Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I struggled through this one. Henry James’s narrative style in The Turn of the Screw is weak, full of qualifications and tiny details. I had to reread a few sentences to catch their meaning and some content escaped me. (I hate admitting this sort of thing; I worry it makes me sound dense.)

The Turn of the Screw follows a young governess in charge of a large house and two young children. Two ghostly figures appear and the governess believes they’re interested in the children. Both kids act bizarrely when questioned and the governess suspects they’re being used to some dark end. However, it’s just as likely that the governess is mentally unstable. This ambiguity is nicely balanced throughout the novel and, though I felt I wasn’t following the story to the fullest, the conclusion was shocking and still made an impact.

So about that writing… Have you seen this yet?

walken comma
James has this:

She was now housekeeper and was also acting for the time as superintendent to the little girl, of whom, without children of her own, she was, by good luck, extremely fond. (Loc 186)

Perfectly clear, but jerky. It was hard for me to find an easy rhythm while reading.

Here’s a better example, which occurs after the governess and housekeeper have a bonding moment after a shared fright:

It took of course more than that particular passage to place us together in presence of what we had now to live with as we could—my dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified, and my companion’s knowledge, henceforth—a knowledge half consternation and half compassion—of that liability. There had been, this evening, after the revelation left me, for an hour, so prostrate—there had been, for either of us, no attendance on any service but a little service of tears and vows, of prayers and promises, a climax to the series of mutual challenges and pledges that had straightaway ensued on our retreating together to the schoolroom and shutting ourselves up there to have everything out. (Loc 644)

The most confusing element of this passage is why “of course” is not offset with commas while everything else is. There’s a genuine creepy mood that develops over the course of the story, but the oblique language prevents the threats from feeling immediate.

I read The Turn of the Screw because most people who commented on The Haunting of Hill House mentioned Jackson’s nods to James in her story, but Jackson’s version is sharper. Her story strikes a similarly ambiguous tone (supernatural haunting vs. unhinged narrator), but because she doesn’t get bogged down in parenthetical remarks and appositives, her book has time for plot points and (arguable) character development.

Overall: 3.0  There are elements that work well, perhaps other readers will find them more easily than I did. It’s easy to see how this story because a classic and it is engaging even if it is a chore to read in places.

Translation: Given that Hill House is the better book, I’d start with The Turn of the Screw if you intend to read both books. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this book more if I didn’t read it so close to Hill House; it doesn’t fare well when compared to Jackson’s more intense, unsettling tale.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James”

  1. I guess I found a new favourite blog to follow – yours! 🙂 I appreciate your review and opinion, but I guess I read into the novel much more. The review of this book was my Halloween post, if you are interested:

    Rather than focusing on grammar, I guess I liked the book because James presents two compelling points of view to choose from – first scenario – everything supernatural indeed happens, and second scenario – the governess imagines a lot; in my article/review I argue that the governess is a bit mad and her subconscious imposes itself on the reality around her. Clues of that can be found in the narrative. Surely, what correct grammar there can be when the style of writing reflects the rambling mind of the governess? 🙂

    1. What a kind thing to say! Thank you! 🙂

      I’ve periodically considered re-reading The Turn of the Screw. It pops up again and again when I look around for creepy October reads. I never like to put a book aside because of its writing style. When I do so, I can’t help wondering if I’d like it more if I read it at a different time, in a different mood. There are plenty of books that I’ve disliked, only to pick up later and enjoy. I’m not one of those readers that sees complex pictures in their head while reading, but I do like when I get to a point where I don’t quite see the words (if that makes sense). With James’s prose, I could never quite relax enough to think about the story.

      It’s especially frustrating because I usually like ambiguous stories that are made ambiguous by their questionable narrators. So often, it feels like the authors of these books are having fun with all the possibilities and that often comes through by making the story fun to puzzle out. So I /should/ like this book! Your review makes me want to try again for sure. Maybe I will pick it back up this October…

      1. Thanks for stopping by! I understand why the book will be off-putting, but I thought it was really deeper, more complex and more thought-provoking than first meets the eye. It can be read as this improbable ghost story with slightly “terrible” writing, but then it can also be read as this intelligent psychological thriller with a very unreliable narrator whose past fears and sexual repression suddenly emerge and take a form in real life.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.