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Henry James’s book “The Turn of the Screw” is considered to be one of the brightest examples of suspense and ghost stories. Although it is not lengthy, the narration is considered by critics as a model of intricate plot and child ghost story. The book is over one hundred years old, but it still interests the readers in many countries of the world. Apart from numerous editions and translations, “The Turn of the Screw” was adapted for several movies and even an opera. The story covers several important themes, and its characters are diverse in their nature. Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” is a fantastic work of fiction well worth reading.
There are several topics raised in the book: society and class, innocence, the fight between good and evil, repression, wisdom, gender, appearances, and, of course, the supernatural. The latter theme is introduced as early as in the book’s prolog: “I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that it’s appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch” (James 3). Later, the theme is emphasized by the governess’s mentioning of sinister sounds and visions: “the possible recurrence of a sound or two, less natural and not without, but within, that I had fancied I heard” (James 14). Throughout the whole story, there are frequent remarks of ghosts that are seen by the governess and probably by the children.
The theme of class and society is represented in the depiction of relationships between the servants, the governess, and the children. Upon arrival, the governess is met by “a civil person who dropped me as decent a curtsy as if I had been the mistress or a distinguished visitor” (James 12). The young lady was not used to such reception. Another mentioning of this theme can be traced in the way the author describes the children. They are always set higher than anyone else: “a pair of little grandees, of princes of the blood” (James 25).
Themes of innocence and repression are tightly connected in the character of the governess. On the one hand, the young lady uses big words such as “contaminate” and “corrupt” to express her astonishment when she is told about Quint’s actions (James 21). On the other hand, her virginity makes her think of physical contact frequently. Probably when the master touches her hand at their meeting, it is her first experience of a thing of this kind. Later, the governess frequently thinks about the master and hopes to see him again.
Gender is depicted in the story through the character of the master: his overwhelming masculinity is his most distinctive feature. The governess tells Mrs. Grose that she was “carried away” by the master (James 15). Another gender issue is the relationship between the governess and Miles and her desire to control him. Finally, Bly is run entirely by women, which adds to the gender issues in the story. The women are defenseless, but at the same time, they are courageous. The governess decides to protect the children no matter what happens, even though she is merely a tender young lady (James 47).
While wisdom and knowledge are commonly believed to be positive things, this theme has some negative connotations in the book. The main character is a teacher, and she should make sure that her pupils learn things. However, instead of this, the governess hopes that Flora and Miles do not know some issues. Also, her own knowledge makes her feel bad at times. She recollects how “the flash of this knowledge” made her feel ” a sudden vibration of duty and courage” (James 35). Thus, the author shows that the knowledge of bad things can alter people’s life views and character.
Characters’ appearances in the book occupy a rather important place. The governess describes Flora as a “vision of <…> angelic beauty” (James 13). When Mrs. Grose announces the arrival of Miles, she says that the governess will be “carried away” by his beauty (James 15). These and other descriptions give the book an ominous air. The author attracts the audience’s attention to the contrast between outer beauty and inner ugliness.
One of the main themes in “The Turn of the Screw” is the conflict between good and evil. Quint and Miss Jessel are described by the narrator as evil characters. While Quint is considered bad for some of his past actions, the governess’s opinion of Miss Jessel is not entirely justified. She calls her predecessor “a figure of quite <…> unmistakable horror and evil” (James51). Further, the author describes the main character as not void of some negativism or wrongness. For instance, it can be noticed when she says, “there was nothing in me there that didn’t meet and measure him [Quint]” (James 69). What concerns good characters, Mrs. Grose is probably the most prominent representative of such. She is naturally kind, and her preeminent purpose is to sustain the children’s welfare.
There are seven major characters in the story: the governess (the narrator), the master (children’s uncle), Flora, Miles, Mrs. Grose, Peter Quint, and Miss Jessel. The governess’s role in the story is the most significant. It is her who retells the sequence of the events, and it is also her whose sanity is doubtful for the audience throughout the whole narration. She is the parson’s daughter (James 8), which is partially an explanation of her innocence and tenderness. She is well-bred and educated, but there is something strange about her. The readers cannot decipher whether she can be trusted and whether Miles’s death is her fault.
The appearance of the children’s uncle in the story is short, but the times when the governess recollects their meeting are numerous. All we know about this man is that he is the embodiment of masculinity and handsomeness and that he does not want to be “bothered” by any news about his niece and nephew (James 45). Still, despite the little we know about him, this character seems significant through the prism of the governess’s narration.
Flora and Miles are the characters whose nature may be considered both angelic and diabolical. The first impression of both children is that they are extremely charming, obedient, and “so very remarkable” (James 15). The children seem to cast a spell over the young lady, and she agrees with Mrs. Grose that there must have been a mistake when the school sent Miles home (James 18-19). However, later it becomes obvious that not everything is so smooth about the children as it looks. Their constant whispering and misconduct make the governess convinced that there is something sinister about her little pupils. While the children are quite similar in behavior, Miles is depicted a little more mischievous than his sister. However, taking into consideration that the boy dies in the end, his character eventually evokes more sympathy than Flora’s.
The character of Mrs. Grose is a rather simple and amiable one. She has been in the family for a long time, and she adores the children. She is loving and kind, and her loyalty is immeasurable. Although she is illiterate (James 19), she is not void of wisdom. Eventually, Mrs. Grose becomes the governess’s ally in the fight against evil. However, in the beginning, she has doubts about her young colleague’s honesty. In general, this character symbolizes love, serenity, and loyalty in the book.
Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are the protagonists of the story. Quint is the representation of all kinds of threats, the major ones being a threat to socially unprotected class and to the children. He is known to have abused the maids at Bly, and his conduct is cruel and immoral. Left by his master to protect the women working in the house, he instead hurts them morally and sexually. What is more, he spends a lot of time with Miles, and, as Mrs. Grose mentions, he might have been “too free” with the boy (James 44). One of the victims of Quint’s brutality is Miss Jessel. While this character is considered a negative one, there is no such evidence of such an opinion. Probably, the governess is convinced of Miss Jessel’s bad intentions because she used to have a relationship with Peter Quint. Anyway, these two ghosts cause a lot of harm, and their sinister appearances in the story make it creepy.
Two major symbols in the book are the written word and light. The governess’s narration gives the power of safety to candlelight and entitles the twilight with the meaning of danger. For instance, when she first meets Quint, they are standing “in the cold, faint twilight” (James 68). When the candlelight goes off, it means that the situation loses calmness and safety. On the contrary, while the candle is burning, everything is well (James 70-71). The written word is a symbol of something finite and finished. Whenever the governess mentions letters, she speaks as if sending one means that nothing can be changed, and the sender will have to bear the responsibility for what has happened. For instance, she writes a letter to the master but does not hurry to post it (James 110). These two symbols frequently occur throughout the story and add to its ominous nature.
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Comparison and Contrast with a Film Adaptation
James’s book has had several adaptations, one of which was made by the BBC in 2009 (The Turn of the Screw). The movie has many similarities with the book, but at the same time, it is not void of some differences from the text. First of all, I would like to talk about common issues. After watching the film, as well as after reading the book, I had a feeling of presence in the events depicted there. Both the author and the director did their best to make an impression of sinister and unusual things happening at the Bly mansion. The actors’ costumes and matter of speaking in the movie are just as I imagined them while reading the story. The house looks grand and imposing, and all the details taken from the book are reflected in the film with great attention.
However, the director did not follow the author with a hundred percent accuracy. First of all, the movie begins with a scene of a mental hospital where the governess is kept, whereas there are no such indications in the book. The readers can only guess where and to whom the narrator is telling her story, but there is no direct mentioning of a hospital. The next major difference is the time span. James’s book was published in 1898, while the events in the movie take place after World War I. However, this adjustment does not make a substantial difference to the audience’s understanding of the plot. After all, it is not a precise decade which is the focus of attention but the events happening to certain people in a certain place. Time is not the most significant dimension in the story. Other divergences between the book and the movie are concerned with some scenes and events. For instance, the film presents a character of Carla (a maid) who tells the governess the story of Peter Quint (The Turn of the Screw). In the book, there was no mentioning of such a person. Also, there is a scene in the movie when Miles is trying to drown Flora in a lake. In the book, there is a different episode: Flora takes a boat and runs away (James 115). Several more scenes in the movie are not based on the text. They are the occasions of the governess meeting Quint’s and Miss Jessel’s ghosts, children’s activities, and some other characters’ representation. As well as the beginning of the movie, the ending is divergent from the book. In the film, the governess is taken away from the hospital to be executed for Miles’s death (The Turn on the Screw). The book ends with the boy’s death, but no further events are described (James 148-149).
Notwithstanding several differences from the book, the movie almost precisely retells James’s story and presents a perfect adaptation of this magnificent piece of written art. The film’s assets are music and visual effects which produce a strong impression even on those who cannot imagine these impacts while reading a book.
“The Turn of the Screw” has always been James’s most esteemed work (Orr 66). There have many American and British editions, and the story has been translated into a number of other languages (Orr 66). As Orr mentions, the major reason for such appraisal is that the story is not too long and at the same time it manages to grasp the readers’ attention by its plot (66). “The Turn of the Screw” is frequently used in college literature courses, and it has received many positive critical reviews.
Some critics view the story not under the angle of literature but psychology. Edmund Wilson calls the book an “allegory of female neurosis and sexual repression” (qtd. in Felski 226). Thus, he analyzes the character of the governess in the hermeneutic field. Shoshana Felman argues that Wilson’s psychoanalytic approach reminds the work of a detective whose major purpose is to solve a mystery through “the interpretation of clues” (qtd. in Felski 226). Linda Simon mentions that James did not have this fame from the very beginning (76). She notes that it took some effort to make it possible for James’s work to become established (Simon 76). However, soon, critics changed their minds and started giving high approval of James’s work. Leon Edel said that “a single reading never exhausts the richness of his [James’s] prose or the detail of his observation” (qtd. in Simon 76).
In his article, Brad Leithauser gives a rather positive assessment of James’s story. The author says that “The Turn of the Screw” is “the darkest, richest ghost story” he has ever read (Leithauser). As Leithauser notes, the story “casts a spell” on the audience, and this spell “feels longer than it is” (Leithauser).
Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” is justly considered one of the most prominent examples of a ghost story. It has got enough suspense and mystery to attract the audience, and the characters keep the reader interested in what happens next. Positive critical reviews and numerous translations and adaptations are proofs of the author’s talent. While the story has a definite protagonist and antagonists, the author still leaves readers with the freedom to choose whether to trust the main character. The governess seems to care about her pupils, but it is not clear till the very end whether all bad signs and visions of Quint and Miss Jessel are the objects of her imagination or whether the children actually can see them, too. Such an approach of the author empowering the audience with the right to choose made the story extremely popular. Its fame continues even after a hundred years, and will most likely survive for many more years.
Felski, Rita. “Suspicious Minds.” Poetics Today, vol. 32, no. 2, 2011, pp. 215-234.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Penguin, 2010. Elegant Ebooks, Web.
Leithauser, Brad. “Even Scarier: On “The Turn of the Screw”.” The New Yorker, 2012, Web.
Orr, Leonardo. James’s The Turn of the Screw: A Reader’s Guide. Continuum, 2009.
Simon, Linda. The Critical Perception of Henry James: Creating a Master. Camden House, 2007.
The Turn on the Screw. Directed by Tim Fywell, performances by Michelle Dockery, Eva Sayer, Josef Lindsay, Dan Stevens, Mark Umbers, Edward MacLiam, Katie Lightfoot, and Sue Johnston. BBC, 2009.