The Turn of the Screw is Henry James’s famous gothic tale. Though a well - known book this is the first time that I have read it. I found this novella to be an odd but superbly crafted story. The only other book that I have read by James is The Portrait of a Lady. Though there were some similarities, especially with regards to James’s prose style, this book was very different in terms of plot and character development. Though unusual in some ways, I found that this was a creative tale that was well worth the read.
The story is framed as a manuscript. An unknown narrator is reading a first - person account of the experiences of a young governess who is now deceased. The narrator’s friend had purported to know the governess. The governess is a young woman who is hired by a man who has become responsible for his young niece and nephew after the death of their parents. The man wants nothing to do with the children and sends the governess out to a country estate to take charge of them.
The girl is named Flora and the boy is named Miles. Mrs. Grose is the housekeeper who befriends the governess. Shortly after her arrival the governess begins to see apparitions. With the help of Mrs. Grose, she surmises that the ghosts are Mr. Quint, the uncle’s former valet and Miss Jessel, the children’s former governess. Before their deaths, the pair were carrying on an affair. The children can see them too and the governess is convinced that the spirits are trying to draw the children into a web of evil. As the story goes on the pair of spirits continue to show themselves and it becomes apparent that they are indeed drawing the children into something. Both the governess and Mrs. Grose become more and more desperate to protect the siblings.
Like The Portrait of a Lady, James’s prose is complex here. His sentences are intricately constructed and contain a lot of dashes. As this is a first - person narrative the dashes are used to create the effect of a stream of consciousness. With that, James can write some very effective prose. In what I think is one of the best passages in the book, the governess describes an early encounter with the apparition Quint.
There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was— a few more seconds assured me— as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind. I had not seen it in Harley Street— I had not seen it anywhere. The place, moreover, in the strangest way in the world, had, on the instant, and by the very fact of its appearance, become a solitude. To me at least, making my statement here with a deliberation with which I have never made it, the whole feeling of the moment returns. It was as if, while I took in— what I did take in— all the rest of the scene had been stricken with death. I can hear again, as I write, the intense hush in which the sounds of evening dropped. The rooks stopped cawing in the golden sky, and the friendly hour lost, for the minute, all its voice
The above is characteristic of the style of the story. It is both intricate and atmospheric.
I read a little bit of the online commentary on this book. Throughout the years there has been a lot of debate about it. Some have argued that the governess is delusional and thus the supernatural aspects of the plot are in her head. I disagree with this assessment. Though Mrs. Grose does not see the ghosts, she confirms that too many things that the governess observes about them as being accurate. There is no way that the governess could have known these things.
There are a lot of different theories floating around about this story. Regardless of the specific literary theories, this tale is obviously about repression. There is the sense that the relationship between the children and the ghosts is something that exists under the surface. When the governess and Mrs. Grose discuss it, they do so in whispers. There is something about all this that is unspeakable.
At one point Mrs. Grose describes Flora’s description of the ghosts
“From that child— horrors! There!” she sighed with tragic relief. “On my honor, miss, she says things—!” But at this evocation she broke down; she dropped, with a sudden sob, upon my sofa and, as I had seen her do before, gave way to all the grief of it.
It seems that James talking about sexual repression here. The above quotation as well as other things in the story seem to support this strongly. Several critics have gone further and suggested that the relationship between the ghosts and the children has all the earmarks of sexual abuse. This seems plausible but I am not one hundred percent certain that this is what James meant to portray.
This is not a cookie cutter type ghost story. James’s distinctive writing style, unusual plot twists and underlying themes make this unique. This is an odd story, but in many ways a brilliant one. Though I have read a limited number of books by this author, I think that this might make a good introduction to his work. This is the second James book that I have read and I will likely read more.