The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898) Penguin Classics (with The Aspern Papers; 2003) 272 pp
Henry James pops up everywhere I look. So many of my favorite (and many of my not-so-favorite) writers reach back to him, not only in their writing style but explicitly in their prose. Also, last year in my post on Patrick McGrath’s Asylum many people recommended I read Henry James if I wanted some good ghost stories. And last week when my review of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the comments made room for Henry James because he is a contemporary of Wharton’s and also roams in the murky contrasts between the United States and European society at the end of the nineteenth century.
Now, I’m not completely ignorant — only mostly ignorant — when it comes to Henry James. I know that he was born in America but basically left that all behind to become British. It is because of his ties to both countries that I have read Daisy Miller a few of times, in a survey course on American Literature and a survey course on British Literature (the only other author that I read in both classes was T.S. Eliot). But, though I loved Daisy Miller, I avoided the sometimes coercive attempts to get me to read James further. Sometimes it’s nice to hold with pride to a bit of ignorance. It shocks people. I did the same thing by successfully avoiding The Wizard of Oz until I was 25, when my urge to watch all 100 of the AFI’s top movies overcame my urge to shock people by saying, “I’ve never seen that.”
And now it’s time to move on and read more Henry James. Looking for something quick to get my palate warmed up, I chose the ghost story — some say the most sophisticated ghost story ever — The Turn of the Screw.
As I have not read that many ghost stories, I cannot say with certainty that this is the most sophisticated, but I believe it. This is one of the most sophisticated narratives I’ve ever read.
Because much of this review will be taken by the structure of the story and how James uses the narrative devices to craft a fantastic look at the psyche, I need to say a word or two now about the writing. This was written in James third period — his last. By this time his syntax is incredibly complicated, subjects tied to multiple verbs strewn throughout sentences filled with multiple interjectory phrases. But that shouldn’t frighten anyone away. It’s invigorating and forces you to examine each word’s meaning. And it’s not all complicated. James doesn’t sacrifice nice phrases and build up:
There was many a corner round which I expected to come upon Quint, and many a situation that, in a merely sinister way, would have favoured the appearance of Miss Jessel. The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its grey sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theatre after the performance — all strewn with crumpled playbills.
The novella begins with a curious framing device. An unnamed narrator explains that a few years ago, around Christmas time, a group of sophisticated friends were telling ghost stories to one another. Though it’s obvious this group loves a good ghost story, they are incredibly skeptical. They accept little at face value and interrupt whoever is telling the story many times to read into what the speaker says, whether it be sexual undertones in apparently innocent statements or flagrant romaticism which deserves to be derided. After a successful ghost story involving one child, Douglas, one of the older men in the group, says he has a story about two children that will turn the screw. It’s been forty years or so since he received it from the mouth of his sister’s governess, with whom he was possibly in love, giving some way for derision:
They were all listening now, and of course there was somebody to be arch, or at any rate to draw the inference.
This setup in itself is incredibly sophisticated. In this framing device, James tells his audience how to read the story that is coming: be critical, deride the romantic, read between the lines, draw the inference — raising our expectations. And then James will astound us by clearing by a mile the hurdle he’s set up for himself. So off we go . . .
The main narrative is told in the first person by the unnamed governess. As it begins, she is arriving at Bly, an estate where she will meet her new assignments, Miles and Flora, the orphaned nephew and neice of her new employer, whom she met briefly in London and with whom, in that short time, she fell in love.
At first, all seems innocuous enough. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, tells her the children are both angels. The governess can’t help but agree when she meets Flora, charming with her mixture of perfect manners and cherubic features. Mrs. Grose assures the governess that Miles, too, is beyond reproach. But even before Miles has arrived from school, an unopened letter arrives accompanied by a note from the employer:
This, I recognise, is from the head-master, and the head-master’s an awful bore. Read him, please; deal with him; but mind you don’t report. Not a word. I’m off!
The unopened letter is from Miles’s school saying that he has done something unspeakably terrible and is not going to be allowed to return after the holiday. The school didn’t disclose the details. After meeting Miles, the governess cannot imagine what he did that could be so bad because he is so perfect. Furthermore, she cannot bring herself to mention it to Miles, even to figure out what it was to rectify the situation, for fear of corrupting him by speaking about something taboo. And even if she did know, she’s from a time where, if it was truly bad, she wouldn’t write the details of it in her own narrative, which is all we have here.
So James allows his reader’s imagination to run wild. Just what did this ten year old angel do? Brilliant! The ambiguity is so great that the spectrum of what this boy could have done is as large as the reader’s imagination. Whatever happened is assumed unspeakable and therefore remains completely unspoken, though James teases the reader with other clues that are equally ambiguous and capable of just as many readings.
The ambiguity increases. One evening the governess is out for a walk, thinking of her employer, wishing he would appear before much like Rochester appears to Jane Eyre, when she sees a man walking around one of Bly’s towers. However, to the governess’s confusion, no one fitting this man’s description is residing at Bly. A few days later she sees the man again, staring through the window, looking for someone other than the governess. When she runs out to confront the man, he is no where to be seen. After discussing the matter with Mrs. Grose, the governess finds out that the man fits the description of one Peter Quint, who is dead. Adding to the horror, one day while at the lake with Flora, the governess spots a woman in black watching them. This new presence, the governess is certain, she feels it, is the ghost of Miss Jessel, the governess’s predecessor. Eerily, the governess senses that Flora feels the presence but is purposefully pretending to not notice by keeping her back turned to the ghost.
The governess knows these ghosts have returned from the dead to continue their influence on the children. From Mrs. Grose she learns that they were very bad people. Again, we must wonder: because they had bad manners? because they were bawdy? because they sexually abused the children? It’s all up to the reader to imagine, along with the governess. Even more alarming, it appears the children are welcoming the influence, almost colluding with the ghosts. Nevertheless, the governess sees it as her role to prevent the ghosts from further corrupting Miles and Flora.
They had nothing but me, and I — well, I had them. It was in short a magnificent chance. This chance presented itself to me in an image richly material. I was a screen — I was to stand before them. The more I saw the less they would. I began to watch them in a stifled suspense, a disguised tension, that might well, had it continued too long, have turned to something like madneses.
We can take this story at face value. We can assume the governess is telling the truth as it happened. However, in the narrative James gives us many clues about the governess’s subjectivity. For one, we see that her love for her employer warps her judgment. When he tells her not to bother him with anything, even when she gets a letter from Miles’s school saying Miles cannot return to school due to some unspeakable act, she takes this as an expression of his utmost trust and faith in her ability to manage his affairs. She is flattered where she should be concerned. This is our narrator.
And just as he uses our narrator’s imagination and lack of information to infuse deep layers of ambiguity into the narrative, James uses the reader’s own imagination to further deepen the layers. Given the governess’s fears and the way she presents her own narrative, dialogue that might seem normal in another context we cannot help but read into a sort of horror we cannot define, making it all the more horrific.
But we definitely do our best to fill in the blanks! And the great thing is that any way the story is read, it is still a fascinating tale, an incredible look at the human psyche from any direction. Which James then reverses on the reader. In the end, because James gives us so much room to use our imagination, the book reveals more about us than about what realy happened at Bly.