Turned? Screwed? It’s Classic!

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: my ramblings

The alleged masterpiece

Some books are brilliant. Other books are considered brilliant based on their reputation. Still others are like the emperor who wore no clothes: Everyone said he looked dashing in clothes they couldn’t see because they did not want to appear fools in the eyes of others. Only one child honestly spoke his mind and called the emperor on his folly. After reading the Penguin Classics edition of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, I’m not sure which I am–the child or the fool.

I did not like the book. Truth be told, I’m not really sure I understood it. Oscar Wilde apparently hailed this story as a “…most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale”. The back cover blurb of the book itself sets you up for a chilling ride through the pages haunted by malignant ghosts and threatening spectres. That there are children involved only serves to heighten a reader’s tension before even opening the first page. Admittedly, the writing is tense and frantic, the suspense is intense. But it kind of all fizzles out at the end.

Of course, I’m no literature major and I wasn’t reading this novel to analyse it from that point of view. I’m a modern-day layperson reader who is reading the book for fun (I do have other reasons, albeit none professional or educational). As that person, I was disappointed to reach 125 pages to end only to think, “What? It’s done?” I wanted more. I wanted some sort of a resolution to all that tension. I know, after reading the introduction and other extra material, that the supposed strength of the book is in its ambiguity, in its inability to dissociate narration from perspective, in its capacity to insinuate but never direct. I suppose in a way the book reaches that goal summarily. I was left ambiguous not only about what really did transpire between the characters but also about the story itself. If the narrator is insane and/or obsessive, can I suspend my disbelief enough to believe what she’s telling me? Is there a sexual thread in her relationship to Miles that I’m feeling but not reading? Why does she not contact her employer, for damnsel’s sake?! These questions may have been answered covertly within the story but I couldn’t grasp them.

What was impressive, definitely, was that despite some inanely long introspective passages (that my mind couldn’t help glossing over) I didn’t put the book on hold for some other more interesting read. I couldn’t. It drew me to it, quite possibly in the hope of a dramatic ending. When that didn’t come I was disappointed.

All said, give this classic a try if you don’t like someone else making up your mind for you. Or if, like me, you are driven by your promise to self to broaden your classical English repertoire. If you’re looking for a spine tingling ghost story or a light read on a rainy afternoon, find something else.


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