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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw
by Henry James
published 1898

Have you ever picked up a book thinking that you know what it's about only to realize that you had it mixed up with something else? When I put The Turn of the Screw on my reading list for the "Lost" Challenge I thought I was choosing The Taming of the Shrew (not that it was actually on the list - I just got the titles confused. Go figure!).

Reading the first few sentences of the Screw brought me two surprises. First - this is NOT the Taming of the Shrew. Hmpf! Second - I think I've seen this movie before ...

(I've put all potential spoilers in one section and clearly marked it. There may be spoilers in the comment section though, so don't read all the comments if you don't want to know what happens - but please do comment!)

*** The Plot ***

In the company of guests gathered to hear the story, a man tells the following tale that he received from the woman who lived it: A governess takes charge of two angelic children, a boy and a girl, at the country home of their wealthy but absent uncle. Shortly after her arrival she begins seeing two horrifying ghosts, a man and a woman. She becomes convinced that not only are the ghosts after the children but that the children welcome this attention. What should she do?!

*** What Does It Mean? ***

From what I can tell from browsing the internet, the phrase turn of the screw originally "referred to torture where each turn of the screw amplified the pain of the subject." In modern language it usually refers to a plot twist, or more particularly "an action which makes a bad situation worse, especially in order to force someone to do something."

*** My Thoughts ***

This is a brief but creepy tale and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love the framework of the story, beginning as it does with a "true story" being told to friends late in the evening. I got so caught up in the story of the governess that I forgot about the tale within a tale until long after I finished the book. It's stories like this that you wish for when you're camping out in the wilderness and sitting around a fire ... or maybe you don't!

One thing did bother me though - all the commas! I've only ready one other Henry James book (Washington Square was one of the first books I reviewed when I started blogging - how my reviews have changed since then!) and I don't remember much about his style so I can't say whether he always wrote like this or not. EVERY sentence seemed to have at least 5 commas. They were full of prepositional phrases, interruptions, etc. and I often had to reread sentences just to make out what was actually being said. After a while I became more accustomed to the author's style, but it still wasn't an EASY read.

At only 142 pages it didn't take long to read, but I do wish I had read it all at once - the creepiness would have been more enjoyable that way. (I read it at work during my lunch break over a week). I read it through Project Gutenberg - gotta love that site!

*** Movie version? ***

I KNOW that I've seen an old black and white movie version of this; I could picture various scenes from the film as I read the book, especially the scene where the male ghost's face appears outside the dark window. I remember it being quite a creepy film, but I must have seen it as a child so that could have something to do with it!

I tried to find info about an old b/w version but the only thing I can up with was an adaptation called "The Innocents" and that doesn't look familiar. I did notice that there was a newer version starring Colin Firth and Jodhi May - has anyone seen it?

*** Lost? ***

So how does this book relate to the TV show Lost? The governess is convinced that what she's seeing is real, and that the children are seeing it as well, but at the same time, the housekeeper isn't seeing anything at all. That disconnect and confusion reminds me of the feelings on the island when they are still unsure what is out there. The unexpected appearances of the ghosts in the books is much like the appearances of the "monster" in the show as well - there is no warning, it just happens all of a sudden. Plus there is that all-inclusive feeling of creepiness and of being unsure what is going on that is present in both the book and the show.

Here's what Lostpedia has to say, but I'm not all that impressed as they don't have too much to add. It is sort of an obvious thing to say that since this book was in front of the Dharma Initiative Orientation tape then the tape will be another "turn of the screw" for the survivors.

And here are a few other Lost-and-Screw-related links. Enjoy!

*** Spoiler Alert! ***

I have a few questions for anyone who has read this book.
  1. Is it just me, or does the boy, Miles, seem to be attracted in some way to the governess? Is it just the language of the day, or is he expressing his "growing up" by being attracted to her? And does she reciprocate in any way? I'd tend to think not, as she sees him as a child most of the time. But there are a few times where I wasn't so sure.
  2. Do you think the governess was crazy and that there were no ghosts, or was she correct? Either way, what how do you explain the end of the book?

If you've read/reviewed this one, let me know and I'll add your link here.


Alyce said...

I haven't read any of Henry James's works before, but my husband has Washington Square (he was an English major so we have a lot of classics).

When I started reviewing a few months ago I had to tell myself that it was ok if my reviews weren't great - that they would get better with time. Otherwise I never would have written anything. It is definitely a growing experience.

Your reviews are wonderful by the way!

Dreamybee said...

Ooh, this sounds like a fun read! I am collecting a good pile of creepy/scary TBR titles...just in time for Christmas! LOL. I guess that's the way it works when you're following what everyone else is doing.

Rebecca Reid said...

It's been a few years since I read this one. But, as for your questions, I think the "charm" of this book is that is all from the governess's perspective: so if it seems that Miles is attracted to her, that was her perception. As for whether she was crazy or not, again, I'm not sure it matters, because the story is all from her perspective. I guess you could say I think she was crazy rather than the ghosts because I don't "believe" in ghosts.

thanks for this review! I want to reread it now...

Sarah said...

I hated this! The language is what got me. It seemed like the sentences were not in the right order - like you, I had to read most of them multiple times to figure out the meaning. I've read other books from this time period, so I know that this type of writing isn't the norm. The story might have been good, if I could have gotten past the convoluted writing.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I haven't heard of Turn of the Screw but it sounds good. I can see how you would confuse the title with Taming if the Shrew, which I have heard of, but have not read. I tend to use lots of commas too. I have to go back and edit myself cause I can get really out of hand. I just have so many thoughts that seem to go together and must be said in the same sentence! That being said, I know how tedious it can be to read. And I don't like it so much when it's not me doing it.

Anonymous said...

My end thoughts of the Turn of the Screw was that the governess killed her charge by suffocating him in the end. She so strongly believed what she was doing was right but it ended up causing total disaster.
Hmm, reminds me of a certain tv show.
Also, the sexual undertones were there, this was written in Victorian suppression and you can totally choose to read into it that way.

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