Monday, April 7, 2008

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898, 116 pgs.)

I sort of had a love-hate relationship with this book. It is my first Henry James work, and it was not at all what I expected it to be. The story is basically about a young woman who accepts a position as governess for two small children, Miles and Flora. Having lost their parents, their uncle is responsible for them, but keeps his distance, and has asked the governess (I can't even recall her name and can't find it skimming through the book--I think she is only addressed as "Miss.") to never bother him with any troubles or questions. "Miss ?" settles in happily at first, daydreaming of pleasing the Uncle who is a handsome bachelor, but soon begins to see a couple of ghosts. At first, the story was a bit annoying--the governess has an inflated sense of herself and her role, unrealistically idealizes the two children, and is obsessed with pleasing the uncle who she only met for a short time. But then I began to think that this was the author's design--I began to wonder if there really were ghosts, or if the governess is mentally ill, and is just hallucinating. Most of the story is told by the governess, and she always seems a just a bit removed from sanity. There were parts that I couldn't follow, and I couldn't decide if that was because she was mentally ill, or if it was because I was mentally unable!
Just finishing this I am left with so many questions. Were there really ghosts, or are they a figment of her imagination? Was James trying to say something about appearances and their exaggerated importance in Victorian society? At times I wondered if the ghosts represented the evil within that the children would eventually have to succumb to as they grew up. At one point it seemed to me like the reader was to infer that the children had been molested, and that the boy, who had been sent home from school for an unknown offense, had committed some deviant act. Or maybe, since this was in Victorian times, they were just minor offenses that were considered very inappropriate at the time. The bottom line is, "I don't know!"
This was the selection for my wonderful library's classics book club, and was one I had chosen for a reading challenge. I can't actually go to the discussion, which starts in about 15 minutes, but I would have loved to find out some other thoughts on all of these questions from the other readers. For now, I will just question and wonder (or pay a visit to Wikipedia!). Sometimes I think that that is what makes some classics last--unanswered questions that can be debated for decades!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry. Deleted my first comment due to silly spelling error I noticed. Here is the new version:

    I think your last observation has a lot of merit. I had never really thought about that before. What fun would it be for all of us to talk about some books if it was all obvious?

    I spend a lot of time Googling for study guides on things like this. I definitely want to get to this one some time.


  3. Lezlie,
    I really like, I thinks it's associated with Barnes and Noble, but I haven't made time to see what they have for The Turn of the Screw. I'm sure there's a lot that I missed, and a lot of crazy ideas of mine that have no support, but that's okay. It's just nice to know I'm not being graded :-).

  4. I wasn't real impressed with THE TURN OF THE SCREW when I had to read it in high school, probably precisely because of all those unanswered questions. Today, after several readings, I love the book for the very same reason. You're right, though: it's one that definitely begs to be discussed with others. Your clever possible interpretation of "classic" is terrific.

  5. I haven't read this one yet but it is on my shelf. It sounds interesting. I'm glad you put your picture up. It's nice to put a face to a name.

  6. I think I warned you not to read this one, Shelley. Was it worth it? What a weird book!!!

  7. (I love your Moby Dick humor!!) P.S. I noticed you have "Bel Canto" on your list. I read that a few years ago and can't say I'd recommend it. You're probably wondering at this point if I would suggest anything. I'm reading The Kite Runner right now. I'm enjoying that.

  8. You could probably count me as your top site visitor. I'm a college student and was looking for some insight on 'The Turn of the Screw', and definitely found it. But, what I return to this page for is your playlist! Really, every time I start a paper, this is what's playing. :)

    It keeps me motivated to do my work. Wonderful selections.

    Thank you.
    -Hannah Q.L.