Henry James' "Turn of the Screw": great ghost story or not?

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Henry James' "Turn of the Screw": great ghost story or not?

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1drbubbles
May 31, 2007, 12:16pm

It drives me to distraction when I see Henry James' The Turn of the Screw described as...{brief interlude for googling}..."the quintessential ghost story," or some such nonsense, because though it may be a story with ghosts in it (or not), it is not a ghost story per se. (No-one has ever called the story of Lazarus a zombie story.) So I wonder if that idea just reflects lit-crit disdain for the typical short-story ghost story, or if it is shared by ghost-story afficionados. What do y'all think?

2TheBentley
Jun 3, 2007, 11:20am

I don't think it's "the quintessential ghost story," but I'm curious what you mean when you say that "it is not a ghost story per se." If you mean that it can be read as a story without ghosts in it at all, do you feel the same way about The Haunting of Hill House?

3drbubbles
Jun 4, 2007, 9:31am

I don't think it's a ghost story because (1) it is debated whether the ghosts are externalities perceived by the governess or figments of her psyche, and (2) it's not even about said ostensible ghosts. Even if it's read as a story with ghosts in it, though, I don't think it's a ghost story. The central conflict of a ghost story ought to be about the ghosts, or occurrences generally attributed (rightly or wrongly, by the characters in the story) to ghosts, if it's to be a ghost story per se.

I have not read The Haunting of Hill House, so I can't answer that question.

4cmcarpenter
Jun 29, 2007, 10:38am

I have always thought of The Turn of the Screw as a ghost story.

I would have to read it (or listen to the audiobook) again, but I seem to recall that others see the ghosts too. Or am I wrong?

5clamairy
Edited: Jun 29, 2007, 12:02pm

Well, the housekeeper may or may not be seeing them.

Possible spoilers below! Don't look if you haven't read the book.
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Someone please explain to me what the child died from. I just reread it a few months ago, and I chalked it up to a "Victorian Vapors" kind of death. There didn't appear to be any illness, etc.

6MaggieO
Jul 3, 2007, 9:53am

One of the more interesting assignments I had in college was to write a paper on whether the ghosts in Turn of the Screw were real, or if they were entirely figments of the governess' imagination. We were supposed to look for evidence in the text. I was the only student who argued that the ghosts were real. (Not REAL real, just real within the world of the story.) It was very interesting to write, because you had to carefully comb through the text for any signs that other people were affected by the ghosts.

As to the debate about whether or not it is a ghost story, I think that James considered it to be within the genre of the ghost story. But it's certainly an interesting question: Is a story that contains ghosts but questions a narrator's credibility, the same kind of story in which the presence of ghosts is accepted because the storyteller has undertaken to tell a story about ghosts, in which the existence of ghosts is a given from the start? What effect does the act of telling the story around the fireside have on the veracity of the tale, or of the storyteller?

I think that the power of James' Turn of the Screw has something to do with it being a story within a story. In the opening frame, it is introduced to a group of friends around a fireside as being an unusually terrifying and dreadful tale, but there is a delay in telling the story until the speaker can obtain the manuscript he claims to have received from the governess. Then the tale is presented as written by the governess.

Is the entire thing a fiction? Is the manuscript a fabrication? Is Douglas, who produces the manuscript supposedly given him by his sister's governess, just spinning his own ghost story? Does the second-hand nature of the main narrative make the story seem more true, or less true? And, an intriguing detail, James does not return to the frame (in which Douglas is reading the tale to his friends) at the end of the story. It stops, abruptly, with the death of the child. Why?

Of course, the entire thing IS a fiction because James wrote it - which gives a 3rd level narrator: James is telling a story in which the narrator of the frame, Douglas, is telling a story sent to him by yet another narrator. The governess' story may or may not be "true." Douglas's story may or may not be true. But we accept that James' story is a fiction. Maybe it's the WAY in which James tells the tale that makes people consider it a "quintessential ghost story."

(Jeez, I sound like an English teacher!)

drbubbles raises a good point in #3, that the central conflict of a ghost story should be about the ghosts, and questions whether T of the S can be considered a ghost story because it is really about the governess and her thoughts or imaginings. And there is no question that the tale can be read in that way. I suspect that James intended it to be ambiguous.

It is certainly open to interpretation, as is much good literature. I vote for ghost story.

7drbubbles
Edited: Jul 3, 2007, 12:11pm

I've only read a couple of critical considerations of Screw. What astonished me was the agreement that the underlying conflict of the story has to do with that great Victorian Secret, sex {I've long appreciated the cleverness of that lingerie chain's name; these days I even find it ironic, because their merchandise seems much less respectable than it did during the era of The Victoria's Secret Model from fifteen years ago or so}. The reasoning seems to be that there's absolutely no insinuation of sex, apart from the ostensible ghosts having been a man and a woman, and from the little boy's disruptive school behavior (although I suppose, given the apparently rampant buggery at English public schools at roughly that time, it could be a fair inference. But I'm not quite convinced), therefore it's everywhere. On the other hand, I suppose one might make the argument that regardless of whether there actually had been any sexual shenanigans in the backstory, Victorian avoidance of the subject would have virtually guaranteed that that's what everyone in and out of the story (i.e., characters and readers) would suspect (repression {for the characters} and avoidance {for us non-Vic readers} having the contradictory effect of keeping it on everyone's, or at least most people's because it didn't occur to me while I was reading it, mind). But even granting that, it seems to me that James wouldn't have been writing about social attitudes towards sex in their own right as much as using them to comment on society in general: that is, he was writing about the effects on strict social mores on personhood.

By way of analogical contrast: Bram Stoker's Dracula is about fears of the effects of immigration on society (to put it coarsely), in the same way that Screw is about the effect of society on the individual. But Dracula is also a vampire story, even the ur-vampire story, and to my mind much more clearly so than Screw is a ghost story. That is, Dracula seems to be both in a way that Screw does not, at least to me.

But we can agree to disagree about whether it's a ghost story. For the sake of argument, I will suppose that it is (one can afford to be magnanimous when one is in the right ;-) ). That being the case, is it, as a ghost story, anything special? I mean, it certainly has merit as literature, but does it have merit as a ghost story? I suppose what I'm really asking here is, what qualities make a ghost story not just a good story but a good ghost story; and does Screw have them?

Edited "for content" (how I loathe that phrase!) because MaggieO posted while I was writing but I didn't see it until I posted. And then edited again later to fix an html tag.

8Antares1
Jul 3, 2007, 11:48am

I haven't read it. The descriptions of it, make it sound like the governess is having hallucinations.

9TheBentley
Jul 4, 2007, 9:46am

RE:7

To really answer that question, we would have to define why we categorize something as a ghost story at all. Is a story a ghost story simply because it has ghosts in it? I suppose to answer that question you'd have to consider liminal works like The Music Room or Portrait of Jennie, the former mostly a domestic drama and the latter much more a romance. Neither of them are particularly "spine-tingling," but they are both, clearly, about ghosts.

What is it that you take issue with in Turn of the Screw? Is it that it isn't scary, that the ghosts may be figments of her imagination, or that the story's theme isn't primarily about life after death? I guess what I'm trying to get at is what do you consider the quintessential ghost story and why?

10drbubbles
Edited: Jul 5, 2007, 9:04am

I wrote this earlier, but it's four screens up the page now, so here it is again:

"I don't think it's a ghost story because (1) it is debated whether the ghosts are externalities perceived by the governess or figments of her psyche, and (2) it's not even about said ostensible ghosts. Even if it's read as a story with ghosts in it, though, I don't think it's a ghost story. The central conflict of a ghost story ought to be about the ghosts, or occurrences generally attributed (rightly or wrongly, by the characters in the story) to ghosts, if it's to be a ghost story per se."

And just to be explicit on this point, the mere presence of (a) ghost(s) is not sufficient to qualify as a ghost story: Hamlet is not a ghost story, for example.

As for the quintessential ghost story, I don't think I've read anything that I would consider to be that. I don't have a short list, even. There's just too much variation. The idea of a "quintessential ghost story" in the first place isn't mine; it's what a few persons of questionable perspicacity have said about Screw.

I haven't read The Music Room or Portrait of Jennie, either, so I can't comment on them.

Edited for vocabulary.

11mrsradcliffe
Jul 27, 2007, 6:41am

The turn of the screw is a masterpiece in terms of tension and narrative pace. The question of whether or not it is a ghost story I think is quite personal to each reader.
The ghosts are there, they are present in the text. Whether you accept them as real or as figments of the mind of a sexaully repressed governness who sees sex everywhere, there are still figures described. It complicates things as it is told through her eyes.
The manuscript device mirrors the early gothic novels and distances the teller of the tale from the events themselves by another step.
I still don't know whether there are real ghosts or figments, but I do think this novella is ghostly and creates a sense of otherworldliness. It is also scary in its description of the mind of a repressed woman who even sees sexual imagery in the playing of two children.

12Ann_Louise
Aug 19, 2007, 9:31pm

It is certainly one of the most influential books in the genre. Also, it's inspired great work adapting it into other mediums. I saw a two-person TotS at the Milwaukee Rep that was amazing - spellbinding and creepy with minimal sets/effects.
"The Innocents" is one of my favorite movies - and manages to get the ambiguity of the story (is she nust or are the ghosts real?) using the language of film - sound(or lack thereof), image, lighting. It's available on DVD - hightly recommended.

13drbubbles
Aug 20, 2007, 8:50am

#12: "It is certainly one of the most influential books in the genre."

Influential in what way(s)?

14Ann_Louise
Sep 9, 2007, 12:43am

I'd say influential in the sense that it is a "touchstone" work; something that's mentioned as an example of -in this case- psychological terror and/or unreliable narrators. You can mention it to a lot of non-horror fans and they'll at least know the phrase. Like the movie title "Gaslight" has come to describe any "husband trying to drive wife crazy" in a fictional suspense book or real-life true crime.

15GatorJoker
Jan 29, 2008, 1:20pm

good.

16SJaneDoe
Jan 29, 2008, 4:31pm

Agreed.

17drbubbles
Jan 28, 2009, 10:46am

>2 TheBentley: "If you mean that it can be read as a story without ghosts in it at all, do you feel the same way about The Haunting of Hill House?"

OK! Now I have read The Haunting of Hill House, so I can comment!

Unlike Turn of the Screw, this was actually good. Ghost story, though? I don't know. Certainly there's no disputing that strange events occurred outside the mind of the principal protagonist (another difference from TotS). Still, ghost story?

If you grant what I wrote in #3 (and I'm not saying you should, but on the other hand I probably should, since I wrote it), that "the central conflict of a ghost story ought to be about the ghosts, or occurrences generally attributed (rightly or wrongly, by the characters in the story) to ghosts," then the evidence for calling HoHH a ghost story seems to me to be equivocal. I suppose it would depend on the weight one gave the supernatural occurrences versus that given the interactions of the protagonists. It seems to me that the house's "actions" are probably necessary for the climax, whereas those of the other characters are probably not. But I could be convinced otherwise.

Practically, I think I would be more inclined to call HoHH a horror story than a ghost story.

18TheBentley
Edited: Jan 28, 2009, 3:32pm

LOL. drbubbles, I can't believe you came all the way back to this discussion after a year. :-0 I agree that HOHH actually is probably more a horror story than a ghost story.

After reading the whole discussion over with fresh eyes, I think perhaps I see your point. In fact, the "quintessential" ghost story wouldn't be high literature at all, insofar as "quintessential" means "the most representational example," like the distilled essence of something. It's certainly not the most representational example of the 19th century ghost story. If anything it's sort of a high culture jazz riff on what was basically a very simple, repetitive genre--sort of like "Unforgiven" may be a great western, but it isn't exactly quintessential. For that you'd need probably one of the Spaghetti Westerns, something that uses all the Western cliches in their very cliched way.

I think people often use "quintessential" in a different way. In this case, they mean that if you don't care for the genre you should at least read "Turn of the Screw" because it is better, everyone has read it, and you can escape the rest of the genre by reading only that. I think perhaps many people, when speaking of books, movies, music, and so on, use "quintessential" when they really mean "essential," in the sense that "If you watch no other Western, you should at least watch Unforgiven." If you read no other ghost story, you should at least read "Turn of the Screw."

Certainly, we could debate that recommendation, but I think that may clear up some of the debate at least.

A year? Really? LOL

19drbubbles
Jan 28, 2009, 3:50pm

I just finished HoHH, and this thread turned up when I searched for threads that had mentioned it. So I thought, WTH. (Plus, it was pretty much the only one that wasn't a "What are you reading" thread.) I haven't been pondering the question for the last year, though; I promise!

20unorna
Jun 10, 2009, 6:00am

I admit, I always found the story, a little hard-going, perhaps because James' narrative is so oblique, nevertheless there is something intensely disturbing about it, a kind of fury in the air, beneath the surface calm. Maybe this is the haunting!!!