What do Parsifal and The Turn of the Screw have in common?

March 11, 2013 at 1:46 am (books, Music, opera)

Yes I know – Parsifal again. This is the final post touching on the subject of that opera, I promise!

6231207905_01fbc4de71_z  First – let me explain the above title. I’m currently listening to The Turn of the Screw, written in 1898 by Henry James. I listen to it in the car, and since I only drive short distances, I’m getting it in discreet chunks. No matter – I’ve listened to this recording (narrated by Flo Gibson) before, and I’ve read the book at least three times. I’ve seen “The Innocents,”  the terrific (in the literal sense of the word) 1961  film version starring Deborah Kerr. I’ve seen a film version (not sure which one)  of the opera by Benjamin Britten. All of this has taken place over the course of many years, decades actually.

So, as you can see, I’ve been trying for a long time to get to the bottom of it, to uncover the truth about what really happened at Bly – or at least, to decide once and for all what I believe happened.  From time to time, I feel the need to revisit The Turn of the Screw.You could say that this ghost story has haunted me for the better part of my life (and I know I’ve got plenty of company, in that regard).

Every time I revisit this maddening tale, I become aware of some new element. This time, the insistence on propriety and conventional appearance seems almost grating. When, for instance, it is learned that little Flora has gone out on her own, Mrs. Grose immediately exclaims, “Without a hat?” Flora, upon seeing the governess and Mrs Grose, is moved in her own turn to ask where their “things” are. The early emphasis on the sweetness and innocence of the children recalls Victorian sentimentality on the subject. Of course, this serves to heighten the contrast between the governess’s initial impression and her growing suspicions that the innocence of Miles and Flora has been fatally compromised by the forces of evil personified by the ghostly emanations of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.

Whenever I am once again immersed in The Turn of the Screw, I begin looking for interesting commentary. In an essay called “Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,” M. Slaughter paraphrases the critic Edmund Wilson as follows: “James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.” That’s a subject for an entire book in and of itself. I will say that the aspects of James’s sexuality discussed by Michael Gorra in his magnificent book Portrait of the Novel were, for me, enlightening but not really surprising. I don’t want to go further into the subject at this point, but I’d like to quote here what Gorra says about a review James wrote of  Nana, written in 1880 by Emile Zola. The novel contains a good deal of frank description of the protagonist’s body and sexual practices.

[James] writes of the book’s “foulness,” but says almost nothing about what it actually contains. He doesn’t tell his readers that Nana is about a teenaged actress who drains the purses of her lovers, sleeping her way from success to success in an ever-unsatisfied frenzy; who seems happy only in a lesbian affair, and who late in the novel is startled to find herself pregnant, having so used “her sexual parts . .  . for other purposes” that she has forgotten they can still make babies. James writes about none of that. Even as a critic he can’t help but observe the distinction between that which he knows and that which he can admit that he knows.

henryjamesportrait  Having come to Paris in 1875, Henry James  was spending a considerable amount of time in the company of the greatest French writers of the day, Zola, Flaubert, and de Maupassant among them. Here’s what Michael Gorra says about the latter: “Guy de Maupassant wrote hundreds of short stories, many of them so frank in their account of sexual life that few young persons in England would have been allowed to read them.” So yes, there must have been a fairly wide gap between what James knew, and what he was able to acknowledge knowing. And as for what he could write about, that gap was much wider. He shared that reserve regarding sex with virtually all American and British writers of the late Victorian era. Even so, his reticence strikes the contemporary reader as extreme. Ironically, this need to approach the subject by the most oblique of routes often adds to the power of his writing rather than diminishing it (at least, it seems so to me).


Recently, my search for online commentary yielded a particularly pleasing result: a blog post, dated July 2011,  entitled “‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Innocents.'” The author modestly calls himself The Argumentative Old Git (“…it’s best to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you!”). And on the sidebar, what do mine eyes behold under the rubric “Recent Posts” but this: “Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’: some confused thoughts of a layman.”     Recent indeed: this was posted this past Sunday March 3, one day after the Parsifal marathon attended by my friends and me.

Turns out that “The Argumentative Old Git” is actually Himadri, an operational research analyst who lives with his family near London. As for the ‘old’ part – he is in his early fifties. (Hah! If only….)  Given our similar interests, and the fact that he lives in Britain, I would be pleased to think of Himadri as a kindred spirit (oh my gosh, I just saw the post on Hamlet!), except that he is obviously a much deeper thinker (not to mention better writer) than I am. Ah well – I am very glad to have found this blog. I have a great deal of juicy content to catch up on, and I intend to be a regular reader from now on.


I have just received my CD of Jonas Kaufmann singing verismo arias. I am enjoying it greatly:

Jonas Kaufmann also has a recently released CD featuring the music of Richard Wagner:

Finally, I really got a kick out of the cover design for  this CD. I believe that Friedrich’s “Wanderer’ is often thought of as the emblem of the German Romanticism that flourished in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The era, in other words, of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven.


Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – Caspar David Friedrich, 1818



I finished listening to The Turn of the Screw earlier today. I had to pull over to the curb and just sit and listen. Surely that last sentence is one of the most shattering in all of fiction.

It took a few minutes before I could continue driving. I was very close to home, you see,  but I had to wait for my heart to stop pounding.

I can’t say for sure, but this may be the last time I revisit The Turn of the Screw. At this point in my life, I need something redemptive – something like Parsifal.  Wagner_parsifal_0184402


  1. argumentativeoldgit said,

    Hello Roberta,
    First of all, thank you very much for those very flattering comments.
    I agree with you about Jonas Kaufmann. Back in 2006, before he was the superstar he is now, we heard him at the Edinburgh Festival in a concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. I am not, I must admit, a committed Wagnerian, and I remember going into that concert with some trepidation. But as we approached the end, it didn’t seem long enough! Kaufmann was in resplendent voice: I have heard many recordings of this work, but I have never heard he role of Walther sung quite so well as that.

    Incidentally, Kaufmann’s recording of Schubert’s Die Schoene Muellerin seems to me quite exceptional. The whole recording is up on YouTube.

    All the best for now, Himadri

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Hi, Himadri,
      Thanks for telling me about Die Schoene Muellerin on YouTube. What a thing of beauty it is!

      I’m somewhat of a reluctant Wagnerite myself, but my older brother is a very ardent lover of all things Wagner. He’s been to a number of Ring Cycle performances, including one last summer in Munich. In 1969, he, my younger brother, and my parents went to Bayreuth.

      Oh – and I’m still brooding over The Turn of the Screw – nothing new for me!

      I don’t suppose you’re a fan of crime fiction, at all?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: