His grandfather was one of the first American millionaires. James’ father was a theologian and his brother was a psychologist. In fact, his brother, William James, was the pioneer of psychoanalysis. Around the time that James wrote ‘The Turn of The Screw’ (1897), people began to think a lot more about the inner workings of the mind. James seems especially interested in what it is that attracts humans to one another and as to when sexuality begins to shape itself in a child. An example of this is shown in one of his early novels, ‘Watch and Ward’, in which a bachelor adopts a young girl with an intention to marry her.
This is also shown in ‘The Turn of The Screw’, when Miles kisses the governess. The adversary of the governess, Peter Quint, has sexually abused Miles, continuing this psychological theme. Much of James’ work is centred on the innocence of the West and the corruption and wisdom of the East. When Henry James wrote ‘The Turn of The Screw’, I believe his intention was to create a gripping, thought-provoking piece of fiction to involve the reader. He wrote entirely through the governess’ eyes so that the book would involve the reader.
There is also a prologue in which the reader is included in a circle of friends telling ghost stories to one another. One man proclaims that he knows of this story and then the narrative begins in earnest. This immediately tells the reader what to expect from the story and how to approach it. However, the practice of people sitting round an open fire and entertaining each other with ghost stories is, sadly, not common and, if it occurs at all, people tend to relate anecdotes rather than ghost stories.
James has created a tense novel; he builds huge suspense by not immediately saying what is happening. He presents the story as a journal: the perceptions of the governess. This is slightly similar to ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ by J. D. Salinger. In this the main character (Holden Caulfield) pours out all his thoughts onto paper. The governess writes in a similar way, but it is subtler and more edited; James is trying to make the reader ‘live the book’.
For instance, when the governess first realises that Miss Jessel is standing on the opposite side of the lake from her, James does not merely present this fact, but instead goes through all the ideas thoughts and observations of the governess in minute detail and keeps the reader in continued suspense until the revelation. Some people may have found this novel frightening in 1898 (its contemporary setting) but its setting is actually one of its downfalls in appealing to a modern audience. It is too near to real life to appeal or frighten.
The modern horror audience’s taste has become increasingly extreme so that horror films and books are more fantastical. Even though they are increasingly unrealistic, this makes them more frightening and somehow involves the audience more. The basis of the Turn of The Screw is horror invading everyday life. There is a lot more exposure to horror in the present day, so this dampens the effect that this novel has on people now. People become cynical when they are over-exposed to something, such as advertising.
Henry James wrote verbosely, using lots of imagery, which in most cases is profound. He uses many subordinate clauses, which can make it difficult to understand i. e. : This is written in the ‘voice’ of the governess (as a journal entry) and the choice of vocabulary shows us that she is well educated (as does the fact that she can write) but perhaps a bit nervous. It is as if she is getting hysterical just writing about the experience. This is perhaps because she is unfamiliar with the job and has never worked with children before. The old definition of hysteria was:
“A nervous affection, occurring exclusively in women, in which the emotional and reflex excitability is exaggerated, and the will power correspondingly diminished, so that the patient loses control over the emotions, becomes the victim of imaginary sensations, and often falls into paroxysm or fits. ” – Webster’s Dictionary This is a reminder of how women were seen and their (expected) role in society at the time the book was written. In relation to ‘The Turn of the Screw’ being a successful ghost story for a modern audience, it may be slightly outdated and perhaps ill-received in our post-feminist society.
Women are no longer seen as people who should only look after domestic matters. However, it can break the ‘spell’ of the writing if you have to read a sentence twice to get the precise meaning of the writer’s idea. This can prevent people from getting involved in the story and if you are not involved, you are not enjoying the story. The imagery is open to interpretation but I believe that if you look at some of James’ imagery and can explain it with the first thought that enters your mind, you do not have James’ meaning.
For instance, when Flora runs off to the lake to be with Miss Jessel and the governess and Mrs. Grose go to fetch her: The lake is a metaphor for Jessel’s evil influence and power. The governess is saying that she believes Flora can be saved because Jessel does not have complete control over her yet. The lake is also described as a “sheet of water” and a sheet can be used to hide things. Another use for a sheet which was more common in James’ time (the Victorian period) would be to cover unused furniture in one’s second home.
The practice of covering all furniture is uncommon in our time. This is another factor to consider when questioning whether The Turn of the Screw is an effective ghost story for a modern audience. There are also many references to the title of the book in some imagery such as, in the same chapter, when Flora is sticking a mast in her toy boat. This again uses the governess’ non-description of the important part of the scene to build tension. Some of the imagery used still has relevance today.
We are instilled with an inherent metaphoric belief that high is good and low is bad, as shown in the book with the varying positions of the governess and the spirits on the staircase. Also the metaphor ‘turning the screw’ is still an accepted term for increasing tension today. The language used may be difficult to understand for a modern audience and not many people can identify with the character, since there is not much to need for home tutors and guardians now. Parents generally have much more sociable working hours and prefer to spend the money on something more necessary.
In addition, children are now required to go to school (unless they are one of the rare cases of those tutored at home. ) Many people will not personally know a governess, let alone be able to empathise with one. However, some people such as single parents (especially single mothers) may identify with feeling that sort of responsibility towards their children. The Turn of The Screw was effective in its contemporary setting. People were more superstitious at that time, because for many people life was hard, and they needed something to focus upon.
More people believed in God, and for God to exist there has to be some evil in the world. There was also no entertainment except that which people made for themselves. Parlour games, telling stories or reading books were common leisure activities, since people could not just sit down in front of the television. Many of these stories were passed down from generation to generation and the most popular were ghost stories. We are fascinated with the supernatural and the unknown. It is one of the basic primal fears – the fear of the unknown – that appeals to us.
The industrial revolution brought about more education for lower to middle class people and this meant there was a growing audience for books and especially fiction. People felt the need to escape from the real world. In modern times we are discouraged from this way of thinking because science has come a long way since the nineteenth century and there is no scientific evidence to suggest that these things can happen. However, fantasy books and films are popular, showing there is still an escapist desire in the human psyche, even though more people are educated and we are taught that ghosts do not exist.
It seems that television has destroyed this silence and continuity. The story needs to be retold. The haunting effect of a ghost story can now be disrupted more easily because we have electricity, with which comes bright electric lights that can penetrate any unknown shadow. However, if you have a sufficiently romantic mind then the language could help involve you in the atmosphere. Also I think that people could identify with this because there are similar (perceived) dangers today.
Peter Quint is a paedophile and what happens in the novel is also the stuff of nightmares for parents in modern times. However, despite these factors, I do not believe that ‘The Turn of the Screw’ is ultimately a successful ghost story for the modern audience. The situation, language and characters are too alien, yet everyday, to really involve an audience. Technology, science and education deal the final blow, destroying the audience’s connection with the heart of the story. Ed Byford In your opinion, is The Turn Of The Screw a 25/04/2007 successful ghost story for a modern audience?