Classic Novellas Week: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James #NovNov

What can I say about The Turn of the Screw that hasn’t already been said and written? I know there are countless papers, essays even PHDs exploring this slim book, which is the most inconclusive of ghost stories. 

In Henry James novella, an unnamed narrator is engaged as governess to two angelic children at Bly, a remote English country house. What initially seems a pastoral idyll soon turns harrowing, as she becomes convinced that the children are consorting with a pair of malevolent spirits. These are the ghosts of former employees at Bly: a valet and a previous governess. Or are they?

That is the central conundrum at the heart of The Turn of the Screw. Are the ghosts real? If so then our governess is sane, noble and self-sacrificing. But, if the ghosts are a figment of her fevered imagination, then she is mad and is putting her charges in grave danger.

James’ skill with the book is his utter commitment to a lack of commitment. You could read this book twice, the first time assuring yourself that the ghosts are real, the second reading assuming they are not and the novella would yield to your argument. The book may indeed be a ghost story without ghosts.

This  governess’s description of her own situation could easily apply to reading the book;

No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!

The tale supports either of these two mutually exclusive contradictory narratives.

While I loved this aspect of the novella, I had a bit more difficulty with James’ prose. I have never read Henry James before, but battling through the text in The Turn of the Screw is like wading through a wordy swamp. The prose is turgid, bordering on pretentious and at times I skimmed just to get a general meaning. Take this line:

‘This was not so good a thing, I admit, as not to leave me to judge that what, essentially, made nothing else much signify was simply my charming work’

This was not a book that I particularly enjoyed reading, and for a novella, it was a surprisingly long read.

While I appreciated the ambivalence and the atmosphere, I was never spooked by the tale. However, James is a master of mood and as hard as The Turn of the Screw was to read, it has been just as hard to shake.


Novellas in November The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

49 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I read it just the way you have described. The first time I read it, I read it simply as a ghost story of possession. And then intrigued by a critical essay (I was reading the Norton edition), I went back and read it again and it was like reading a different book altogether. No other book has ever achieved that. This one is unique and a masterpiece.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I listened to this on BBC Sounds and enjoyed it very much. Maybe it’s better as an audio book?

    I listened to The Portrait of a Lady too, and also liked that.

    The only one of his I’ve read as a printed book is Daisy Miller, (it’s short) which first gave me a taste for James. I’d definitely recommended that one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read this one along with The Aspern Papers because they were published in one book, and I wanted to read The Aspern Papers while we were in Venice.
      I loved The Aspern Papers, but I thought The Turn of the Screw was a waste of my time! I think he wrote it as an exercise in (as Cathy says) presenting two opposing situations, each one with equal credibility. LOL as if he were limbering up to write a crime novel…

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  3. I have a smiliar difficulty with James’s writing. I read this many years ago when I was far too young to grasp it after watching the frankly terrifying but excellent film adapatation, The Innocents, with Deborah Kerr as the governess..

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  4. I think I might give this a try, your quote from the governess really made me laugh! I read Portrait of a Lady and did find his prose turgid (good word!) but ready for that, I’m intrigued by the contradictions!

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  5. This is one of only two short books I’ve read by James (the other being What Maisie Knew). I do remember it being proper scary, though I struggled with the prose and don’t expect I’ll ever read one of his full-length novels.


  6. Not my favourite James (not that I’ve read a ton), didn’t stick with me much either. I haven’t had a ton of success with these classic ghost story novellas (The Poor Clare by Elizabeth Gaskell I found similarly blah). Maybe Wharton’s short ghost stories would do the trick!


  7. Ha ha I love your description of reading Henry James, I thought it was just me who found his prose impenetrable! I saw a stage adaptation which I absolutely loved, and I love the tale that he’s telling, with all its clever uncertainties and unreliability, but for a short book it sure did take some reading…


  8. Ooh soooo creepy, years since I read it, but it’s so good. One of my favourites of Henry James that I have read, I found him difficult at times, and don’t have the patience for his prose these days.


  9. The only James book I have actually (sort of) liked – his prose is much too wordy with giant paragraphs. I studied this book for a literature course and what I mainly remember is a tower in the grounds being a ‘phallic symbol’!

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  10. I’ve read quite a few classic novellas, but there are a few I haven’t read too, and this is one of them. I plan to read this, and What Maisie knew one day. Maybe next November!

    I think Henry James is variable in terms of difficulty of his prose. Portrait of a lady and Princess Cassamassima are very readable (I found) as are some of the other long ones I think. But I did find The ambassadors hard going.


  11. I’ve never read it but many years ago, the actor Blythe Danner did a reading of the story, which I went to. So I feel like I did read it. (And now, whenever I think of the book, I hear her voice reading it!) Not scary, but certainly spooky!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Totally agree, great ghost story set-up, hated the prose. I haven’t read anything else by James so I’m willing to believe it works better in his other works, but I think this story needed a simpler telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. You are NOT alone in struggling with James’ prose! I read Turn Of The Screw a couple of years back, and had much the same response. I thought I’d give him a second chance with The Golden Bowl, and it was one of the worst reading experiences of my life. I broke up with James, then and there. I don’t care how brilliant he was or how much very clever people love him – life’s too short to persist with him any further.

    Liked by 2 people

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