Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Turn of the Screw

The next book I have chosen for my October reading is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  This well-known novella is a classic ghost story that people seem to love or hate.  It begins with a group of people swapping scary stories around a fireplace when one man claims that he knows a story so horrible that nothing else could possibly compare to it.  The group convinces him to share the story, and he reluctantly retrieves the ancient diary of a once-loved governess and begins to read.

The setting is perfect for a ghost story - a young, naive governess is sent to a mysterious and isolated English country home that is wrapped in mystery from the day she arrives.  She is told never to communicate with the legal guardian and attends to two recently orphaned children with only the housekeeper for company.  The children themselves are so beautiful and so well-behaved that it is suspicious, and she constantly guesses at their real thoughts and motivations.  Before long, she begins to see two eerie apparitions and then spends the rest of the story fretting about what to do as they repeatedly appear. 

I recently read James for the first time with Portrait of a Lady, but the only similarity I see in his writing is the ambiguous and sudden ending.  However, I think this is an extremely important thing for James, and so I want to concentrate on the concept of ambiguity in this story.  The main debate readers have with this tale is whether the ghosts were real or the governess was imagining them.  Truly, there is a legitimate argument for each interpretation.  It is never obvious that other people see the ghosts, and yet it is strongly suggested that she is not the only one.  She is able to perfectly describe the deceased people she claims to have never met, but it is conceivable that she may have known them or heard them described before.  Nevertheless, no one in the story doubts her, and we are largely inclined to believe that this is a straight-forward ghost story.

But there are still a few hang-ups, particularly in the character of the unnamed governess.  I don't think the readers are ever fully compelled to like the governess and embrace her as a heroic protagonist.  James certainly has the ability to create a lovable hero, (such as Isabel Archer), but I think he purposefully avoided that for the sake of the story.  One clear method of doing this was to keep the governess unnamed, thus hindering our connection with her.  Furthermore, she is quite emotional, and her speed in becoming attached to people questions the depth and validity of it.  In only two interviews with the guardian, she falls in love with him.  After just a few days with the children, she begins to refer to them as "my children", "my Miles", etc., which I personally find a bit disturbing.  She never comes across as particularly strong, and yet in her few moments of strength, she congratulates herself, thus diminishing our admiration.  Indeed, I have read some of book bloggers express their frustration with this story and their dislike of the protagonist.  But again, I think James did this intentionally.

Because we don't particularly like the protagonist, we are able to doubt her and maintain our suspense about the ending.  We never really trust her to do the right thing, nor can we predict her actions very well.  And the governess is certainly not the only source of ambiguity.  It is never really clear what the exact relationship was between the children and these two servants who are now haunting the premises.  It's also never clear why Miles was expelled from his school or even what happened to their parents in India.  And, of course, there's the ending.  What on earth happened?  More importantly, how did it happen??  All of these uncertainties can be very frustrating for readers who like everything to be spelled out, but James seems to think that the reader's imagination is more capable of creating scary and creepy plot lines than a detailed narrator could be.  I tend to agree with Henry James...

So yes, I liked The Turn of the Screw.  I like the fact that I don't really know what happened.  I like it when books compel me to keep thinking about them after I've finished.  I like that the protagonist may actually be the antagonist.  And I like reading a Victorian ghost story in October.

1 comment:

IngridLola said...

I've been wanting to read this book for awhile. I'm going to bookmark this post and come back to it once I do. Thanks!!