Monday, May 25, 2015

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Two “ghosts” send a woman over the edge

The nameless narrator nanny is dispatched by her manly employer to a remote country house where she has been hired to care for two beautiful (and beautifully polite) siblings, but it’s not very long before she senses the uncanny presence of first a man, decidedly not a gentleman, and next a woman, certainly a lady (though a tragic one). They stare. She understands that these two are after the children, and she also understands, after a while, that these two also are dead. She confirms her suppositions with the stolid illiterate housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Next the governess comes to realize the beautiful children, rather than being haunted or frightened by the recently dead pair, miss them and want to be with them.  She takes it upon herself to prevent that.

I couldn’t sleep after reading the first half. Whatever else this is (and I think I spent some time wrestling with the question,what the heck is going on), this book is a demonstration of how much can be achieved with a well detonated image. First a man on a parapet, then a man looking through a window, then a lady at nighttime sitting on the stairs. The story is completely frightening and eerie. The narrator gets increasingly hysterical, increasingly elliptical, as the story progresses. The charitable view is that she is trying to save the children from Evil; the uncharitable view is that she’s nuts. In addition, the story also seems to be about the nature of storytelling – opening with a narrator narrating a narrator narrating.

The ghosts have wonderful names – Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The hard and the soft, although there is not much to them besides their names, their static very striking “hauntings” and their backstory, sexually permeated and tragic. Their longing for the children, and the children longing for them, is buried and ethereal. The children, Miles and Flora, put on, the governess is convinced, a cheery show to fool her.

 Even though the Victorians were not explicit, the latent sex in here is clearly communicated, shockingly – the forbidden adultery between the valet and the nanny and the deep strange erotic (?) attachment between the valet and the child. What’s that about?

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