This was the Read Harder 2018 task I was looking least forward to, and I managed to push it off until the last possible moment, but at least I am completing the challenge this year. Task 24 was to “read an assigned book you hated (or never finished)”. In reality I have very few books that I never completed, and the ones that I hated I don’t really feel emotionally prepared to ever read again (Beloved is a tough book, The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald can fuck right off, and I’ve already read Lord of the Flies three times and The Metamorphosis twice so I feel as though I have done my time). It took months before I realized that I had a book sitting on my shelf that I had taken from my mother because I intended to get back to it all along, and just hadn’t yet. It was time, 20 years later, to give The Turn of the Screw another chance.
It wasn’t this book’s fault I never read it when it was assigned my sophomore year of high school. I missed the week we covered it in English as I was attending my grandfather’s funeral and my teacher exempted me from the assignments surrounding it as long as I did other parts of the unit. But Henry James, and his influence, are everywhere in the literary world of trans-Atlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and he knew and influenced nearly every major writer on either side of the Atlantic during the same time frame.
The story concerns an unnamed governess who finds a position caring for two children in the English countryside, eight-year-old Miles and six-year-old Flora. Both children are sweet, and the governess feels an instant connection with the precocious Miles. He is supposed to be at boarding school but was expelled for mysterious reasons. The governess can’t understand what a boy as angelic as Miles could possibly have done to get expelled so suddenly and irrevocably.
As she watches the children, she notices a man watching them from afar. He frightens her, and she discovers from the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, that this shadow matches the description of the master’s former valet, Peter Quint. The governess begins to see another ghost: Miss Jessel, her predecessor. The governess learns that Quint and Miss Jessel had an affair, and that both died mysteriously and that the two may have had an inappropriate relationship with the children. She begins to suspect that the children see the ghosts, too, and that the ghosts are determined to corrupt the children somehow. She vows to save them from these spectral predators from beyond the grave.
There has been debate over the years about whether the ghosts are real, or the governess is slowly losing her mind. Another one posits that the true villain of the story might be Mrs. Grose. It’s possible that Mrs. Grose, disgruntled at losing her place as the children’s primary caretaker slowly drives the governess to madness by planting disturbing ideas in her mind. These all fit in with what James is known for: describing the internal states of mind and social dynamics of his characters and making use of a style in which ambiguous or contradictory motives and impressions were overlaid in the discussion of a character’s psyche. This is on full display with this novel – we are left to puzzle out what we think is really happening, and the novel can be viewed from any number of vantage points. Its no wonder the ambiguity of his late works have been compared to impressionist paintings.
As far as the novel is concerned, I don’t think it has quite the same shock value it had when it was first published, but it still maintains an eerie quality. If gothic literature or classic ghost stories are your thing than you might want to add this to your list is you haven’t yet, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone else.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. We begin our ELEVENTH year in the coming days and are always looking for new readers who want to review what they’ve read and help us raise money to say “fuck you” to cancer.