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Non-SFR group Authors/Works > The Turn of the Screw

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message 1: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1732 comments Henry James' classic The Turn of the Screw came up recently on our Ghost Story thread, since I believe it was a work that significantly influenced Sraub. (Ghost Story is our common read for February, so is now "officially" up for discussion --though some of us have been discussing it already.) I thought James' novella deserved a thread of its own, as a classic of the genre. So any of you who've read it and want to comment on it can post here! One topic of perennial interest is the basic one: is it a ghost story at all, or is the governess simply imagining things? I have an opinion on that subject, but this is your chance to share yours. :-)

In another group I belong to, Litwit Lounge, we also have a Turn of the Screw thread going. Any of you who want to are invited to check out that discussion (and, if you want to join that group, to chime in).

message 2: by Laura (last edited Feb 08, 2009 06:03PM) (new)

Laura (questionableadvice) | 20 comments Well, I just finished The Turn of the Screw. Initially, I picked it up in order to compare it with elements of Ghost Story, but now I find myself interested in it on its own merits.

As I said in my GR review (quoting from myself shamelessly): The Turn of the Screw is a story about...well, it's about "something". What that "something" is depends on who is reading the story and the interpretation they choose to give to it. Ghosts? Insanity? Child Abuse? Supernatural Forces? All of the above?

I have my own ideas, but I would be interested in finding out what everyone else thinks. Do you think the governess was trying to protect the children from supernatural forces? Do you think the children themselves were evil? Do you think the governess was mad?

*********SPOILERS BELOW************

My personal opinion is that the governess was...well, not insane necessarily, but definitely unstable. I first had concerns about her stability when she went into raptures over the children after first meeting them. In a flash she went from worrying about the loneliess and boredom she faced in her new position to the opposite extreme of praising them for their "angelic beauty" and declaring that time spent with them is "the first time...that I had known space and air and freedom" in my "small, smothered life". Anyone who has spent time taking care of children knows that it was very unlikely that time spent with an 8 and 10 year old was "all the romance of the nursery and the poetry of the school room."

As the children begin, inevitably, to fall short of her ideal, her vision of them as angelic is replaced by one of them as evil. She cannot see them as they really are: perfectly ordinary children. If they cannot be angels than they must be devils. And not only does their being evil explain to her personal satisfaction why they have not lived up to her high expectations, but she admits that it adds some excitement to her life; "I used to wonder how my little charges could help guessing that I thought strange things about them ... I trembled lest they should see that they were so immensely more interesting."

To add to her obsessive - and possessive - behavior, she then begins to further isolate them from the only person who might have interfered with her. Although their uncle has demonstrated absolutely no interest in the children, she cannot take the risk that he may change his mind so she takes the additional precaution of "let[ting:] my charges understand that their own letters [to their uncle:] were but charming literary exercises. They were too beautiful to be posted; I kept them myself." In fact, she begins to believe that their desire to see their uncle is actually a desire to hurt and mock her: "it was exactly as if my charges knew how almost more awkward than anything else that might be for me."

In the end she does have a moment of clarity: during her final confrontation with Miles she experiences a moment of doubt and feels the "appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent." However, rather than being good news this possibility terrifies her; "for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?"

In the end she cannot face the possibility that she has done anything but what was right and Miles suffers the consequences of that refusal to see.

********SPOILERS OVER***********

But I would love to know what other people think. Do you think I am way off base? Were the ghosts real? Were the children evil?

ETA: No matter what I do, all my brackets seem to end up with colons next to them. Please ignore.

message 3: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1732 comments For a good collection of critical articles and background material about this novella, as well as the text of the story itself, readers can check out A Casebook on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, ed. by Gerald Willen, 2nd ed. (Crowell, 1969). Laura, most of the literary critics (though by no means all of them) writing in that book agree with your psychological, hallucination theory, so if you're off base, most of the modern critical community is, too! (Though for them, that wouldn't be the first time.... :-)). Of course, modern critics are embarrassed by canonical writers who wrote such disgusting, popular-level trash as actual ghost stories, so they have a strong predisposition to reinterpret such stories if possible.

Personally, I have several reasons for viewing the story as an actual ghostly tale: Douglas, who knew the governess, testified to her worthiness; she had never been told of Quint's existence before she saw him, but Mrs. Grose could recognize him from her description (and the "explanation" that she could have heard a description of him in the village pub --to which James never suggests that she ever went-- strikes me as particularly lame); and the described circumstances of Miles' death are not, IMO, consistent with being frightened to death or smothered by the governess; the intensity of his psychological reaction is only explicable if Quint is a continuing powerful, presence in his life. And at the end, the only interpretation of his words that I find plausible is that he recognizes and admits Quint's continued existence. But then, maybe I'm the one who's way off base! :-)

message 4: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) Maybe I should try re-reading this. It was one of the books forced on me in school & I loathed it then. Pick a paragraph & fall asleep immediately. I've changed my mind on other books since then. Maybe, when my to-read pile gets a little smaller, I should revisit this.

message 5: by Laura (new)

Laura (questionableadvice) | 20 comments Jim - Personally, I don't think this book should be included in a school curriculum. There's nothing wrong with it, but it is so densely written and ultimately ambiguous that I can't imagine it being an enjoyable read for a middle or high school student. And, as you mentioned, that can turn them off a book (or reading in general) for years. Personally, I still feel nothing but loathing for Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies after having to suffer through them in sixth grade.

Werner - I didn't realize that the literary critics agreed with me! Hmmm. Not sure how I feel about that. However in their case(s) I think you may be right that it is more prestigious to read an "intellectual" psychological drama than a so-called "low brow" ghost story.

In my case, well...I don't know for sure. I certainly enjoy ghost stories, but personally I find the idea of insidious insanity to be much more frightening than any outside evil could be. Maybe that's why I interpreted the story the way I did.

message 6: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) Laura, I agree with you, although I have to say I enjoyed both of your examples, but I may have read them in high school & "The Lord of the Flies" tends to appeal to boys much more than girls.

"The Red Pony" was assigned to me 3 times in school & ruined Steinbeck for me for years - until my youngest boy talked me into reading "Of Mice & Men". Then I found I actually liked Steinbeck.

Luckily, no matter how poor the book choices were, I was a fan of reading, but I know it turned off many of my class mates.

message 7: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1732 comments The only novels I remember actually being required to read in school were Great Expectations and Silas Marner, both of which I liked (and I was in college before I read either Animal Farm or The Turn of the Screw). My teachers mostly let us pick whatever books we wanted for book reports, which was a good thing; and I agree that forcing books on kids when they're too young to appreciate them is a real turn-off! (Of course, as a schoolkid I read 19th-century novels for pleasure, but then I was atypical --or as my classmates put it, "weird." :-) If I didn't have anything else to read, I'd even read encyclopedias.)

Laura, for me the fear quotient isn't necessarily the appeal of the supernatural genre --I like a lot of it that isn't scary at all-- but I agree that inner evil is much more frightening than evil "outside." If one views the ghosts here as real, it's possible to see them not as the exclusive sources of evil, but as agents of evil, invoking, nurturing and bringing out an inner evil that's already in the children --and, by extension, in all of us. That's just a thought!

message 8: by Laura (new)

Laura (questionableadvice) | 20 comments Werner, I agree that a story of the supernatural doesn't have to be scary to be good, but in this case the book's entire atmosphere is overwhelmingly one of terror and in order to make sense of it I had to ascribe all that fear to something. Something about how my brain works led me to put the pieces together as a picture of the governess' insanity, rather than as the ghosts of the servants. I think it would be interesting to find out why people interpret this story in so many different ways, and what it says about them.

message 9: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1732 comments Yes, Laura, I think you're right; all of us view what we read through the lens of our own brains --our tastes, attitudes, and experiences-- and that's part of what makes Goodreads endlessly interesting. And when we're reading for pleasure, there's nothing wrong with that! There's a place for careful academic study of authorial intent, but you and I aren't college literature teachers; we just interpret the story in a way that makes it a good, satisfying read for each of us. And if one or the other of us interprets it differently than James intended, I don't imagine he'd rap our knuckles for it --he'd probably just say, "Hey, I'm glad you both liked the book, even more than a century after I wrote it!" :-)

message 10: by Robert (new)

Robert Dunbar | 28 comments I've always assumed that James and Shirley Jackson pretty much invented the modern psychological ghost story between them. (All right, he invented it. She perfected it.) Has anyone read any of James' other ghost stories?

message 11: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1732 comments Yes, I've read a few of them! I think "The Ghostly Rental," "Sir Edmund Orme," and "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" are particularly good. In the latter story, obviously, he uses "romance" in a sense different than the modern publishing industry does; he means a story written in the Romantic style. (So, don't expect to read about a shirt and a blouse trying to hold hands! :-))

message 12: by Robert (new)

Robert Dunbar | 28 comments LOL!
Hold hands? When was the last time you read a romance novel?

message 13: by Laura (last edited Feb 20, 2009 08:18AM) (new)

Laura (questionableadvice) | 20 comments Robert, you must be thinking of romances about the new, "modern" clothes today's kids are wearing. Modern clothes seem to have no qualms about revealing the most intimate details of their lives. On the other hand, romances about nice, respectable older clothing is pretty much limited to holding hands and the occasional kiss (after the engagement is announced).

On a more serious note, I'd also like to suggest Edith Wharton's literary ghost stories. I have to admit that I like them even better than James'.

message 14: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1732 comments Although my wife is an avid reader of modern paperback romances, I'm not; I'm just not thrilled with the "her bones melted at his touch!" school of prose (that really was a line in one book she liked, which will remain mercifully nameless!). However, I do know that in many of the imprints, the activity goes way beyond hand-holding --but I figured that when it's just articles of clothing who are in love, they're not able to do much. :-)

Alfred Bendixen's anthology Haunted Women includes Wharton's top-notch ghost story "Pomegranate Seed," and Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories (which is on our group's "Read" shelf) includes another excellent story by her, the title of which I can't recall at the moment. These are the only two of her supernatural tales that I've read, but if those are a sample, the rest would be well deserving of attention, too! (She was clearly strongly influenced by James, but her style is much less ponderous and her plots less heavily dependent on intuition --and I agree that makes her stories better, based on my limited sample for comparison.) Laura, the library where I work has her collection Tales of Men and Ghosts; have you read that one, and would you recommend it?

message 15: by Laura (new)

Laura (questionableadvice) | 20 comments Well, I just went to pull out my copy of The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton and found a mysterious empty space where it should be, right there between The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country. That probably means I was foolish enough to loan it to someone and it never came home again.

I haven't read Tales of Men and Ghosts, but I looked up the table of contents online and the only story I recognize is "The Eyes". That would actually be a good one to read and compare to The Turn of the Screw in some ways. Darn! Now I want to read it. I'm going to have to get another copy of that book...

message 16: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1732 comments I'm putting Tales of Men and Ghosts on my to- read shelf, too! For a long time, I resisted creating that shelf, because I knew it would grow exponentially; and now it's got close to 90 books on it. (Sigh.) Ah, well, that's what Goodreads does to you.... :-)

message 17: by Robert (new)

Robert Dunbar | 28 comments I absolutely love Edith Wharton's ghost stories. Also Elizabeth Bowen's. Recently got to see an old film called (I think) THE LOST MOMENT, based on James' THE ASPERN PAPERS. Not exactly great cinema, but some lovely, moody nuances. (Plus I've always been a sucker for Agnes Moorehead anyway.) Oh course, it's not exactly a ghost story. Just sort of.

message 18: by Werner (new)

Werner | 1732 comments Robert, did you ever see Agnes Moorehead in the old Night Gallery sketch "Certain Shadows on the Wall?" That one was a gem --and very definitely a ghost story. :-) Of course, I probably should have posted this on the Supernatural Films and TV thread!

message 19: by Robert (new)

Robert Dunbar | 28 comments I seem to have no memory of Night Gallery at all. (Possibly it was on during one of those periods of my misspent youth where I was more interested in stealing televisions than watching them.) I vividly recall her wordless episode in The Twilight Zone however. Wow!

message 20: by Jim (new)

Jim (jimmaclachlan) Samantha's mom was a good actress! Serling could sure pick them for the parts, too. Klugman as the musician, Lee Marvin as the boxer... Wonderful stuff. He even had Elizabeth Montgomery on with Charles Bronson. If she spoke, it was only at the end, just a little, but she did a great job of acting. He had so many great actors doing perfect parts before anyone else seemed to know about them.

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