Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

From Amazon
The story starts conventionally enough with friends sharing ghost stories 'round the fire on Christmas Eve. One of the guests tells about a governess at a country house plagued by supernatural visitors. But in the hands of Henry James, the master of nuance, this little tale of terror is an exquisite gem of sexual and psychological ambiguity. Only the young governess can see the ghosts; only she suspects that the previous governess and her lover are controlling the two orphaned children (a girl and a boy) for some evil purpose. The household staff don't know what she's talking about, the children are evasive when questioned, and the master of the house (the children's uncle) is absent. Why does the young girl claim not to see a perfectly visible woman standing on the far side of the lake? Are the children being deceptive, or is the governess being paranoid? By leaving the questions unanswered, The Turn of Screw generates spine-tingling anxiety in its mesmerized readers.

After recently reading The Thirteenth Tale which I heard had overtones from The Turn of the Screw, I was inspired to read it to see what the similarities were about. Sure enough there were many, but as soon as I began reading this story, I forgot all about The Thirteenth Tale and focused on this interesting and eerie story of ghosts, paranoia and veiled sexuality. I've never read anything by Henry James before, and I liked this story, so perhaps I'll venture into some of his other novels.

Considered a classic, and written around 1899, I was prepared to slog through this, but it was surprising readable and well written. Plus, it's very short, only about 120 pages and I read it in a few hours.

The story is basically about a governess who goes to the country to take care of two orphaned children that are left in the care of their bachelor uncle. He lives in London and doesn't want to deal with them, so he hires a governess to take care of everything and tells her in so many words that he really doesn't want to be bothered with them about anything. At first, we think the governess is a good sensible honest young woman who must become a governess because she comes from a poor vicar's family, and she's a younger daughter. As the story unfolds and we meet her two pupils, a brother and sister who are beautiful, angelic looking children ages 10 and 8, we expect all will be well at Bly (the name of the country estate where the story takes place.)

But, soon enough, the governess sees a strange man staring at her from atop one of the towers on the estate. She has no idea who he is and wonders about it, but keeps it to herself and does not mention it to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who has become her friend and confidante. But, then, she sees the man again in the window and finally tells Mrs. Grose about it. In describing him, they ascertain that he is the ghost of the Master's dead valet. The governess after questioning the housekeeper learns this valet had previously been very free and easy in his ways with one of her pupils, Miles. They had spent a great deal of time together and the governess is shocked to hear about it and uneasy. Then, the former (now dead) governess starts turning up as a ghost as well, with (according to the present governess) designs on her little female pupil. For most of the book, we witness how the governess tries to save her wards from these ghosts, she's horrified to find that the children like them and want to be with them. They lie and scheme to find time to be with them and the governess sees it as her duty to save them and screen them from the malevolent and evil purposes of these spectres.

Now, as I was reading this, more and more I was coming to the conclusion that our governess was really not in her right mind. Little clues are dropped to indicate that she might be losing her mind, and the ghosts are a figment of her imagination. I also had the uneasy feeling that there was some kind of sexual abuse going on with the children - with the valet and the governess when they were still alive? Or was this the governesses paranoia? How come no one else would see the ghosts but the governess? Why didn't the governess ever mail the children's letters to the Master? Why did her letter to the Master that Miles stole say nothing - was it blank? What sort of family problems did the governess have at home - we never learn what they are. And how convenient that the governess sends Mrs. Grose and her female pupil away to the Master in London, leaving her alone with Miles at the end.

I think our governess went mad and wanted to "save" the children. She really believed there were ghosts, and thought she could get the children away from them. I won't spoil the ending, but it only supports my theory - although many believe, who read the book, that it was indeed about ghosts. I think it's more about a woman's madness and a one-sided crush she has for the Master and what she sees as her role to make him proud of her, so that maybe he'd one day look at her as more than a governess, and perhaps a romantic interest? All in her head, of course.

All in all, a good story and it makes you think and wonder. I recommend it.


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