Book Review: The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

Book Review

The Turn of the Screw

by Henry James

Turn 5


The Turn of the Screw was a serialized novella written by Henry James in 1898. It can best be classified as a ghost story that builds suspense through mood and psychological tension. Written well over a century ago, the story has a pacing and ambiance that are seldom found in current literature and it feels very much like a classical ghost story in many respects. Even within the opening moments readers will feel treated to the most traditional of ghost story settings as a group of friends gather around a fireplace to discuss a handwritten tale passed down to a gentleman from his former governess, who has since passed away. The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful psychological exploration that leaves the reader to contemplate if the specters that terrorized the characters came from without, or within. In the end James leaves us with much to consider in this slow burning tale of the phantoms that cling to us.

My full written and video review of this novel can be found below.

Plot & Themes: 7 / 10

“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!”

Turn 1The plot of this story follows the first person narrative of a governess charged with the care of two small children, a boy and a girl, that she soon finds are being stalked by phantoms; the girl by her former governess and the boy by a former valet. The plot develops at a slow pace that works well with the genre, building tension with each fresh encounter with the specters. The question of why these children are being stalked is then almost taken for granted, which opens the way for multiple interpretations of what is truly taking place. In a story that touches on the supernatural, particularly in a world where the gamut of belief in such things runs wide, the plot of this story does a wonderful job of appearing straightforward to two different audiences that will come away with completely contradictory conclusions. For believers there will be no doubts, and for non-believers it will be the same, though for wholly different reasons. James thus left open the possibility where the reader must decide for themselves what they believe from all they have read.

Characters: 6 / 10

“Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain, and I had more pains than one.”

Turn 2There are four primary characters in this novel: the governess who narrates the tale, the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and the two children, Miles and Flora. Mrs. Grose mostly serves as an occasional soundboard for the governess to express her thoughts, ideas, and growing worry over the appearance of the ghosts. She is, in almost all ways, a very prototypical housekeeper who adds little to the story beyond being an adult for the governess to confide in, and a possible check to the validity of her claims. As to the children, Flora is the purer of the two, always sweet and angelic, while Miles is presented from early on as possessing a possible duality. Miles is perhaps the character with the greatest depth beyond the narrator and James does a marvelous job of sending the reader teetering between wanting to believe the child is what he seems and certain that he is anything but. However, much of the story is driven by the internal monologuing of the governess. With the entire tale dictated from her point of view one begins to wonder a great many things about the plot of the story. The fact that readers can feel the governess’ steadily building hysteria with each passing chapter is the best development in character throughout The Turn of the Screw.

Pacing & Narrative Style: 5 / 10

“It may be, of course, above all, that what suddenly broke into this gives the previous time a charm of stillness—that hush in which something gathers or crouches. The change was actually like the spring of a beast.”

Turn 3Literary style has changed dramatically over the past century and this novel is among the many that stand testament to that. For many younger readers, this novel will present a great challenge in both pace and literary style because it is written in a way that many have not experienced. This should not be taken as a deterrent but should be understood before reading it. The pace is quite slow and there is scant dialogue. Most of the novel is spent in the head of the narrator as she navigates her thoughts and feelings in a situation where she finds herself increasingly moving beyond her depth. This is also a very traditional ghost story told in the manner that true ghost stories were meant to be told, where the ghosts don’t rush at people or jump suddenly from closets but may just stand in a corner and stare. What used to be frightening about ghosts was not that they meant to you harm, but what they represented. Why is this ghost here? What does it want? Is it truly there, or have I lost my mind? Ghosts used to represent a wealth of contemplation, not just a cheap fright. This story thus sought to build a slow burning tension where the enemy is as much one’s own mind as it is the phantoms. Thus, the pacing of this story is quite slow, and the narrative style is representative of the time it was written. In many ways it is written as a stream of consciousness from a woman in the late 1800’s, which provides both an interesting social and cultural reference to the novel as well. For those who enjoy a wide variety of style and pacing this novella will have great appeal.

The Ending: 7 / 10

“I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his perhaps being innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?”

Turn 4The ending of the novel was well executed because it left the readers with closure, but also questions. Were the ghosts truly there or was the governess suffering from a temporary mania? This is what is ultimately satisfying about this story is that it forces the reader in many ways to decide for themselves what really happened, and it is haunting either way. Readers will imagine both possibilities in almost equal fervor at different points of the story and are forced to consider the horrors of both. Thus, the ending provides the reader with a challenge to what ghosts they believe in most, the ones we can see, or the ones inside of us.

Final Verdict: 7 / 10 (KEEP)

“I call it relief, though it was only the relief that a snap brings to a strain or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation. It was at least change, and it came with a rush.”

Turn 6The greatest novels do more than tell us a story, they provide us with the tools to consider ideas beyond what we understand, and in a world where many prefer to be spoon fed the answers, this novel challenges you to decide what you believe. It is a slow building novel with a pace and motif that fit both the genre and the time period in which it was written. The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful gothic ghost story that explores the psychological and paranormal through the mind of woman desperate to protect the children in her charge. It will leave readers with a decision about what they believe was truly torturing the poor woman who felt nothing but love for the two she was looking after; two specters from the children’s past who were hell bent on corrupting them? Or her own inner psychosis broken by a somewhat mad situation. This is a timeless ghost story that any true fan of the genre will appreciate.


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