Home > classic, Genre, thriller > Book Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Book Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

A woman's face and the face of two children.Summary:
Late at night at a party, a gentleman offers to read a ghost story.  He claims this story occurred to a woman he knows personally.  The narrative then switches to the governess’s voice, and she tells of going to work at her first job as a governess caring for an absent uncle’s nephew and niece.  Upon arriving there, she discovers that the property is haunted by the ghosts of the former governess and her lover….or is it?

I loved the prologue about the party.  It’s full of clearly intelligent and world-wise people, which is rare of the Victorian era.  I was then disappointed when it switched to the governess’s voice.  She is painfully innocent and frankly annoying.  She frequently waxes lyrical about how simply delightful and angelic the children are to an extent that it made me sick to my stomach.  I frankly would have given up on the story if it wasn’t for the fact that it was my audiobook download, the reader had a pleasant voice, and it’s very short, so I figured, why not finish it?  I now am glad I did.

Upon arriving at the end, I found myself wondering if I’d missed something, as I was a bit confused about what happened, and my mind does wander sometimes when listening to an audiobook.  Since it’s a classic, I decided to look a bit at the literature guides online just as I would have gone into lecture in university excited to hear what a professor had to say about a work that I found confusing.  Well, lo and behold, apparently critics have had two distinct opinions on what exactly happens in the story pretty much since the day it was published.  I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that James intentionally wrote it as ambiguous as to whether the ghosts actually exist or the governess is insane.  It can either be read as a straight-up ghost story with some sexual innuendos or as a commentary on the ill effects of the tight-laced Victorian culture on women.  That’s kind of cool, and for the record, I prefer the insane governess reading of the story, as I think that’s actually more creepy than the ghosts.

After reading the commentary and about James’ opinions in general, I realized that James probably found the governess as annoying as I did.  I enjoyed the prologue, and the prologue was a reflection of James and his friends.  This makes so much sense now!  I am certain if I had approached this book with the knowledge of James’ criticisms of Victorian society that I would have enjoyed it much more than I did approaching it as a straight-up traditional ghost story.

Overall, this is a story that will be best enjoyed by readers who thrill to the challenge of ambiguous tales and who are critical of Victorian era mores and norms.  It is not exactly the right fit for readers looking for a traditional ghost story, however.  I also feel it necessary to add that I believe this story is not ideally suited to being an audiobook.  Due to the ambiguity, certain passages lend themselves to a desire to be re-read that is not so easily pulled-off when being listened to.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Librivox recording via the Audiobooks app for the iTouch, iPhone, and iPad

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  1. August 9, 2010 at 6:08 am

    I’ve had this book lying around for a while… maybe I’ll actually read it now! Though I can’t imagine it being a good choice for an audiobook. I’ve only recently started listening to audiobooks, because I prefer a story to music while I run, and I’m sticking to the familiar (Harry Potter) and the light (#1 Ladies’ Detective Agency). I can’t imagine having the attention span for something more complex.

    Also, I really appreciate the fact that you write actual book reviews. So many people in the blogisphere just write a long summary followed by I liked it/I didn’t like it.

    • August 9, 2010 at 7:50 am

      Thanks so much, Jennifer! It’s always good to hear that someone likes the style of my reviews. 🙂

      Part of the reason I keep winding up listening to the classics is because the Librivox recordings are free, and I’m a broke-ass student, so…. Although, I may have to break down and buy a professionally done non-classic on iTunes at some point soon here, just to change up my listening experience.

      And btw, listening while running is a great idea! I just may have to try that.

  2. August 16, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Fantastic review – I’m very much with you on the insane governess option being creepier, and I agree that this is much more satisfying as a critique of Victorian mores than as a straightforward ghost story.

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