The turn of the screw

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Ancient rabbis used the same techniques to analyze the Torah as the Greeks used to analyze the Iliad and the Odyssey and as scholars use today to analyze literature, as in the following example.

Henry James’s (1843-1916) published “The Turn of the Screw” in 1898. The 131-page horror novella is a book filled with his characteristic ambiguities and obscurities which makes the tale’s actions unclear. They leave it to the reader to decide what is happening. Readers, in essence, join the writer in the composition of the tale as they explain to themselves what is occurring.

The title “turn of the screw” denotes an action that makes a bad situation worse. The gothic tale starts with a narrator informing people that he will tell them a story about ghosts. One listener comments that since two young children are involved, not just one, it tightens the tension. It is another turn of the screw.

He reads to story to them, a story written by the governess who experienced it. A man, identifying himself as the uncle and guardian of his dead brother’s two children, ten-year-old Miles, and his younger sister Flora, both unusually beautiful, hires the young governess to care for the two and teach them. The tale mentions the beauty of the children more than several times. Is this significant? Does Miles suggest mild and Flora suggest a flower?

The uncle stipulates that she must never contact him again. She must make all decisions regarding the children. We do not know why he made this condition. Did he do so because he does not like children or care for their needs? Or is he afraid of getting involved with ghosts?

In her narration, the governess tells what she thinks is occurring. This is called “train of thought literature,” and “interior monologue.” This results in the greatest ambiguity in this book. Is what she thinks she sees and hears true?

She discovers that Miles, who had been attending a boarding school has been expelled for bad behavior, but the school does not identify what he did that was so despicable. This is another obscurity, one that is never clarified in the tale. Is Miles bad and, if so, how bad? Was he made bad by the ghosts? Or was he dismissed because he was too clever and did not fit in with his classmates of average intelligence?

The young governess sees an evil-looking man and evil-looking woman. She describes what she sees to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who tells her that the two sound like the overbearing evil Peter Quint, the uncle’s right-hand man, and the former resident governess, Miss Jessel, who may have had a relationship with Quint. She quit for unknown reasons. Was she pregnant? Both she and Quint died. How? Why? The housekeeper says she never saw the two people after they died. The children also say they never saw the two people.

The children disappear from time to time. The governess sees them outside talking to each other. Are they with the ghosts? Are they talking to the two ghosts? The governess is convinced that the children are in contact and being controlled by the ghosts. She loves the children and decides to extricate them from the ghosts. What do the ghosts want with the children?

Is what the governess sees and hears what is really happening? Are there ghosts? Why doesn’t anyone else see them? Is it only in her mind? Is the housekeeper and children lying when they claim they never saw Quint and Jessel after they died? Are the two children innocent or corrupt? If corrupt, how are they corrupt and why? Do the ghosts have evil powers over the children, or over the governess, and if over the governess, how. Or does the governess have a mental problem?

This is a classic story and none of the questions are answered in it. We have to answer them ourselves.

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