Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

I promised you Henry James, and that's where I'm going to start. Just diving right into the nerd-fest.

So far, I've read three Henry James novels: The Americans, Portrait of a Lady, and most recently The Turn of the Screw. I've enjoyed all three, but I'm starting to feel a bit cheated that I was introduced to his writing through the perfectly-fine-but-ultimately-forgettable The Americans. It was a requirement for a freshman year English literature class at Michigan. Portrait of a Lady was much longer and yet much more engaging, and The Turn of the Screw was phenomenal.

In The Turn of the Screw, a young woman is recruited to act as a governess/nanny for two young children, one boy and one girl. She is instructed from the start to not to bother the children's uncle (their legal guardian) with any news or complaints about the house, the children's progress, etc., because he's a warm and generous man who was totally ready to be a father figure. Of course, due to the nanny's obvious lack of support and no clear path out of any trouble, a couple of creepy ghosts show up and start tormenting her. But instead of writing to the uncle and saying "Hey, sir, your house is haunted; do you think we could move to one of your other residences?" she decides she's just going to have to buck up, deal with their presence, and protect the children from these ghosts (a man and a woman, who she learns are former residents/employees of the house).

Now, this could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill ghost story, but Henry James is not a run-of-the-mill author. He decided to tell this story in first person from the nanny's perspective. Throughout the entire novel, the nanny is the only one who definitely, 100% admits to seeing these ghosts. There are signs that the children can see them, at least through her interpretation of their behavior. She makes close friends with the maid, who identifies them as the former troubled employees based on the nanny's description of their appearance, but when confronted almost face-to-face at the lake with the female spectre, the maid is unable to see what the nanny is talking about. No one else on staff complains about being haunted, and no one takes off suddenly with or without explanation. By the time the reader reaches the catastrophic end of the novel, there is absolutely no light shed on whether or not the ghosts are real or are merely figments of the nanny's imagination. In fact, James does his best to blur that line more and more as time goes on.

Having finished reading this book around mid-morning, I spent the rest of that day reliving the entire experience, trying to dig up clues that would prove the nanny's innocence and sanity, but I couldn't come up with anything conclusive. I even delved into the scholarly essays at the back at the book looking for answers, but since those types of essays revel in ambiguity, I came up empty-handed. In the end, the only thing I knew for sure is that I was (and am) in awe of the deftness of James' literary hand. I'm sure I'll be working my way through the rest of his published legacy as the years progress. Stay tuned.


  1. What's the burden of proof though on whether the nanny saw or did not see the ghosts? How do you think, from a literary perspective, authors use the first person to get you on a particular character's side and then sway your opinion of what "truth" the story tells? Obviously, truth is so relative, but I find it fascinating how a good novelist can play with realities as it seems Henry James did in this book.

    1. Good question! Once again, the proof that the maid didn't see the ghosts comes from the nanny herself, so who knows what's really going on here. There's a stand-out scene by the property's lake where the nanny, the young girl, and the maid are apparently face-to-face with the female ghost. The nanny is trying to show the maid what she's talking about, but the maid apparently has no idea what she's talking about and ultimately decides the nanny might be losing it. I think first person narrative immediately makes the character more relatable, since it's easier to sympathize with someone when you have a direct insight into their decisions and reasoning. For this reason, I absolutely love works that turn this relatability on its head; in this case, the narrator is (possibly) unreliable. In other cases, some authors have succeeded in making their first person narrators unlikable yet still engaging. In The Turn of the Screw, James succeeded because we saw the male ghost through the nanny's eyes first, while she was out on a solo walk. We had no reason to doubt her sanity yet, and when she described the figure to the maid, the maid paled and identified him as a former employee who died a couple years ago. It's only later in the story that James starts introducing details that throw the nanny's judgment into suspicion. It's really, really well done!

    2. I'm excited to add it to my list!


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