Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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RATING: ★★★★

Henry James’ Gothic tale follows a very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora at a forlorn estate…an estate haunted by evil. Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows – silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realises the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls… But are these ghosts real or are they a representation of the Governess’ sanity? Henry James leaves it all up to the reader to figure out in this ambiguous tale of horror and fear and sexual repression.

“It was as if, while I took in—what I did take in—all the rest of the scene had been stricken with death. 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.”

While reading this, I was not scared, but I was intrigued, and I have to confess, confused by Henry James’ beautiful but mazelike prose. How he likes to dissimulate…you can definitely trust him to phrase his ideas and situations in a most imaginative way. He plays with the reader. If you go into this book looking for clarity, you will be lost. By the end of the book, you will not know whether the governess really did see the ghosts or if it was all a figment of her overexerted imagination. In any case, this is one of the finest examples of a story where the style of writing itself suggests ideas to the reader without stating anything explicitly and concretely. And this is why I enjoyed this elusive and ambiguous game of guess who/what/why.

There are so many things left unsaid, so many half-sentences. It is extraordinary and unsettling not to know what the truth is. James deceives the reader into believing The Turn of the Screw is a Gothic novel. So what is the true meaning behind the novel?

Honestly, I don’t think anyone knows. However, the story seems indeed to turn around on an axis of elusive sexuality. What did Quint and Miss Jessel do with, or to the children when they were in charge? What is the troubled relationship between the Governess and Miles? There are allusions but James leaves all open for the reader to decide. There is no absolute truth and that’s the beauty. As a matter of fact, I changed my point of view a few times during my reading. First, of course, I trusted the governess, then I thought she was unreliable and possibly mad and then I was stricken by a possibility of a relationship with Miles. If there was danger in Bly, why did she not send Miles away with Mrs. Grouse and Flora? Why did she keep him alone with her in the house? So we readers are very nicely lead in a chase as we try to understand what James wanted to communicate. 

Perhaps when all is said and done the moral of the story of The Turn of the Screw is for each of us to decide. Ultimately, it is the play with meaning, the constant questioning regarding what is happening, the overall ambiguity and freedom of interpretation that transforms the readers into participants, that makes this novella brilliant. In the end, truth is forgotten, and logic seemed to have evaporated; only the persistent and obsessive turn of the screw remains to remind us that all is not as it seems. Feelings that continues with me long after the final sentence.