Published by Wisehouse Classics on November 15, 2015 (first published 1891)
Genres: Ghost Story, Gothic
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The story starts conventionally enough with friends sharing ghost stories 'round the fire on Christmas Eve. One of the guests tells about a governess at a country house plagued by supernatural visitors. But in the hands of Henry James, the master of nuance, this little tale of terror is an exquisite gem of sexual and psychological ambiguity. Only the young governess can see the ghosts; only she suspects that the previous governess and her lover are controlling the two orphaned children (a girl and a boy) for some evil purpose. The household staff don't know what she's talking about, the children are evasive when questioned, and the master of the house (the children's uncle) is absent. Why does the young girl claim not to see a perfectly visible woman standing on the far side of the lake? Are the children being deceptive, or is the governess being paranoid? By leaving the questions unanswered, The Turn of Screw generates spine-tingling anxiety in its mesmerized readers.
While I grant you that The Turn of the Screw is not really a Christmas story, it does have the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve as its framework, so I’m counting it as part of my seasonal reading.
The Turn of the Screw is fascinating and creepy and leaves you not knowing what the heck was going on. Our narrator is reading the story to folks around the fire, so it’s not his story. A governess is hired for two children who are under the care of their uncle. The uncle lives in town while the kids live at the country house, where the governess will be in charge. The uncle basically wants to have to deal with them as little as possible. The governess has written her story down, so everything we know and see is from her point of view. Even she admits that she has a vivid imagination and is “rather easily carried away.”
So we’ve got a young governess living at the country house with only the servants and the two children. She starts seeing ghosts, but she’s the only one who sees them. She’s sure that the children see them too and that the ghosts, a former female governess and male tutor, have evil intentions toward the children, wanting to have them for themselves. The children themselves never admit to seeing the ghosts and are unfailingly polite and quick at the studies. They may wander around a bit more than the governess would like, but it is their home.
Are the ghosts real or imaginary? Is the governess losing her grip with reality? We don’t know, we can only look at the “facts” she presents and interpret them for ourselves. She’s clearly an unreliable narrator and I tend to see her as a negative influence in the household. She seems so overly reactive and has absolutely no proof of her assertations.
Miles, the boy, is an interesting character too, with a whole different set of questions. He’s smart, pretty and precocious, but why did he get kicked out of his school? And then there’s the end, it’s easy enough to find on-line, but I won’t spoil it. It did leave me wondering what happened. I wanted more resolution, but after a bit of reflection, I think that the ending is what will keep me thinking about the story, wondering about the possible meanings.
There is so much unknown throughout the story and it all adds to the tension and general spookiness. While The Turn of the Screw can be a ghost story, James also presents us with a woman who is being consumed by her anxieties and paranoia, who may in fact be the villain and not the ghosts she would have us believe in.