Thursday, April 02, 2020

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The first time I read The Turn of the Screw, I didn't get it. I went in expecting a good, but straightforward gothic story where I relate to and root for the governess as she tries to find her place in a spooky, old mansion. But I got quickly frustrated with the unnamed hero of James' story. She makes wild assumptions, jumps to conclusions, and makes everything worse with her horrible lack of communication. I didn't realize that that's exactly the point.

I knew that I had to be missing something though, so I looked at some other criticism of the novella and learned about the theory that the ghosts are all in the governess' head. Whether or not that's what's really going on, it was helpful for at least questioning the reliability of her as a narrator. It introduced me to an essential subtext of the story that I wasn't even looking for on my first reading.

Rather than go back to the book right away, I watched some film adaptations to see how they handled the ambiguity. The most useful of them was Jack Clayton's The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr. Or to be fair: it was Christopher Frayling's commentary on the Criterion edition that most helped me find the balance I wanted between ghost story and psychological thriller. Frayling points out that Clayton worked hard to avoid making a definite statement about the reality of the ghosts. He wanted viewers to be able to have it either way.

That opened up a third way of thinking about the story. Instead of having to decide whether the ghosts are real or all in the governess' mind, it's possible that they're real, but that her psychological condition is also playing a big role. With that in mind, I went back to Henry James and enjoyed his story a lot more.

For the record: I think the ghosts have to be real in the novella. The governess sees and describes them to the housekeeper Mrs Grose, who then confirms that the descriptions match deceased employees of the estate. The Innocents preserves ambiguity by having the governess see a picture of one of the employees before seeing his ghost, but that's not in the book. It could have happened behind-the-scenes, but that's reading more into the text than James puts there.

So as far as I'm concerned, the only explanation is that the ghosts exist. But the governess absolutely makes the situation worse through her actions, caused by her own, distressing hangups about the children. That's a horrifying balance I can get my head around, so with that in mind, I'm going to be watching and re-watching some adaptations again.

My volume of The Turn of the Screw also includes James' short story, "Owen Wingrave." It's more straightforward than Turn of the Screw, but ironically even more ambiguous about whether there's really a ghost. I enjoyed it a lot.

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