Colm Tóibín’s ‘The Master’ – Ambiguity and Sexuality


Colm Tóibín’s The Master has been awarded a litany of honours including; being shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize, receiving the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year Award and, in France, Le prix du meilleur livre étranger in 2005. The novel has eleven chapters which are labelled from January 1895 to October 1899. These mark significant dates within the life of Henry James. The resulting effect of the novel is that it imparts an image of the author as a bachelor with unresolved sexuality. Tóibín details how James was appalled by the Oscar Wilde case while he simultaneously repressed his own self and his own sexuality. This suppression comes to define James and is ultimately the most effective aspect of the novel in that Tóibín manages to successfully portray the spectrum of sexuality that exists which complicates an easy categorisation of James as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or indeed asexual. A case could be made for each of those categories but Tóibín allows us access to James’s intricate interior monologue (the result of extensive research) and makes no grand claims to have managed to pigeonhole the author which his inherent complexity automatically resists.

Henry James

 Besides the treatment of James’ complex sexuality, Tóibín mirrors much of James’  own literary techniques as I will examine by a comparison with James’ The Turn of the  Screw (1898). The supernatural elements of James’ stories, their ambiguity and  overall narrative structure are all subtly employed by Tóibín in The Master.  Admittedly, I struggled to accept such an attempt given my prejudice that any author  who attempts to write like another will most likely fail. In spite of my doubts, it is  undeniable that the aspects of James’ novella which I admire most; slippages, gaps,  turnings of meaning, and voids, all characterise The Master in a similar manner.  However, they are arguably not employed to the same extent or effect. These  techniques create a deep sense of uncertainty and ambiguity. James uses the blanks in  his novella to deliberately avoid creating a coherent pattern and this serves to place the  reader outside of understanding the events occurring. Beginnings and endings are  systematically blanked out and many chapters suddenly break off at points of crisis. We see this in The Master also when the events following crises are reported subsequently or indirectly. This creates the impression that characters (such as the governess in Turn of the Screw) are not simply recalling the events but are instead remembering remembering those events. This calls the reliability of the first-person narrator into question. For instance, if we were to take the governess as a reliable interpreter of events, we would gain one version of the story, but through viewing her as an unreliable, neurotic fabricator of non-existent ‘ghosts of the mind’ we are then reading a diametrically opposed narrative.

 Trying to answer the unanswerable question of whether or not there are really ghosts at Bly is how James draws the reader into dealing personally with the text. The introductory chapter creates the expectation that we will be hearing a real ghost story about the appearance of supernatural beings to two children. The narrative which follows this however refuses to satisfy the reader given that the fallibility of the governess calls into question the entire story being told. Douglas’ description of the governess also raises questions as to whether he is as capricious as she is. He tells us that ’she was a most charming person’ and that ‘she was the most agreeable woman [he] had ever known in her position.’ Given that the subsequent narrative does not correspond with this appraisal of her, seeds of doubt are embedded, intensifying the ambiguous nature of the novel.

The absence of a final framing device leaves meaning entirely open. We are left uncertain as to whether the Governess suffocated Miles out of fear, does a ghost control her, or is it an intentional act. The sense of psychological fear embeds the conclusion with the point James makes about how the mind can play tricks when it does not fully understand or cannot fully process events. There is just enough information to set the mind racing, but not enough detail to fully make sense of things.

James intentionally leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied at the end of the novel. This forms a sense of unease and discomfort. I would argue that Tóibín does something similar by; on the one hand, giving us what can be seen as a straightforward story of an author’s life, while on the other, the novel can be seen as a deliberate attempt to force the audience to read between the lines and question what it is the story is about. James wrote that the writing and reading of fiction was an ethical project, that the effort really to see and really to represent is no idle business in face of the constant force that makes for muddlement. This can certainly be applied to The Master.


Works Cited:

– Henry James. Digital image. The New Yorker. N.p., 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

– Mars-Jones, Adam. “Review of ‘The Master'” The Guardian. N.p., 22 Feb. 2014. Web. 8 Feb. 2015.

– “The Master (novel).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 08 Feb. 2015.

– Tóibín, Colm. The Master. London: Picador, 2004. Print.

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