Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child."


Henry James takes the reader through a maze of ambiguity with a story that will leave you none the wiser but better for trying to figure it out.  Also, be prepared to take some time settling in to his writing style of outrageously long sentences and more commas than you can shake a stick at.

The Turn of the Screw opens with friends gathered in front of a roaring fire and sharing ghost stories on Christmas Eve as was tradition during the Victorian era.  Douglas has received a manuscript from his sister's governess upon her death and during this gathering he shares her bizarre and frightening story.

The governess was hired to care for two children, Miles, who is ten and his sister, Flora, who is eight.  Their parents are dead and their uncle basically has no interest in their day to day existence.  Both children are extremely well behaved and attractive so at first glance the position of governess doesn't appear to be a particularly taxing one.  That is until we find out that Miles has been expelled from school for an unspeakable crime which no one will relay anything about.  And then there is the appearance of two figures, Peter Quint, a valet and Miss Jessel, the former governess.  They really shouldn't be showing up at the house as they are quite dead.

The fun bit of the story is trying to solve the riddle about whether or not the governess is absolutely stark raving mad, the children are evil or these three are being terrorized by ghosts.  My initial thought was that perhaps a sinister game was being played on the governess to drive her away.  After all, how many times does this plot present itself in fiction?  Quite regularly.  Further along in the story though, I began to feel the absolute horror and fear that Miles was desperately keen to hide.  So much so that he was making himself ill.

My theory, and there are a few out there, is that Miles could have witnessed something sexual between Quint and Miss Jessel and relayed the event to friends at school.  Given the nature of the story and the social mores of the time it would explain why no details were forthcoming from the school.  The ghosts were appearing to remind the children to keep quiet about what they knew.  Miles was being pressured by his governess to tell the truth and Quint was ever-present warning him not to.  Miss Jessel weeps with her head in her hands as though ashamed.  In the end, stress and fear kill Miles.

It is easy to see how analysing every sentence of this story could become an obsession for those desperate to reach a definitive conclusion.  I was tempted to turn back to the first page and start a spread sheet sorting out the episodes, conversations and comments myself.  A stack of books to read made me come to my senses but I'd really be interested in hearing from anyone who has their own theory about what James was getting at here. 
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is my contribution to the RIP VI challenge.  I was also hoping to read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill but a customer at the library seems keen not to give up our lone copy.  I'm tempted to park a rocking chair outside of his front window...and if you're familiar with the story you know how frightening that would be.


  1. Love your post! I like the last bit particularly! nice to read this on a busy morning before I start work!!!

  2. Yes this is brilliant story and as you say so ambiguous that no two people will come to the same conclusion about it. I think this was deliberate on James's part -- he wanted to leave people wondering.
    Have you seen the film, made in the early 1960s I think, and called The Innocents? It is wonderful and extremely scary.

  3. Mystica, Glad you enjoyed it. Enjoy your day!

    harriet, It reminded me of all the discussion surrounding Sarah Waters' book, The Little Stranger. Fun and frustrating all at the same time!
    I've never heard of that film but I will definitely be on the lookout for it. There is an adaptation from 1999 with Colin Firth and Pam Ferris on the internet though. Plan on watching that this weekend!

  4. Great post! Each time I read The Turn of the Screw, I have a different sense of what may have happened. Hope The Woman in Black is returned soon... I just LOVED that book.

  5. I completely failed with Turn of the Screw, but I did read it between 10pm and midnight, during a novella reading weekend where I'd read six other books.. perhaps not the best way to tackle James' infamously long sentences!

  6. Oh my, I must read this book. A long time ago I saw a dramatic production of "The Turn of the Screw" at The Mount, Edith Wharton's home in Lenox, Massachusetts. It was really spooky and we saw it around Halloween. But I don't remember much about it as it was so long ago. After your review I will get this book tomorrow and read it in honor of Halloween.

  7. JoAnn, Did you know Daniel Radcliffe is in a film adaptation of The Woman in Black? It's coming out in February and the trailer looks it should be!

    StuckInABook, What were you thinking!? The first third of the book was the most work so I can see how things would have gone pear-shaped at that time of night. Try again at some point and hang in there, it's worth it!

    Sunday Taylor, Oh good! I hope you're not influenced by my theory when you read the story. I will keep my eye out for your thoughts, enjoy!

  8. I've not read James but your review has intrigued me. This sounds a good seasonal read.