Books: The Cheapest Vacation You Can Buy

{February 5, 2012}   {Review} The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

From Goodreads: The story starts conventionally enough with friends sharing ghost stories ’round the fire on Christmas Eve. One of the guests tells about a governess at a country house plagued by supernatural visitors. But in the hands of Henry James, the master of nuance, this little tale of terror is an exquisite gem of sexual and psychological ambiguity. Only the young governess can see the ghosts; only she suspects that the previous governess and her lover are controlling the two orphaned children (a girl and a boy) for some evil purpose. The household staff don’t know what she’s talking about, the children are evasive when questioned, and the master of the house (the children’s uncle) is absent. Why does the young girl claim not to see a perfectly visible woman standing on the far side of the lake? Are the children being deceptive, or is the governess being paranoid? By leaving the questions unanswered, The Turn of Screw generates spine-tingling anxiety in its mesmerized readers.


This is one of the assigned readings that I’ve given to my AP 12 students.  It’s a somewhat difficult text to decipher, and though I’ll even admit it’s a bit dry at times, this is a great psychological piece.  Although James states that he wants the text read as if the ghosts really do exist, it is so much more interesting to spark the debate of whether or not the governess is, in fact, out of her mind. James has created a piece that is easy to debate using multiple critical approaches, and therefore lends itself to critical study, but all that aside, it is a ghost story at heart; a haunting piece if read under the right circumstances.

I’ve read it twice now.  The first time I thought it was a good read, I liked it, but I wasn’t in love.  I gave it three stars.  But, because I’m teaching it to my students, I re-read the book, giving it a much closer read.  And, do you know what I found?  I really, really like this novel.  Definitely a four star, now that I’ve read it again and am able to make more connections.  I keep telling my students that they need to read things more than once to get the full meanings of a text and, while twice is great, I know if I read it again I will be able to unlock even more of the story and make more connections. 

For instance, while I knew that there was something wrong with Quint when he was alive, I didn’t make the sexual connections within the novella until reading it the second time.  Certain phrases of the text are coded very well, and without having read the story once in it’s entirety, I don’t think I would have picked up on the many subtle nuances within the novella the second time.  It is such an exceptionally creepy story, and the relationships between the children, Quint, and Jessel are what one could call risqué if they read between the lines.  Is that what causes the children to act out, or is it a complete fabrication brought on by the Governess herself, having her own pent up sexual frustrations eating away at her until she concocts such an intense, creepy story?  One may never know, but it’s a great debate.  Four stars.

Gabrielle the Wondrous Machine says:

I’d really love to read this novel and I coulnd’t agree more about defining Henry James the “master of nuance”. He’s undoubtedly one of my favourite authors. Thanks for the review :)

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