Henry James, The Turn of the Screw


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 2010


Henry James (1843-1916) is born into a wealthy American family, who counts intellectuals and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson among their acquaintances. After dropping out of Harvard, where he studied law, James is drawn to Europe. In 1875 he settles down in England for good and even obtains English citizenship towards the end of his life.


It is within this cultural framework that many of his works play out. At the heart of his novel “The American” or the novella “Daisy Miller” is the life of Europe’s high society – in Paris, Rome, or the Swiss health resort Vevey on Lake Geneva. This is where old European nobility and the American new rich collide, a potentially scandalous encounter in view of the diverging values and different etiquettes. James, who throughout his life undertakes extensive journeys across Europe, is more than familiar with the stations of the “Grand Tour”.


The complete oeuvre of this remarkably productive writer comprises 20 novels, more than 100 novellas and 12 plays. “The Turn of the Screw”, next to “Daisy Miller”, is one of James’ most famous novellas. Benjamin Britten wrote an eponymous chamber opera based on the story in 1954.


The novella tells the story of a young governess, who is employed to take care of the education of the two orphans Miles and Flora by their wealthy legal guardian. But the more time the young woman spends at the country house Bly, the more uncanny the children grow. The housekeeper, Mrs Grose, claims the house is haunted by the ghosts of two former employees, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, who had an affair back in the days. Strange events arouse the suspicion in the governess that the children are communicating with the ghosts of the deceased.


Countless literary theorists have worked on “The Turn of the Screw”, trying to explain the workings of this unique literary text as precisely as they could or resolve its mysterious plot. A popular explanation of the fictional events reverts to Freudian psychoanalysis in order to discredit the governess and suggests that the spooky goings-on at Bly are solely the product of her overactive imagination, stimulated by her repressed sexual desires. While the supernatural events are explained rationally in this case, as an invention of the human mind, another theory prefers Tzvetan Todorov’s concept of the fantastic. Following this interpretation, we can never really dissolve the uncertainty created by the text, never know whether the events are real or imagined. And it is this indissoluble uncertainty which makes the text so fascinating. Theory or no theory, James’ novella is a terrific pleasure to read.


In the Anglophone world, Henry James is a cult author and one of the most important literary figures of realism on the one hand, a precursor of modernism on the other hand. To German readers he is far less well-known. Book series such as the Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur help to promote his works and make them known also to a German-speaking audience.


by Teresa Teklić


Signet Sunflower Foundation