Summer Classic Reread: “The Turn of the Screw”

Summer Classic Reread: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James  turn of screw

Why I wanted to reread it: I loved it long ago. I know that many teachers recommend it for students because it is a horror story, and they hope that will be the enticement to read a literary master, Henry James. I wanted to see if, after more than 100 years, it’s still scary and whether it truly has teen appeal.

The basics: The novella is framed by a tale of folks telling each other scary stories on Christmas night. (Apparently this is something people used to do as I have read about scary Christmas stories elsewhere.) One of the company says he has a frightening true story and will read it to the group when the manuscript describing it arrives. It comes; he reads.

A governess is hired by a strange man to watch over his niece and nephew, to whom he is the legal guardian but seems to have little interest in. He is in London. They are at a country estate called Bly. The thing is, this strange man also has lots of sex appeal, and it appears that the governess is smitten with him. When he tells her that he doesn’t want any communication from her about what is going on with the kids, she makes it her goal to follow his instructions.

At first things are very sweet. The governess is only watching the little girl, Flora. She also has found a friend in the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. But one day the boy, Miles, is kicked out of school and sent home. No one knows why. Is this something that the governess should tell the uncle? Well, she doesn’t. She enjoys the company of both the children, who are so sweet that it seems unnatural.

And the governess decides that it is unnatural when she sees a male figure lurking about the house. Eventually, she describes the man to the housekeeper who pegs him for the dead groundskeeper, Peter Quint, who was a horrific man in life. Later, the governess also sees the former governess, Miss Jessel, and so believes that there are two ghosts haunting and possessing the children.

But are there really any ghosts? Are the children really possessed by these demonic creatures? This is the question that makes the story so disturbing. There’s evidence both to suggest that the kids are keeping the ghosts a secret, and also that this is just some wild mental illness of the governess (brought on by sexual repression, perhaps?), who, in her sickness, is making herself a heroine who will save the children and thus—somehow, in some weird way—earn the gratitude of the sexy uncle. Whatever is true, the outcome is tragic.

High school housekeeping: This novella is still very creepy to me—it has the suspense you want in a ghost story and the ambiguity that leaves it open to interpretation. You can argue with your friends and teachers about what really happens. So—I think it stands up to the teen test, but with one caveat. The language is tough—the vocabulary is pretty high level. If you are reading on grade level, you’ll follow the story pretty well, I think. If you are working on your reading skills, you might not know what’s happening.

Reading The Turn of the Screw is a great way to introduce yourself to Henry James. Most of his work makes for pretty difficult reading (trust me, I’ve read a lot of it). Not that this is a bad thing—it’s difficult, but far more rewarding than much of what you might choose to read. But, as I’ve said before, I’m a big believer in literature ladders, so to speak. We don’t start at the top, no matter how great the books up there are. But if you want to read one of the great writers of English (James was both American and British), The Turn of the Screw is a good place to start.

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About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
This entry was posted in Classic Fiction, Fiction, Horror/Mystery/Suspense, Supernatural and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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