The Turn of the Screw, a pictorial novel. Henry James. 1898

The Origin of the novel

The book appears for the first time on the magazine “Collier’s Weekly”. Henry James published it in twelve episodes, from January 27th to April 16th 1898, and so he realises one of his masterpieces. In fact, the episodes will later become a book of great success.

The plot inspires to a ghost story Henry was told by the Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson, concerning two children raised by some of the servants of a big summer country house in Essex. Once those servants die, they come back to corrupt the children. Henry decides to treat the general topic but to leave to the reader the interpretation of the facts he is going to tell through the live voice of the governess Mrs. Giddens.

The frame story: being Mrs. Giddens

Henry decides to use a frame story: on Christmas Eve a man named Douglas decided he will read a manuscript written by a Mrs. Giddens, a former governess whom Douglas claims to have known and who is now dead. The circumscribed point of view helps the reader to empathise immediately with the governess.

So, imagine to be her, a governess in late 19th Century, an independent and romantic woman, about to be hired by a charming gentleman in order to train his little nephew and niece he is uninterested in raising.

Imagine the charm he may use to convince you are the right person for the job but that never, in any case, you will have to bother him. Imagine how the perspective of being the right person indeed may have affected your decision. You would never admit it but your mind flew for a moment to Jane Eyre, and then maybe with a bit of anxiety also to Bertha.

However you liked him and willing meet his expectations you decide to accept and leave for the country house. When you reach the villa, everything seems splendid and you start to think it was a good idea and to daydream about a wonderful future.

Turn of the screw: a pictorial expression

Turn of the screw is an expression that refers to an action that makes a bad situation worse. In the frame story Douglas mentions the fact that a horror story with a child would be a turn of the screw “and what about two child?” he asked. “it would be two turns of the screw” someone answer.

Beyond this introduction to the concept, the story will be full of turns of the screw. In fact at the beginning everything is beautiful a peaceful. Then a turn of the screw and anxiety comes along; then an other turn of the screw and here is paranoia. Then one more turn of the screw and everything seems to get worse so that every tools of joy you thought to possess, such as the pedagogical enthusiasm, the love for learning and teaching, the beauty of nature, and the prospect of a bright future turn against you as arrows ready to hit you.

Originality and the new gothic tale

The atmosphere of an imminent evil is even more unbearable because of the bucolic and peaceful setting. This contrast creates a feeling of terror that is entirely psychological. It comes hardly from the told facts but rather from the mind of the narrator. In this way Henry anticipates the literary avantguarde of the Twenty Century. His work will influence particularly the modernism.

In fact is Virginia Wolf in her 1918 essay on The supernatural in Modern English Fiction to best highlight how The Turn of the Screw creates the basis for a new kind of gothic tale. A new way of storytelling where the narrative centre is not represented by external events but by the way in which they are perceived by those who are experiencing them. This is a novelty comparing to the Eighteen Century gothic tales such as Ann Radcliffe’s  The mysteries of Udolpho, because the focus is on picturing the horror not just as environmental element but as psychological dynamic.

“There was an alien object in view – a figure whose right of presence I instantly and passionately questioned. I recollect counting over perfectly the possibilities, reminding myself that nothing was more natural, for instance, than the appearance of one of the men about the place, or even of a messenger, a postman or a tradesman’s boy, from the village. That reminder has as little effect on my practical certitude as I was conscious – still even without looking – of its having upon the character and attitude of our visitor. Nothing was more natural than that these things should be the other things they absolutely were not.”

The concept of “seeing” and the novel’s interpretative ambiguities.

Henry favourite themes, such as the human being threatened by real or imaginary ghosts, the impact between the adult and children dimensions, the human tyranny manifested particularly through psychological manipulation, are overlooked by an original reading of the concept of “seeing.” What we see is normally considered what we deem to be real but here it is hardly so. “Seeing” is here not a sign of certainty but rather of ambiguity and duplicity.

It creates two possible realities, which are reflected by the two literary scholars who, today still, aim at offering an exhaustive interpretation of the story’s plot and core concepts. On the one side some scholars offer an interpretation based on gothic standard, where the ghosts are tangible and represent the psychological and physical evil. On the other hand there are scholars who believes the novel to be the story of a psychoanalytical case of hysteria and so the ghosts to be just hallucinations.

Related media

The Turn of the Screw has been the subject of numerous adaptations and reworkings in a variety of media.  The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton, and Michael Winner’s prequel The Nightcomers (1972) are two particularly notable examples. The film by Alejandro Amenabàr The Others (2001) is not an adaptation but offer an original interpretation of James’s novella. Then the 2009 BBC film adapted by Sandy Welch

What do you think?

If you take a close look the geniality of the novel lies in its ambiguity. It creates a narrative tension given by involving the reader in a continuous reasoning effort that while sharpening one intuition and sense of perception makes s reflect on the ambiguity of reality and of good and evil.

Have you read it? What do you think Mrs. Giddens was experiencing, ghosts or hallucinations?