The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

To begin, I’m not much a fan of Henry James’s writing. He’s verbose, long-winded, and indulgent in a way that irks me. This is not especially unusual in Victorian fiction, to be fair. I often have to remind my students, when we’re reading classic literature, that, well, this was the entertainment of the day.

Verisimilitude and detail and heightened realism were not just expected in the form, but desired, because quite frankly there wasn’t much else for most people to do; certainly there might have been concerts or opera, but even those were reserved primarily for the wealthy or for special occasions, not the way we might put on a movie or pop in a video game (or I suppose, “stream” a movie and “download” a video game is more appropriate, now). So, in a world with very little competition for entertainment and past-time, novels had little competition and could be–maybe even should be–as full an experience as possible. But, honestly, just look at this opening line:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” 

I’m exhausted already! 

Still, Henry James has always just rubbed me the wrong way. As one of American literatures giants, and a closeted homosexual one at that, I know I should be championing him, but alas, if I never read him again, I won’t cry over it. (But of course I’ll read him again.) That said, while I didn’t exactly enjoy The Turn of the Screw, even finding I had to force myself through it at times, which is odd for me in general, especially with such a short work, there are some reasons to appreciate it. 

In the first place, the novel is billed as a ghost story, but it’s really a much more complex plot than that, littered with complicated themes about sexuality and perhaps abuse. The ghosts in this novel are, I think, either psychological remnants of a particular kind of hell that little Miles suffered, or they are projections of Miles and the Governess’s own sexualities, what at the time would have been classified as deviancy. In this way, the book is far superior to this year’s Netflix adaptation, which followed the enormously successful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

Where Netflix got it absolutely right with Jackson was in keeping true to the general tone and atmosphere of the original work, even while modernizing the story. At the height of Hill House are issues of gender, sexuality, and mental health. Those same themes are at the heart of the Netflix adaptation; so while the adaptation is a “loose” one, sharing some character names and relationships, for example, but otherwise straying from the original plot, the general feeling of it is spot on: Eerie, confusing, beautiful. The adaptation for Haunting of Bly Manor attempts to do the same, but where they update the story, they fail spectacularly. Rather than eliminating the purely supernatural antagonist (as Hill House does), they take what is actually not supernatural in the book, and add it to the film adaptation. This leaves out the true horror of the original text, the confusion at its core, and makes for a weaker interpretation. It’s a lazy bogeyman that the story simply didn’t need. 

So, I suppose that it’s a good thing I read the book just prior to watching the Netflix adaptation, because the adaptation makes me appreciate the original work much more than I would have. The main issue this short novel deals with–homosexuality (and perhaps a bit of feminism dashed in)–is an incredibly daring one at the time. I’m not sure how many readers would have grasped what James was getting at, though certainly early reviewers made it clear that they knew exactly what the subject was, and they were horrified by it. “In proper society…” blah blah blah. In that case, maybe this is a classic horror novel, and a damn good one at that. After all, it certainly jarred its original audiences. For contemporary readers, it might fall just a bit flatter, but the main questions, and especially the last few pages, are stupendous. 

Confession time? I read this little book more than a month ago, and here I am now, still thinking of it and sitting to write about it. If that’s not the sign of something, I don’t know what is. “No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”

Notable Quotes

“He had broken a thickness of ice, the formation of many a winter; had had his reasons for a long silence.” 

“Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain, and I had more pains than one.”

“The summer had turned, the summer had gone; the autumn had dropped upon Bly and had blown out half our lights. The place, with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance–all strewn with crumpled playbills.”

“I call it relief, though it was only the relief that a snap brings to a strain or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation. It was at least change, and it came with a rush.”

“I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his perhaps being innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?”

 

 

4 Comments on “The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

  1. I remember reading this for my LOST challenge. I was astounded at how that man does go on…
    I don’t remember not really understanding it all, but I did recognize and enjoy the spookiness of it.

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  2. I still haven’t read any Henry James, coming up next year though for the classics challenge! I’ll look out for the Netflix series of both thank you!

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  3. I first read The turn of the screw some years ago, because I felt I had to read at least one book by Henry James, and hated it. I don’t like his style, to start with. Then I gave him a second chance earlier this year with The portrait of a lady, which I haven’t finished yet even if the beginning was engaging, for a change. I don’t know why it’s still on hold, I’ve read bigger books before. But I scheduled to finish it next year !

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