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3.9 out of 5 stars
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One of the most seductive of all ghost stories, Turn of the Screw is not a tale for people inured to Halloween I and II or Tales from the Crypt. It is a sophisticated and subtle literary exercise in which the author creates a dense, suggestive, and highly ambiguous story, its suspense and horror generated primarily by what the author does NOT say and does not describe. Compelled to fill in the blanks from his/her own store of personal fears, the reader ultimately conjures up a more horrifying set of images and circumstances than anything an author could impose from without.
Written in 1898, this is superficially the tale of a governess who accepts the job of teaching two beautiful, young children whose uncle-guardian wants nothing to do with them. On a symbolic level, however, it is a study of the mores and prejudices of the times and, ultimately, of the nature of Evil. The governess fears that ghosts of the former governess Miss Jessel and her lover, valet Peter Quint, have corrupted the souls of little Flora and Miles and have won them to the side of Evil. The children deny any knowledge of ghosts, and, in fact, only the governess actually sees them. Were it not for the fact that the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, can identify them from the governess's descriptions, one might be tempted to think that the governess is hallucinating.
Though the governess is certainly neurotic and repressed, this novel was published ten years before Freud, suggesting that the story should be taken at face value, as a suspenseful but enigmatic Victorian version of a Faustian struggle for the souls of these children. The ending, which comes as a shock to the reader, is a sign that such struggles should never be underestimated. As is always the case with James, the formal syntax, complex sentence structure, and elaborately constructed narrative are a pleasure to read for anyone who loves language, formality, and intricate psychological labyrinths. Mary whipple
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on 3 December 1998
An excellent, short novel that probes the traditionally most important events of a woman's life -- her marriage opportunities. James portrays a woman who is as much the victim in society of her lack of beauty as she is of the two men in her life: a father who is at best negligent and often overtly cruel and a fortune-hunter who is breathtaking to behold but morally empty. James has the courage to demonstrate through Dr. Sloper's character (the father) the hardness and even abusiveness with which men treated women who lacked beauty or great wit. And he added a swain who pretended to treat the heroine in a finer manner, but who was merely after her money. Catherine Sloper learns her lessons slowly but seemingly well. Written beautifully, James has a small masterpiece of social commentary here, with a fair and objective presentation of one woman's life. Delightful to read, but sad that the heroine must cease to search for happiness merely because men have taught her not to trust their protestations of love.
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Unlike some of the other reviewers here I still think this is the creepiest book I've ever read, and all the more terrifying for the fact that James never articulates what's going on - he simply leaves your imagination to float free and conjure up all your worse nightmares. Yes, he's never an easy read (though this is far more accessible than Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl etc) but I think his very stately, mannered sentences and diction actually add to the horror of the story. Don't read this if you're expecting Stephen King or The Exorcist - James expects his readers to make the effort to read properly. Someone called this (possibly James himself?)'the most poisonous little tale I could imagine' and I think that's a perfect description - when I re-read it, it was on the tube with bright lights and lots of people around as I couldn't face reading it at home alone!
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on 31 December 2005
‘TTOTS’ is a classic chilling tale from Henry James. It would not be fair to describe it as horror, because there is no gore, or as a ghost story, because it is far subtler than that. The story concerns a nanny looking after the children of a rich widower with whom she has fallen in love. Her desire to protect the children is tested when she begins to see two nefarious (and long-dead) former employees of the house, apparently threatening her charges. As the nanny’s sanity is called into question, we begin to wonder who represents the real danger in the house.
‘TTOTS’ is an excellent example of ambiguous writing. Even at the shocking conclusion, it is not clear if we have just read a ghost story or an example of psychological fiction. It is difficult to say too much without giving too much away about the story, but every event, or encounter with the ghostly figures, has two interpretations. It is very cleverly written, and all the more spooky because of it.
Having said all that, I am not a fan of James’ writing style. The only other book of his that I have read (‘The Ambassadors’) has tortuously constructed sentences that are painful to read. This is also true of ‘TTOTS’. Fortunately, the story of the title is easily gripping enough for this not to be a problem, but the rest of this collection is instantly forgettable because of it. Nevertheless, it is well-worth a read as one of the greatest spooky stories ever told.
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on 31 December 1999
Outwardly the novella appears to be a straightforward ghost story, narrated by the governess the 'victim' of this story A governess is offered the position of taking under her care two small charges - brother and sister - whose parents have passed away. Their uncle whom is their legal guardian assigns them to the care and protection of a young governess twenty years of age.
Placed in supreme authority of the big ramnbling country house over the children and servants - the young governess becomes aware of malevolent presences within and around the house. She sees the ghosts of the previous valet and governess both of whom passed away a while back. Convinced the two ghosts are after the souls of her two young charges, she resorts to desperate measures and round the clock care to keep the children safe and solve the mystery of the relationship between the previous inhabitants and her dependants.
However a disturbing relationship develops between her and that of her sole charges - most noticably Miles, the young boy. It is this eerie theme of sexual and social unrest that makes the novel so disturbing. Much of the novel is told through the viewpoint of the governess. It is only by studying the dialogues between her and her charges that the truth, her behaviour, her ulterior motives, finally becomes apparent.
Henry James does a fine job of creating an eerie atmosphere, keeping the reader in suspense. His delicate allusions to the strange forces of evil keep the plot from becoming obvious. A second reading of the novel is essential in order to realise fully the truth that is constantly hinted at throughout the novel.
The Turn of the Screw succeeds due to its ambiguity and projection of mental imbalance, all the more powerful as events are told from the governess' viewpoint. The reader has to sift and judge the account on an objective basis in order to be able to perceive the truth.
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In contrast to James's earlier novels, where European and American ideals are often embodied in the form of beautiful women of superficiality on one side and less attractive women of substance on the other (with the male figures torn between the respective attractions of each), in Washington Square (1880), James follows his more nuanced and intriguing characterisation of Daisy Miller (1878) with another fascinating female protagonist - a quite plain and ordinary heroine - and finds in her another means to look at social attitudes.

Catherine Sloper is the daughter of an eminent and respected widower doctor who lives at Washington Square in New York. She's not clever, not pretty and a bit of a glutton for cream cakes, but she is clearly good, obedient and docile. These aren't qualities that Dr Sloper believes will result in a distinguished marriage, and he reluctantly accepts the fact, leaving his daughter's upbringing and education in the hands of his sister Mrs Penniman, a widow. At the ripe old age of 22, Catherine, shy, sensitive and of a delicate disposition, remains unmarried and indeed uncourted.

When a young man shows interest in his daughter, Dr. Sloper is initially amused, but suspicious of the fact that Morris Townsend has no money, no position and appears to be living off his married sister, who herself is not at all wealthy, and seeing no attraction in his own daughter other than the dowry and inheritance that she will come into, he takes a great dislike to the young man and opposes any suggestion of a marriage. Mrs Penniman however has romantic ideas about a secret union and tries to encourage both parties to go against her brother's wishes. Poor Catherine seems to be caught in the middle with no will or volition of her own.

Washington Square is not the most impressive Henry James, but it's a slim little novel that is delightfully twisted in its own way, and neatly and satisfactorily wrapped up as ever with James, who never goes against the tone of his stories. It's very much a "talkie" book - everyone has meetings with everyone else and has a frank conversation, believing they are being honest and upfront, with the best interests of Catherine at heart, but in reality, they care for nothing more than themselves, their own sense of self-importance and self-interest and how they are regarded in society if Catherine has no concerns for it herself. It's in the absence of any volition on the part of the rather nondescript Catherine that both Mrs Penniman and Dr. Sloper (and to a large extent even Morris Townsend as well) go as far as enacting on her behalf the passions she appears to lack - passions that prove to be false and misplaced, while Catherine remains true.

Washington Square is a popular James novel for its romantic novelistic touches, even if it was never a favourite of the author himself. It's far from the strongest Henry James novel, not even of his earlier work, but the characterisation is well observed, never giving in to standard expectations, and carried through realistically - and almost cruelly - to the end. Catherine (along with the aforementioned Daisy Miller) is at least one of James's most interesting female characters of this period - one that seems to operate outside the normal binary distinctions one finds in early James works.
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on 22 February 2004
Forget the old Warner Brothers movie THE HEIRESS. The screenwriters ultimately didn't understand Catherine Sloper, the heroine of WASHINGTON SQUARE, the Henry James novel they adapted.
Henry James himself excluded this early work from the so-called NEW YORK EDITION of his works. I suspect Catherine was so much like himself he felt embarrassed for having created her.
Nevertheless, this is a straightforward novel. The experimentation of James's later work certainly is not here, but there is an astonishing determination. It was only his second or third novel.
It's about Catherine and her father. Too much has been made of the fact that Catherine's in a world which strives to crush her. James wishes to show us how one person can menace another; even his own daughter. This is what THE HEIRESS misses. It tries to make Catherine's suitor and her aunt villainous. They're fools, not villains.
What drives the plot is the question of whether or not Catherine will survive her father's bloodless cruelty.
Readers interested in the history of New York City will be intrigued by the description of Catherine's meddling aunt walking past construction sites where now-famous buildings stand. Henry James grew up on Washington Square. He's looking back at his own foundations, as it were.
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on 27 February 2006
‘The Turn of The Screw’ is an extended short story which plays with the reader’s imagination in the best tradition of a ghost story. It is more than this though because vivid apparitions are contrasted by vagueness which is best understood in reading without distraction. It is a difficult read for the style of it demands the absolute attention but a thorough read does not necessarily remove the ambiguity which the author has so skilfully placed. It is great material for the psychoanalyst leaving the reader with so many questions and not so many answers. One could probably read it several times and be none the wiser for doing so. If you read Henry James you will no doubt be impressed by the highly stylised writing which Hardy called ‘a ponderously warm manner of saying nothing in infinite sentences’.
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VINE VOICEon 12 November 2003
This isn't an easy book to read. Although it is short, Henry James's leaden, over-wordy prose (to a modern reader) can feel like wading through thick mud. But the respect that is owing to it is because it really is a supernatural story with a difference, and you'll be happy putting psychological interpretations onto it until the cows come home. We start off in "Jane Eyre" territory with a repressed, introverted young woman being hired by a difficult and eccentric employer to look after two small children at a remote country house. Once there she believes they are all being haunted by an evil dead manservant and his equally depraved mistress, who was once a maid at the house.
The governess is violently neurotic and repressed, to the point where we question her sanity (shades of Eleanor Lance in "The Haunting of Hill House). She seems to be tormented not just by the violent sexual relationship that was shared by Quint and his girlfriend, but by the wilful free-spiritedness of the children. Is she trying to hysterically suppress a terrible dark side of her own? There have been many stage and screen productions of this tale (including an opera), some of which, it must be said, have been awful. The most impressive by far though is "The Innocents", a black-and-white 1960s effort starring a superb Deborah Kerr as the governess. Well worth checking out. You will find it disturbing.
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on 18 May 2008
It's been over a hundred years since Henry James' novella was published. I'm sure readers at the time were spooked by its tale of ghosts threatening the innocence of two children, and the attempts of a quasi-hysterical governess to save them. It was that period of the Victorian era when séances and ghosts were popular, when spiritists promised to bridge the road between the living and the dead. People enjoyed sitting around a fire and sharing ghost stories, specially during Christmas time.

But times have changed and this novella is now more interesting as a controversial piece of lit crit rather than a frightening ghost story. Did the ghosts in the story really exist? Or was it all part of the governess' imagination? You are never given the answers. One interesting question which resonates with today's world is what kind of "evil" was inflicted on the children. It's suggested that a deceased governess and her lover did "depraved" things to the children, only to later return as ghosts in order to continue their evil influence. But what kind of evil exactly?

If you enjoy puzzles and hard-to-read English writing, this novella is for you; if you are after an easy page-turner, you are better off looking elsewhere.
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