The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Henry James'sThe Turn of the Screw, first serialized in Collier's Weekly magazine in 1898, tells the story of a governess brought to care for a young orphan, Flora, at a country house. When Flora's brother Miles is expelled from school and joins them, the governess begins seeing what she believes are the ghosts of previous employees sent to control and perhaps harm the children.

The novella, published also in the anthology The Two Magics shortly after its serialization, has been a favorite with critics since its publication because of its indeterminate genre: is it a tale of horror and ghosts or a story of a woman's mental illness? It has enthralled readers because of its masterful creation of a world of suspense and dread that raises more questions than it answers.

1. Some critics claim James's mentally disturbed sister was the inspiration for The Turn of the Screw.

Alice James, James's sister, suffered from mental illness for much of her life. Her disease was called "hysteria" in James's time but may have been schizophrenia. Critic Oscar Cargill—and other critics since—have posited The Turn of the Screw was actually inspired by Alice's condition, but since mental illness was considered shameful, James had to disguise "his real story with another which might, with plausibility, be construed as a ghost story."

2. James claimed he got the idea for The Turn of the Screw from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In his preface to The Turn of the Screw James describes an evening at a country house in which his host, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told the gathering about a story he had heard from a female acquaintance:

The story would have been thrilling could she but have found herself in better possession of it, dealing as it did with a couple of small children in an out-of-the-way place, to whom the spirits of certain 'bad' servants, dead in the employ of the house, were believed to have appeared with the design of 'getting hold' of them.

The tale stayed with James, and when he was asked to write a story for Collier's Weekly he elaborated on the story to create The Turn of the Screw.

3. James had to dictate The Turn of the Screw to a stenographer because he was ill.

When James began writing The Turn of the Screw, he was sick—in his words, "too ill to hold the pen." He hired a Scottish stenographer to write down The Turn of the Screw as he dictated it and was hoping the stenographer would react to his terrifying story. James wrote:

Judge of my dismay when from first to last page this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling! I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry, and whenever I paused to see him collapse, he would enquire in a dry voice, 'What next?'

4. Critics disagree about whether The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story.

Most critics agree The Turn of the Screw is a terrifying tale; a writer for the New Yorker claimed, "It's the darkest, richest ghost story I've ever read." They disagree, however, on whether its terror is the result of the supernatural or of the madness of the story's governess.

Critic David Bromwich, in an introduction to the novella, stated he believed the ghosts were not real: "The inward fears of the governess [are] transfigured by imagination into a palpable menace." Regardless of which side scholars take, the result is the same: a story that chills its readers with an ambiguous sense of peril.

5. James frightened himself in writing The Turn of the Screw.

James wrote The Turn of the Screw in part to create a new audience for himself in the United States. His books and stories rarely sold well, and he decided to aim for popularity with his new tale. He made the story as terrifying as he possibly could. When he received page proofs of the tale to correct, he told a friend of his, Edmund Goose, "When I had finished them I was so frightened that I was afraid to go upstairs to bed."

6. Reviews of The Turn of the Screw ranged from "astonishing" to "hopelessly evil."

When The Turn of the Screw was published in 1898, reaction was swift and strong. The New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art called it "the strongest and most affecting argument against sin we have lately encountered in literature." The overwhelmed reviewer of Literature claimed it was "so astonishing a piece of art that it cannot be described."

However, the reviewer for the Outlook said it was "distinctly repulsive," and the Independent called it, "The most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern" and went on to declare:

The feeling after perusal of the horrible story is that one has been assisting in an outrage upon the holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence, and helping to debauch—at least by helplessly standing by—the pure and trusting nature of children ... Human imagination can go no further into infamy, literary art could not be used with more refined subtlety of spiritual defilement.

7. Director Martin Scorsese considers the film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw one of the scariest horror movies of all time.

Martin Scorsese, director of such intense movies as Taxi Driver and Shutter Island, listed his top 11 scary movies. Number 10 on the list was The Innocents, a film version of The Turn of the Screw released in 1961. It was described by Variety as "eerie" and "spine-chilling" and was deemed so terrifying the British Board of Film Classification initially gave it an X rating before lowering the rating to 12A, suitable for viewers over 12.

8. The governess's potential madness in The Turn of the Screw has been interpreted as a form of sexual hysteria.

Critics have long argued about whether The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story or the tale of a madwoman whose derangement, perhaps rooted in sexual repression, results in the death of one of her young charges. In 1934 critic Edmund Wilson published an essay titled "The Ambiguity of Henry James," in which he argued, "The young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess's hallucinations."

Wilson, and other Freudian critics, grouped the governess with other repressed women in James's work, including the feminist and possibly lesbian main character Olive in The Bostonians and the preyed-upon Milly in The Wings of the Dove. Wilson went still further, claiming James's own repressed homosexuality led him to create the sexually repressed character of the governess.

9. The opera version of The Turn of the Screw is considered one of the "most compelling" British operas ever composed.

The esteemed composer Benjamin Britten took on The Turn of the Screw, creating a chamber opera version of the story, meant to be performed with a small chamber orchestra. It premiered in Venice, Italy, in 1954. Reviewers called it a "masterpiece," "a tour de force," and Britten's "finest" work. Within four years, it had been performed in London, Stockholm, Montevideo, and Tokyo.

10. James's brother William was obsessed with ghosts and the possibility of life after death.

Henry James was not the only member of his family with an interest in ghosts and the supernatural. William James was a philosopher and writer and was obsessed with the spirit world. He was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research and went to many seances, or "ghost evenings," in an attempt to make contact with the spirits of the deceased. Most of these events were futile, but some caused him to say he would "remain uncertain and await more fact."

When William died in 1910, Henry James and William's wife, Alice, went to a "ghost evening" to try to contact his spirit, but the attempt failed. However, a Boston businessman got in touch with the New York Times to claim William James had contacted him, saying, "I have awakened to a life far beyond my highest conception while a denizen of earth." The Times reporter didn't know what to make of this, so he asked Thomas Edison whether he should believe William James had actually spoken from beyond the grave. Edison responded, "No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life."

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