The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898)

Everybody’s heard of it. The title is intriguing and mysterious and memorable. But, oh… Henry James… I read “The Turn of the Screw” in college and was surprised and disappointed by the dullness of it. Then, after I read James’ The American, I swore never to touch anything by him again.

Fast forward some decades: OK, well, I thought, maybe time had effected a change and I should try “Turn of the Screw” again. I heard somewhere that no young person could properly appreciate James. You had to be seasoned by age to really get his work. Um-hm.

On to the story, then. A young woman (we never learn her name) tells us how she was hired to be governess of two orphans who live at their uncle’s country estate, under the care of some servants, while he lives permanently in London. Her first-person narrative describes how she arrives and takes charge of young Flora and Miles, giving clues, at the same time, that all is not right with her, in terms of mental stability. Her attraction to the children is intense: Miles is “incredibly beautiful,” he has a “positive fragrance of purity,” he is “something divine,” and she feels a “passion of tenderness” for him, etc.

She walks the grounds of the estate in the evening, fantasizing about meeting a handsome man and then she sees an unfamiliar figure standing on the battlements of the house’s tower, staring at her with disturbing intensity. She immediately wonders if the house has a mystery of Udolfo or a hidden relative kept in confinement.

In a passage that calls to mind “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator says:

There were hours, from day to day — or at least there were moments, snatched even from clear duties — when I had to shut myself up to think. It was not so much yet that I was more nervous than I could bear to be as that I was remarkably afraid of becoming so; for the truth I had now to turn over was, simply and clearly, the truth that I could arrive at no account whatever of the visitor with whom I had been so inexplicably and yet, as it seemed to me, so intimately concerned. It took little time to see that I could sound without forms of inquiry and without exciting remark any domestic complication. The shock I had suffered must have sharpened all my senses; I felt sure, at the end of three days and as the result of mere closer attention, that I had not been practiced upon by the servants…

Her concern about being nervous and her belief in her senses being sharpened are surely a deliberate echo of the mad narrator in Poe’s story; she also invites comparison to Northanger Abbey‘s Catherine Morland — if Catherine were prone to actually making herself see and believe in characters from her beloved gothic horror novels.

She sees the man again, and becomes convinced that he is a ghost, and then she sees another ghost, becomes convinced the children see the ghosts but pretend not to, and constructs a horrific but only vaguely-hinted-at plot of the ghosts to take possession of the children. It is a complex narrative and cannot be quickly summarized while doing full justice to the chain of events.

The story has a reputation for being ambiguous — that is, creating doubt whether the narrator is mad or the ghosts actually exist. But it seems to me that James carefully gives us all the evidence that we need in order to know that the narrator is deluded. The cleverness of the story is in letting the narrator herself tell us, unintentionally, that she is out of touch with reality.

Some readers find this story psychologically thrilling. I still find it to be trying, and somewhat of a bore. Give it a shot, and see what your reaction is. It’s subtle; if you prefer to imagine your horrors into a story, this is for you.

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