The Turn of the Square

     Henry James can write from the viewpoint of a woman like no other American novelist I know. And though his women often come to gain some sense of who they are, a sense of self if you will, the means by which they reach this epiphany are varied and, truth be told, not always beneficial to the heroine. Take for example the central characters in two of James's shorter novels, Washington Square (1880) and The Turn of the Screw (1898). Both of the female protagonists are psychologically dependent on men, Catherine Sloper on Morris Townsend and the governess on the mysterious uncle of Flora and Miles. At the end of both novels, following their respective revelations, however, Catherine has survived and indeed exorcised her demons by rejecting Morris, while the governess will deal with the death of Miles and her own questionable sanity for the remainder of her life.

     Washington Square may indeed be an early case of proto-feminism. Catherine, dominated by her father, seeks fulfillment through the affections of Morris Townsend, a young suitor. Abused mentally by her father, who is disgusted by her inability to live up to the image of his dead wife, and Morris, whom she discovers wants to marry her simply for her money.

     Catherine takes her revenge by shunning her father at his death and then refusing Morris's second proposal of marriage. The 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, based on the work, more clearly dramatizes the mental transformation that Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) has undergone. Once she realizes that the men in her life see her as a doll, and not even an attractive one, she displays inner strength by holding them off. Morris's (Montgomery Clift) rapping on her locked door and calling to her as the movie ends is an unforgettable scene. She is finished with sex, the act and the male gender as a whole. She is reborn, a Phoenix rising from the ashes of an abusive relationship.

     The governess who tells the story in The Turn of the Screw, filmed in 1961 by Jack Clayton, however, crumbles and collapses into a heap of ash as the story ends. She (Deborah Kerr on screen) has found herself, and the person she sees is that of a hallucinating and paranoid woman confused by fantasies of a man she met for maybe two hours. Her projected mental instability eventually brings about the death of one of the children she is looking after. James implies that it is she who needs to be taken care of at the end of the novel. The caretaker has been the one in need of supervision. Away from the society that Catherine Sloper was involved with, the governess has what might be called a case of cabin fever. Her only adult companion is the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins in the film). Her relationship with the children is so sycophantic that she cannot possibly confide in them her impending derangement. Finally she cracks and when she does, her disillusionment is so real, that it affects the house. Miles (Martin Stephens in the movie) dies as does the governess' sanity.

     Although they are not his most famous or longest works, Henry James displays a verbal acuity, a grasp of plot and character, and an insight into the mind of a woman in Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw that is quite remarkable. The films that were spawned by the books reflect and dramatize to a greater degree the pros and cons of self discovery. James never gets formulaic. His characters' fates are deserved. His reputation as the greatest American novelist of the late nineteenth-century is deserved.

Jonathan Sircy

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