Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Turn of the Screw ~ Henry James

I finally finished The Turn of the Screw, Henry James's famed novella ghost story, late on Friday night.  Yes, it took me eight days.  Yes, that's an average of not quite eleven pages a day.  Yes, that's pathetic.  Let me offer this as an excuse: it was boring.

I feel so wrong in saying it, but I can't help it.  The novella begins with introductory scene that frames the rest: a narrative written by a young governess on her experiences with her supernatural.  Most of her narrative consists of vapid conversation, wild guesswork, illogical inferences, and excessively complex sentences.  It's incredibly ambiguous and most of the antagonistic action is led up to and then skipped over. Then, to wrap it all up, there's a final what just happened? No really, I don't know what's going on chapter which ends with the most unexpected and unsatisfying possible conclusion, and no return to the initial frame.  Why set up a setting for the story to be told in if it's ultimately of no consequence?

So I spent all 87 pages being annoyed at the ambiguity, doubting the reliability of the narrator, and trying to pick my way around James's excessive use of commas.  At the end I concluded - as I so often do - that I must have missed something and should probably read it over (even while acknowledging that I probably would not).  Then I did what I always do in this kind of situation - turned to Wikipedia.  There, I was pleased to learn that everybody finds the thing ambiguous and many have not only questioned the reliability of the narrator, but her sanity as well.

Here's my conclusion (and don't read on if you don't want the ridiculous ending spoiled for you):

The governess repeatedly tackling Miles and quite possibly smothering him against her breast or knocking his head on something are probably what did him in.  As to the ghosts - I have little interest in whether they were real or not, but I doubt it.  Blah.

Sorry, Mr. James.  But I kept setting myself up to read this in situations where'd I'd get all creeped out and jumpy (in a fun way!), and instead I kept falling asleep.  Seriously, I had a two-hour nap in the middle of the last twenty pages.

The good news is that I'm counting this towards the Victorian Literature Challenge.  Technically, James was American, but he moved to England in 1876 and published The Turn of the Screw in 1898, and Queen Victoria didn't die until 1901.  Therefore, I say that this counts.

1 comment:

  1. I read this as an audiobook which helped with the boredom I think. I listened while cleaning, cooking, and/or working out. I agree that compared to modern horror, it is quite dull. Something that might help you like it better though is that some people read it as the two kids being abused by the nanny throughout and her killing them to cover it up. I like that reading much better than the ghost one!