The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

TTOTS*This post contains spoilers.*

This novella was on my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge list, an event sponsored by Adam over at Roof Beam Reader, and it seemed like a good next choice to read as I have been craving “creepy” for the fall season. This was my first experience with Henry James and unfortunately I wasn’t impressed. Much of the turn off was the undecipherable “wordiness” of the writing.  For example: “That reminder had 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 that they absolutely were not.”
Henry James, what are you saying??? There were sections where James wrote in a much clearer style, but he would constantly veer back to “long-winded” ground. Perhaps this would have worked better as a short, short-story rather than a novella.

The “wordiness” issue might have been worth it if the story itself had been spectacular, but it was just so-so for me. Although an excellent example of an unreliable narrator, I could not stand the governess. Here is a lady who thinks she sees an intruder in a tower at the house and initially tells NO ONE and does not even investigate the house herself. Come on. Of course, come to find out later she is the only adult in the house who can see this guy: “It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror, huge as it was, its only note of the unnatural. If I had met a murderer in such a place and at such an hour, we still at least would have spoken. Something would have passed, in life, between us; if nothing had passed, one of us would have moved. The moment was so prolonged that it would have taken but little more to make me doubt if even I were in life.”
I get that this is a psychological thriller. I understand that James wanted to leave the reader wondering if the governess was just crazy or if the ghosts were real and they had possessed the children. But here’s the thing, the ending was completely unrealistic no matter which of these was the case. Although I didn’t see that end coming, it was still a bit of a let down somehow.

There are many classics that still hold their power in 2013, but perhaps this is just a case of one, published in 1898, that does not hold up as well. Or, maybe it was just me. Have you read The Turn of the Screw? What did you think of it?

7 thoughts on “The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

  1. I do like Henry James, and this story has its merits, but it’s not as good as the rest of his work–and it seemed a little anti-climactic to me. But it’s a good example of an unreliable narrator.

    • Anti-climactic is exactly the feeling I got. I wasn’t expecting the ending, and yet it still felt rather ho-hum. I am glad to hear from you, and others on Twitter, that you liked some of his other work better. I will give James another shot eventually.

      • He is wordy . . . . But that’s because he works his way all around a subject. He uses language differently than anyone else I’ve ever read, and it’s a powerful experience, but it’s the opposite experience from reading contemporary bare bones writing.

  2. So disappointing when something so eagerly anticipated falls short. I’ve never read it and I think after this maybe I’ll continue to skip right by it! I thought The Canterville Ghost held up well…also published in the 1890’s : )

    • I’ll have to check that one out! Some people have said they really liked The Turn of the Screw…so you might, but it just wasn’t for me.

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