Unhinging the familiar: The uncanny in Henry James’s The turn of the screw

The Turn of the Screw (1898) is one of the most Gothic short stories ever written by modernist author Henry James. Its effect on the reader can be quite unnerving, uncanny even. Though Sigmund Freud’s essay on The Uncanny (1919a) has often been used by scholars of Gothic literature to define and explain certain thematic aspects of these stories (the double, castration anxiety, repetition compulsion, and so on), the uncanny in The Turn of the Screw goes further than the usual suspects. Rather then confining it to the eerie appearance of ghosts or the declining mental state of the tale’s female narrator, the uncanny in James’s complex story can be traced back to something more fundamental that is both tangible and elusive at the same time: the actual text supporting the story – or failing to do so. Reconsidering Freud’s notion of the uncanny from a basic Lacanian perspective will help to explore a dark, distressing dimension of textual language that can otherwise be easily overlooked.