Review: “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James

I sobbed in despair: ‘I don’t save or shield them! It’s far worse than I dreamed. They’re lost!’

Henry James’ curious gothic short story remains very ambiguous. More well known for his novels than short stories, exploration of women and society rather than gothic, horror tales, this short story shows a lesser known side of James. Turn of the Screw is told to an unknown narrator while he is staying in an hotel. The story survives in an old journal that once belonged to the young governess who is now long dead. It is her tale that we hear.

Taking up a governess position in the isolated country side, she is placed in charge of two young children who have been recently orphaned. The children’s guardian, their uncle, while generous with his wages and flexibility to the young governess has one condition – that the governess must never bother him with anything and that she should deal with everything as she sees fit. Once installed in the isolated mansion, the governess (who remains unnamed) suspects that something sinister has taken place on the grounds. She instantly falls in love with her young charges, Flora and Miles, who appear to be the most beautiful and angelic children. However, the governess soon realises that they are haunted by Miss Jessel, the previous governess, and Peter Quint, a previous groundsman.

Turn of the Screw is unlike any other gothic, horror story I’ve read. There’s the suspense and the chills and thrills but the horror is what you imagine yourself. The ambiguity throughout the story, with James refusing to spell out in detail what the exact horrors are, keeps the suspense up. While it is short story, the writing is very dense and intense and it seems so much more than a short tale. Character’s are so in-depth that I didn’t realise that the governess remains nameless! It is, however, not an easy read but it is one of those tales that I will go back to from time to time in order to gain new understanding.

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4 comments

  1. You know, this is also one of the books that I would love to reread. I read 3 years ago, and just could not come to any conclusion as to what exactly may have occured.

    I am sure I would not figure it out to my satisfaction even if I read it again, but I am sure I will definitely enjoy it again.

    1. It’s a really clever piece of writing by James isn’t it? None of the horror is really specified but the ‘feeling’ of horror and fear is there. It’s a nice experimentation on how to guide readers’ imagination.

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