Specifically, this post is the result of my having the abrupt urge to compare/contrast Toni Morrison’s Beloved with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which is a thing that didn’t occur to me in American novels class because they were in two different courses. And it’s even belatedly Halloweeny because they are both ghost stories.
To sum up, The Turn of the Screw is a Victorian Realist ghost story, the crux of which is an unreliable narrator. And James stacks the unreliability higher by putting the ghost tale within a frame tale: the story we hear is a written account (written years after the event) being read by an acquaintance of the narrator. But on the flip side, James also provides evidence that prevents us as writing the narrator off as just cray-cray. And even if I were to spoil the ending, I would still encourage people to read it because the fun is in the ride. The first time I read Turn of the Screw, I believed the narrator, while on the second reading for the novels class, I spent the reading poking at all the holes in her assumptions.
To give you a quick rundown of the plot, the scene opens on a Victorian English Christmas party, and apparently it was a Victorian tradition to tell ghost stories during Christmas, because the Victorians were morbidly creepy-ass motherfuckers. And so one man reticently volunteers a story, explaining his connection to the narrator, who was his sister’s governess. He brings out the written account and then we are shifted to the first-person account itself. Our narrator at the time was taking her first post as a governess, all alone with the two children in a strange house because their uncle couldn’t be arsed to do more than the bare minimum about the kids. And she grows convinced that the ghosts of the absentee uncle’s former valet and the previous governess are haunting the house and trying to ensnare the children.
Oh, and the education majors were pissed at this book because James was knew little to fuck-all about child development and wrote gratingly implausible children. But they actually hated Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage far more because that child character was using mawkish toddlerspeak (“Ah wuv ‘oo”) despite being described as six years old. At least James’s implausible children are absurdly mature instead of absurdly braindead.
Beloved, despite being written roughly a century later, is set at about the same time, in the late-ish Victorian age, but in the American version, after the Civil War. Beloved, however, is magical realism as opposed to James’s Realism (which I generally capitalize to distinguish it from the commoner connotations of “realist”). So what’s the difference between Realism and magical realism? The easiest one to describe is PRESENTATION.
Or, in other words, the narrative.
But magical realism isn’t like urban fantasy: the magical parts are not even the point and tend to be subtler. It’s all about the symbolism. (SYMBOLISM, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!!!) In Beloved, the magical bits are mostly in the atmosphere of morbid-ass crazy.