The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Publisher: Dover Thrift, 87 pages
What it’s about:
Perhaps you know the gist of the story: naïve, love-starved governess seeks countryside post teaching suspiciously angelic children who are wards of a handsome, mysterious, unavailable (emotionally as well as geographically) landowner.
The novella opens in a fireside gathering of friends eager to share ghost stories. The women are particularly thirsting for bloody and gory narratives. The host explains the author of the manuscript he holds is from his sister’s former governess, now dead. He then reads her tale. It seems the governess, after two interviews with a mysterious man, accepts the position and travels to Bly, an English country estate. The impressionable governess falls in love with the handsome uncle though he seems to want nothing to do with her or with his niece and nephew.
At Bly, the governess meets the housekeeper Mrs. Grose and her charges Miles and Flora. In no time, the governess finds herself caring deeply for the children even though she worries that something is amiss.
They are simply too perfect.
She has reason to worry. Miles’s school sends a letter expelling him for unspecified causes and Miles admits that he can be bad. Mrs. Grose believes a “too free” Peter Quint has corrupted the boy. Peter Quint was the valet and lover of the former governess Miss Jessel, both now dead. Soon, the governess is visited by the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and comes to believe that they harbor evil intentions toward the children. However, no one else at Bly admits to witnessing the visitations. So, are these visitations a love-struck, neurotic governess’s imaginings, or is the worst kind of evil afoot?
What I thought:
The narrator governess (and even this telling is remote as we are supposedly reading a decades-old text whilst we gather round our host’s hearth) reminded me of Hamlet both in her prevarication and, to a lesser degree, in the consequences of her final decisions.
Like Hamlet, she poses question after question. Do I dare? More to the point, when and how? Are the ghosts’ intentions mischievous or malevolent? Are the apparitions real or imaginary? (In truth, the narrator never asks herself this one.) The children innocent or possessed? As a parent, whenever my children are too perfect, too quiet, too agreeable, that’s the time to investigate.
Meanwhile, the reader has questions of her own. Why is the uncle so remote and unconcerned about his young relatives’ welfare? Can I trust this narrator? Is the governess nuts (an industry term), sexually repressed, or merely an unfortunate caught up in otherwordly machinations beyond her control? Even the title gives off sexual overtones among its many meanings. I remember seeing this novella in my seventh grade classroom and hearing titters from the (mostly) male students. Then there’s the ending—abrupt and ambiguous—no tidy epilogue bookend here to go with the fireside prologue at the beginning.
As far as recommendations go, if you are the kind of person who enjoys ambiguity and subtle psychological meanderings, then you should pick this one up. If, on the other hand, you are of the peas-are-peas-and-carrots-are-carrots persuasion, then this novel might drive you as crazy as some have professed James’ narrator to be. Aside from that, The Turn of the Screw belongs in the canon of ghost literature, written by a master 19th century writer, inspiring many ghost novelists to come. See Maybe This Time.
For me, it was interesting to read this ghost story with its troubled (interpret this word as you will) narrator and nuanced shadings immediately after perusing The Heart-Shaped Box, a book which leaves no doubt about the veracity of its storyteller or the evil of its demon-ghost.