Classics Club: The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Spooky season is here and with less than two weeks until Halloween it’s time to break out one of the most popular ghost stories in English literature. I read The Turn of the Screw about fifteen years ago and it’s a novella that’s stuck with me since. Something about the last few pages that grabbed me and never truly let go.

What’s neat is that the story starts off with a group of merry people telling each other ghost stories by the fire. (The dream.) After the conclusion of a frightful tale someone observes that stories with children are always scarier. This is the opening for a gentleman, Douglas, to share the story of a governess he used to love, who had passed away years ago. The governess’ first job was watching two children, Miles and Flora, at a country estate, and what seemed like a dream position devolved into a nightmare.

The magic here is the ambiguity and the lowkey suspense that Henry James is able to create. The governess keeps seeing the ghosts of two individuals, Peter Quint and Ms. Jessel, and fears they mean harm against the children. This read through, I tried to pay more attention to what she actually witnesses and if any of what she sees could be ‘backed up’. James only gives her one moment of credibility in the beginning and then I guess it’s up to the reader to decide how long that holds up. 

I think even those who 100% believe everything is in the governess’ mind still might ask ‘what if?’ a few times. I know I did. Because even if their ghosts aren’t real, it is evident that a piece of Quint and Jessel were left behind, in how they shaped Miles and Flora. To me the biggest mystery wasn’t whether the ghosts were real, but the impact that Quint had on young Miles. 

Soon after the governess arrives at Bly Manor, ten year old Miles is expelled from his boarding school, no reason given in their letter. I think a modern audience is probably wondering why the governess simply wouldn’t just inquire more information. There’s an array of different reasons, not only a different time, but the governess is young and inexperienced, and desperately wants to prove herself to her boss, the children’s faraway uncle, who she has the hots for and so finds excuses to push it aside. 

But not knowing eats away at you slowly and your imagination takes over. What did Miles do? There are some hints at the end, but the reader never fully understands. The tension between a young woman out of her depth and this seemingly angelic boy is what drives the story for me. 

What might be a barrier for some is James’ love for the long sentence with commas galore. Though brief, this novella did take a lot more of my time than I was anticipating. I was able to push through, but some might not find the ride worth it. But the book only has 87 pages, and I think you’ll know very quickly whether a paragraph long sentence will trip you up or not. For me, short stories are fine, but I had a harder time with James’ novels.

 The story is also very different from the new show on Netflix, The Haunting of Bly Manor, so it doesn’t matter if you check it out before or after watching the new series. I think for a gothic good time you should really check out The Turn of the Screw.

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