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Considered today a writer more popular with the critics than the general public, James nonetheless is one of the founders of the modern novel. His mature books including Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl and many short novels including what some consider to be the finest ghost story every written, The Turn of the Screw, place him at the forefront of contributors in terms of technical innovations regarding point of view. His influence on the next novel we will do, Heart of Darkness, was considerable. Locate a copy of Turn of the Screw: (online or print copy). Additionally, conduct some research to determine precisely the nature of James' contributions to the development of the novel. Don't forget "Student Curriculum Links," and the Table below for James resources on the web.

James' prose, by the way, is not easy to read. His compound-complex sentences can often run a page or more, and it is easy to lose the thought. Keep in mind that he used point of view ot "dramatize consciousness" and that his characters are not noted as much for what they do as what they think and feel. Imagine a John Donne sonnet that is book length.

You will need to read THE TURN OF THE SCREW more than once, and the following research recommendations are made...

Journal research: MLA, Modern Fiction Studies, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Henry James Review. Find at least two critical studies of the novel.

      Do not forget to use "ALADIN" and THE MLA
      from GALE GROUP

      There are two critics who have done the best work on James:

      1. Leon Edel
      2. F.O. Matthiessen.....find out what they wrote

      Locate a copy of The Notebooks of Henry James edited by Matthiessen and Murdock. The notebook entries made by James contain the "seeds" or "germs" that eventually became the novels.

      Be familiar with the literary vocabulary of fiction, especially point of view in the technical sense and the use of the kinds of irony.

      See: The Craft of Fiction by Lubbock


      From literary A bibliography of
      scholarly articles on Henry James.

      1. What are the conditions needed for art to thrive?
      2. What does the artist have in common with the painter and the historian?
      3. What does James believe regarding the didactic function of art?
      4. What " its broadest definition.." is a novel? Relate to what he notes in his Prefaces.
      5. What does James believe regarding the nature of experience and the craft of a novelist?
      6. What is the novice advised to do? Relate to the
        house of fiction" metaphor?
      7. What does James believe to be the relationship between character and incident?
      8. What must a novelist never do regarding what James calls "rearrangement"?
      9. Why does James oppose the classification of subject matter for the novelist?
      10. What makes a novelist moral for James?

THE ABOVE SHOULD BE EXAMINED IN LIGHT OF AMERICAN PRAGMATISM. Click here for a site that discusses the morality and epistemology of William James:
  1. What does James believe about the nature of truth, experience and ethics?
  2. What is his belief regarding the existence of God?

A Biography
of Henry James
Spark Notes for Turn of The Screw
The Henry James Review
Turn of The Screw (with search engine)
James and the Atlantic Monthly
Parkinson's The Turn of the Screw, A History of Its Critical Interpretations
1898 - 1979
Henry James' Scholars Guide to Web Sites
Classic Notes Study Guide to Turn of the Screw



James frequently introduced his novels with critical observations about the nature of fiction. These have been edited by James E. Miller in Theories of Fiction: Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 1972. Excerpts are presented below. Study these:



James asked what is behind plot, character, or setting and attempts to define that rather vague quality:

The following represents what James felt about life and thus serves as an important measure in determining the future of modern fiction in regards to morality and philosophy:

"Life is in fact a battle. On this point, optimists and pessimists agree. Evil is insolent and strong, beauty enchanting but rare, goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no evil dream of a night; we wake up again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. We can welcome experience as it comes, and give it what it demands. In exchange of something which it is idle to pause to call much or little so long as it contributes to swell the volume of consciousness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture that hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand."

"There is one point at which the moral sense and the artistic sense lie very near together; that is in the light of the very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer. In proportion as that intelligence is fine will the novel partake of the substance of beauty and truth. To be constituted of such elements is to have purpose enough.

James believed that a novel has merit if "...its foremost claim is its truth...its truth to something, however questionable that thing may be in point of morals or of taste. Life is dispiriting, art inspiring and a story-teller who aims at anything more than a fleeting success has no right to tell an ugly story unless he knows its beautiful counterpart. We care only for what is--we know nothing about what ought to be--human life is interesting because we are in it and of it...all sorts of curious things are taking place...the real is the most satisfactory thing in the world."


James argues that what a writer produces is contingent on his culture or the quality thereof: "Art blooms only where the soil is deep. The future of fiction is ultimately bound up with the future of the society that produces it."

James' most important definition of the novel is, "a novel is a personal and direct impression of life." James believed that a novel is good or bad according to the intensity of the impression it makes--how well it deals with human experience. Humanity is vast and complex and experience is thus never complete. He would advise the novelist to " one of the people on whom nothing is lost."

The key to a novel is the air of reality that it creates in producing an illusion of life. Art for James is to be selective in terms of the aspects of reality or human experience he wishes to write about, but part of this selectivity is to be inclusive. This suggests that the novel must deal with aspects of reality that many may not consider to be morally good. To be moral in writing is to be complete and faithful to human experience.

"Recognizing so promptly the one measure of the worth of a given subject, the question about that rightly answered disposes of all others--it is valid, in a word, it is genuine...that result of some direct impression or perception of life...The question comes back thus to the kind and degree of the artist's prime sensibility, which is the soil out of which his subject springs. The quality and capacity of that soil, its ability to grow with due freshness and straightness any vision of life, represents strongly or weakly the projected morality. Here we get exactly the high price of the novel as a literary form---its power not only, while preserving that form with closeness, to range through all the differences of the individual relation of its general subject-matter, all the variations of outlook on life and disposition to reflect and project, created by conditions that are never the same from man to man...but positively to appear more true to its characters in proportion as it strains or tends to burst, with a latent extravagance, its mold."

The house of fiction: --- has in short not one window but a million--a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures of dissimilar shape and size hang so, altogether, over the human scene that we might expect of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected...they are but windows at they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it as impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small and so on...There is fortunately no saying on what for the particular pair of eyes, the window may NOT open; "fortunately" by reason precisely, of this incalculability of range. The spreading, filling the human scene, is the "choice of subject"--the pierced aperture, either broad or slit...but there are, singly or together, nothing without the posted presence of the watcher--without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist. Tell me what the artist is, and I will tell you of what he has been conscious. Thereby I shall express to you at once the boundless freedom and the "moral" reference.


James could never understand those who took sides in the debate regarding the supremacy of plot or character in a novel. He argues that the distinction is stupid, because "character in any sense in which we can get at it is action and action is plot [recall Aristotle]. Any plot which hangs together, even if it pretend to interest us...plays upon our emotion, our suspense, by means of personal references. We care what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are."

Since it was James who turned the novel inward in terms of his ability to dramatize consciousness, modern fiction owes him a great debt in that regard. James argued that the artist creates a character as a result of inspiration..."from the moment the imagination takes a hand in the game, the inevitable tendency is to divergence, to follow what may be called new scents. The original gives hints, but the writer does what he likes with them, and imports new elements in to the picture."

Character creation for James is thus quite complex. Characters "...are interesting in fact, as subjects of fate, the figures round whom a situation closes, in proportion as, sharing their existence, we feel where fate comes in and just how it gets at them. In the void, they are not interesting."

James argues that a novel always undergoes transmutation in the writer's consciousness under the pressure and heat of imagination. James thinks that a character in a novel should not be contrasted with an incident or situation: "What is character but the determination of incident, and what is incident but the illustration of character?"

"Character in any sense that we can get at it is action, and action is plot." From this statement, James goes on to say that " of art are produced from every possible point of view, and stories will continue to be written in which the evolution is that of a dance--a series of steps the more complicated and lively the better, of course, determined from without and forming a figure. This figure will always find favor with many readers, because it reminds them enough without reminding them too much of life." Obviously James does not support that point of view. He demands that novel deal with what he called the dramatization of consciousness. This process is quite difficult. How do you take the complex workings of the mind and make them "appear" in a novel?

"No one has had a closer vision or a hand at once more ironic and more tender for the individual figure. He [a novelist whom James admires] sees it with the smallest signs and tricks-all its heredity of idiosyncrasies, all its particulars of weakness and strength, of ugliness and beauty, of oddity and charm; and yet it is of his essence that he sees it in the general flood of life, steeped in its relations and contacts, struggling or submerged, a hurried particle in the stream.

James argues that when he makes a character he goes his won way and makes imagines as he sees them [from his window in the house of fiction]. He elaborated: "I find it interesting to make out that whereas any anecdote about life pure and simple proceeds almost as of course from some good jog of fine fancy's elbow, a penciled note on someone else's case, so the material for any novel comes from the depth of the designer's own mind...the states represent the embarrassments and difficulties studied, the tragedies and comedies recorded, can be intelligibly fathered but on his own intimate experience."

"In a novel we crave the spectacle of that of which we may feel that we know it. The only lasting fictions are those which have spoken to the reader's heart, and not to his eye, those which have introduced him to an atmosphere in which it was credible that human beings might exist, and to human beings with whom he might feel tempted to claim kinship. When once a work is classified as a novel, its foremost claim to merit and indeed the measure of its merit is its truth--its truth to something however questionable that the thing might be in point of morals or of taste."

"But what is the condition of the truly great novelist? For him there are no alternatives, for him there are no oddities, for him there is noting outside of humanity. He cannot shirk it; it imposes itself upon him. For him alone, therefore, there is a true and a false; for him alone it is possible for him to be right, for it is possible for him to be wrong...the writer who knows men alone...will give us figures and pictures for which we cannot be too grateful, for he will enlarge our knowledge of the world. He must know man as well as men, and to know man is to be a philosopher."

"There is not such think in the world as an adventure pure and simple; there is only mine and yours--it begins the greatest adventure of all...just to be you or I..."

The "HE" in this passage refers to a central character in one of James' own novels: "He was to be the lighted figure [the character whose consciousness James chose to dramatize] ...the others were to be the obscured. I must have argued his tangle would be sensible enough, his interpretation at the window of his wide, quite sufficiently wide, consciousness we are seated...He therefore supremely matters, all the rest matters only as he feels it, treats it, meets it...I think the intensity of the creative effort to get into the skin of the creature; the act of personal possession of one being by another at its completest.."
James uses the term FICELLES for minor characters. The metaphor is of a fine thread used in making lace that serves as a trimming on a tablecloth. He also uses this: "Each of these persons are but wheels on a coach; neither belongs to the body of that vehicle or is for a moment accommodated with a seat inside. There the subject alone is ensconced. Half the dramatists' art is in the use of ficelles, by which I mean in a deep dissimulation of this dependence on them."

Dramatization of consciousness: This idea is central to James' theory of fiction and more than any other aspect, has influenced the growth of the novel as an art form devoted to psychological character development. "Of course it is execution that we are talking--that is the only point of a novel that is open to contention...we must grant the artist his subject, his idea,...our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.

When talking about one of the character is a novel he wrote, James observed: "from this center [the character's consciousness] the subject has been treated, form this center the interest has spread, and so, whatever else it may do nor may not do, thing has acknowledged a principle of composition and contrives at least to hang together...the center of interest throughout is his consciousness, and the drama is the very drama of that consciousness- I had of course to make sufficiently acute in order to enable it to hold the play. By seeing it acute, meanwhile, one made its n movement, or rather strictly, its movement in the particular connection interesting; this movement really being quite the stuff of one's thesis."

In his fiction James tended to draw a distinction between the pictorial (use of description which is static) and the dramatic (or the conversational). His novels consist of preparatory descriptive elements which serve to introduce and highlight a dramatic scene. He was concerned with rendering interior conflict in the dramatic mode by using dramatic dialogue and non-dramatic description. "I realized--none too soon--that the scenic (dramatic) method was my absolute my imperative, my only salvation. The march of an action is the thing for me to do, more and more, to attach myself to; it is the only thing."


James' major contribution to the modern novel deals with point of view or the relationship of the narrator to the material he writes. Actions he notes are of limited interest unless they deal with or are reflected in an engaged consciousness. Characters are interesting he believes only in terms of their ability to feel their respective situations.

"The figures in any picture are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations; since the consciousness on their part, of the complication exhibited forms for use their link of connection with it. But there are degrees of feeling...those being finely aware--as Hamlet and Lear say, are finally aware--makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the maximum sense to what befalls them."

"Experience as I see it is our appreciation and our measure of what happens to use as social creatures--any intelligent report of which has to be based on that apprehension. The picture of the exposed and entangled state is what is required, and always plenty of grounds for keeping down the complexities of a picture. A picture it still has to be, however, and by that condition has to deal effectively with its subject, so that the simple device of more and more keeping down may well not see us quite to our end or even quit to our middle...In the immediate field of life, for action, for application for getting through a job, nothing may so much matter perhaps as the descent of suspended weight on this, that or the spot, with all its subjective concomitants, quite secondary and irrelevant. But the affair of the painter is not the immediate, it is the reflected field of life, the realm not of application but of appreciation of it...I can't appreciate save by intimacy...intimacy with a man's specific behavior, with his given case, is certain to make us see it as a whole...What a man thinks and feels are the history and the character of what he does; on all of which things the logic of intensity rests. Without intensity where is vividness, and without vividness, where is presentability?"

"I confess I never saw the leading interest of any human hazard but in a consciousness...subject to fine intensification and wide enlargement. It is as mirrored in that consciousness that the gross their part for us...This means, exactly that the person capable for feeling in the given case more than another of what is to be felt for it, and so serving in the highest degree to record it dramatically and objectively,, is the only sort of person on whom we can count on not to betray, to cheapen or...give away the value and the beauty."

"The great chroniclers have clearly always been aware of this; they have at least always either placed a mind of some sort--in the sense of a reflecting and coloring medium--in the possession of the general adventure."

That provision for interest consists in placing advantageously placing right in the middle of the light, the most polished of possible mirrors of the subject. I should note the extent to which these characters are so far as their other passions permit, intense perceivers, all of their respective situations."

James also commented on the fact that multiple centers of consciousness in the same novel may be used--the term is called viewpoint characters.

ASSIGNMENT: locate and read by James, Turn of the Screw