Tag Archive | Friedrich Engels

From Theory to Literature: Henry James

Henry James wrote the quintessential novel and buried it in the most dizzying quagmire. His method, however, was admired by many turn-of-the-century authors including Joseph Conrad. James drizzled intricate structure, sustained irony, and the sophisticated manipulation of point of view all over The Turn of the Screw. Unlike Conrad’s novels whose settings journeyed all over the world, James remained locked on the British social and economic scene and layered the social-economic structure from the wealthiest (the owner of the mansion) to the poorest (servants). This short paper intends to apply Marxist Literary Criticism to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw as it explores important concepts in that theory: “from theory to literature.”

One of the notable Marxists, Friedrich Engels, would probably applaud James for attempting to hide his own opinions for the betterment of art. As cultured and as highly educated as James was, he attempted to bring about other realities: culturally, economically, socially, and gender wise, far removed from his own circumstances. On the contrary, Marxism would decry such an attempt. “Marxist literary criticism maintains that a writer’s social class, and its prevailing ‘ideology’ (outlook, values, tacit assumptions, half-realised allegiances, etc.) have a major bearing on what is written by a member of that class.”

According to Peter Barry’s interpretation, instead of Marxists seeing authors as primarily autonomous “inspired“ individuals whose “genius“ and creative imagination enables them to bring forth original and timeless works of art, the Marxist sees authors as constantly formed by their social contexts in ways which they themselves would usually not admit.

Applying The Turn of the Screw to Marxist criticism (or vice versa), it is imperative to acknowledge the significance of social and economic factors. As indicated earlier, the story is populated by the lower class: Mrs. Grose and an assortment of hired help, living or dead. Despite her attempt to see herself differently as above all the others in the house, and by virtue of her not being a relation, a guest, a mistress, nor a servant, the governess is still in the lower class because she received financial benefits.

Marxist theory sees progress coming about through the struggle for power between different social classes. There was a stream of conflicts in the novel: between the governess and Miles, between the governess and Flora, between the governess and Mrs. Grose, and between the governess and the ghosts. Additionally (and according to Marxism), one social class always exploits the other. Miles’ uncle has economic, social, and political advantage over the governess and all the people working for him, even if the power is from afar. The machination he put in place and set in motion churns in his absence to ensure that all parties contribute to the success of his home management and his peace of mind.

The result of this exploitation, according to Marxism, is the “alienation” of the worker (the governess) who performs “tasks whose nature and purpose ‘she’ has no overall grasp.” The governess finally confesses to not wanting to prolong “the fiction that I had anything more to teach him.” She had no overall grasp anymore as Miles’ teacher, caregiver, and protector. She knew she no longer possessed the skill necessary to teach Miles. She has been, according to Marxism, “deskilled.”

To Mrs. Grose (who is below her class by education, station, and by birth), the governess enjoys the conflict tremendously by becoming sarcastic, insulting, and by using tacit invectives. Class dynamics and conflicts are very prevalent and critical in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Sometimes the references are implicit. Other times they are immersed in dialogue. Even though the governess is of Victorian gentility, she is heavily exploited and is thrust into extremely demanding expectations and roles which cause her alienation and her ultimate breakdown.

Although Karl Marx and Engels themselves did not put forward any comprehensive theory of literature, other Marxists did. Marx and Engels’ views, Barry notes, seem relaxed and undogmatic: “Good art always has a degree of freedom from prevailing economic circumstances…” Henry certainly created a piece of good art in The Turn of the Screw.