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The Turn of the Screw
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Archived > Turn of the Screw - Week 4 (October 2016)

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Nicole Week One: October 23 - 29

This week's reading covers Chapters 19 - 24

Feel free to leave your thoughts about this week's reading below as well as an discussion questions you may like to discuss.

Marta (gezemice) | 214 comments It was short so I finished it quickly.

I don't get ghost stories and horror in general, so not sure if my opinion really counts here. It irked me from the beginning - it relied on overdramatizing little things. The governess flew into hysterics about everything, even normal child-rearing situations, such as answering the simple question "when am I going back to school?" She failed to investigate why Miles was kicked out, she failed to notify the uncle (whose order to be not disturbed was a cheap plot device), she failed to stand up to the children's manipulation. She overwexed over tiny things. She described the ghosts as terrors and amoral, without knowing anything about them or their intentions. She jumped to conclusions without asking questions. All this in difficult to understand, overwrought sentences.

Overall I thought it was ridiculous, melodramatic drivel, and I would not have finished it, had it been longer.

Angie I finished it a couple of days ago. After vacillating between two and three stars, I wound up giving it three stars.

I've only read one other work by Henry James, and I didn't care for his writing style then. I'm still not in love with it. I agree with Marta that the governess overdramatzed Every. Little Thing. It wore thin after a while. That said, I did enjoy The Turn of the Screw once I reached the halfway point. By that point, I had decided that governess was insane, and the book became an interesting character study. As a ghost story, it's kind of a non-event.

message 4: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian | 256 comments Mod
I finished this last week. I did not like the writing style and it will dissuade me from reading some of the other Henry James books I have burning a hole in my kindle. I agree with the governess overdramatizing everything - Was this done so that you question her sanity?

Madeline Easton I must admit I really don't know what to make of this book. I can see both sides of the argument of whether she is seeing ghosts or is actually insane. There is potential support for both.

Ghosts: she saw Quint and described him perfectly to Mrs. Grose without ever seeing or knowing about him; Miles recognizes him in the last chapters; the governess is not committed to an insane asylum and instead is hired for another family (as we know from the prologue); Mrs. Grose says she believes the governess and acts like she believes her, ultimately leaving her alone with Miles (which I highly doubt would be done if Mrs. Grose thought her insane)

Insane: literally no one else ever sees the ghosts (Miles' naming of Peter Quint could be because he suspects that is who the governess is seeing); as Marta, Angie, and Ian stated above, the governess overdramatized every little thing without actually taking any action, basically implying everything is in her head; the actions and words of the other characters are so ambiguous that it almost seems like they're walking on eggshells to avoid setting her off.

Honestly, while I can't say I loved this book or really enjoyed it, I still gave this book a rating of 4 stars because I'm going to be thinking about this book for days. I will never be entirely sure of what actually happened, and while that is frustrating, the fact that I'm going to puzzle over it days after I'm done tells me that it is a rather good book.

Nicole I really enjoyed the beginning of this book! The initial sittings of the ghost were sincerely frightening even though the writing was subtle and the scenes were unadorned. James is a masterful writer and know how to set a scene.

However, about the halfway mark I started to loose interest. I would have enjoyed the story much more if it was more of an account of the children, the ghosts and the governess. I was more frustrated than riveted when it came to questioning the governess' sanity.

Pole: Who thinks the ghosts were real and who thinks the governess was just crazy?

I do believe the ghostly presence' were real. The governess was an absolutely hopeless woman (shame on you James, for writing a book with a stereotypical melodramatic woman), but the children behaved so oddly and the physical features for the ghosts were so definitely confirmed by Mrs. Grose, that I really do believe the governess saw the deceased spirits.


Also, what in the world happened to Miles?! Did he die?! So ambiguous; I'm so confused!

Kimberly | 145 comments I debated what to give this book, 3 or 4 stars. I ended up going with 4. The writing style kind of drove me nuts, but I was still really intrigued with what was happening. James created such a feeling of suspense and scariness. ;) :)

I find the discussion of whether the governess was insane or not very intriguing. Personally, I don't think I'd have ever thought that if I had read this book on my own. The prologue showed that she went on to work at other places without any issues such as at her first post. But, after reading the thoughts everyone posted after the first week, I could see how others thought this. And, I tried to see both sides as I read. :)

I do think the ghosts were real. My reasoning being the same as Nicole's. She described them to Mrs. Grose, who was then able to name them as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The governess had never seen them before but was able to describe them to Mrs. Grose.

As for the ending, I believe Miles died. :( And, with the use of the term "dispossessed" used, I think maybe the ghosts were possessing the children. That's why they acted strange at times, much older than their years, and when Miles claimed he was expelled for "saying things" it was probably while he was possessed by Quint.

Nicole That's a real possibility, I hadn't thought much on that Kimberly. I'm glad you enjoyed the story, I also found is a bit unnerving and enjoyed that part of it.

On to Anna Karenina! Are you picking this one up with us for November/December?

Kimberly | 145 comments Nicole wrote: "That's a real possibility, I hadn't thought much on that Kimberly. I'm glad you enjoyed the story, I also found is a bit unnerving and enjoyed that part of it.

On to Anna Karenina! Are you pickin..."

Sorry it's taken so long to respond. Yes and no... I just read Anna Karenina in July! :O So, although I won't be rereading it, I'll still be following along with the discussions. :) :) :)

message 10: by Adam (new) - rated it 3 stars

Adam | 4 comments While the book didn't have a lot of substance, I enjoyed what little of it was there. I legitimately got chills whenever the narrator had one of her ghostly encounters, and I think the ambiguous nature of her visions made the story feel surprisingly modern.

I think Miles was certainly dead at the end - the only question was whether or not she killed him herself (either accidentally or intentionally).

message 11: by Paula (new) - rated it 1 star

Paula I thoroughly disliked this story. I could find nothing in it of redeeming value except for some of the lines by Miles. But he was being influenced by a spirit. He was the best part of the book as far as I'm concerned. It received 1 lonely star from me. I'm probably in the minority with that review.

Nicole I'm sorry to hear that Paula, but thank you for sharing your opinion. Very often it is dissenting opinions that provoke the most thought and discussion.

Will you be joining us for Anna in the months of Nov/Dec? I just started it this morning and find it much easier to read thus far.

message 13: by Paula (new) - rated it 1 star

Paula Nicole wrote: "I'm sorry to hear that Paula, but thank you for sharing your opinion. Very often it is dissenting opinions that provoke the most thought and discussion.

Will you be joining us for Anna in the mon..."

I won't be reading this classic with you. I've read it and enjoyed it, but presently, I'm trying to get through a long list of books I wanted to read before the end of the year. In my part of the world, that gives me two months as of today. I hope you enjoy it too. The only problem I had (which was only in the very beginning) with AK was remembering the names of each character, who they were, and how they were associated with one another. I look forward to joining you all for the January '17 read.

message 14: by Michelle (new) - added it

Michelle (mich2689) | 219 comments Like most of you, I too thought the governess was being melodramatic and about halfway into the book I started getting annoyed by this. She was overthinking and making assumptions about everything. Mrs Gross appeared to be an easily influenced and weak character.

I'm still confused about the ending. I guess the boy had been possessed after all and the governess made the ghost leave? That explains why the kids sometimes talked like they are little adults.

I'm curious to know what went on before with the kids and the previous governess and Quint!

message 15: by M. (new) - rated it 2 stars

M. Noelle (mnoelle) | 31 comments I was just wanting to read a scary story for Halloween, but I didn't find this scary at all. So I'm sort of bummed about it.

message 16: by Marta (new) - rated it 1 star

Marta (gezemice) | 214 comments "Poll: Who thinks the ghosts were real and who thinks the governess was just crazy?

Honestly, the story made little sense either way. I think they were supposed to be real - the kids saw them, and they were supposed to be possessing the children. But to what purpose? We learn nothing of the ghosts, except that they were "amoral". There is no suspense because we never learn why the ghosts died, why they haunt, why they want to possess the children.

Miles dying makes no sense. So the governess gets hysteric and yells at him and he admits some lies. How is that "dispossessing"? And why would he die? You'd think he would get relieved.

Sorry, but I cannot find anything that follows any logic in this story. None of it makes any sense to me.

message 17: by Marta (new) - rated it 1 star

Marta (gezemice) | 214 comments I would also like to point out the overt sexism. It is mentioned that the female sex is weaker and limited; the governess has limited knowledge; and she is a melodramatic hysteric, I am guessing because James thinks that's how women act under duress, which is total BS.

message 18: by Paula (new) - rated it 1 star

Paula Marta wrote: ""Poll: Who thinks the ghosts were real and who thinks the governess was just crazy?

Honestly, the story made little sense either way. I think they were supposed to be real - the kids saw them, ..."

You have taken the words right out of my mouth. I agree with Madeline as well. This was not a scary story. For a scary story, I thought "Rebecca" offered more. IMO
But I think it's good for us to read a variety of books. Some people will think a book is amazing and some will say they didn't like it at all. When I compare books with my friends on Goodreads, I find this to be true quite often.

message 19: by Marta (new) - rated it 1 star

Marta (gezemice) | 214 comments Paula, I just read Rebecca and absolutely loved it. I wholeheartedly agree. Daphne du Marier evokes a sense of atmospheric unease with a slow, brilliant, constant foreshadowing and a haunting setting. The narrator is naive but not hysteric. James is just gimmicky.

message 20: by Paula (new) - rated it 1 star

Paula Marta wrote: "Paula, I just read Rebecca and absolutely loved it. I wholeheartedly agree. Daphne du Marier evokes a sense of atmospheric unease with a slow, brilliant, constant foreshadowing and a haunting setti..."

That house in "Rebecca" is a character all its own!

message 21: by Marta (last edited Nov 13, 2016 05:31PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Marta (gezemice) | 214 comments Paula wrote: "That house in "Rebecca" is a character all its own! ."

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

Jon | 397 comments 1. (SPOILERS) This is part of my 2017 Catch Up reading list. The text I used for The Turn of the Screw was the one I got in school. It is a Norton Critical Editions issue, edited by Robert Kimbrough, complete with the authoritative text, background and source materials (such as excerpts of letters from James to many significant sources such as H. G. Wells, F. W. H. Myers, and W. D. Howells, plus excerpts from prefaces he wrote for his collected works), and also many essays in criticism. I looked at some of these sources, and have drawn from a few of them where I indicate.

2. I consider the Turn of the Screw (“TTS) to be the most cleverly devised literary “trap” in English literature. There are other equally crafty traps written by excellent writers, such as “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie. But for sheer economy of effect, terror, shock and dismay, with an incredible paucity of plot and character, I think TTS stands as a supreme example of that economy. I should add that James himself, in one of his prefaces, characterized TTS as “a trap for the unwary.” And I think it is the very sparseness of the characterization and the restricted narrator viewpoint that springs such a trap upon the “unwary reader.”

3. What is that trap? When I first read this in college, I posed myself with the same question that many other readers have likely done, namely that “either the ghosts are real or they are not.” But when I finished it this second time, I realized that this question is the very trap that James tried to set for the unwary reader. This time through, I saw many examples of the terror that account for the governess’ resolve under profound pressure, with poor sweet Flora being reduced to hysteria, and Miles being frightened to death. These events all have a very real, even a kind of hypnotic effect, upon me. Their power is in the way they structure such a good story, because they heighten the impact of such unimaginable evil. So the presence of profound evil pervades ever page.

4. This time through, I tried to read it from the children’s perspective, as did a critic named Harold C. Goddard. Some of my comments here derive from his critical essay. His primary focus is that fear, like faith, ultimately creates what at first it only imagines. And it amazed me how easy it was to see that the children are both basically normal children who gradually become strange and unnatural. That happens for the sound reason that the children gradually become conscious of the strangeness and unnaturalness of the governess’ own attitude toward them. They become deathly afraid not so much of the ghosts as they are of the governess herself. She does not try to terrify them, but she begins to react to those ghosts with darting, furtive glances into thin air, wild gestures, and also the terror in her own face. She gradually grows into a monster as they watch the process happening. They cannot put it into words; they have never heard of nervousness, let alone insanity. But they sense it and grow afraid. And she accepts the abnormal condition into which their fear of her has thrown them---all as proof of their engagement with the ghosts. In this way her madness and their fear augment each other, until the situation produces several scenes of sheer terror.

5. One such scene is when the governess goes to Miles’ bedside, asks him about his experiences at school, and then tries to wring from him some confession of his satanic doings with Quint (Section XVII). I tried not to read this scene from the governess’ own accounting, but rather from Miles’ viewpoint. Keep in mind he has already been thinking about her strangeness, and that he has already told her “To let me alone.” That is because he has already sensed in her behavior an odd suppressed excitement that he does not like. That excitement continues to rise until she finally drops to her knees by his bed and pleads “I just want you to help me to save you!” Keep in mind that he is just a hapless 10-year old unable to comprehend the terrifying thing from which she claims to want to save him. He sees that he may be in the clutches of an insane woman on her knees trying to grab him in a hysterical embrace. If I did not know better, I would consider this scene a perfect environment for a dog-and-pony act at a spiritual revival show. So what is his reaction? A full-throated shriek by the boy. And what does the governess next think? She interprets that shriek as strong evidence of the presence of the ghost she wants to exorcise from him. In short, his reaction is quite normal; hers is a self-fulfilling fantasy.

6. The scene at the lake (Scene XX) is equally dramatic for its contrast between the young girl’s normal reaction to bizarre behavior and the governess’ ongoing delusions. It is no accident that Flora eventually has to tell the governess and Mrs. Grose at the lake “I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I never have. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you,” and then finally, “Take me away, take me away—oh, take me away from her!” Flora certainly has memories of Miss Jessel, including the crude language and behavior that we associate with Miss Jessel (as Mrs. Grose had already identified). So those memories, whatever they were, are linked to her fear of the aberrant behavior of the current governess. It is only logical that Flora would revert to the language used by Miss Jessel. To poor Mrs. Grose, this language is final proof of Flora’s indoctrination into some diabolical influence from Miss Jessel. And an unwary reader will also draw that inference. But to me, it is proof of absolutely nothing except Flora’s delirium brought on by the governess’ own behavior.

7. Nor is it an accident that Miles tells the governess on the way to church (Section XIV) “Well----I want to see more life” and “I want my own sort!” and that he wants her to contact his uncle to find him a new place to go. And I appreciate the sense of despair in his mind when he steals and opens the envelope he asked the governess to send to the uncle, and he finds nothing in that envelope at all. Does he suspect that he is in the hands of a woman gradually descending into madness? I do not know, but when I read that final scene from his perspective, I realize he is desperately looking for whatever is causing that bizarre behavior, and that she has an almost religious frenzy in her effort to somehow exorcize Quint’s ghost out of him. Recall that she sees the ghost of Quint at the window, and that she wants to break through the barrier that she thinks Miles has erected to protect Quint. But she never says the word “Quint.” It is only Miles who does that, and he does that because she has maneuvered him with the statement “It is not Miss Jessel!” He knows fully well that Quint is dead and that he has seen no ghosts, and yet the governess claims to be seeing Quint. He frantically looks around for the cause of her delusion. He says, “Where?” and never sees anything. But he has no rational way to deal with that, and I think he is frightened to death by that terror and by her own crazed behavior.

8. Let me add that I have absolutely no doubt that the governess sees those ghosts. They are very real to her, or rather as real as she can conjure them from the few scraps of detail she uses to get what she thinks is a confirmation of their identity from Mrs. Grose. But I recommend looking at how she induces Mrs. Grose step by step to pronounce the name of Peter Quint in Section V. Some readers use that scene to justify their confidence that the ghosts are real, and that they are truly menacing the children. This is a critical scene because she has so far been unable to comprehend what she is witnessing on that secluded estate, with her supreme control over the children, and her frustrated love for the uncle leaving her in angry rejection. So she needs Mrs. Grose to provide her a fix or a solution, in part to confirm her need to protect the children, and also to escape her feelings of romantic rejection by their uncle. As a reminder, the governess has already seen the ghost (soon to be identified as Peter Quint) twice before, so she has what may seem to be a very reliable description of him for Mrs. Grose. But is it reliable? She describes him as: “like nobody,” he “has no hat,” he has “red hair, very red, close curling, and a pale face, long in shape, with straight good features, and little rather queer whiskers.” He also has eyebrows that are “somehow darker, they look particularly arched, and as if they might move a good deal.” There are similar details about his face, and she then says, “He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor.” This is an important part of her description, because she tells Mrs. Grose also that she has never seen an actor, but that is how she supposes them to appear. And then she says, “He’s tall, active, erect, but never----no, never!---a gentleman.” And when Mrs. Grose then asks her if he is handsome, the governess says “Remarkably!” Finally, she tells Mrs. Grose he is dressed “In somebody’s clothes. They’re smart, but they are not his own.” This information all seems to add up to a comprehensive profile of the ghost. It also seems fatal to my idea that the ghosts are only delusions devised in the feverish labors of the mind of the governess. But is it a comprehensive profile, when you consider how Mrs. Grose responds? Or, to put it another way, what details trigger her specific memory of Quint? The answer is the very prosaic, non-characteristic detail that he has no hat and that his clothes look as though he was wearing someone else’s (specifically, “missing waistcoat”). Is there some decorum for ghosts that specify that good ghosts only wear hats and their own clothes? More importantly, Mrs. Grose responds to those police line-up descriptions at the intellectual level that her education and cultural experience support. She is trained to look for the class distinctions that originate with clothing and outward appearance only. She cannot identify him in terms of acting skill or dynamism or outward behavior. In short, the governess finds the few non-essential details that give Mrs. Grose her suspicion about Quint, but this exercise unwittingly unleashes in the governess’ mind all the necessary information to formulate the jet fuel for her passionate protection of the children.

message 23: by Jon (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jon | 397 comments Marta wrote: ""Poll: Who thinks the ghosts were real and who thinks the governess was just crazy? Honestly, the story made little sense either way. I think they were supposed to be real - the kids saw them, ..."

That poll question about the ghosts being real or not misses the boat, I think. This is the "trap for the unwary" that Henry James set when he wrote the story (I suggest you read my review). To me, the point is that those ghosts are intensely real to the governess, whether she imagines them or not. And you are likely incorrect that the children ever see the ghosts. In reality, they see the wild behavior of the governess and rightly wonder if they are in the hands of a mad woman. And that is certainly enough to terrify them.

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