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Book Review: The Turn of The Screw

the turn of the screwHalloween countdown getting close to completion…

During the completion of my lame English degree, there was only one book I wound up reading more than Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (my review). That book was The Turn of The Screw by Henry James, and while it’s not an absolute laugh riot, it felt like one compared to Bluest, which I admire but never want to open again. Henry James’ book can be read on many levels, and interpreted in approximately one billion different ways, but that is the job of the people writing English papers. I have kissed that nonsense goodbye.

What The Turn of The Screw is for me, first and foremost, is a ghost story. I’m not really worried about whether the governess has gone mad, or what the children symbolize, or…see, I’m doing it again. I once heard Roger Ebert refer to himself as a “recovering English major.” Roger, if that was in fact you, I’m stealing it for the moment and lumping myself into the category.

Plot summary of The Turn of The Screw

Delivered through a third-party narrator, the story is this: a governess gets hired to got to a house in Essex to watch over two children, Miles and Flora. The kids are charmers, except that Miles has been kicked out of his school for reasons that are never apparent. The governess enjoys their company well enough and life proceeds normally, not counting the two weird people that start materializing on the grounds, then vanishing just as quickly.

It seems that these two figures may very well be Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Quint was Miss Jessel’s hunky stud, and Miss Jessel was the governess to the children. The only problem is that they both died, so they couldn’t possibly be on the grounds at Essex…RIGHT?

But no, it’s pretty apparent that it’s them, because the governess realizes that not only can she see the ghosts, but the children can as well. Unless of course, the governess is actually crazy and is making the whole thing up, but that I will leave to the students still plowing through their degrees. (Hint, those degrees can get you into Library School or into a nice job at Barnes & Noble).

I can’t tell you how it ends, but many of the book’s interpretations hinge on the events of the final couple of pages. As a ghost story, I love this brief book. And in fairness, I do believe that there is much, much more to the story than is available on a cursory, for-story reading. But from what I have read of the author, I should have expected it from Henry James. The guy was pretty smart. And there is some lovely writing in The Turn of The Screw, something I completely missed when I was doing close readings in every other class, trying to suss out all of the…you know, the English major stuff.

You know, I’ve just realized it’s quite late and I’ve been up since way too early this morning. This is what I do when I can’t sleep, so this Turn of the Screw book review probably sucks. Begging your pardon if so…


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  • Cathy N. November 3, 2010, 11:33 am

    I love “The Turn of the Screw.” Benjamin Britten turned it into a nifty little opera as well (with an excellent libretto by Myfanwy Piper). See it if you get the chance (unlikely, I realize, but you never know).

    • Josh Hanagarne November 3, 2010, 1:28 pm

      I might. Maybe I’ll go on an opera kick. Probably–not, definitely not.

      • Cathy N. November 4, 2010, 9:01 am

        It’s not your traditional “Aida”/”Butterfly”/”Carmen” opera. It’s scored for chamber orchestra and the “screw” theme is based on a 12-tone row. Does that sound any more tempting?? : )