After having really liked “Washington Square”, I went looking for my second Henry James novel.
” The Turn of the screw” caught my attention because it was a gothic horror story and not something that I quite expected from James. An old english country house , a young naive governess , the seemingly innocent golden haired children and floating shadows – how perfect!
Well, now that I am through this novella, I can inform you,dear reader, that “The Turn of the Screw” is not your typical ghost story. Lets look at the premise first. The story is narrated by a young gentleman in front of a country house’s weekend gathering. He reads from the notes of a young governess, our novel’s heroine.
This lady, who remains unnamed, had been hired by a young charming man ,who wanted her to look after his orphaned niece and nephew at his country mansion. He puts only one condition to her- he must never ever be troubled with any of their concerns. The governess , eager to please her handsome employer , agreed to this. Her welcome in Bly, the country house aforementioned, was pleasant. Flora, the younger of the two wards, is delightful and beautiful. It is here that the story starts getting sinister – as a reader , every interaction with Flora and the governess sent chills down my spline. Its innocent..but the the child is so perfect that it unnerves you. Soon enough the governess sees a vision of a man , who she later comes to know was Peter Quint, the master’s valet. The governess coaxes the housekeeper to tell her more and soon learns of an illicit relationship between him and the ex-governess Miss Jessel.
At this point of time ,you are just warming up to the prospect of reading a lovely scary ghost story when things get suddenly odd. The governess is convinced that the ghost has come to claim the child and corrupt the child (and I honestly dont know what it means and whether it is related to religion and concept of satan) and she must save her. She partakes this as her new mission. Meanwhile, Miles the other child arrives from school , from which he has been expelled ! He is more delightful and perfect than Flora, if such a thing were possible. On a picnic to a nearby pond, the governess now meets her second visitation , she sees an image of what she assumes to be Miss Jessel ( who has also been dead) . She also notices that Flora has apparently noticed this vision too. The governess now believes that the children are in some collaboration with the ghosts and they are about to be lost to them. On confiding her fears to the housekeeper, she learns that the chidren were rather fond of Quint and Jessel and were in their constant company. I dont tend to have a Freudian bent of mind but as I heard that particular conversation my mind somehow jumped to sexual abuse, paedophilia and other similar concepts. Worried that I may be reading in too much I went online to find some analysis of this and yes one, from the many interpretations of this story, talks about the possibility of these relationships between the children and these ghosts.
The governess thought the same or something even worse , what that is, is neither stated nor implied, and she becomes almost obsessed of saving the children. Infact its the way she carries on ranting and raving that I start believing that she is quite mad. She believes that the children can be saved if they only would confess to what they see and she pushes them into situations to do so. The story’s ending is quite unpredictable and leaves open many questions.
What really amazes me that even though the ambiguity is so high and as a reader you are so at a loss to understand the inner workings of the governess mind , not once , you feel fed let down or fed up. You keep reading page after page waiting for the big relevation that will explain everything. One of the main assumptions and secrets to enjoying fiction is that you believe it is the truth in that relative space. In this novel, there comes a point when you realize that what may happening may not be true at all and that is very discomforting as you no longer have any frames of reference. You dont know which character to trust!
A thorough roller coaster.