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Book: The Turn Of The Screw

May 7, 2008
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What the heck is going on here?
That seems to be the gist of things here in ol’ Henry James’ celebrated novella, The Turn Of The Screw. It was posted on so many “Best Horror” and “Best Ghost” book lists that I thought I would give it a try. Having an occasional taste for Victoriana, I figured it was worth a try.

Apparently entire dissertations have been written about this book, so I won’t even try to be lofty or learned or anything.

Short version? Incredibly long, convoluted sentences that are nearly impossible to follow at times, some mild chills, lots of ambiguity and confusion, and occasional bits of fantastic over-the-top drama. In the end, I was left with no idea of what happened.

Which, I gather from doing some research, is kind of the whole point. How disappointing!

I know that it’s supposed to be tantalizing to not know… um, just about anything that happens, but in reality, 21st-century, before-bed reading, it was just frustrating.

Long(er) version: The story sets up nicely enough with a group of travellers in a cozy inn, listening to a storyteller by the fireplace, promising them the most evil story he’s ever heard. Then the story starts, and with it, the most ambiguous narrator I’ve ever encountered. I mean, this governess doesn’t know ANYTHING. She doesn’t know why her employer insists she handle everything at the manor, and never contact him about anything. She doesn’t know why the boy was expelled from school. She doesn’t know why the children seem so enchanted/enchanting. She doesn’t know if the figures she sees are real, or ghosts, or figments of her imagination/delusions of her crazy mind. She doesn’t know what the relationship is or was between these may-or-may-not-be ghosts. She doesn’t know what Miles knows. She doesn’t know what Flora knows. She doesn’t know what the housekeeper knows. She doesn’t know why Flora gets hysterical and has to be taken away. She doesn’t know what Miles sees (or doesn’t see) at the end. We don’t know if Miles has died or not.

It’s a lot to keep up with, all these unknowns. I know the point is that by creating all these unknowns, we readers are forced to supply horrible suppositions. Isn’t that how it works? What you can come up with in your imagination is so much worse than reality (or what the author could come up with)? If you remember that much of Victorian literature talks so far around the subject of sex as to make it the gigantic elephant in the room, then the story takes on a darker edge. But that doesn’t take care of the rest of the unknowns. What did angelic Miles do that was so bad that he was expelled? Why are the children wandering around at all times of day and night? Why can the governess never ask them directly if they’ve seen anyone? She is ostensibly ‘protecting’ them from ‘corruption’ from these ‘ghosts’ (yes, quotations are necessary for just about everything in this book!)… but nobody else (as far we know) can see the ghosts, and soon she verging on crazy, herself. (Mrs. Rochester in the upstairs room!)

I don’t know. I liked reading a classic-style book (lots of language), and I appreciated the complex strands of the story weaving together a miasma of mystery (there’s some language for you!)… but I got really frustrated by not knowing anything. Rather than leaving me titillated and shivering and imagining all sorts of horrors, I was left with the conclusion that either the governess was mad, or the ghosts were real but she was far more frightened than the children. The ghosts don’t actually do anything. The children never seem frightened. In fact, no one but the governess is frightened, until she starts to lose it. In either case, my reaction was “meh“. Whatever! Some fancy language and a tortured Victorian governess seeing things did not float my boat. Oh well.

Now if I were a Literature major, this would be an entirely different post, because when you look at it through a literary lens, it becomes full of amazing devices and symbolism and all those kinds of things that I love to delve into. However, as just a casual reader, it didn’t do very much for me.

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