated roots in the initial publication of Edmund Wilson’s essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” an essay that put forth a psychoanalytic reading of the text and purported that “The Turn of the Screw [was] not, in fact, a ghost story but a madness story, a study of a case of neurosis: the ghosts, accordingly, do not really exist; they are but figments of the governess’s sick imagination” (Felman 199). Thus is the event that ignited the contentious frenzy of criticism ranging from scholarly praise to vicious refutation. However, within the various discourse that arose, Felman cites that often various arguments, themes, and points of interest are repeated ad nauseum: “when the pronouncements of the various sides of the controversy are examine closely, they are found to repeat unwittingly…all the main lexical motifs of the text” (200). And while such a repetition of a “vocabulary of aggression,” as Felman labels it, may echo the “combative spirit that animates the text” (Felman 200)–the “ghostly” aspects of the story–what these repetitions actually mirror is the governess herself.

Such repetition of motifs in discourse mirrors the repetition of certain themes within the original text–repeated variations of words like “hold,” “touch,” “possess,” and “have.” These words, in turn, mirror the growing intensity of the governess’s obsession with Miles and her urge to keep possession over him. Transitively, the repetition of discourse not only reflects the structural repetition within James’s novella, but these violent characteristics of the governess herself, especially her intense obsession to maintain possession, control, and a “hold” on little Miles. Although Felman’s contention that the debates first spawned by James’s novella and later enflamed by Wilson’s psychoanalytical reading seem to portray the ghosts of the story in the space between the text and criticism, the connection between discourse and the governess herself appears more evident. Felman expands on Wilson’s psychoanalytical reading rather than exploring the structural relationships between the motifs in discourse and the motifs in the text itself.

            Furthermore, while Felman’s assertion that Wilson’s “ambiguity” stems from a “reduction of rhetoric” in the text appears on the surface to more closely reflect the obscure and silent nature of the ghosts of Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel, such ambiguity, an avoidance of “vulgarity,” in the surrounding discourse about the text more accurately aligns with attributes of the governess and her relationship with Miles. Felman cites James’s own words in the New York preface to The Turn of the Screw: “how was I to save that, as an intention on the part of my demon spirits, from the drop, the comparative vulgarity, inevitably attending…the offered example, the imputed vice”; and then she defines “vulgarity” as “the literal…[t]he literal is ‘vulgar’ because it stops the movement constitutive of meaning, because it blocks and interrupts the endless process of metaphorical substitution” (Felman 206). James draws a connection between the avoidance of vulgarity, to “my demon spirits,” the natures of which reflect such obscurity, as never once in his story do the ghosts speak, nor are their intentions ever revealed. This ambiguity is reflected in the discourse surrounding the story; however, insofar as the varying Freudian interpretations only reflect the ambiguity of the ghosts, Felman appears to overlook the manner in which ambiguity operates in the discourse itself.

            Such ambiguity more closely relates to the governess, not only in traits attributed to her being, but also in her relationship with Miles. As Felman writes, “‘vulgar’…stops the movement constitutive of meaning…it blocks and interrupts the endless process of metaphorical substitution” (206). Throughout the course of James’s story, the governess, frequently “stops the movement.” When the governess first comes across the ghost of Quint on the tower, she delays describing the encounter: “He did stand there!–but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower…This tower was one of a pair–square incongruous crenellated structures–that were distinguished…” (James 15); the governess continues in a long-winded description of the tower rather than focusing on the ghostly encounter itself. This delaying of description further serves to obscure and make ambiguous the event itself, which is what also occurs in Freudian discourse, as Felman writes, “vulgarity thereby consists of the reduction of rhetoric as such, of the elimination of the indecision which inhabits meaning and of the ambiguity of the text” (Felman 206). There is a sense of control in such a notion: that a discourse is reliant on the “reduction of rhetoric,” the un-answerability of certain questions without speculation, draws connections between the relationship between the governess and Miles which itself is marked by a sense of control.  

            Also, while the notion of “tact” associated with Freudian discourse seemingly draws connections between the silence of the ghosts, it is in the governess that the role of “tact” seems to have a larger effect. Citing Freud, Felman writes, “Freud, like James, begins with a reminder that the validity of an interpretation is a function not only of its truth, but also of its tact:


‘Everyone will at once bring up the criticism that if a physician thinks it necessary to discuss the question of sexuality…he must do so with tact.’” (Felman 208).


This “tact” serves to ameliorate the “vulgarity,” the directness, of the discourse, and in the psychoanalytical reading, such tact is indeed that source of much ambiguity, as purported by Wilson in his essay. However, “tact,” as it pertains to the “keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense” (MW) reflects the governess in her relationships with both Mrs. Grose and the children. To “maintain good relations” the governess becomes obsessed with the children, particularly Miles, so as to assert her control over him. “Tact” for the governess is not as “keen” so much as it is oppressive in her ability to possess and use force to maintain “good” relations, something that invariably grows more intense as the story unfolds.

            Moreover, “tact” in the Freudian sense as it describes withholding straightforwardness so as to mitigate insensitivity especially in regards to sexuality, also mirrors the governess’s narration, both verbally and physically. As Felman details, tact is a crucial method in approaching a subject such as sexuality; however, what such a method ultimately entails is not a more respectful sense of sensitivity but rather an obscuring of the subject itself. Felman writes, “Sexuality, says Freud, is not to be taken in its literal, popular sense: in its analytical extension, it goes ‘lower and also higher’ than its literal meaning” (Felman 208). Such a metaphor calls to mind the first words of the governess’s story: “I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops” (James 6). The image of “flights and drops,” is a frequently returning motif throughout the story, as is the dichotomy of position, the differences in physical heights–often the governess is seen on at a lower position than the ghosts, such as when she first sees Peter Quint who stands on the tower turret (James 15) and again later when she looks down from the second floor to see him standing about midways down the staircase (James 39). It is in these moments where the reflections in discourse overlap; it is only in that the positions of the ghosts and the governess are shared, that the spatial dynamic between them mirrors the idea of “tact” being “lower and also higher.” The angle that one approaches the discourse, and in turn the text as well, ultimately renders the same dynamic–the structure of narration correlates to the structure of interpretation.

            It is in these structural connections that Felman’s response to the wave of interpretation spawned by Wilson’s psychoanalytical reading loses its strength. There are indeed many connections between the discourse–its various motifs, arguments, and points–and the ghosts of the Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel; however, subtler but more significant in discourse are the reflections of the governess herself. A Freudian reading of the story, as Wilson’s essay encapsulates, ultimately revolves around the psychology of the governess herself, and in the debates which resulted from such ideas, so too are the dynamics of discourse reminiscent of the governess herself. It is in the repetition of discursive motifs, in the avoidance of “vulgarity”, and in the “tact” associated with sexuality, that a structural connection between text and criticism is ultimately constructed, one that in turn reveals the interminable mastery of one of James’s most important works.   










Work Cited

Felman, Shoshana. “Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation)” The Turn of the Screw. Edited by Deborah Esch and Jonathan Warren, 2nd Norton Critical Edition. 1999.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Edited by Deborah Esch and Jonathan Warren. 2nd Norton Critical Edition. 1999.

“Tact.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 18 Feb. 2021.