Henry James: The Turn of the Screw

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 (1898).

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 sceptical.  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.  No one of his description is 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, because they had bad manners? because they were bawdy? or because they sexually abused the children?  It’s all up to the reader to imagine, along with the governess).  Worse, 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.

15 thoughts on “Henry James: The Turn of the Screw

  1. I was far too young when I read this myself, I read a lot of James as a teenager and most of it I got, but this I simply read absolutely literally and so missed a great deal.

    A great review Trevor, I particularly like how you bring out the function of the framing device, fascinating.

    And it is a masterly work of horror, largely because so much is unknown. That we understand may terrify us, a knife wielding maniac in a hockey mask say, but we can at least comprehend it. That we do not even understand, however, is much more fundamentally frightening.

    Another good intro James, one of my favourite short works generally actually, is The Aspern Papers. A novella with tremendous impact, and a showcase for James’s talents as a writer.

  2. Largely because so much is unknown overstates it actually, it’s largely because he’s such a good writer, and a key technique he uses as you bring out is the use of the unknown.

  3. Very clever, Trevor. As one of the people who has been berating you about reading James, you pick one of the few works that I have not read. Having said that, an excellent review and I will keep my eyes open for an appropriate volume. I’ll admit that I am not a novella fan, which is probably one reason why I have not read this book. Another is the description of it as a “ghost story” — as your review makes clear, that may be the device but it isn’t the story. So thanks for introducing a James reader to a work that he has not read.

  4. Kevin,

    I find it’s often put in one volume along with The Aspern Papers, if that helps at all.

  5. Trevor says:

    I look forward to your thoughts, Kevin. I assume you’ll enjoy it, but I’m interested in how you like it despite its being a ghost story and novella.

    I also looked for a great edition of the book and settled for the B&N edition that put it with The Aspern Papers. I actually was pleased with the edition.

  6. Thank you both. I’ve found a very well-priced Penguin Classic edition with both, which I will be ordering.

  7. Trevor says:

    Here’s a question for those who have read it:

    SPOILER ALERT (and please, if you respond, mark potential spoilers as such)!

    What do you think happened? Were the ghosts real? Was the governess simply mad? If so, how did she describe Peter Quint so well? Why did Miles say Quint’s name? Why did Miles die?

  8. SPOILERS

    HONESTLY, THERE REALLY ARE

    Actually, there aren’t really. I don’t entirely recall Trevor, it’s been too long since I read it and I took it too literally when I did. I’ll have a reread, and get back to you on this one.

  9. Ted says:

    Nice post. I appreciate what a thorough reader you are. Don’t know if it’s your style or not, but Benjamin Britten did a great operatic adaptation of Turn of the Screw.

  10. Trevor says:

    Ted, I’ve always wanted to gain the skills necessary to enjoy opera. I have enjoyed what I’ve seen, but always felt like I lacked something necessary to really appreciate it. Perhaps knowing a bit about the inspiration to the libretto is a good start!

    On another note, I do have from Netflix The Innocents, which I hear is the best film adaptation of the story. I’ll return and report when I have my own thoughts.

  11. The Innocents is excellent Trevor, a tremendously atmospheric film.

    The thing with opera, it has a lot of mystique attached to it, but really it’s musical theatre with classical music. There’s no skills necessary, you listen, watch if you’re there in person, enjoy or not.

    I think people are often put off reading by the impression that they have to pass some kind of test before they can enjoy it, I think the same applies to opera really. It’s not true in either case, though admittedly there’s a better range of accessible reading than there is accessible opera.

  12. Trevor says:

    I’m glad to hear that about The Innocents, Max; I have succeeded in watching all of the first five minutes of it! I have a feeling that is not the way to watch this one.

    I wonder how many people agree with you about opera being musical theater with classical music, Max. I know a few who would be standing up swinging right now! I have attended the opera before, but it was fun mostly for the atmosphere (“I’m at the opera; wow, look at that set!”). While I love listening to music at home or on my iPod, when I can come and go as I please, being in attendance I’ve failed to be as fully engaged as I’d like to be. When I’m at home I can rewind and listen to part again when things get too fast or complicated. I can capture more of the leit motifs and such. But there, it’s just not the same thing – yet. I’m assuming it’s more me than opera, though.

  13. It’s actors on stage performing parts while singing, the whole thing set to music.

    That’s not knocking it, I enjoy opera, but I don’t think the survival of the form is helped any by making it more highbrow than in fact it is. Art is too easily made inaccessible.

    I’d suggest, though I’m no expert, that you not worry too much at live performances about catching everything, I certainly don’t – my wife gets far more than I do but then she knows classical music far better than I do.

  14. I’ve been watching this opera discussion with some interest because I think it is the one art form that is totally beyond me. The fact that it is does perplex me — I love both live theatre and classical music, so it would seem that I should like it when they are brought together. I suspect the reason is that my “listening” skills are not nearly as well developed as my “story-reading” skills. So I find the opera plots banal and don’t know enough (or hear enough) of what the singers are doing when they deliver them. Then again, given the price of an opera seat, maybe not liking the form can be recast as a cost-saving initiative on my part.

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