Friday, September 21, 2012

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James


The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, 1898

I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at his interlocutor with his hands in his pockets. "Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It's quite too horrible." This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it."

"For sheer terror?" I remember asking.

He seemed to say it was not so simple as that; to be really at a loss how to qualify it. He passed his hand over his eyes, made a little wincing grimace. "For dreadful--dreadfulness!"

"Oh, how delicious!" cried one of the women.

He took no notice of her; he looked at me, but as if, instead of me, he saw what he spoke of. "For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."

"Well then," I said, "just sit right down and begin." ---- (page 4)

Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898), like many classics of apprehension and horror, relies on uncertainty and shadowy, mysterious occurrences to wind up the story's tension and suspense. The novella begins as a fairly straightforward Victorian ghost story, following familiar patterns (the uneasy young governess, the mysterious old mansion in the country, the hushed-up family secrets) to the point of being a pastiche. The main narrative is even framed by a prologue in which the story is read aloud at a Christmas gathering devoted to the telling of horror stories. Although the first sighting of a ghost certainly takes the protagonist by surprise, the reader knows exactly what to expect. James has lured his audience into a certain level comfort and complacency; at first, the story's suspense comes not from the question of whether a supernatural threat will be revealed, but when it will be revealed.

As the tale progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that it is no simplistic bump-in-the-night horror story. The governess at first appears to be merely a sensitive, slightly daffy young woman with a strong sense of drama, but as time passes, her narration becomes dense, claustrophobic, paranoid, almost breathless in its sense of rising terror. The central question of the novella only emerges towards the end: is the governess simply insane, is she truly seeing the ghosts or is she perhaps the one terrorizing the children herself?

James offers no obvious answers; the conclusion of the novella is entirely ambiguous. Miles, the small boy in the governess's care, dies in the very last sentence, after a conversation that the governess sees as a battle between herself and Peter Quint for possession of his soul. The governess seems to attribute Miles's death to Quint's influence leaving his body, but it's an entirely subjective analysis. Likewise, Miles seems to finally see Quint's ghost at the end of the story, but again, this is just the governess's reading of the situation. Nearly all of the novella's text is the protagonist's own narration of the story; only a small fraction is dialogue, and the dialogue that is related can be interpreted in any number of ways, assuming that the governess's point-of-view is unreliable. Depending on which way you read it, Miles's words could be those of an innocent, carefree little boy, or thinly disguised threats from a malicious fiend. Either version fits in perfectly with the evidence presented in the text.
Another example of James's refusal to spell anything out is the novella's constant sexual references, innuendo and insinuations, none of which are explicitly stated. The thinly veiled references to Quint and Jessel's inappropriate relationship, the governess's embarrassing and unrequited crush on her new employer, the sinister hints about Miles's behavior at school and, worst of all, the possibility that one or both of the children were sexually molested by one or both of the ghosts. The atmosphere of unhealthy, perhaps perverted sexuality permeates the story, and yet the theme is so cloaked in Victorian manners that it's almost possible to imagine that it's not there. But it is, and James perhaps intended the work to be a bit of a satire of the sexual repression of the age. Would the governess have been able to more effectively deal with the situation if she had been able to admit to herself that there was a sexual element? Could her own repressed attitude towards sex (shown by her unwillingness to openly acknowledge her attraction to her employer) be playing some role in the events—for instance, could her belief that the children's innocence is being destroyed be some commentary on her own view of sexuality? There are even some subtle suggestions that it is she, not the ghosts, who is corrupting and terrorizing the children, possibly in a sexual way.

The actual text of the novella offers no solid answer to any of these questions; what makes the tale frightening is the uncertainty, which James has no intention of clearing up, even at the climax. Both readings of the story (that the governess is crazy, or that she's right and no one believes her) are horrifying in their own way, which is what makes it effective. Whichever side you take—and readers have been taking sides since the novella was published—the end result is unsettling and sinister.
Personally, I think the governess truly is seeing ghosts, and that they do have some sort of hold over the children. Her narration and interpretation of events is, of course, entirely unreliable, but there are several solid pieces of evidence that she is truly seeing something supernatural. For instance, she is able to perfectly describe Peter Quint to Mrs. Grose without having any way to know what he looks like. Douglas, the guest in the prologue who reads the story, seems genuinely disturbed by it, and describes the governess affectionately (perhaps because he is in love with her), which isn't something he would likely do if he thought she was insane. And to me, the idea of a normal, albeit quirky, woman being driven crazy by something no one else will acknowledge is even more insidiously frightening than if the governess was simply psychotic.

The point of the story, of course, is that we are entirely dependent on the governess's deeply subjective version of events. In her own eyes, she is a hero, selflessly protecting the children from the hellish influence of unnatural spirits. James gives us no other window into the situation, no other point of view to see the story from. It seems that the question of whether the governess is good or evil or either is up to the reader to determine. That uncertainty is the core of what makes the story frightening. To be honest, I found analyzing the novella after the fact more interesting than reading it. The dense, gimmicky prose is a bit boring after a while. This is one classic that, in my opinion, is more interesting to discuss and consider that it is to read.

NEXT UP: One of the hottest books of the fall, J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy.