Oct 16, 2009

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw is the story of a governess who is hired to look after two orphans, Miles and Flora, in a country house in Essex. The children's uncle lives in London, and he expressly tells the governess that he doesn't wish to be disturbed. She is free to make any decisions concerning the children, and she is not to waste his time by communicating them to him. At first, the young woman is quite taken by her charges. But when she begins to see the spectres of two people who were close to the children and died before she was hired, she starts to suspect that there's more to them than meets the eye.

I'm going to have to go on on about framing yet again, because the way this story is presented is very interesting: the story of the governess is a manuscript that an unnamed narrator hears a friend read out loud. The governess is dead, we are told, and the story took place some time ago. The context is that of an exchange of chilly tales. The governess's story, then, is framed as a ghost story, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that this doesn't necessarily provide any clues to solve the ambiguity at the heart of this novella.

Both possibilities are disturbing, and perhaps the ambiguity makes it even more effective as a horror story. We don't know if this is a tale of madness or one of supernatural occurrences, and this might encourage each reader to go for the possibility that unsettles them the most (guess what mine is?). The children do feel sinister, but then of course they would, as we only see them through their governess's eyes. And we have no way of knowing how much she's not telling us. There are many questions that remain unanswered, but fortunately this didn't prove as frustrating as I feared it would be.

Another thing that surprised me was how much The Turn of the Screw unsettled me. It wasn't necessarily the Gothic elements, or the atmosphere, or the lonely country mansion (and the loneliness of the governess). It wasn't the apparitions, or the seamless mingling of domesticity and sinister elements, though those do add up. What unsettled me the most were the social dynamics - the power dynamics, really - that are just under the surface of the story. Even though the governess is given free reign by her employer, who has the upper hand? She, the children's uncle, or the children themselves? We are of course seeing things through the eyes of someone who is not necessarily reliable, but all along the governess' positions feel... precarious. One word from her charges could send her away - or could it? Are the children vulnerable, or is she? Uncertainty aside, there's something about the whole arrangement that feels very oppressive - and very Victorian, of course.

A brief note on the writing: I got used to it after a couple of chapters, but James' writing style is one that demands my full concentration. If I let my mind wander for even a few seconds, I lose track of the sentence and have to start again. And one of the things that took some getting used to was his use of commas. He'll stick one in every single place where it's grammatically admissible to stick one, and as a result the flow of his writing is very different from the kind of flow I'm used to. Example:
This person proved, on her presenting herself, for judgement, at a house in Harley Street, that impressed her as vast and imposing—this prospective patron proved a gentleman, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage. One could easily fix his type; it never, happily, dies out.
Bits I liked:
But as my little conductress, with her hair of gold and her frock of blue, danced before me round corners and pattered down passages, I had the view of a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all color out of storybooks and fairytales. Wasn't it just a storybook over which I had fallen adoze and adream? No; it was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-replaced and half-utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!

I can hear again, as I write, the intense hush in which the sounds of evening dropped. The rooks stopped cawing in the golden sky, and the friendly hour lost, for the minute, all its voice. But there was no other change in nature, unless indeed it were a change that I saw with a stranger sharpness. The gold was still in the sky, the clearness in the air, and the man who looked at me over the battlements was as definite as a picture in a frame. That's how I thought, with extraordinary quickness, of each person that he might have been and that he was not. We were confronted across our distance quite long enough for me to ask myself with intensity who then he was and to feel, as an effect of my inability to say, a wonder that in a few instants more became intense.

...the element of the unnamed and untouched became, between us, greater than any other, and that so much avoidance could not have been so successfully effected without a great deal of tacit arrangement. It was as if, at moments, we were perpetually coming into sight of subjects before which we must stop short, turning suddenly out of alleys that we perceived to be blind, closing with a little bang that made us look at each other—for, like all bangs, it was something louder than we had intended—the doors we had indiscreetly opened.
They read it too: Out of the Blue, Bending Bookshelf, Melody's Reading Corner, Tales from the Reading Room, Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books, ChainReading, Booknotes by Lisa, Bart's Bookshelf, Moo's Place, Reading, Writing, Working, Playing, BiblioAddict, Life and Times of a "New" New Yorker, somewhere i have never travelled, Steph & Tony Investigate!

(Please let me know if I missed yours.)

51 comments:

  1. The thing I HATE about James is his lack of punctuation. His sentences last pages. I still want to read this but I'd love it if someone edited it for me first.

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  2. Actually not so much punctuation but his run on sentences run on forever.

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  3. They do go on forever! And if I get distracted for even a moment, I have to go back and read the darned thing again.

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  4. Have you read Daisy Miller or The Portrait of a Lady? Daisy Miller was easier, but PoaL was a favorite a few years ago. The ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw was unsettling. I'd like to read it again...maybe next year.

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  5. I never found the discipline to read James. I picked it up years and years ago and found myself re-reading the same page twice over because my mind was not focusing in.

    I'm glad you made it through. James seems to be an author that I should say that I've read, but instead, has turned into one that I'll shrug off and let dust accumulate. :P

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  6. LOL after your review I feel like I should re-read The Turn of the Screw... I have forgotten a lot. Even though I also saw a great opera version!

    Did you see the film 'The Others'? Maybe you should :) But don't read too much about it in advance ;)

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  7. I read a kids' version of this story when I was quite small, and remembering it still makes me shiver. I was no good at reading scary stories when I was little - funny considering how much I love Gothic/ghost stories now. But I don't think I'll ever read the real Turn of the Screw. Brrr, too many scary nightmare memories.

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  8. You know, I think I've read this. I didn't think I'd read anything by Henry James, but Jason mentioned a week or two ago that he thought I'd read this one. I wasn't sure, but your description sounds familiar. I should revisit it.

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  9. Great review, Nymeth. I read and reviewed this one earlier this year, and while I didn't talk about framing ( ;) ), I think I had a very similar reaction to you. I think part of why the story is so effective and remains so over 100 years later is because there are so many unanswered questions in it. James leaves things so ambiguous, it's easy to read things however you choose, and as you say, whichever way you read it, there is a lot that is spooky there!

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  10. I read this for a face-to-face book group a couple of years ago, and it turned me off James completely. His writing style completely ruined the book for me, I could not wait for it to be over! It was the loooooongest 150 pages I have ever read. 800 pages of Trollope moved faster.

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  11. I had no idea that's what this book was about! He actually sounds much more interesting than I thought!

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  12. Wonderful review, Nymeth. I read "Screw" again a couple of weeks ago and found it very unsettling and difficult to read. I guess I don't have the patience for James that I used to:)

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  13. I've always wanted to read this, but haven't. Is it intimidation? Laziness? Who knows. Your review certainly is one of the best I've read...I actually think I could navigate the story with your thoughts in mind. And since I've gone all Victorian (at least for me!) for the last handful of months, why not. I'm going to see if I can snag it from the library.

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  14. I love The Turn of the Screw, and each time I've re-visited it, I've had a different feeling about it. Always unsettling.

    The first time I read it as an adolescent, the book was simply a ghost story, and yes, an ambiguous one. Re-reading it in college, I became more interested in the psychological aspects. What really happened? Just how reliable or unreliable was the governess as narrator. When I taught the book, I noticed even more. Every reading, however, was edgy.

    The Ambassadors by James would have turned me against anything he ever wrote. Thank goodness, I began with The Turn of the Screw.

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  15. I love the length of James' sentences because they draw me in so deep. If you liked this story, you might also like the play, popular during the McCarthy hearings, by Lillian Hellman, The Little Foxes. Your sense of the servant's precariousness is doubled.

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  16. I... did not like this book. I think I was so distracted by how much I didn't like James' writing, that I wasn't really drawn into the story. Like so many others, I just wanted it to be over.

    The thing is, I thought I had a problem with James' run-on sentences until I read Jose Saramago for the first time a few weeks later. Saramago always writes in run-ons, but his sentences are lovely and lyrical. I'd read Saramago any day, whereas I think "The Turn of the Screw" might be the only James writing I can stomach.

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  17. I think, relating to your comments about the social structure, it's interesting how often the authors chose Governesses as the female lead character - particularly when you consider that, now, when we write novels about Victorian women, we tend to choose people with a firmly fixed class (either the very poor, or aristocrats, it seems). Governesses were such an interesting creature, in their halfway place between classes...

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  18. Thanks for sharing those passages. I never read Henry James, but had been thinking about it. Now I know to pick his books up only when I have stretches of quiet time for good concentration- there's something beautiful and befuddling about those sentences!

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  19. I'm glad you enjoyed this one - it is delightfully creepy for me. You're right about the commas though, they are excessive. It took lots of concentration to get through this story b/c of that!

    Thanks for linking to my review. :)

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  20. I've forgotten most of what happened in this one in the year since I listened to it, but what I do remember was how disturbing it felt and how unreliable the governess was.

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  21. AAACK! NYMETH! Why did you not sign up for my novella challenge? You could have USED this one for the challenge. :(

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  22. I should really put this one on my list of books that I need to read.

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  23. I really wanted to like this one but I found it cumbersome and not as atmospheric as I had hoped. Still, over a year later, I'm still thinking about it. It was definitely creepy in places. The entire setup was disturbing.

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  24. I want to read this, but I'm scared of the sentences! Long sentences and I just don't get along. Unless, of course, I'm the one writing them. :-)

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  25. Now that you have read the book, you should check out the opera by Benjamin Britten. The "unsettling" bits translate well in Britten's opera.

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  26. I like the premise of the story and to my shame :( I hav not yet read this Henri James novel. I love how you present it.
    As far as the lack of punctuation, it is a nuisance, I still want to read it.

    Thank-you for you teriffic reviews, Ana.

    Enjoy a nice week-end

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  27. I read this in high school and I remember it really creeped me out. But in an enjoyable way. Which says a lot because I don't like creepy, scary things. But the suspense was really great. I don't remember anything of note about the story, however...

    I would get SUPER annoyed with the excessive commas as well!

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  28. Isn't this available as a free eBook download? Were you the one who told me about that?

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  29. I don't know if even you can get me to read Henry James, Ana :p He's one author that I have such a strong aversion too!!! I've read quite a few reviews of this one and while the story sounds good enough, I just really think I'd have a hard time with this one!

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  30. This sounds good. I'd have to really be in the mood for this type of novel. I lose concentration easily.
    Great review!
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  31. "tale of madness or one of supernatural occurrences"

    I read this in a college lit class and our teacher had us watch two different movies of it -- one interpreted it one way and the other the other way. It was quite interesting to see how it was nearly impossible to make a movie that didn't illustrate it in one particular way. How would she *act* otherwise?

    Another reason I love reading a BOOK more. The ambiguity is normally so much more powerful.

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  32. Wow..this sounds like one book that has been neglected for way too long by me. The elements you mentioned all appeal to me in a novels, so what have I been waiting for?/

    You really read some thought provoking books; i love that! Thanks

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  33. Yeah, I tried to read Wings of the Dove a few years back. I could barely make it through the prologue. God the sentences would last for pages!! I don't think I could ever read anything of his again!!

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  34. It's been a long time since I read The Turn of the Screw. I remember feeling unsettled by it, although I can't remember why. I always think of it along horror lines, though, so I think it probably creeped me out at the time.

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  35. I actually have a copy of this book that I received from a family friends' library. But now I'm wondering if I would be able to read it!!!!

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  36. I had to run to my shelf to see if I have this one and I do! But...I don't like James. Like you mention about having to use full concentration while reading, that's how I feel as well. And the commas? Thank goodness the trend in grammar has moved to simplicity over the years. I remember reading Wuthering Heights in high school and wondering why the heck Bronte used all those semicolons!

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  37. I think his punctuation would give me some grief, but your review has definitely piqued my interest. I know I have this as part of a mammoth short fiction collection, so I may give it a go soon.

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  38. I read this one in college, and I remember disliking it because it required concentration, and at the time that meant it was a slog. I really should re-read it because I think I'd really enjoy it now. There's a short, illustrated, funny spoof of it in the book I finished today--Half-Minute Horrors--which reminded me that I need to pick it up again.

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  39. Great review, Nymeth!
    I'm so with you on James' writing style! I can't count how many times I lost track of some passages and had to start all over again! :P

    This is the first book I read by Henry James and I'll definitely check out the rest of his books despite this is an okay read to me. ;)

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  40. Thank you for taking me back down memory lane, Nymeth. I read this in high school and really liked it. I didn't quite see the ending the same way the student teacher teaching the class did at the time and I ended up feeling like I missed something big. It wasn't until much later that I realized that I hadn't been wrong--just that I perceived it differently then she had.

    I will have to re-read this one and see what I think of it today.
    Thanks for your wonderful review.

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  41. Wonderful review, Nymeth! I have a fair dislike for Henry James, but I remember liking this one. I've been thinking of a re-read and was disappointed to find that I'd given away my copy of Turn of the Screw (probably in a fit of pique with Mr. James'lengthy sentences!). But then I was delighted when I found that this (probably a novella?) is included in a collection of American short stories sitting on my bookshelf not 4 feet from my bed! What a nice surprise :o)

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  42. 42 comments! What can I possibly add to the conversation? Oh well, I recently read this book and so can't help myself.

    I have nothing in the text to base this on, just my own reading that the governess is crazy, so I like to think that the narrator works at mental hospital and the manuscript is that of a deranged woman.

    I agree that Turn of the Screw is vastly unsettling. I thought about it for weeks after reading it.

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  43. I have to read this one day. I've been alerted about it many times.

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  44. Sounds like a story I would enjoy, but the commas would definitely give me a headache. I'll have to see if the library has an audio of it.

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  45. I've read this book five times in college and it took all five times to really get it because I found the text a bit heavy. However, I did love the book. I found the children creepy. Children with power always creep me out, there's something a bit unnatural about it.

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  46. I so, so want to read this book, but the thing that is stopping me is definitely James' writing style. I have an audio book version of the story, but I really want to read it, not just listen to it. You make it sound like a tremendously dark and spooky story, and I think it would be a perfect read for Halloween. You know, I think I am going to go for it and give it a try. Your review was very insightful and makes me have some hope that I, too, can get through it. Thanks!

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  47. Thanks for the warning on James' writing style. I definitely want to read this one.

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  48. What a lovely, elegant review, Nymeth! I read Turn of the Screw first when I was in my teens, and I just loved the ambiguity and the creepiness. I re-read it every few years. I don't mind James' style, but it does take concentration!

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  49. Those kids... they scared me.

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  50. I wanted to apologize for not having gotten around to replying to comments here - sadly I've fallen too far behind to even try to catch up! But all your comments were very much appreciated.

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  51. You know, I just got done listening to the audiobook version of this, and one of my comments was that I got lost periodically and thought reading it in print would be better. Now that I've looked at your excerpts, I'm not so sure! Lol.

    Also, I agree with you that you probably choose the version that freaks you out the most. I went with insane governess. ;-)

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.