Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
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it was amazing
bookshelves: gothic

“No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”

 photo the-innocents-1961_zpsjib312lw.jpg
Screen shot from the 1961 version of The Innocents based on the James short story.

A governess is hired to look after the nephew and niece of a man who has inherited the responsibility for the children after the death of their parents. He is very explicit in his instructions to the governess that he is not to be bothered with excessive communications. The governess is young and pretty and wants to impress her new employer by doing exactly what he wishes. She wants to be seen as competent, and in a sense this need to please proves to be a vulnerability that, as she tries to shield and protect, she actually puts everyone at more risk.

Risk of what you might ask?

That becomes the unknown element of the story. The reader doesn’t really know what to be afraid of. What nature of evil are we dealing with?

The children are ethereally beautiful. The governess is compromised immediately by preconceived notions, that we all have to a certain extent, that beauty equates to goodness. ”I was dazzled by their loveliness.” When the boy Miles is kicked out of his exclusive school for unrevealed reasons, the governess cannot fathom what he could have possibly done to deserve this level of embarrassing punishment. It was inconceivable to her that he was capable of anything remotely improper.

As the governess begins to try to understand her young charges, she also begins to discover that there are swirling questions about what has happened to other people who have been associated with the children in the past. She cross examines the housekeeper and more carefully the children, ferreting out bits and pieces of information that leave a murky picture in her mind. The reluctance which everyone shows in speaking about the past makes the governess more and more suspicious that something potentially perplexing lies in the truth.

She starts to see dead people.

”I was ready to know the very worst that was to be known. What I had then had an ugly glimpse of was that my eyes might be sealed just while theirs were most opened.”

Her first thought was to protect the innocence of the children, but maybe what she should have been more worried about was protecting her own innocence. It becomes a game of ignoring these phantoms in the hopes that the children would not become aware of the existence of these ghosts, of Quint, the butler, and Miss Jessel, the ex-governess. Both of these people were obsessed with the children when they were alive. The question becomes what do they want with the children now?

Of course, without confirmation of the existence of these supernatural events from other people, one does naturally tend to start questioning one’s own sanity.

Henry James weaves in these awkward interactions between the governess and Miles. There are moments when the young lad seems to be attempting to seduce his governess. He calls her ‘my dear,’ which sounds innocent enough, but when coupled with innuendos, the words take on a more unseemly connotation. The governess is not totally immune to the charm of the handsome boy. “Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain, and I had more pains than one.”

Scholars have debated whether the governess was actually seeing the phantom manifestations or not. There is certainly a desperation to how she attempts to protect the children, fully determined to keep the situation under control without having to contact her employer. We watch her naivety crumble as she is battered by the strange and distant attitudes of the children and the extraordinary circumstances of the spine-chilling past intruding on the present. I was firmly on the side of believing the governess was losing a firm grasp on her sanity, but then James throws a wrinkle into my firm resolve when Miles makes this statement to the governess that they should not miss his sister and the housekeeper (after they have fled the circumstances):

”I suppose we shouldn’t. Of course we have the others.

Or is Miles just playing her.

This is a short story, but it is a short story by Henry James. He has some of the same convoluted, difficult sentences that show up in his novels. They may bewilder on a first read, but after another go they start to make more sense. I’ve read enough James to find those complicated sentences, when they appear like Gordian Knots, more amusing than frustrating. This tale left me jangled and apprehensive as if an apparition were still strumming their fingers along the length of my sciatic nerve. If you read it on the most basic level as a ghost story, you will certainly find it unsatisfying. As I started to understand the deeper psychological implications of the interplay between characters, I started to realize that this is a tragedy with elements of horror that left lasting traumatic issues for those that survived.

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Reading Progress

November 1, 2015 – Started Reading
November 1, 2015 – Shelved
November 1, 2015 – Finished Reading
May 4, 2016 – Shelved as: gothic

Comments Showing 1-40 of 40 (40 new)

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Hanneke Terrific ghost story, I thought.


Jeffrey Keeten Hanneke wrote: "Terrific ghost story, I thought."

It really was. I'm shocked at the amount of negative reviews. I know James's style is out of fashion these days, but WOW! There are some reviews that are on level with the Salem Witch Trials. :-)


message 3: by Hanneke (last edited Nov 02, 2015 09:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Hanneke Boooh! :-) That black & white movie with a famous actress (whose name I cannot remember right now) was beautiful too. Just the right atmosphere as in the book. Only black & white images suited the story in my opinion.


message 4: by Sketchbook (last edited Nov 02, 2015 07:18AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sketchbook Deborah Kerr was the actress. ~~ I don't 'read' this as a ghost story. I see it as a story of sexual repression and corruption, camouflaged for its day as a ghost story.


Jeffrey Keeten Sketchbook wrote: "Deborah Kerr was the actress. ~~ I don't 'read' this as a ghost story. I see it as a story of sexual repression and corruption, camouflaged for its day as a ghost story."

The interplay between Miles and the governess is creepy. The way he talked to her at times was as if he were trying to seduce her. Sketch maybe that is the key to why people struggle with this story. They are wanting a tale of horror more along the lines of Poe and they get James exploring the themes he typically explores with a few phantoms thrown in.


Sketchbook You are, I think, absolutely right. I read this abt age 14-15, not knowing what it was, and being entirely innocent. And..I thought, "Hmmm...this is a 'dirty' story," of course, I was altogether fascinated. (Corruption is always more intriguing than the supernatural !)


Hanneke Yes, exactly so, it is a corruption story. Indeed, a creepy assault on the governess who was too innocent to handle those kids.


Sahel I can't say how much I enjoyed your review. It was like seeing the story from another window. I could not keep the idea of rememgering the movie The Others far from me and till the end I kept telling myself that this new governess would prove to be dead, but then the scene at the lake showed up and I was like what?! I read it as a Halloween ghost story and though I enjoyed it, I totally agree with what you said about finding it unsatisfying! Honestly, this is the second time I am reading your review thoroughly and I now know what I missed the other times. Thank you so much and keep up the good job sir :-)


Jeffrey Keeten Sahel wrote: "I can't say how much I enjoyed your review. It was like seeing the story from another window. I could not keep the idea of rememgering the movie The Others far from me and till the end I kept telli..."

There is certainly more at play in the story than what lies on the surface of the words. When you start to understand that the ghosts are the least terrifying part of the story is when things begin to get interesting! Thank you Sahel! I'm so glad my review offered you some insights and hopefully better allows you to enjoy James's venture into horror.


message 10: by UNRULY BOSS (new)

UNRULY BOSS ghost story i like it it was good beautiful book


Jeffrey Keeten ANISSA ROMEO wrote: "ghost story i like it it was good beautiful book"

I'm glad you enjoyed it ANISSA!


message 12: by Glenn (last edited Nov 03, 2015 05:06PM) (new)

Glenn Russell I’ve read enough James to find those complicated sentences, when they appear like Gordian Knots, more amusing than frustrating.--- Ha! Thanks for this, Jeffrey. Turns out, I'm reading The Aspern Papers and the narrator of this James novella says in the second sentence of Chapter 1, "It was she who found the short cut and loosed the Gordian knot." You have read your Henry James!


Jeffrey Keeten Glenn wrote: "I’ve read enough James to find those complicated sentences, when they appear like Gordian Knots, more amusing than frustrating.--- Ha! Thanks for this, Jeffrey. Turns out, I'm reading The Aspern Pa..."

The Aspern Papers is one of Paul Theroux's favorite books ever. He takes it along on almost every extended trip he takes. (Theroux is so good about sprinkling books he enjoys in his writing.)I'd like to read it again. I'm really looking forward to your review Glenn. Sometimes only James will do. You are welcome and thanks!


message 14: by E (new) - added it

E great as always


Jeffrey Keeten E wrote: "great as always"

Thanks Ehsan! I appreciate your positive feedback!


Bionic Jean Really great review! Thanks Jeffrey :)


Jeffrey Keeten Jean wrote: "Really great review! Thanks Jeffrey :)"

Thanks Jean! I appreciate you reading it!


Steffi Have you seen the mentioned movie?


Jeffrey Keeten Steffi wrote: "Have you seen the mentioned movie?"

No, I haven't.


message 20: by Vessey (new) - added it

Vessey Jeffrey, I'm finally finished with Time and Chance. Lizzy and I are having a buddy-reading and decided to read The Turn of the Screw. I suggested it. :) I will be back here to read your review as soon as I'm finished. :)


Jeffrey Keeten Vessey wrote: "Jeffrey, I'm finally finished with Time and Chance. Lizzy and I are having a buddy-reading and decided to read The Turn of the Screw. I suggested it. :) I will be back here to read your review as s..."

This is a very complicated story, deceptively simple, and many readers miss the important nuances. James is difficult to read anyway. Gees readers loath him, but I've always had a soft spot for him because he is such a damn good writer. If you struggle, do come back and read my review before you give up on the story. I hope you like it from beginning to end, but there are many elements to explore in this story.


message 22: by Eva (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eva Your review illustrates really well how complex this "little" ghost story actually is! Fortunately, my 20-something old self read this first in a literature course in college, because otherwise I might have missed out on a lot this story has to offer. I loved how H. James managed to write the ToftS with this kind of ambiguity and so many possible interpretations and it still stands the test of time. A modern reader will be just as puzzled, frustrated or impressed by ToftS as any of James' contemporaries were, even though we have read a lot more ghost stories, psychologial thrillers with unreliable narrators and so on.


message 23: by Jeffrey (last edited Sep 07, 2016 06:00AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jeffrey Keeten Eva wrote: "Your review illustrates really well how complex this "little" ghost story actually is! Fortunately, my 20-something old self read this first in a literature course in college, because otherwise I m..."

James is difficult at his most accessible for most modern readers. I love the way he challenges me regardless if it is a short story or a novel. I always feel like I become a better writer after reading James. At the same time he isn't flashy, very subtle, and yes, frustrating. :-) I read somewhere that he once had a fan beg him to give them a happy ending with Portrait of a Lady. The man was reading it in serial form in the magazine, of course, James didn't think life was about happy endings. I'm so impressed you enjoyed this at 20! Thanks Eva!


message 24: by Vessey (new) - added it

Vessey Jeffrey wrote: "Vessey wrote: "Jeffrey, I'm finally finished with Time and Chance. Lizzy and I are having a buddy-reading and decided to read The Turn of the Screw. I suggested it. :) I will be back here to read y..."


Jeffrey, I don't think that I would quit reading it because, as you said, the writing is damn good, but still, if I do start feeling like it, I promise to come back and read your review. What you said about me not researching books before I read them....Well, It's true. But you know, YOU help me about that with your gorgeous reviews. Thank you so much! You do so much for GR readers. :)


Lizzy Reading The Turn of the Screw with our mutual friend Vessey, I came back to your review and I found it marvelous, Jeffrey. Henry James though masterful indeed cannot be taken at face value. Is the governess seeing ghosts or is she getting mad? Are the children playing with her or is it all in her head? Thanks for helping me muddle through the first-half of the story, I wonder what is still to come...


Jeffrey Keeten Lizzy wrote: "Reading The Turn of the Screw with our mutual friend Vessey, I came back to your review and I found it marvelous, Jeffrey. Henry James though masterful indeed cannot be taken at face value. Is the ..."

This is actually a fascinating short story. I certainly could have talked about much more. I think Sketch's comments were very astute in the thread as well. There is so much to explore in the story. I certainly understand why readers, who approach this as just a classic horror story, could very well be disappointed. I'm glad I could be of some help Lizzy. I hope you get a chance to share your thoughts in a review.


message 27: by Vessey (new) - added it

Vessey Hey Jeffrey. I'm finally finished. I read your incisive review and some of the comments and - as I expected - I was given a better understanding of this. I had noticed the hints about possible sexual assault having taken place, but in the way the housekeeper would talk about Quint and Ms. Jessel. I hadn't thought that the boy was trying to seduce the narrator, though I did find the way he would talk to her eerie and weird. Still, if it is as it seems, then this would explain it. I didn't think that at that time writers would dare write about such sensitive topic, even if it was only through hints and not outright. I'm afraid that I didn't end up enjoying this a hell of a lot, but I didn't dislike it either. I would say that I liked it fairly well. I was taken with the writing - the sentence you start your review with is a good example for its brilliance - and the way it would constantly challenge me. It's very psychological and thought-provoking. I gave it 3 stars, but am tempted now to give it 4. I suppose that sometimes writing about something helps you to understand better your feelings about it. Plus, as I said, I think it was pretty gutsy of Henry James to explore such themes at that time. I may have to think about it. Thank you so much, Jeffrey! You're wonderful. :) P.S. Btw, I was taken aback with the ending. What happened with the boy? Did he actually die or is this supposed to be ambivalent as well?


Jeffrey Keeten Vessey wrote: "Hey Jeffrey. I'm finally finished. I read your incisive review and some of the comments and - as I expected - I was given a better understanding of this. I had noticed the hints about possible sexu..."

I'm glad you hung in there. I think it is important to understand the significance of a book and the author's intent sometimes before reading a book. For me it helps me enjoy and understand a book or story as I read it. Henry James is tough. He challenges readers.

I was up late last night discussing with a friend the difference in how your generation and previous generations read and process books. This might also explain the surge in adults reading so much more YA than ever before. Your generation wants clear answers and doesn't really like ambiguity in your reading. We used the "spoon fed" term a lot last night. (We are trying to figure out exactly how best to market to millenniums through our publication...High Plains Journal.) We were talking in generalities of course not about exceptional people like yourself. What I really like about this story is James puts a lot of responsibility on the reader to figure out what is going on. I don't think, on a lot of points, there is a wrong or a right answer. It is how YOU felt about the situation.

James was definitely pushing the envelope with his hints of socially unacceptable topics.

Henry James has a very small fan club, but hey, no surprise, I'm one of those few hardy souls. Kudos to you for making it through the story.


Mashal Ahmad I still couldn't understand the end of the story? what the hell did really happen? whether the boy died? or what ugh! I need an end man.


Jeffrey Keeten Mashal wrote: "I still couldn't understand the end of the story? what the hell did really happen? whether the boy died? or what ugh! I need an end man."

(view spoiler)

Although I would contend that real life rarely has the conclusive endings that we find in fiction. :-)


message 31: by Mark (new)

Mark Walsh The fact that whats happening is brilliantly NOT spelled out is what makes "Turn of the Screw" so great.


Jeffrey Keeten Mark wrote: "The fact that whats happening is brilliantly NOT spelled out is what makes "Turn of the Screw" so great."

Absolutely! I agree completely!


message 33: by Vessey (new) - added it

Vessey Thank you for this great review. I was happy to read it again. :)


Paul  Perry I keep meaning to re-read this. I just didn't get it, didn't find the story spooky or particularly engaging but I know how well regarded it is - although I'm also aware it has been called "the most over-rated ghost story every written".


Jeffrey Keeten Paul wrote: "I keep meaning to re-read this. I just didn't get it, didn't find the story spooky or particularly engaging but I know how well regarded it is - although I'm also aware it has been called "the most..."

Hmmm I guess if one looks around long enough they can always find someone to agree with them. I've never seen this listed as the most overrated ghost story ever written. Whoever said that really sounds like someone suffering from sour grapes who just didn't catch the subtleties of the story and was pissed off that others regard the story so highly. This story makes almost every list of best ghost short stories ever written. But you know Paul not every story resonates with every reader. I'm also a big fan of Henry James and have read many of his novels so maybe someone like me is more keyed into how James thinks. How can a story be overrated that so many people have seen value in? I just think it isn't your cup of tea Paul.


message 36: by Marion Lovings (new)

Marion Lovings Nice quote


message 37: by Marion Lovings (new)

Marion Lovings Nice quote


Jeffrey Keeten Marion Lovings wrote: "Nice quote"

Thanks Marion!


Amanda Lawrenson I loved the creepy atmospheric 1961 film, but when I read the book I didn't enjoy it as much as the film. I feel I want to read it again though. I've not read any other Henry James but I've got two on my to read list based on film versions I've watched. I also read a book once where the main character was doing a thesis on the sentence structure of Henry James or something along those lines 😁


Jeffrey Keeten Amanda wrote: "I loved the creepy atmospheric 1961 film, but when I read the book I didn't enjoy it as much as the film. I feel I want to read it again though. I've not read any other Henry James but I've got two..."

This is such an influential piece of literature. Readers certainly benefit from reading it more than once. James is not easy and does not appear on many reading lists anymore, but I queue him up because he is such a challenging writer. A reader must be patient with James. It takes a while to move the mind into the flow of his writing. Once there it is smoother sailing.


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