Friday, May 17, 2024

The Turn of the Screw


A governess is hired by a man to oversee his nephew and niece who currently reside at his country house in Bly, Essex. The children’s parents have passed away and he, as the uncle, is the closest living relative and, thus, their guardian. The governess receives a respectable stipend from her employer, on the condition that she will be fully in charge of the children and will, in no way, bother him about them or the house. Upon arrival she gets to meet the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. After that, she is introduced to Flora, the young niece. Miles, the nephew, arrives a few days later after he is expelled from school for reasons unknown. Soon the governess starts seeing a man and a woman, whom she doesn’t recognize, at the premises. Upon describing them to Mrs. Grose, she finds out that the man is Peter Quint, an ex-employee, and the woman is Miss Jessel, the previous governess. There’s just one problem. They are both dead!

So this is the novella on which that Nicole Kidman film was based. Since there is no unlearning a plot twist you’ve already seen in a movie, this knowledge hounded me as I read the book. As such, my focus had to change, looking for clues and red herrings instead, until the ending revealed that the film was only loosely based on this. They share many subplots, but the translation from text to screen is not one-to-one. And so I can’t really decide whether I should be disappointed or not. What I can say, though, is that my curiosity, as to how a ghost story could be rendered in book form without jump scares, has been satisfied. It IS creepy.

Henry James has an eloquent style of storytelling, with much of the text heavily based on an internal monologue approach characterized by verbal diarrhea that supposedly says a lot but does not really say much. Since this is my first James reading experience, I do not have any points of comparison to conclude whether this writing style of his has been rendered here to be intentionally confusing to somehow effectively display some sort of brain fog representing an alleged mentally unstable headspace of the governess. Or does he just really write like this? If that’s the case, then I am not that excited to read his other novels!

Don’t get me wrong, though. This novella has been an exciting read despite being short at just 110 pages. Each chapter strives to divide itself between the governess’ inner thoughts and the unravelling of the supernatural subplot. As you flip more pages, more doubt is presented by the governess’ shaky narration. Are there really ghosts in this manor or is the governess just having a serious mental breakdown? Both? We will never know, because Henry James never bothered to explain. That is a good thing. Why so? Because it’s this novella’s undeniable allure. It is open to interpretation, and there have been plenty in the last 100 years.

The interpretation I’ve always wanted to have was that of Quint and Jessel being alive while the governess, the kids, and Mrs. Grose are all dead. You know, very The Others. Except that the storyline did not conclude that way. Even then, that ending is just so ambiguous with Miles asking, unclear whether to Quint or the governess, whether “she is here”. I never fully understood that. Is he asking Quint whether the governess was there, meaning she is the ghost? Or is he asking the governess or Quint whether Miss Jessel was there before he dropped dead? Ugh, his anti-climactic instant death is also baffling to me. What the heck?

So yes, I am confused, but in a good way. Most online forums just can’t find a consensus whether this is a simple haunted mansion ghost story or the governess is just cuckoo. What surprised me were the discussions about child and sexual abuse, which I was able to get hints of while reading but never really pursued as a possible embedded storyline. In the end, those assumptions do make sense. By the time you finish reading this novella, you will have already been so used to the ubiquitous ambiguity that abounds in James’ prose.

The reading stops, but the analysis doesn’t. I also like how despite all that ambiguity, there is some sort of vague understanding for you, as a reader, that there is something sinister that is constantly being referred to but never directly, perhaps due to its sensitive nature. This is where the speculations about abuse surface and, once again, a plethora of interpretations arise.

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