Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Happy Medium

A little over a century before the famous whisper of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999)-- "I see dead people"-- the American novelist Henry James writes a similarly eerie tale of ghosts and visions, "The Turn of the Screw" (1898). 

James' story is published a year after an even more famous novel that details the exploits of the Undead--Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).

As my previous post ("Hereafter") suggests, I'm really interested in representations of the figure of the medium.  I'm fascinated by people who see dead people, or who think that they see dead people, or who simply claim to see dead people so that they don't have to get a real job like the rest of us.

In Stoker's novel and James' story, respectively, the characters of Mina Harker and the Governess at Bly both try to transcribe and comprehend what they've seen, heard, read and written.

In James' novella, a young woman accepts a strange assignment: a handsome London bachelor hires her as a governess for his niece and nephew and sends her to live at his country estate at Bly.   

The only job requirement is that she never contact him, ever, about anything, no matter what.  She is given permission to make all decisions involving the children and the household. 

Oddly enough, she seems to think that this means that the children's uncle might have a little thing for her.  Apparently, that's what guys do when they really like you: they give you a job that takes you miles and miles away from them and then tell you never to contact them.  (I think someone may need to tell this woman, "He's just not that into you.")

Soon after her arrival, the governess receives a letter announcing that the nephew has been expelled from school--for what, exactly, no one will say, and as it turns out, no one wants to ask either.  This is Victorian England, and people don't talk about such things (which of course leads everyone to speculate wildly about what exactly "such things" are.)

In the meantime, the governess begins to notice something strange.  She keeps seeing an unknown man hanging around the premises--walking back and forth on the tower and peering in the window.  She describes him to the housekeeper, who comes to the conclusion that the strange man is the uncle's former valet.

Except he's dead.

So too, as it turns out, is the little girl's previous governess, who coincidentally had an affair with the valet.  It's not long before the new governess begins seeing her as well.

Or so she says.  Ultimately, James' tale revolves around this uncertainty: is the governess slowly going crazy, or does she really see dead people?  And if so, what do they want, exactly?  Unlike Shyamalan's slightly more benevolent take on ghosts and the afterlife, in James' story, the ghosts, if they are "really" there, are up to no good.  They've come for the children.

Similarly, in Stoker's Dracula, the Count is quite horrifying.  When he orders take-out for his beautiful vampire-girlfriends, he brings back a baby for them to feast on.  When the baby's mother comes beating on the door of his castle, screaming for him to give her back her child, he sics the neighborhood wolves on her and quietly watches what they do.

So the role that the female protagonists play in James' story and Stoker's novel is quite significant.  They are not simply mediating between two worlds or two realms of possibility.  Their words shape the reader's ability to comprehend and interpret what may or may not be happening in situations in which it is possible that their otherworldly visitors may not be forces for good.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."