The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw
Henry James
US, 1898

Every year as summer rolls into autumn, I’m tempted to read something appropriately seasonal—something spooky or mysterious, a story shrouded in mist of the moors or night’s chill darkness. The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps my ur-example, but The Turn of the Screw very neatly fits the bill as well. It is—by all outer appearances, at least—a ghost story: an inexperienced governess tasked with overseeing the care of an orphaned brother and sister who are all but neglected by their uncaring uncle soon sees evil in every corner, in the form of ghostly apparitions, and makes it her mission to save her young charges. But there are more questions raised than answered, and readers and critics alike can’t seem to agree on if this is actually a ghost story or if is really the story of a mentally unstable governess: Jane Eyre with Bertha in the role of governess.

In some ways, I find this a curious question—the story works, no matter how it is read. There are hints that perhaps the governess is unhinged, and the ghosts are “all in her head,” but at the same time it is not implausible, based purely on the text at hand, to assume it is indeed a ghost story. Much is left vague in the text, with things left unsaid or half-said, and characters seeming to talk to each other, but by way of omissions perhaps actually talking past each other. In the end, either there are ghosts, of a most evil variety, or the governess has entirely lost her mind and brings the evil with her. Either the children are innocents, preyed upon by evil influences, or they are cunning, wily participants in their own destruction. Perhaps it is all the above. The interpretation may say as much about the reader and the reader’s expectations as about the novella itself.

James structures his story with a framing introduction, set decades after the main events, and which functions to introduce the governess’s written manuscript which follows.  The man who has this narrative in his possession, Douglas, raises his audience’s expectations greatly, doling out tiny pieces of information, claiming to never have shared it before, that nothing touches it—for “dreadfulness!” It is a bold claim to make, and a risky one to raise expectations so high. But revisiting the frame after finishing the novella, I find it met, regardless of the interpretation of the story, especially in looking at the children: They are corrupted or they are haunted or they are exposed to madness in one who should protect them—maybe all of the above. They may or may not be innocent, but they are certainly vulnerable. The idea of their corruption, in whatever manner, is indeed, “dreadful.” 

For all the uncertainty surrounding the plot and the reliability of the narrator (and in spite of James’s at time obtuse prose), I found it a suspenseful page-turner, one that doesn’t shy away from the concept of evil. Even if there are no literal ghosts, what remains behind is the presence of evil—the ghost, as it were, of past misdeeds. Even if neither child has ever seen a ghost, they have either previously, currently (to the narrative), or in both instances, been exposed to a darkness from outside themselves. This is the horror of the story.