Sunday, February 23, 2014

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw

Henry James, an American
writer who spent most of his career in Britain, published this classic story as a novella in 1898. The Turn of the Screw is one of the most famous ghost tales ever written. 

James once said that his interest in ghost stories evolved from the fact that “the strange and sinister appear to be normal and easy.”

He achieved this with great success in telling the story of an innocent, naive young woman who is persuaded by a handsome, rich bachelor to travel to a remote serene country mansion in Essex. She is to take charge of his niece and nephew as their governess.

James masterfully makes his main character--the governess, the narrator of this tale. So the story is told in a confiding confidential manner where the reader is only exposed to one biased view.

In contrast, James never names this young woman--she is always referred to as just “the governess.” This technique ensures that the state of her character remains a mystery to the reader.

Early in the story, the governess encounters two ghosts. James presents these scenes in eerie silence, which makes them creepier. The governess becomes convinced that these supernatural forces are there to corrupt her two young pupils. As the story unfolds, she struggles to keep these dark forces from harming her charges.

Her efforts become even more fanatical when she fears the children are communicating with these ghosts-- whom they knew when they were alive. She believes this even though they and the rest of the household claim never to have seen the spirits.

James uses this uncertainty to keep the reader wondering if there is a haunting or if the governess is just crazy.

He also keeps the reader on edge by not clarifying plot twists, e.g., when the nephew comes home because he was kicked out of his school--the only reason given is vague-- leaving the reader to wonder if the boy is at fault or not.

James’ two main themes: the corruption of innocence and the destruction of heroism play out throughout this story.

Many feel that the fears the governess holds for the children symbolize her own fear of the outside world e.g., sex, love, and responsibility. They also point to her role as a protector of the children being just her delusional attempt to impress their uncle, a ladies man who never actually visits the estate.

In the end, the niece is so afraid of the governess that the housekeeper intervenes and whisks her away from the estate. This leaves the governess with the nephew and the ghosts she believes haunt him…

The ending to The Turn of the Screw is not only a surprise but also a shock to the reader.

Here is a link to a reading of the story on YouTube with the written text, it is broken into 3 parts. 

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