Sometimes it is good to take a break from reading popular, modern stuff and take a look at some of the classics. What made them classics? In the Turn of the Screw by Henry James, there are several reasons this novella has and will be discussed for a long time.
THE STORY: There is a group of friends, men, and women, gathered together in an old house where, for evening entertainment, they decide to take turns telling each other stories. Mystery and horror stories are popular. One guest claims to know a story that will strike horror into the hearts of any listener. He knows the story but feels it more effective if he reads the story as it was written by a former governess. The guests must wait until the journal is received from a nearby inn. Suspense builds.
The former governess is the narrator, her words are read by the guest. The governess has been retained to take care of and teach the children of a self-centered, narcissistic uncle. His one stipulation is that the governess is to be in complete charge; he wants to hear no complaints or communication from her. She is pleased with the amount of money she will receive. She might be from a lower middle-class background but she will be living in a mansion and will be in charge of approximately six other household staff. She arrives at the mansion overwhelmed by her good fortune and position. She meets young Flora. The slightly older Miles is away at school but will soon arrive home for vacation. She meets Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, who will become her confidant and soundboard for any discussion of problems.
There has been a previous housekeeper, Miss. Jessel. She’s dead. There was a previous all around handyman guy, Quint. He’s dead. The governess catches sight of their ghosts occasionally and becomes convinced that Flora and Miles can see them but are doing so surreptitiously so as to fool her, the governess. She convinces Mrs. Grose of this and enlists her aid in watching the children very closely. The children are never out of the pair’s sight. So we have a ghost story, a conspiracy story, and a control story. The governess suggests that there was something unnatural in the relationships of Quint with Miles and the one of Flora with Miss. Jessel. No suggestions are overt; the reader can tell there is a lot of eyebrow raising between the governess and Mrs. Gose.
The children are initially described by the governess as extremely well behaved. She will later have the opinion that the children are extremely empathetic and are able to deduce what behavior is expected of them then perform accordingly. The governess is not wrong in this and her later opinion will be confirmed when the children become more direct in their attempts to escape governess control.
Is this primarily a ghost story? Is there a possibility these ghosts are living in hiding?
Is this a story about a sociopath governess who is losing her grip on reality?
What is the real story about the children’s former lives and who is a credible source for the information?
Why did Miles get kicked out of school?
You will get answers to none of these questions but you will think about all of them.
This is a novella but that does not mean this is a quick read. The vocabulary is complex; the sentences are long. As an example, what follows is a sentence by the governess. She wants to shield her charges from the ghosts. This is before she suspects the children might be in league with the ghosts. After an initial sighting of the ghosts she describes her mission:
“I had an absolute certainty that I should see again what I had already seen, but something within me said that by offering myself bravely as the sole subject of such experience, by accepting, by inviting, by surmounting it all, I should serve as an expiatory victim and guard the tranquility of my companions.” (p. 24).