The Use of Mimetic and Diegetic Narrative Modes in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

In the telling of a story, there are two narrative modes, mimetic and diegetic. Barry discusses Genette’s classification of modes and the roles that each role plays in a story. He says, “‘Mimesis’ means ‘showing’ or ‘dramatising,’ and is a “slow telling” which creates “the illusion that we are ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ things for ourselves.” He goes on to define diegetic as “‘telling’ or ‘relating'” to give the reader “a more ‘rapid’ or ‘summarising’ way” to tell, instead of show, the reader what has happened (Barry p. 223).

In The Turn of the Screw, James uses both narrative modes to move the reader through the story, but uses the diegetic mode more liberally. The first chapter of the book provides a great example. Aside from a peppering of the mimetic mode to allow dialogue between Douglas and the other guests, the unknown narrator moves the reader quickly through two days of time while waiting for the manuscript. The best example of diegetic use is the unknown narrator’s summary of the background plot of Douglas’s story. He states this background, “really required for a proper intelligence a few words of prologue” (James). The lengthy paragraphs move the reader through years of time and complex familial relations.

The remainder of the book follows this same pattern. James uses a primarily diegetic mode for the governess to allow for an inside look at her mind, covering what the reader would normally see, and also pass a great deal of time in a relatively brief summary.

For example, after the governess was tricked by the children to be distracted while Miles made his way outside, she spends the majority of chapter XI talking in a diegetic mode which covers the evening and actions of the children’s deception. Only the closing of the chapter reverts to a mimetic mode for a dialogue between Miles and the governess, which really only covers a few details explaining why and how he went outside. If the entire chapter had been written out in mimetic mode, showing how every event transpired, it would take a novel within itself!

In closing, mimetic and diegetic modes play to the needs of the story. A mimetic mode allows for detail and intimacy, while a diegetic mode allows for covering more information and taking in more broad stroke details. While James uses both modes to tell the story, he relies heavily on a diegetic mode to summarize events and ideas, and move the reader from one plot in the story to the next.

Considering I am learning literary theory, please comment on this, and other literary related pieces, to help me grasp these concepts more easily. Thanks for reading!


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