The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

Why you should read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw during Christmas.

Is the house Christmas-ready? Do you feel that Christmas urge for a hot cup of tea and a ‘very scary story’ to be told on Christmas eve, very well, then The Turn of the Screw is just the book for you.
The plot of this story is not complicated and you will have finished the book in less than 96 pages in the Penguin Classics edition, however, summarizing it is not a simple task … In fact I will not even try to attempt it.
The turn of the screw

First problem: the narration of a mystery or a thriller, genres similar to this book, suffer from a serious “spoiler syndrome” and should not be much talked about; secondly the foundations on which the story lies are easy to undermine due to the constantly changing narrator’s point of view and his lack of reliability.

The narrator? It would be better to talk about the narrators, since the story is initially told by an unidentified guest of an English countryside Christmas party, then continued by Douglas, an enigmatic gentleman with a mysterious past, and finally by a governess who tells her bewildering, terrible story that happened twenty years earlier in an Essex country estate, while she was looking after Flora and Miles, the disturbing little orphaned nephew and niece of another rich English gentleman.

But how did the story end up in that chic Christmas living room, eager of mystery and creepy ghouls? But of course, through a manuscript arrived from London – ça va sans dire – that had just been entrusted to Douglas by the same governess. So did Douglas actually know her from before?! Yes, it seemed he adored her, partly because in a few occasions Douglas stated that the governess had a beautiful handwriting. [To understand the extent of such a compliment in the nineteenth century, please review Goethe’s Elective Affinities].

Henry James publishes this tale of speculative fiction, or of the uncanny, in 1898. At that time he lived in Sussex, where he had moved from London (the writer was American, naturalized British). The Turn of the Screw comes after a failed attempt to write for the theater, when the author decided to focus back on novels. It should be noted that The Turn of the Screw had then over twenty television and cinema adaptations, and that Britten composed an opera about it. Not bad.

And so a ghost-story was born, in line with what was a true phenomenon of the Victorian age (which was about to end with the death of the sovereign in the 1901), an era in which the movement of the Modern spiritualism and the Society for Psychical Research (the latter dedicated to the study of the human mind on which the modern psychological research was grafted), were also registered. Guess who presided over the Society in 1894-95? Incidentally it was William James, Henry’s brother, and it was from this body that the quarrel about the type of interpretation of The Turn of the Screw and its psychological implications, was born. In order to understand what I’m talking about, and if you’re an apparitionist or a non-apparitionist, check:

Henry James tried to minimize, stating that his intent was to simply give birth to “a shameless commercial work“, an “amusing novelette,” as he defined it.

But what can we find in this little masterpiece? Subjective point of view, free interpretation of the reader, psychological distortion, third-person limited point of view, infantile sexuality, homosexuality, corruption of childhood: in short, the emergence of the literary twentieth-century aristocratic English countryside.

The book is a masterpiece of ambiguity starting from the title already, a way of saying that appears in the first pages of the novel and that opens itself to different interpretations … like the entire gruesome story.

Words: Berenice Dentis