Wednesday, October 19, 2011
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
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.