Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Genre: Classics / Gothic
First published: 1898

Rating: 9 out of 10

I chose this chilling short story by Henry James as the 2nd of my three annual Halloween Reads for 2012.

It is the story of a young governess who is hired to take care of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, at a large manor house in the Essex countryside. The children have been handed over to their estranged uncle, who wants little to do with them or any contact with them. The governess whom he hires is more than happy to adopt the two innocent youngsters as her own, and grows to love them dearly. However, she begins to see strange things happening about the house where she now lives, and continually sees a mysterious man and woman lingering about the estate. Both the man and woman have a horrifying, terrible expression and atmosphere to them, and when she describes them to her friend Mrs. Grose, the woman recognizes them instantly. They were lovers who once lived at the house, and they both died a few years ago, though no one knows how. The governess becomes convinced that the ghost couple is after little Flora and Miles, though she can't understand why. The children insist that they do not to see the ghosts, but the governess is convinced that they are lying due to how frightened they appear whenever she questions they about it. The harder that the governess tries to protect her charges, the farther distanced from her they become.

I very much enjoyed this brief, chilly tale, and I loved the antiquated way that it was written, which really gave it a cold, "ghost story" air that more modern writing simply cannot capture.

In the beginning of the story, it didn't occur to me that the governess' ghosts may not be real, but by the middle of the book, I was convinced that they were simply figments of her imagination. However, at the very end, I didn't know what to think.
I love stories that end just when the plot isn't quite closed out yet, leaving the reader to wonder - what happened?
This story was certainly one of those, and I still can't decide if the heroine was crazy, or if the "horrors," as she called them, were really there. Perhaps they were, only they were real flesh and blood people who she wanted to think of as ghosts.

Miles and Flora play their part well as the innocent, helpless little children who are very in need of protection as they drift obliviously toward horrific danger.
Nowadays, every horror movie seems to cast an obligatory child, but when Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, such themes weren't yet common.
I especially loved Miles, who is a more filled out character than his younger sister Flora. He is a charming boy, who wants very badly to be "bad," in spite of how good he is. He even stages an event where he goes outdoors at night, and schemes at how to get the governess to witness his little crime, in an attempt to show her how "bad" he is.
However, Miles is also very wise. Even though he never exactly tells his governess anything - he is always frustratingly vague - his little hints at deep, perceptive topics make him even more interesting.

The unnamed main character was a bit annoying, and I felt that she was at times contradictory. She is normally terrified of the ghosts she is seeing (which is understandable), while at other times she speaks of them lightly and does things that make it seem as if she doesn't fear them at all.
Her fierce protection of Miles and Flora was touching, and I couldn't help but wonder what made her care for them so much and so quickly, as if they really are her own family. Was she abandoned as a child? Did she always want children, but never married?

Speaking of speculation - there is much of it to be done within James' short story. There is, of course, the matter of the alleged ghosts. Are they imaginary? Real people mistaken as spirits? Or are they ghosts, after all? I think that everyone will ask these questions, but there are so many more to wondered about, if you look deeper.

For instance, it seems apparent by the end that Miles and Flora are extremely afraid of (or even hateful toward) the governess herself. The governess seems to think that this is because the ghosts are controlling the children's minds, while Mrs. Grose hints that it is because the children have been influenced by an evil presence. But what if the evil presence is actually the governess, and she simply doesn't know it? Perhaps this is a bit too M. Night Shyalman, but could the governess have been a ghost herself?
All of Miles' vague speeches, in which he is always saying things to the governess such as "you know what I mean..." could also be hints of this. Maybe she doesn't know what he means, and they are both talking about completely different things.
In the middle of the story, I even thought that Miles had a schoolboy crush on his guardian, which was what he kept referring to, even though the governess assumed he was speaking about ghosts. If you read their conversation with this possibility in mind, it would actually fit quite well, though toward the end I had mostly dismissed this idea.

All in all, I believe that I will keep wondering about The Turn of the Screw for a long while, and being so short, I know I will re-read it again in hopes of unlocking further clues that may help me solve the mysteries I found there.

This was a great Halloween read, though I would highly recommend it for anytime of the year.