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‘A Nest of Almost Infant Blackmailers’: The End of Innocence in ‘<i>The Turn of the Screw</i>’ and <i>De Profundis</i>

Michèle Mendelssohn

in Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture

Published by Edinburgh University Press

Published in print June 2007 | ISBN: 9780748623853
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780748651634 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/edinburgh/9780748623853.003.0007
‘A Nest of Almost Infant Blackmailers’: The End of Innocence  in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and De Profundis

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In the early 1880s, Henry James made the transatlantic aesthete his own despite the figure's increasing association with Oscar Wilde. Though James privately dissociated himself from Wilde's artistic, sexual and identity politics, vestigial markers remain apparent in James's fiction. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Wilde situated his art theory in reaction to that of James and James McNeill Whistler, defining an oppositional aesthetic through a process of imaginative review-as-revision that aimed to mitigate Realism's vivisectionist tendencies. This chapter marks the demise of Aestheticism and the beginning of James's decadent turn. First, it analyses the language of puerility and animality that pervades James's and Wilde's interaction. It then charts the manner in which, post-1895, both authors recuperate this idiom to describe an innocent and erotic child of power that radically undermines Aestheticism's moral stance. ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and De Profundis replicate and interrogate the unmitigated state of moral crisis that resulted from Wilde's trial. In this final crisis, both narratives radically reassess Aestheticism's central tenets, particularly its uncoupling of the aesthetic and the moral.

Keywords: Henry James; Oscar Wilde; Aestheticism; James McNeill Whistler; The Turn of the Screw; De Profundis; puerility; animality; moral crisis

Chapter.  16704 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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