The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I’ve long been intrigued by tales of the supernatural, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. There’s something strangely attractive about realms with which living humans have no familiarity. Yet it’s funny that while the average person enjoys occasionally indulging his preternatural curiosity, he really doesn’t like to dwell on it. As one such average person, it was with hesitant expectation that I began Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (Modern Library Classics). I found it very complex and artful for a short novel; much more than a terrifying ghost story.

The story doesn’t really scare you unless your mind is fully engaged on all levels. James builds this tale on the basic universal taboos of death and sex. Both are referenced ambiguously, but death is more prevalent as a motif than its counterpart. Both spread a thick curtain of obscurity over the events. For instance, sexual perversion is only implied; it’s not even part of the narrative (so you can rest easy about reading this), but it becomes the basis of the children’s entrapment. The Bly estate steeps in death, yet death is barely mentioned. I’ll illustrate this through summary.

Bly is cut off from the outside world: a source of life. The children’s uncle (who is guardian because the parents have died) has hired the narrator (unnamed) to be a governess on the condition that she will not contact him under any circumstances for he does not want to be bothered. The children are initially painted in very angelic terms; something people connect to the positive side of death. The governess soon understands that something is very wrong. She begins encountering a male and a female figure (usually separately) who she learns, through describing them to the head maid, are the spirits of the departed Peter Quint, a former servant, and Miss Jessel, the former governess. Discussion of their death is very sparse and it is not known how they died. They were, it is clear, perversely involved with each other and apparently with the children as well. Yet these are not your traditional ghosts. The governess often describes them in demonic terms and James himself said that they were supposed to flow more in the folklore vein of demons that lure victims to their demise. I got the impression that Quint and Jessel were formerly possessed and their death precipitated a transfer of the spirits to the children.

The governess realizes that these spirits are trying to capture her young charges, and she does what she can to protect them. Circumstances keep her hands tied. She finally realizes the children are too far-gone; that they are too heavily oppressed by these spirits. One of the most eerie things about this story is that these children always behave perfectly in front of others. But they are irresistibly miserably drawn to the beckoning of hellish death.

The conflict is almost multifaceted. Of course the governess and the spirits are always at odds, but the children consider them friends most times and see them as enemies intuitively. The conflict between children and governess becomes more and more prominent as the story progresses.

An interesting aspect of the story is that the spirits have power over the children only. I know that James clearly was not a Christian (and I’m not trying to spiritualize this), but the story provides some very startling truths about the relationship between believers and reprobates. The children have a celestial outward appearance, but inwardly James paints them as rotting and ugly. They are miserable, yet they do not want to give up their harmful connection to the spirits. The governess, in her own words, attempts to save these children. She is extremely limited in her power to help them because she is separated from the outside world. She is ultimately forced to watch the gruesome proceedings in a helpless manner and it is the implied terror of hopelessly lost souls that will grip you in horror. Regarding the narrators relationship to the children, I noted a remarkable occurrence of vocabulary regarding religious conversion. References to saving, confession, and being lost are prominent and weighted.

There is nothing overtly objectionable about this story, yet I’d hardly give it to a 15-year-old for pleasure reading. The material is mature and requires a lot of thought in order to sift and appreciate. It is not at all a hard story to read. It moves swiftly and suspensefully throughout and is extremely well written. James uses his command of language to contribute perfectly to the mood and build a scenario that must play out as he directs it.

This is a very thought-provoking work and I’ve only given you some of its most obvious aspects. My assessment of the story is that it is truly fascinating. Regardless of how you view supernatural stories, this one will entertain and engage you. It will pull you to its very end; much like the spirits do to the children.

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One thought on “The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

  1. Interesting…. Sounds like a my kind of story. Thought provoking. I enjoy the old Twilight Zone shows and the old Outer Limits shows for the same reason. They are thought provoking and they make very interesting social comments.

    Good writing, Aaron.

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