Reviewed in the United States on September 27, 2012
Over the years I have read this short novella, "The Turn of the Screw," three times. My first reading was when I was very, very young and in college. This was one of the works assigned in the class I was taking; a literature class, and it was one of several works as I remember. I also remember that I approached this work with what I would call absolute pragmatic ambivalence. It had to be read, so I read it. After reading it I had to write a semi-short paper, so I did. I pretty well knew what the professor wanted to hear, so that is what I regurgitated because I wanted a good grade in that particular class. I got a good grade. I did not dislike the novel, nor did I particularly like it...It was simply a job I had to do.
My second reading took place in a place I did not want to be. It was a horrible place and I simply needed something to allow me to mentally detach myself from the situation I was in. A friend of mine had a copy of this work which he gave to me. James' work did the job I wanted it to do at that time. I somewhat appreciated it at the time more than the first reading.
And now we come to this current, and of course most recent reading; different time, different place, different motivations and to top it off...I am now old. Since the first human scratched the first story onto a piece of papyrus there has been literary snobbery. The epicenter of this snobbery centers on `literary' and `genre' fiction. On one had we are told, by those that do the telling, that genre fiction is easy to read, easy to digest, but holds no nutritional value what so ever. On the other side of the coin we have those people who tell us what we are suppose to think praising the popular novel and thumbing their noses at "literature,' claiming that `good literature' is in reality only a cultural artifact and the only reason we have it around is for the same reason we value a well carved hunk of rock that no one can really interpret or really anymore cares about. This battle, if you will, has been heating up of late and is of great interest to me. I love it when people do battle over books.
Anyway, I was once again motivated to pull this small work by Henry James out and give it another go. Of all the works I know, this one has been analyzed, picked apart, speculated upon, and force fed to more people since it was written than any other. I thought it was a good place to start. As I write this, this book most certainly cannot be considered "popular fiction," although it was considered just that when it was first written.
I can tell you right now, before I go on, that this third reading absolutely mesmerized me and I loved the thing from the first page to the last. Am I smarter now? Probably not. As a person quickly approaching the status of "old geezer" has my outlook on life and my perceptions changed? Probably so. What ever the case, this book, over the years, has changed for me...I have changed; the book has not.
This work was first published in 1898. It is a relatively short work and is considered by many to be the classic ghost story of that era. The premise of the plot is at first glance rather simple. A Governess is put in charge of two young children in or at an isolated mansion. The Governess sees ghosts - others do not, and she spends most of the book speculating as to how she will protect the children. Ah, but simple? No, that just ain't so! By the use of what I consider brilliant ambiguity, purposefully crafted by the author, we have so very, very much more than a simple ghost story. The arguments and discussion over this work has been raging for years and years; indeed, since it was first published.
First, did the governess actually see ghosts - were they real? Or, as the other side would ask, is this a young lady with an overly active imagination touched with a bit of paranoia? Is the governess actually insane?
Second we ask ourselves what about the children? The author has given strong hints that not all was well between the two children and the two people who were their former caretakers - who are by the way now dead and are indeed the two ghosts our young governess keeps seeing...or thinks she sees. There is a very, very strong hint of sexual impropriety here at best; molestation at worse. The author never tells us. Why was the young lad in the story thrown out of school? The author never tells us. Vague shadowy hints only.
Third is linked with the first and deals with the governess's emotions and state of mind. There have been strong theories over the years that we are dealing with a very sexually frustrated young lady...frustrated to the point of tipping her over the edge. Again, we are forced to anticipate the mind of James and consider the time frame in which this tale takes place. (I personally view the sexually frustration theory just slightly lame. Most of these theories popped up during a time when the public was obsessed with such matters and just about every aspect of life was linked to sexuality in one way or another.) Fiction and biography tell us strongly that young ladies who became governesses at that time were, as a whole, a very, very frustrated group of people. They were almost invariably "spinsters" with little hope of marriage usually due to reduced circumstances. These young women were well educated and indeed were in possession of a fare degree of sophistication. No prospect of marriage, little to no social life, little to no income, living under the roof of strangers, facing and endless number of rules, rules and more rules...well, quite often these women had major issues which manifested themselves in various ways; often at the expense of the children. Whether or not that was the case here...well, the reader is left to decide.
So ghost or imagination, sane or insane, sexual issues on different level or not....crafty writer, James.
And then we have the writing style. Long, long sentences; many having multiple subjects, inserted clauses and words, words and more words. The author, at first glance, uses a very confusing style with convoluted sentences being the norm. This is not an easy read by any means. The first time I read it was the worse, but I have to tell you that even this last reading required my reading and rereading some of the sentences in order to fully understand what the author was saying. Ah, but that was the essence of the book for me. Navigating through James's prose, once I got the rhythm, was actually fun! Each sentence was a journey leading to another journey. I personally love this stuff! If you are put off by the style, put the book aside for a couple or three years and give it another shot. You may find your wait well worth it.
I have read that some feel that this is James' greatest work. I personally would not even speculate on that since I have not read all of his work. I doubt it though. As to the answer to the questions brought up; those that have been discussed for years and years...well, to be honest with you, I just don't know. And truth be told, I don't think anyone else does either. The author wrote this the way he wrote it for just that reason. He has allowed each reader to come to his or her own conclusions - right or wrong and the author has done it well! That is the true marvel of this little book as far as I am concerned.