“Like the Spring of a Beast”: Traumatological Haunting in “The Turn of the Screw”

By Catherine Redpath and Philip Redpath.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Current debates surrounding canonical literary trauma theory focus on the “unutterable” nature of the traumatic experience and how this is presented in the text. It is our contention that this critical position marginalises the centrality of the physical body as a marker of experience, that the body “speaks as it endures”. By foregrounding bodily representations in the text, this will allow for a re-working of traumatology in the humanities, which we argue has become self-limiting. This paper will suggest a new reading of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, whereby the psycho-sexual trauma recounted in the text is not located with the ghosts, Quint and Jessel, but is tranfered onto the bodies of the children, Miles and Flora. The ghosts, literally the spectres, carry a weight of signification in that they are literally “encrypted” and demand decoding. “Spectre” also implies “to see” (speculum) and also to speculate “to gamble” or “to think”. What is speculated on here is meaning. The ghosts’ spectral being is repositioned (rethought) onto the physical bodies of the children by the governess and they therefore become the sites (sights) on which the trauma is played out. Meaning has little to do with the existence of the ghosts, who are “unutterable”, but on the corporeal existence of the children. Corporeal signifies “corpse”, children and ghosts become sites of battle for the governess’s gamble on meaning. Meaning, finally, is unspeakable and the final spectator of this textual drama is the reader, left with a text that encrypts meaning without positing a final signified.

Keywords: Trauma Theory, Literary Theory, Hauntology, Derrida, Henry James, Ghosts

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 9, Issue 12, pp.241-250. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 772.212KB).

Dr. Catherine Redpath

Senior Lecturer in English, Faculty of Media and Humanities, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincolnshire, UK

Dr. Philip Redpath

Senior Lecturer in English, Media and Humanities, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincolnshire, UK


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