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The Turn of the Screw

March 30th, 2011 (04:03 am)

Insomniac reading in the last few days has centred (when I realise that picking up a book would be a good idea) on The Turn of the Screw, which I bought in an early 1970s Penguin edition in the secondhand bookshop in Woodstock, with one of Atkinson Grimshaw's dour suburbanised mansions on the cover.

I knew nothing of the critical battle which has raged over The Turn of the Screw in the century and more since it was first published in 1898. The narration is a narration within a narration, a nod towards the many possible interpretations events offer. The governess herself is unreliable, self-deceiving, and possessive of her charges, though her skills in relating to children beyond the sentimental are questionable. She can be read as sexually jealous of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and her affair with Peter Quint, which (if so) the governesss seems to map on to the boy Miles, perhaps part-possessed by Quint's ghost, or perhaps not. Even if the story is the delusion of a murderess, it's still evocative of the closed hierarchical universe a rural estate could be when the master was away and thus the apex of power was absent, and how thin the membrane separating the disciplined rationalism of the machine age from the superstition and prevailing disorder of mind, physicality and time which is perhaps more representative of human experience as a whole.


Posted by: gwydion_writes (gwydion_writes)
Posted at: March 30th, 2011 03:53 am (UTC)

These layers are really typical of James and superb- gives you the vertigo of looking into an infinitely reflected and infinitely receding image in a mirror! The shifting nature of psychological truth is really eerie in Wings of the Dove also, but I like the possibility of ghosts here of course. If I had to recommend one I'd say portrait of a lady if you haven't read it yet.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: March 30th, 2011 12:50 pm (UTC)

I think that this is the first James I've read - oddly, perhaps, I've read Colm Toibin's novel about him, The Master.

There are layers of supernatural possibility as well as the psychological here, of course...

Posted by: ooxc (ooxc)
Posted at: March 30th, 2011 11:22 pm (UTC)

i read it when I was probably too young to see it as anything but a ghost story - it was a frightful shock when the idea came to me - I can't remember how - that the governess might herself have killed Miles . I simply assumed that his death was the responsibility of the haunting

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: March 30th, 2011 11:58 pm (UTC)

The decision to end the story with Miles's death leaves the whole thing very much open; and in terms of the reading of the story as the governess's battle with the supernatural, makes her victory decidedly Pyrrhic.