The Turn of the Screw by Henry James


Goodreads: The Turn of the Screw
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1898


A young governess accepts a new position on a grand but isolated estate that comes with but one condition: she is never to contact the guardian of her charges about any circumstances that may arise while they are under her care.  All goes well until the governess believes she is seeing the ghosts of two former employees and that it is up to her to save the children from their malicious intents.


For many, The Turn of the Screw is a captivating, heart-pounding Gothic mystery that keeps readers glued to the pages.  For me, the story was a total bore.  Often I feel I can see something worthwhile and interesting in classics, even if I personally don’t love them., but Henry James is really making me struggle to do so here.

The story revolves around some mysterious figures that a new governess believes she sees hanging around her new charges on an isolated estate.  Who are they?  What do they want?  Are they really there?  If something sinister is happening, what exactly is it?  But as fascinating as these questions sound in theory, I thought James dragged them out, and the final payoff was hardly worth the trouble.

Add to this the fact that James has an extremely convoluted prose style, and it just makes every point even harder to get to in the narrative.  Now, I read a lot of old literature: Milton, Shakespeare, texts in Middle English.  All these texts are frequently labelled as having complicated prose, but James can give them a run for their money.  His issue is not that he has an unusual word order (older texts aren’t always straightforward with the subject-verb-object arrangement in sentences).  Rather, the problem is that he tends to start a sentence, stick a couple clauses with fairly extraneous information in the middle of the sentence, and then finally get to the actual main point of the sentence several lines’ worth of writing later.  It makes it hard to even find the main point of the sentence at times.

There’s probably something in here for people who like mysterious and Gothic literature, but I’ve read better Gothic literature.  This one is pretty much a pass from me.  It’s fairly short, but feels enormously long.

2 stars Briana

9 thoughts on “The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

  1. Nish says:

    I loved this one. It was my gateway book to gothic, and I have fond memories. I do agree that James left a lot unsaid at the end though.


    • Briana says:

      I actually read the YA gothic book The Gilded Cage a little after finishing this one and came around a bit (though I didn’t really edit the review). I still think the story drags on more than it needs to and James’s prose is convoluted, but I can get behind an open ending. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how so many YA books seem to over-explain everything. The Gilded Cage did, too, and it just removes any sense of mystery or the supernatural or the uncanny. I’d like to be left wondering more by some books.


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