Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Turn of the Screw

There's something about October that makes me want to read scary stories. I love Halloween and I find that I get in a spooky sort of mood pretty early on in the month. Since I was also in the middle of prepping for a trip to the UK, it made sense that I'd be drawn to a story that took place in England.

A man has been given charge of his niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, after their parents die. He hires a governess to look after them at an estate in Essex. He leaves them completely in her care and makes it very clear that he doesn't want to be disturbed with the details of their care. She meets the children and is quickly charmed by both of them. The boy has returned from boarding school along with notice that he's actually been expelled. This is the first of several situations that has no full explanation. The governess develops a theory that it must be a horrible circumstance leading up to the expulsion, and she begins to look at the children differently.

The governess begins to see and hear things that don't make sense. Figures appear at windows and in hallways, even on the balconies of the house. they seem  to have some sinister connection to the children. What makes them sinister is their ordinariness. It's the every day nature of the ghosts that makes them frightening. The ghosts are the previous governess and one of the male employees who had a relationship with each other, and both passed away. Again, nothing is spelled out entirely, but there are many implications made about these two people, their relationship with each other, and their conduct towards the children and the other members of the household.

The governess convinces herself that these ghosts are after the children and mean to take them away. She confronts Flora about seeing her with the ghost of the former governess and Flora denies any sort of contact with or existence of a ghost. She turns against the governess and says she never wants to see her again. The governess and the housekeeper agree that the girl should go be with her uncle for a time. The governess and Miles are alone later that night and the other ghost appears. The governess tries to persuade the boy that he's not under the ghost's control only to find that he has died in her arms.

The thing I enjoyed most about The turn of the Screw by Henry James is the same thing that many readers don't like. You just never know if what the governess sees is real. There's no explanation at the end, there's no nice tying up of the loose ends, there's no tidy closure. You as the reader are left guessing whether everything the governess thinks she saw actually happened or if she had some sort of breakdown and put the children in danger herself.

I have to be honest when I say that I'm not sure which answer I think is real. I like the idea of the governess going insane or even just starting off that way. The more I think about it, the more I like that it isn't completely answered. I think what makes the work stand out from so many other stories and still interesting over 100 years after it was written is that the mystery is left unsolved. Solving it would take away something essential to the story.

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