The Turn of the Screw

turn of the screwLately, my husband has been reading The Ambassadors by Henry James. I haven’t read James almost at all (The Golden Bowl, but many years ago) and I thought I would renew my acquaintance with his most famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.

But is it a ghost story? Critics and readers have debated ever since the novella’s publication whether the menacing ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are real, or whether the unnamed governess whose story we are hearing is mad. The entire novella is a dance in ambiguity, and Henry James’s long sentences and “roundabout allusions” (as the governess says) add to the sense of muffled anxiety and confusion.

Underneath the suspense and the chill of the ghosts, this is (among other things) a story about class and gender. The difference of class between the governess and Mrs. Grose, between Quint and Miss Jessel, between Quint and Miles, between the governess and the children, between the two women and the servants — all of these things weave into the story to create the heavy sense of enforced silence. There are things the servants can’t hear; there are things Mrs. Grose can’t say because she can’t write; there are things Miles and Flora won’t tell the governess; Quint was “no gentleman”.

The barriers of gender are equally important. Miles — and remember he is only ten — is the only vocal male character in a houseful of women. His relationship with the governess, in which he treats her as an equal or even an inferior, and flirts with her (“my dear”) is eerie in the extreme, more troubling to me than the ghost sightings. The governess admits that she cannot control (or protect?) Miles because of his sex and class, and some of her… appreciation, let’s say, for the children’s guardian seems to come out in her treatment of this little boy. The very fact that the guardian has removed himself completely from the household affairs makes him into a kind of ghost: the children talk about him and write him unsent letters, even though it’s clear that he will never come to see them. His power to obscure, like Miles’s, is in his sex and class. Yet the main voice in the story is, of course, that of the governess, relating all the events as she sees them.

There’s also James’s conspicuous literariness. I’ve already mentioned his long and tightly-constructed sentences. He sets the story up with a framing device, and in the end this novella has three narrators: the original narrator (a stand-in for the author), Douglas, and finally the governess herself. The layering of this narration isn’t carried out at the end of the story, with its abrupt tragedy. We don’t hear Douglas’s interpretation of events, or the original narrator’s, or even the governess’s. Instead, we’re forced to engage with the impossibility of knowing what really happened — or whether, in the story-ness of this story, any of it happened at all.

It’s no wonder that this novella has had staying power, even though it’s genre fiction (!). It’s a perfectly-executed exemplar of craft; it’s a thrill ride with confusing twists and turns; it’s a meditation on class, gender, and silence. It’s prepared me, I think, for more Henry James.

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13 Responses to The Turn of the Screw

  1. Elle says:

    It’s brilliant, and if you liked it, the opera Benjamin Britten made of it is the most incredible adapatation—his music perfectly complements the creepiness (Quint standing at the top of the stairs singing, “Miiiiiiiiiles…..”) Interesting point you make about the phrase “my dear”; coming from a ten-year-old boy to a woman charged with his well-being and safety, not only is it flirtatious; it also strikes me as deeply patronising. Imagine being addressed as “my dear” by a kid, like he’s some hand-patting old man. There’s that class element again, from a different angle.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right about the patronizing air, of course. The thing is that the governess protests that she likes it (maybe a little too much.) This has all sorts of weird implications for their relationship, in my view.

      I love the idea of the Britten! I’ll have to look out for that!

      • Elle says:

        Oh dear Lord, I’ve obviously blanked that. That *is* odd. (Doooo look out for the Britten, it is fab. He’s got form for setting literature amazingly well, though; his Hymn to St Cecilia, with words by W.H. Auden, is maybe the best/most coherent musical setting of a poem ever.)

  2. Dear Jenny, Hi. I did my Ph.D. on “The Ambassadors” exclusively, though some of the people advising me wondered why just the one work. In the course of the thesis, naturally, I mentioned other James works, but if you’re looking for a great James novel, that has my vote. Of course, it’s sometimes easier to get into James by reading chronologically, with early works, then middle works, then late works, and some even divide the stages of James into 4 or 5 parts. But if you like the tense ambiguity and the class stuff, another good one (and i’m not sure of the chronology here, but I think it’s a middle-verging-on-late-middle work) is “What Maisie Knew.” Again involving a child’s awareness, and a governess. James got more convoluted as he got older, because he stopped writing longhand and dictated, and I guess James talking naturally thought of more “roundaboutations” (as we call it where I come from). At any rate, thanks for the James post. It’s always nice to hear someone else’s experience of him.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the recommendations! Tom at Wuthering Expectations has done a lot of reading of James lately, as well, so I might peruse his files to see what sounds appealing. I like the idea of comparing Turn of the Screw with What Maisie Knew, since they have similar elements.

  3. readerlane says:

    I’ve been slowly rereading James and thought I’d reread the Ambassadors next, but your thoughts on The Turn of the Screw are making me think that’s my next Jamesian destination. My favorite and a great starting place is Portrait of A Lady, followed by The Aspern Papers with its classically unreliable (or is he?) narrator in search of his literary hero and What Maisie Knew, but as with Dickens, there are a lot of good choices with James.

    • How could I have forgotten “Portrait of a Lady”? It was made into a great movie as well, with (I believe) John Malkovich as a very evil Osmond!

      • readerlane says:

        I’d forgotten John Malkovich was Osmond, and now I see Vito Mortensen was, too (must have been pre-Lord of the Rings). Quite the cast!

    • Jenny says:

      I think I’ve seen that adaptation of Portrait of a Lady. These are great recommendations, thank you so much. It sounds as if re-reading James might be more fruitful in some ways than reading him for the first time.

  4. readerlane says:

    Sorry, Viggo. It was spellcheck. He played Caspar Goodwood.

  5. lbloxham says:

    I’ve taught Daisy Miller, The Real Thing, and The Bostonians in an Images of Women class.

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