February 21, 2005

"Owen Wingrave"

Since I am soon to teach Bernard Williams' "Internal and External Reasons," it behooves me to say this: I haven't seen the opera, but Henry James' ghost story "Owen Wingrave" is lame. Spoilers below the fold, such as they are.

The ghost story itself is about as hackneyed as they come. "There's an old family ghost, and a young man in the family is making an unpopular decision, and the rest of the family thinks he's a coward, so to show he's not he spends the night in the ghosty ghost room, and in the morning he's found--you'll never guess--DEAD!" Please.

Of course, James' ghost stories shouldn't necessarily be judged by the criteria we apply to lesser non-mortals; if he can attain some level of psychological depth in a story that turns on a device that is hackneyed, as ghost stories go, then it's a good story. But--and here I should be cautious, because I've only read the story once--I don't get that from this story. Wingrave refuses to enter the army, but not from cowardice, which his family is incapable of understanding--does it take a Henry James to tell this story? I much prefer "The Ghostly Rental," or "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes," or "Sir Edmund Orme" with its disquieting subtext, or definitely "The Turn of the Screw" with its even more disquieting etc. (And I think I left one out.)

Also, the details of "Owen Wingrave" harm Williams' point. Williams thinks Owen has no reason to join the army. But the fact that the family ghost is going to kill Owen if he doesn't join is a pretty big reason, which can be explained in terms of Owen's motivational set.

I do not intend to bring any of this up when teaching the essay.

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 21, 2005 03:29 PM

Yes, but the real joy of talking about "internal and external reasons" comes from mentally replacing "Owen's S" with "Owen's ass.".

Posted by: FL at February 23, 2005 04:02 PM

very annoying to write things on the board involving that S--especially since I tend to write too small.

btw, I can recall one of my joke-rescuing techniques. In my logic class I was making some jokes about how hard the test would be or some such. I then said "No one seems to find this as amusing as I do." This got a little response. Didn't keep me from getting jumped after class, of course.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at February 23, 2005 04:51 PM

Q: What's an existential quantifier?
A: An angst-ridden accountant.

Posted by: ben wolfson at February 25, 2005 09:46 AM