Saturday, 16 October 2010

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

GENRE: supernatural/psychological realism


The narrator is a young governess, sent off to a country house to take charge of two orphaned children. She finds a pleasant house and a comfortable housekeeper, while the children are beautiful and charming. But she soon begins to feel the presence of intense evil.


This novella is supposed to be a ghost story, but I will say right at the beginning that my main complaint is that it didn’t really feel like a ghost story to me. The atmosphere was not scary or haunting; to me, it was too rational for a ghost story, too composed, almost.

The story follows a young governess who was raised in an isolated environment and has very romantic ideas about the nephew and niece of her employer, as well as about her employer (although she doesn’t even know him). She creates a picture about these people in advance, as if she decided that she will love them and make them her everything in her life. Then, something begins to disturb her new delightful existence: the ghosts of the old governess and her lover begin to appear to the governess, attempting to take the children away from her and she makes it her mission to stop them.

There is a lot of controversy regarding this novella, as half of the readers/critics believe that the governess really sees the ghosts, while the other half believes she is simply losing her mind and seeing things that are not real. I am with this other half.

Now, I already mentioned that I didn’t like the rational take on this ghost story. Henry James always went deep with his psychological realism, raising it to a completely new level, and while I could appreciate this in his other novels (although very tedious to read, as nothing ever happens, really), it annoyed me in this case. I wanted a ghost story, not an examination of the human mind. Since this is supposed to be a ghost story, I rated it down precisely because it didn’t feel like a ghost story to me at all. I didn’t feel any tension or anticipation (or perhaps I’m just too picky).

However, I have to give James credit for his great presentation of the governess’s mind. The novella is narrated from her point of view and I believe that first-person narration is never reliable. One can only read one particular person’s thoughts, which gives the reader a narrow-minded presentation of the world of a book, which is, strangely enough, precisely why I love first-person narration. The reader has to search for clues on their own much more than with third-person narration, in my opinion.

Looking at the governess’s ideas and the responses of others around her, I personally deducted that she imagined things on a big scale. She was raised in isolation, was lonely and wanted to have someone to love and to love her in return. She found this in her two charges, but on a subconscious level, she felt that something might take them away from her, so she began to imagine evil, manipulating ghosts and herself as the saviour of the two children. Her prize for saving them would be their eternal loyalty and love, I suppose. I read that the main argument why the ghosts could be real is that the governess described them to the housekeeper in detail and the housekeeper confirmed her description to be entirely true. However, the governess could easily have obtained this information through a way that was not paranormal in nature. Her conclusions are often entirely unsupported by anything rational and sometimes, I wondered at her deductions, as they really had no logical basis, so she could only come up with them on her own, following some strange logic only known to her. It’s as if, for example, I pointed out a lovely pebble to a friend and he/she responded, “I can deduce by the look of this gray pebble that someone was eating strawberry ice-cream here.” She saw the children as something they were not, either in good or bad ways, and, together with some other things that I won’t mention to avoid spoilers, I think she was really imagining things.

The ending is quite shocking and unexpected, and I found it sad, too. I don’t really know how it happened, but it might not have happened if the governess hadn’t been so keen on “finding out the truth” by all means possible.

If the novel wasn’t praised for being a great ghost story, I would have given it a higher rating, perhaps. But I can say that it is a great psychological story. If psychological realism appeals to you, then this is a good story for you to read. Just do not expect a haunting, spooky tale because it isn’t one; at least not to me.

I read the novella for the R.I.P. V Challenge and my reading challenge of American classics.

THIS MISS RATES: / (3.5 stars)


Jan von Harz said...

I have yet to read this one and think I will have to put it on my classics read list next year. I will be challenging myself to read a classic a month, and have a long list to choose from as my education was somewhat lacking in this area.

I always love reading your review too as you really explain your feelings and the books good and bad points so masterfully. Thanks

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

Thanks for the review; I knew absolutely nothing about this book but your review makes it sounds really interesting even if it fails as a spooky tale.

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Blodeuedd said...

Henry James, I really should read a classic now and again

Midnyte Reader said...

I mentioned in my post above that The Innocents is one of my fav. movies. Give it a try, it might give you that spooky feel you want...although there is still a question.

caju said...

I'm a student of literature in Brazil and I would like to know your opinion about the movie. Did the author of The innocents (1961) put an end in the ambiguity?

Kailana said...

I really want to read this at some point. I have never read any Henry James and need to remedy that.