Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Though I hadn't initially chosen this as one of my potential reads for Carl's RIP III challenge, I picked it up at the suggestion of some other bloggers who said this would make a great selection for this challenge. I'm so glad I listened. This is more a novella instead of a full-length novel, but it packs quite a literary punch. It also falls into the category of psychological ghost story just as The Haunting of Hill House does. The main character is a young woman who is hired as governess for two young children at a country estate. The situation is strange from the beginning when her employer, the children's uncle, says that he doesn't want to bothered at all with their care and upbringing. She is to take full and total responsibility and not bother him with anything. It's obvious from the way the governess acts that she is infatuated with this wealthy, mysterious man though she only meets him a couple times.

Upon arriving at Bly, the country estate, she is pleased to find that the little girl in her charge, Flora, is angelic. She worries somewhat about the girl's older brother, Miles, who she meets shortly thereafter when he returns on holiday from boarding school. However, her fears are quickly relieved when she sees Miles for the first time. Like his sister, he is also a beautiful, innocent child. The governess throws herself into her duties and enjoys herself immensely.

However, it isn't long before strange things begin to happen. She is out walking one evening at dusk and suddenly sees a man standing on one of the old towers of the house staring ominously at her. He never speaks and never approaches her and disappears as quickly as he appeared. She is startled by this but chooses not to say anything to Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, or anyone else for that matter. She wants to fulfill her duties as the person in charge at Bly. So she tries to convince herself that the man was probably just a stranger who wandered onto the estate out of curiosity. He appears again some days later staring in a window of the house as she enters the room. She's so frightened this time that she does tell Mrs. Grose about what she has seen. After she describes the man in great detail, the housekeeper says that she knows who he is -- the deceased assistant to the master, Peter Quint. The governess also tells Mrs. Grose that she knows he was not looking for her but for Miles. She's not sure how she knows this, but she does.

To add to the mystery and unease, she receives a letter from the headmaster at Miles' school saying that he is not welcome to return after the holiday. Again, instead of investigating further, the governess simply decides to ignore the situation because she feels that Miles is too good of a little boy to attend a boarding school like that in the first place. She'll see to his education at the present and deal with finding him a suitable school later. All seems well until the mystery deepens once again when a woman begins to appear to the governess, as well. From her appearance, the governess assumes that this is the children's former governess who died earlier. She describes her as evil incarnate. Following these revelations, the housekeeper reluctantly tells the governess that Miss Jessel and Mr. Quint had had an affair and that they spent a great deal of time with the children. In fact, she says that Mr. Quint showed an "unnatural" interest in Miles. Knowing all of this, the governess believes that the ghosts of Mr. Quint and Miss Jessel have returned for the children. The governess takes it as her personal duty to protect these children who may have been corrupted by these two when they were alive and now have come back for them in death.

The tension quickly builds throughout the story as the governess struggles to maintain her sanity while trying helplessly to protect the children. I won't say much more about the story and what happens because it would definitely take away from the experience of reading it for the first time. I read some critical commentary after reading the book, and it seems that there is a great deal of disagreement among critics regarding what 'really' happens in the book. Just like in the Haunting of Hill House, there is a question as to how much of what is happening is really happening and how much of it exists in the mind of the governess. Again, I won't go into great detail, but it's interesting to see both sides of the argument. For me, I like to think that it really happens the way the governess relates it. It just makes a better story. But, you be the judge.

14 comments:

Nymeth said...

This has been sitting unread on my shelf for far too many years. I need to get to it.

Lisa said...

nymeth, it won't take you any time at all to read. Like I said, it's really short.

DesLily said...

well this certainly sounds like a perfect read for the RIP !!! I may have to look into this one!

Eva said...

I enjoyed this one for the most part, but I found the ending a let-down. I prefer James' novels to his shorter works! I'm not sure why, though.

Lisa said...

deslily, it definitely fits well into the RIP challenge!

eva, I didn't really mind the ending. I didn't see that coming, but I knew something was coming. I haven't read any of his novels, which I will remedy soon.

Charley said...

I just reviewed The Turn of the Screw as well. I agree, the 1st person POV makes you wonder how much is really happening and how much is in the mind of the governess. I didn't particularly like the story, but I thought James's technique was great.

Lisa said...

charley, it is a technique that keeps the reader busy trying to figure things out, isn't it?

litlove said...

What a great review! I really love this book because of the ambiguity as to whether the governess sees the ghosts or whether she's succumbed to hysteria brought on by her excessive responsibilities and her idealisation of the master. I don't think there's a sentence in it that's really clear and straightforward - only Henry James could make this work!

Literary Feline said...

There's so much about this story that I've forgotten! I read it many years ago. It sounds like I should reread it. Thanks for the great review!

Lisa said...

litlove, I think the ambiguity definitely works in this case. I'm going to have to read some more James.

literaryfeline, I know I'll probably reread this one again -- probably sooner than later. It's the type of book that I think you'll get more out of it on subsequent readings, as well. This is also a great time of year to read this type of book.

Andi said...

I had to read this one as an undergrad, and it was like having hot toothpicks poked up under my fingernails. However, I did like it in the end.

Lisa said...

andi, I can see where it would take a little to get into it, especially the very first part.

Danielle said...

I loved this novella! I really need to reread it. Did you know there was a film adaptation, which I thought was pretty good. I never really decided what I thought--maybe that it was all in her mind, but he does such a good job of letting nothing be very explicit. I sort of like that kind of ambiguity. And there is really so much to think about! Definitely one to reread!

Lisa said...

danielle, I like the ambiguity, too.