In Defense of The Turn of the Screw

Fine, Henry James! Just fine! You win! I give in! Turn of the Screw is a fantastic ghost story and I will defend it. . . but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Brief History: Henry James wrote this novella after hearing the story of Hinton Ampner, an English manor that reported at least two ghosts from several occupants before being torn down. The Turn of the Screw is told as a memoir from a now dead (and unreliable) narrator. This narrator is a former governess who had the job of caring for Miles and Flora, the orphaned niece and nephew of a sexy rich man who has no time for them. At a home in the country, far from the uncle, the governess discovers the 2 delightful kids, but is curious as to why Miles has just been kicked out of boarding school. She also learns the cryptic tale of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the guardian's valet and kids’ first governess. Prior to their deaths, Quint had managed to worm his way into a scandalous relationship with the upper class Miss Jessel and become a corrupting influence over Miles. The mystery gets darker and darker as the governess starts to realize that the children at times portray secretive, almost adult-like attitudes. She believes she can see the ghosts of Quint and Jessel searching for Flora and Miles. Whether her story is truth or madness within her own head is never told, but I won't spoil the ending beyond that.

Analysis: How do you make creep-tastic children even creepier? Never fully tell the reader why they are creepy. The question stands throughout the story as to whether the ghosts are real or a delusion brought on by Victorian repression. I seriously could not even begin to analyze this story. It's been hashed out a billion times in the last century. Questions of if the ghosts weren't real, why did the children behave the way they did? Were they abused by the previous governess and Peter Quint? And if there were no ghosts, why does the ending occur the way it does? However, if the ghosts aren't supposed to be real, why did James state that he was inspired by a supposedly haunted house? Or maybe it's both - the ghosts are real and the governess is nuts.

Blame It on the Victorians: As a kid, I watched The Heiress with my mom and decided I hated Henry James. Let's face it, at the age of 10 you might not want the jerk to win, but you still want the main character to be happy. As an adult, I realized that James was trying to make a lot of points about women of money and men of morals in his world. He created so many characters who were misused by the people around them in ways that were very common of the time. In Turn of the Screw, you have an intelligent woman who honestly cares about the children in her care, but when she senses something is wrong their uncle won't believe her. The other woman on the property, the housekeeper, at least trusts the main character to a point. Also, so many of James's other novels are straight about society (What Maisie Knew is one of the first books about divorce from the point of view of the kid), but it practically a requirement that all Victorian authors write at least one ghost story. Ghosts were totally in fashion in those decades.

Last Thoughts: There are over 30 TV/Movie versions of this, many under different titles - and I've watched about half of them where it took me 10 minutes to realize that I was watching The Turn of the Screw. . . again.