The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers
Two of James's masterly tales of obsession
In these two chilling stories, Henry James shows himself to be a master of haunting atmosphere and unbearable tension. The Turn of the Screw tells of a young governess sent to a country home to take charge of two orphans, Miles and Flora. Unsettled by a sense of intense evil within the house, she soon becomes obsessed with the belief that malevolent forces are stalking the children in her care. Obsession of a more worldly variety lies at the heart of The Aspern Papers, the tale of a literary historian determined to get his hands on some letters written by a great poet-and prepared to use trickery and deception to achieve his aims.
Student review by Rebecca MacNaughton studying at the UEA
Never has a novel seemed so aptly named as Henry James’The Turn Of The Screw, a ghost story so delicately and skilfully spun it cannot fail to leave you breathless. Although rich in layered narratives, at the forefront lies a story about a young governess delegated the care of two infant children. She soon becomes a woman blighted by the supernatural spirits of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and a former valet, Peter Quint, and convinced that they seek to corrupt the children‘s young minds, devotes every second of her time to protecting them. What transpires is a tale of rushed actions, desperation and moments which leave readers reeling in the tingling, creeping sensation of fear.
Heavily influenced by the uncanny, The Turn Of The Screw exercises an array of typically Gothic themes: of isolation, of haunting, and of eerie repetition. Yet what seems to over-ride all of this is James’ expertly timed silence. Moments pass without explanations and rather than becoming a frustration, they leave readers enthralled and inquisitive. Few tales have had such a profound effect on our own sense of epistemology, and as we battle to assess whether the governess is acting out of love and duty, or out of delusion, we also assess the way our own minds work. Would you arrive at the governess’ same conclusion? Would you chase the children in the same way? Would you go to the furthest extreme to award them protection from evil, an evil that is never truly ascertained? Silence also falls on the more controversial themes of sexuality and abuse, which glide under the words and push the story to the furthest reach of moral riddling. Yet it works. Every inch of the prose is rich, meandering and utterly engaging; at times it feels heavy and claustrophobic yet it works to heighten the sort of terror we feel; first trapped in the house with the governess and then, later, trapped in a cage of the unknowing. Without answers, The Turn Of The Screw seems timeless. Whilst the somewhat linear tale of a governess haunted by spirits pleasured a Victorian audience, the sort of riddles still to be drawn from it today happily serve a more modern and critical population.
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