Monday, March 08, 2010

Off Topic Classic---Henry James: The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw has a history. Over twenty films, operas, theatre productions, ballets, and televsion dramas have bee produced since the short story/novella made its first appearance in 1898. It has been a subtext for HBO's Deadwood and ABC's Lost. There are probably ten schools of thought about Henry James' intentions the meanings of the work. Literary critics, philosophers, psychologists and fiction writers have put forth a myriad of implications for an understanding the mind, evil and the supernatural.

A narrator listens to friend read a manuscript written by a former governess whom the friend has known but who is now dead. The young governess cares for two orphans at the request of a friend of their dead parents. He is an abstentee gaurdian living in London. Miles, the male orphan, is attends a boarding school. Flora, the female orphan, lives at country house that is kept and managed by Mrs. Grose. The gaurdian gives the governess charge of the children and states that she is not to bother him under any circumstances with details of her work or of the children's lives.

A letter from Miles' headmaster stating that he has been expelled and immediately Miles returns from school for the summer. The governess is hesitant to raise the issue and worries that there is some secret behind the expulsion. Yet Miles is compliant and charming toward the governess. Then the ghosts, a man and a woman, appear to the governess but not, it seems, to Miles, Flora, Mrs. Grose or a groundsman.

The governess discovers from Mrs. Grose that the previous governess, Miss Jessel and her lover, Peter Quint, suffered unexplainable deaths. Prior to their deaths they spent countless hours with Flora and Miles. The governess becomes convinced that the two orhans are secretly aware of the ghosts.

Flora becomes lost from the governess who, with Mrs. Grose, find her in the property's woods. Has she has been talking to Miss Jessel? Flora admits this and demands to have the governess sent away. Mrs. Grose takes Flora to her uncle. The governess and Miles are left on the estate. In the evening, the governess and Miles' converse about his expulsion. The ghost of Peter Quint appears outside the window. The governess grasps Miles in a protective embrace. Miles screams and struggles to see the ghost. The governess tells him that he is no longer under the control of the ghost, and finds that Miles has died in her arms.

The Turn of the Screw's ghosts are not demented, not returning from hell, and are not predators. Are the ghosts sinister or is the mind of the governess unhinged from preceptible reality? Is the rational mind able to grasp supernatural (above nature) or supranatural (within nature) spirit events? That is the crux of the story.

Many writers have examined James's narrative technique of framing the introduction as an reader-audience event with a first-person narrative written by one, who at the time of the reading, is deceased. The Turn of the Screw appears to be a gothic tale set on a rural estate with immense old buildings, distrubing bodies of water, and dense woods with spiritual glades. James' descriptions of the varieties of light and the governess' preceptions of it enhance the readers' preception of spirit forces.

Real ghosts? Insane governess? She accurately describes Quint the ghost but was there a picture of Quint among Jessel's things in the house? James, in his various notes on The Turn of the Screw gives no indication that the governess hallucinates the ghost. James returned to the story frequently to edit it, even after it was published on several occassions.

What CWL favorite films and novels offer the same degree and type of suspense as The Turn of the Screw? The Others [2001] starring Nicole Kidman and Peter Straub's novel [1981] Ghost Story.

No comments: