Summary: A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, and own their souls.
Page Count: 121 Publication Date: 1898
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Disclaimer: Commentary on abuse of a minor. It’s difficult to give a review of the book without also referencing the tv show, and why not? Despite the beauty of the book and the appeal of an unnamed, potentially unreliable narrator, the television show expanded a story that is otherwise relatively unscary and primarily a conceptual “what if” scenario. Henry James wrote the story during a time when whodunit detective novels like Sherlock Holmes were popular, composing it as an almost playful subversion of the need to explain and debunk the mystery. Under the guise of a spooky gothic novella, the story follows the mystery detective style until the end, which leaves off abruptly and with very little explanation. I personally found myself shouting what?? at the audiobook and immediately recounting my mixed awe and anger toward the author to my unlucky roommate, when (spoiler alert) Miles suddenly dies in the very last line of the book. Or, rather, his “heart stopped”, which could arguably mean that he became calm after the unnamed governess faced down Peter Quint’s evil influence, OR she crushed him to death while having a very vivid hallucination. The book ends with more questions than explanations, a direct reversal of story structures of the time.
The television show is faithful in spirit to the book, if not in literal storytelling. It expands the part of Ms. Grose to an important side-plot that fits in with the overall theory of the house trapping spirits because of the original mistress’ unintentional curse. The charming gardener and cook are also sadly not present in the book, leaving out two romances that are central to the television show’s emotional drama. The book instead focuses on the governess, her relationship with the two children, the possible ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and–most importantly in contrast to the television show–the theme of pedophilia and sexual abuse. While not all reviews or summaries of the novel will address it, arguably (or not so arguably), the most dominant theme that is only thinly veiled throughout the book, is the impact the children (specifically miles) experienced after being sexually abused by at least Quint, if not Jessel as well. There are also heavy undertones with the narrator herself, including a scene where she lays in bed with Miles, holding him and having an unsettlingly intimate emotional conversation.
Novels from the 19th and into the mid-20th century frequently included heavy themes that would have likely been very obvious to the readers of the times, but are not as clear to modern readers who are more used to having things spelled out for them. This is partially due to stylistic changes, but also for the simple fact that directly referencing abuse of a minor would not have been received well by readers of the time. That said, there are multiple lines in The Turn of the Screw that, while they could have double meanings, are so clearly written to imply a cycle of sexual abuse as to be almost explicitly stated.
As I’ve mentioned, the story focuses solely on the relationships between the children, the new and extremely overprotective governess, and (sometimes) Mrs. Grose, who primarily serves as a second adult for the governess to share her fears with, and (if you’re taking the hallucination route) enable the woman’s delusion, until near the end when she admits that she’s never seen ghosts at the manor and questions whether the governess may just be under a lot of stress. The television show does incorporate elements of abuse and manipulation, shown especially when Miles inappropriately speaks to Dani, under Peter’s influence. But in an initial viewing of the show, we assume that this is solely Peter causing problems and being a creep. But when you think further into the show’s narrative, if Quint and Jessel intend on possessing the children and escaping the grounds to live together, assumedly in a romantic relationship, we see a hint of the disturbing conclusions that are clearly laid out in the novella.
As far as the actual writing, the novella is consistent with the language and prose style of the time, beautifully poetic moments and sometimes superfluous descriptions. The governess is possibly even more dramatic and sometimes annoying than Dani, but that’s the point. She walks into a situation that she was not expecting, falls in love with the wonderful children who are at first kind, creative, and quickly grasp their lessons to the point that they are teaching HER. When they begin to behave strangely, becoming reluctant and cagey and secretive, it makes sense that the narrator would be concerned. And when she begins to have a clearer idea, through conversations with the children and with Mrs. Grose that something insidious took place, but which the housekeeper refuses to acknowledge and the children refuse to speak of, she becomes progressively and understandably more distressed until she actively considers leaving the manor and washing her hands of the problem. But she doesn’t, instead choosing through her own sense of responsibility for the childrens’ safety, and her dangerous obsession with the ghosts she keeps seeing on the grounds, to send Flora away and at last settle the matter.
The end of the book is where the question of something awful having happened to Miles is made most clear. The governess repeatedly demands that Miles admit what Quint did, while he plays the piano and speaks inappropriately like an adult who is wooing a love interest. Even without the ghost story, this scene and the full ending would make sense from the perspective of a desperate caregiver who needs her charge to admit he has been abused–particularly since he has heavily implied to act out this abuse at school with other children–and instead receiving uncomfortable commentary from the child who is either possessed, or traumatized, or both. I think the ultimate question that defines the story is also what makes it incredibly relevant to modern narratives.
There are other examples of horror and ghost stories that are actually revealed to be metaphors of abuse–or ghosts that are exposed as humans. An American Haunting is a good (and creepy) example. The Boy is another (disappointing) one. As someone who doesn’t typically read horror novels, I don’t have a good example to reference in that media. But either way, I would say it’s much more common to either make ghost stories ghost stories, or address psychological horrors like abuse in a manner that is frankly over the top and utilized for a tasteless shock factor.
The Turn of the Screw is a double story by definition. Simultaneously a ghost story and a story about a young boy who was abused and is still tormented by the “ghosts” of that abuse. the lack of explanation and reveal, the sudden ending with what could be a death or catharsis and healing, is what sets this novel aside, leaving me with the lingering question: Which version is creepier? The literal interpretation as a story about ghostly possession? Or a non-supernatural narrative about a governess driven mad as she tries to figure out how to help a boy who has been abused and now has the potential to become an abuser? Both are unsettling, but I believe the second interpretation makes The Turn of the Screw an unexpectedly raw and honest depiction of how emotional and physical abuse can complicate a child’s life, and the helplessness a teacher or caregiver might feel when everyone around her consistently denies anything bad has happened at all, leaving her questioning her sanity and with no means of helping heal the wounds left by an evil “ghost”. View all my reviews