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Henry James: The Turn of the Screw

I'm not sure why I picked up the collection containing this novella a few days ago and began to read it. It's an old paperback that I think I got from a library discard shelf not long ago. I noticed it in a pile and suddenly felt that I not only would enjoy reading Henry James, but that a Henry James ghost story seemed just the thing I wanted to read at that moment (notwithstanding the couple of other books in progress). I've had reading James in mind for several years now, but his major novels are a bigger commitment of reading time and effort than I've wanted to make. I'm not sure I've read anything by him since college, and at any rate not for a great many years.

I'm sorry to say that The Turn of the Screw has rather weakened that impulse. I'm a little puzzled by those who find it genuinely frightening as a ghost story. The events it portrays certainly ought to be frightening, and the first of them did have for me a definite menace. But as the story went on the events were buried too deeply in James's fastidious and elaborate detailing of extremely subtle psychological movements to be effective. If the phrase "wildly fastidious" is not nonsense, it applies to James's prose. Sometimes I feel like it's gotten a bit out of control, that he can't stop himself from refining his words in pursuit of some very, very sharp and subtle shade of consciousness which, after many cycles of refinement, has been reduced to a very small quantity of fine powder.

I had left her meanwhile in little doubt of my small hope of representing with success even to her actual sympathy my sense of the real splendor of the little inspiration with which, after I had got him into the house, the boy met my final articulate challenge.

If that's excessively and unnecessarily convoluted, and I think it is, and if it could be straightened out a bit without losing its elegance, it would certainly be much the worse without "real splendor of the little inspiration." But the virtues of this prose are not ones conducive to suspense, which is so crucial to a ghost story. 

The main characters are a governess and two children. The governess's articulation of her own reactions, motives, and decisions in dealing with the supernatural events facing her sometimes seems implausibly complex and delicate--we are supposedly hearing the story as written down by herself--and the corresponding accounts of the children's speech and her appraisals of their reasoning sometimes slip on over into the unbelievable. Which also works against the overall effect.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy it; I did, apart from the occasional sentence which I found myself unable to render into any very definite meaning. (Some of it I read late at night, and maybe the problem was that I was sleepy.) But as a ghost story it doesn't rank in power with some others I can think of: "The Judge's House," by Bram Stoker, for instance, or "The Monkey's Paw," by W.W. Jacobs. And I don't think I'm up to tackling, say, the 600-plus pages of The Portrait of a Lady.

Addendum: Apparently there are some critics who believe that the ghosts are not real, existing only in the imagination of one of the characters. I guess that's possible, but don't see any reason to think so.


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All I have read by James is The Portrait of a Lady, Mac. I enjoyed it very much, and if anything read it too fast to at this point even remember the details so have been wanting to re-read for many years now. So a big thumbs up for it, and maybe that is all of the James I ever need to read?

I sorta think your recommendation of Portrait of a Lady is why I've sorta had it relatively high on my mental sorta list.

I've not read much James other than the odd short story, and that was a long time ago. I haven't read The Turn of the Screw, but the early 60's film version of it, The Innocents, is excellent.

There is at least one more recent film as well, maybe more than one. I don't know anything about them.

James is one of those authors for whom my affection outpaces my familiarity. I've read only his novella "Washington Square" and some of his short stories, including "The Turn of the Screw". But I like Henry James. I just do! I like the idea of Henry James.

Your comment about the style being at odds with the substance in "The Turn of the Screw" is a good one. I think there is a mismatch there, or, maybe better, a tension; whether one thinks the story succeeds or not will partly depend on whether one finds that tension fruitful or interesting in its own right.

I'm teaching my kids sentence diagramming, and I'd love to see a good, juicy James sentence diagrammed. Hey, here's one!

Benjamin Britten wrote an opera based on this story, and it is quite good.

I think I like while simultaneously being somewhat amused by the idea of Henry James. Did you see the purported James passage quoted in this post?:

It's not quite believable, but on the other hand I can't imagine anyone else being able to write it.

That diagram makes me feel unsafe.

I just came into possession of a Britten opera of which I had never heard, Albert Herring. Know anything about it?

That diagram makes me feel unsafe. :)

I was just wondering how one would diagram that "excessively and unnecessarily convoluted" sample of his writing you provided above. Thought it might help me understand what he was saying, but maybe not.

I don't think it would help me. Let's see if I can paraphrase:

"I had left her meanwhile in little doubt of my small hope of representing with success even to her actual sympathy my sense of the real splendor of the little inspiration with which, after I had got him into the house, the boy met my final articulate challenge."

"I had left her aware that I doubted, even though she was sympathetic, that I would be able to communicate to her the splendor of the boy's response to my final spoken challenge."

Oops, left out the getting him into the house part....

"I had left her aware that I doubted, even though she was sympathetic, that I would be able to communicate to her the splendor of the boy's inspired response to the final spoken challenge which I made to him after I had gotten him into the house."

That looks like roughly the same number of words.

As a teenager I loved The Bostonians and The Portrait. Ive never read The Turn of the Screw. It used to be the subject of endless criticism in Modern Age because too ghosty ghosts

That's weird. Conservatives tend to love ghost stories. Russell Kirk's are a case in point.

I haven't read any of the novels. Besides Turn of the Screw, I've read three novellas: The Aspern Papers, The Spoils of Poynton, and Daisy Miller. The last of those is the most well-known and the one I liked least. I liked the first two a lot.

No the ghost is too subjective and psychological

Too ghostly a ghost perhaps would better articulate the thought

As I may have said, I heard a Straussian literary /TV critic say that the only way Walter White Can become a real man in this modern world was to become a criminal. He said White achieves manhood through his criminality. It sounded like a great idea for a conference. I thought we could have a conference on man hood or masculinity in popular culture. So to prepare thinking about this I rewatched Breaking Bad. At first it seemed like there could be something in what he said. White obviously does have masculinity issues at the beginning. But as it went on It became very unbelievable. Obviously masculinity is issue but Hank the policeman is a real man without being a criminal, and White several times says to his brother in law, ‘Im not half the man you are.’ To be clear the literary critic thinks White is a hero of the movie In the sense that we should be rooting for him. And I think this is flat out wrong. White has clearly lost his Soul at some point. So I lost interest in the idea of the conference because how can I invite this critic will just be embarrassing to invite him then disagree with him. But meantime I rewatched the whole of Breaking Bad over several months - with a lacunae for the camino. The experience was an extraordinary catharsis. It really is great tragedy. I felt shocked out of my self and moved. It was a different experience for the first time I watched simply because I wasn’t interested in what would happen.

I saw the penultimate True Detective last night. Im truly hooked and even postponed Our Boys till later in the week. It is an excellent thriller with magnificent acting from McConaughy and Harrelson and whoever plays the wife. But I can’t imagine watching it again in five years time and going through that deep catharsis that Breaking Bad gave me. Its not quite on the same imaginative level.

You have made me want to listen to The Turn of the Screw on audible books! I listen to a fair amount on Audible when I am walking the dogs. The novella seems like a perfect length for a long dog walk.

You take nearly-5-hour dog walks? :-)

I don't think I could handle James in audio. I'd soon be lost. With anything very complex I do too much back-up-and-read-that-again to be able to listen to it.

I walk the dogs for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. I bought the audible one with Emma Thompson reading. It will be two days of dog walks.

My dogs are lucky dogs and thin dogs. Their owner walks to train for the camino!

"Too ghostly a ghost" Ok, I can see that as a valid complaint. It's not exactly the same one I had but it's similar.

Re Breaking Bad and True Detective: the latter is definitely not a tragedy. For me they're too different to bear a lot of comparison. TD is indeed a true detective story, adhering to the classical plot line. Whatever BB is, it's not that. I'm not likely to experience it a second time--too grueling. But what I felt at the end was, among other things, similar to the effect of tragedy in that it was a sense of order and balance restored. I absolutely agree that Walt is not a hero, not someone we should be rooting for past a certain point. And I think that point comes fairly early, at least by the second season.

One thing TD and BB do have in common for me is that they both disturbed my sleep. We made the mistake of watching three episodes of TD at one sitting (the whole DVD) and I slept very badly that night. That happened to me at a couple of points in BB.

Wow, if I walked dogs two hours a day I guess I'd listen to a lot of audio, too. I would also be quite resentful of the amount of time spent on the dogs. I'm sure they do appreciate it though. :-)

I recently read an essay by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. in which he argues that the "repressed sexuality" interpretation of The Turn... should not be discounted simply because James most likely had not read Freud's early work, which was published around the same time as the story. Rubin believes that James could very well have been something of a "Freudian before Freud," although he doesn't seem to believe that the Freudian interpretation of the story is a slam dunk.

Because of this discussion I was going to go ahead and rewatch The Innocents, but maybe I'll read the story first now.

In re: BB, I have a classics prof friend who will not grant that the show is a tragedy because in his view Walter is not a "good man" at the beginning; there can be no real tragic fall for such an unheroic character.

The other guys and I believe that he's being a bit too hard line on the definition of tragedy. The whole point of the thing is that WW is not a hero, but an "average" guy who gets corrupted by money and power (ultimately his own pride, really), and thus the story can still be called a tragedy, even if it's not one in a strict classical sense.

Did you see that Vince Gilligan is doing/has done a movie follow-up to BB which tells Jesse's story after he escapes from the shootout in the finale? I think it's coming out in the fall sometime.

I saw that mentioned somewhere and have been meaning to investigate. Sounds interesting.

"...he's being a bit too hard line on the definition of tragedy."

That was precisely my thought between your two paragraphs, the one quoting the classics prof and the one with your response.

Does "Freudian interpretation of the story" mean "the ghosts aren't real"? My uneducated guess is that if there is repressed sexuality involved it's James's. I.e. if it's in the story it's not conscious. My ignorant opinion is that he meant to be writing a story about real ghosts.

I don't remember if repressed sexuality came into the Modern Age complaint. I just remember that his ghosts are too ghostly so he only plays with the idea of the supernatural.

I wonder if in the first half of the twentieth century tragedy 'failed' - people could not write good tragedies any longer. Playwrights could not write tragedies about the common man. Then in the past half century we have somehow reset the idea of tragedy, with the common man at the center. This was done in TV, and by the fact that drama moved away from theatre (a public semi-liturgy) to TV. We once again have good tragedies, I think, on TV like The Wire and BB, and to get there tragedy has been somewhat redefined. Its inched somewhat in a direction to accommodate the melodramatic tendency of modern life, where everything can be endlessly relitigated.

Yes, I knew about the 11 October showing of the BB movie. BB plans in our midwestern town are planning a party to watch the movie.

Though the dogs benefit, walking long distances is not altruistically for them. Its to keep the dog walker in shape for the Camino

This non-dog-walker would benefit from some of that.

I could not do all this gym and dog walking without a goal, which for me is the Camino. If it was just to 'stay in shape' or 'health' I couldn't. There has to be something I really want at the end of the line, and the line has to end in a perceptible frame.

I guess the same is true for me. Except that even with a clear goal I’m only somewhat better. Sigh.

My stepfather thinks its an utterly unpredictable transformation in me. I used to be entirely nonathletic and tending to the rotund.

The truth is, when I was younger, I could come back from the Camino, go back to my normal life of sitting in front of the computer, and then in March start exercising and be fine for the Camino by May. Its not like that any longer. I've got to keep it up. Plus Im doing harder and harder Caminos.

I had an injury in 2017 - the crazy accident with the dogs where I tore my miniscius and ACL, fractured my knee in five places and broke my ankle. That was on 1 February, and I had been planning to start training for the camino within a day or so. When I went for physiotherapy I wrote that the goal of the therapy was to walk from Lisbon to Santiago that summer. I did do it, but I had only time to heal, not time to get in shape. So it was a very hard walk. So in August of that year I joined a gym with a trainer, and I have not looked back. This year I broke my wrist in February, but I carried on at the gym, and I was in fine fettle for the camino. I couldn't do the one I had planned, biking from Seville, but I was perfectly OK to walk from Oviedo.

Im finding that the Camino is more and more enjoyable as I start off in better shape. Its still very tiring, but I have far fewer strain injuries than in the past. I am by far the slowest person in any group, but I don't have a hard time going at my own pace.

The "Freudian" idea of The Turn... is that the ghosts aren't real, but are projections of the governess's unhealthy mental state. Rubin argues that there are hints in the story that this may very well be the case, and that the idea shouldn't be tossed simply because the story is pre-Freud.

Ironic that Grumpy is talking about Camino when that's the title of the BB sequel: El Camino.

I’m on the road and won’t be able to reply till late tonight. Just letting y’all know.

Yes, Rob, I noticed the title of the BB movie! Some Vince Gilligan fans around here are having a movie watching party to celebrate october 11.

Yes, that's what I mean by a ghostly ghost. A ghost so spiritual it does not actually exist.

Theres absolutely no way I could watch two episodes of TD in a row. Its too frightening

Wonderful Ending to TD! Very American

Yes except that the final confrontation with the evil guy was not entirely plausible to me. Other than that I thought it was great.

Watching three in a row didn’t frighten me, but disturbed me in a way worse than fright. The sick things that were being done, the whole sick atmosphere. Even though it mostly wasn’t explicitly violent.

Re getting in shape for the Camino getting harder and harder: let me tell you about being 70. :-) It’s pretty impressive that you can do that.

I have two major problems with exercise etc: I’m lazy, really lazy, and it’s SO boring.

Re James’s ghosts: I don’t think much of the idea that they aren’t real, still less of the idea that they are products of sexual repression. [eye roll]. I think it would take the testimony of James himself to make me believe it.

No, I have never bought Modern Age's idea, but I have yet to read (or hear) the story. I don't generally go for those theories about why everything is so terrible. I've got the story on my kindle and will report back shortly.

My sister says I will be doing the Camino when I'm seventy, but lets wait and see. I never have found exercise boring.


"the final confrontation with the evil guy was not entirely plausible to me"

Yes, that was a little disappointing.

That and the fact that they just sort of buried the whole conspiracy thing.

"I don’t think much of the idea that they aren’t real, still less of the idea that they are products of sexual repression."

I'll have to read Rubin's essay again after I read the story. My knowledge of it is limited to the film version, which may differ significantly from the book.

By the way, Southern writer Andrew Lytle put out a very good Turn... type novel in the 40s/50s, A Name for Evil.

I enjoyed the first TD very much, then the second one not as much but it was okay. I'm not even sure I understood the second one, at this point I certainly don't remember the story except that I enjoyed Rachel McAdams gritty cop that she played. I need to see the third.

I've only seen the first episode of BB - I have a problem with the commitment long series take, and I'm too much of a luddite to stream.

Turn of the Screw - okay, I need to read this silly novella soon so I can have a real opinion. :)

Speaking of the Camino, I own Shirley MacLaine's book of that name (unread) which I suppose means that she has hiked it. Good for her.

Rob G: I was glad they buried the whole conspiracy thing. My biggest fear that it would turn into some big Manichean victory of evil (the Tuttles, as Governor, and Sheriff, and everywhere like gas) over good. That's what happens at the end of the final season of The Killings (for example). The police office in the jumper(s) has to flee the country because the forces of darkness are just everywhere.

But the opposite happens. The light is winning out over the darkness.

It was such a relief.

It is a somewhat Manichean story - and it has woven a web too deep to be untangled. But it ends with the points of light in the sky winning out over the darkness.

Mac had said that it was a classic detective story, so I was not surprised in ends in an impossible cave, the intricate bottomless lair of the evil man.

I was really surprised that it ends with the salvation of Marty and Rust. And very touched.


I love it when Rust mourns that they didn't take down all the criminals and Marty says that's not the kind of world we are living in

"I was glad they buried the whole conspiracy thing. My biggest fear that it would turn into some big Manichean victory of evil (the Tuttles, as Governor, and Sheriff, and everywhere like gas) over good."

Yes, I wouldn't have wanted that either, but to me it didn't make dramatic sense simply to drop it without any sort of resolution. The whole question just kind of hangs there without a hint one way or the other.

Other than that I liked the ending very much.

"I'm not even sure I understood the second one"

Yes, the plot of #2 was a lot more complicated, with the good cop/bad cop stuff, and also the various criminal groups and political machinations. #3 goes back to the (relative) simplicity of #1, which is a good thing.

To me the resolution is where Rust says We only got one, we should have got them all, and Marty says, 'that's not the kind of world we live in.'

There is a pervasive darkness over their county, with the sex crimes, and this mirrors the darkness in Rust's soul over the death of his daughter.

With his NDE, he sees that love is at that one small point greater than the darkness. And he sees that the stars outshine the darkness.

So it seems to say, yes, there is a pervasive darkness, and we don't deny that, but the tiny points of light count for more.

Why build it up so much and then discount it? Because its like the darkness in Rust's soul. It can be 'resolved', but only in that moment where one sees that the everlasting love of one soul is greater than all the darkness put together.

I was really touched by Rust's redemption. It made me feel that saving him from his hopelessness was as much the point of the story as solving the crime

Rob, would you recommend skipping #2 and going straight to #3. Do not pass #2 do not get totally confused for nothing

I liked #2 but you wouldn't really lose anything by skipping it and going right to #3. Since the series are unrelated you could always go back to it later if you wanted. While on the whole it's not as good as 1 and 3 it still has some very good performances and some memorable moments.

I remember reading way back when that #2 was originally supposed to star Forest Whitaker and Uma Thurman, which would have been interesting.

I do like to listen to the whole of a record and not just my favourite tracks on a record, because it makes the favourite tracks more enjoyable to have the dull ones in between

I only skip songs when I actively dislike them, or if I'm driving and just not in the mood for something.

its this kind of compleatist principle which inclines me to watch season 2

I understand. But does it require you to watch them in order? ;-)

Of course!!!

The very thought of watching them out of order makes me feel like the world is imploding.

And I am not even going to watch them.


I've always had the same sort of completist compulsion but it's not as strong as it used to be. Part of its spell was broken by the acquisition of single tracks or a few tracks of an album when eMusic was constantly giving away free tracks. I could probably skip TD2 without too much neurotic distress, but I probably won't.

It also helped that when Doctor Who became available from Netflix I started to watch it all from the beginning, but it was just too terrible for me to keep up. The plan to re-watch all of The X-Files failed similarly--not that they were terrible, but too many of the episodes weren't all that good, either.

I do have a hard time skipping tracks on an album. It feels like cheating.

I'm in pretty complete agreement with Grumpy about the ending of TD. I didn't feel the abandonment of the conspiracy story line as a loss at all, partly for artistic reasons--the effect of leaving so much undisclosed, which was so much in keeping with the whole spirit of the thing--and partly because it was sort of lame anyway, to put the slimy Christian guy at the heart of it.

Re Turn of the Screw: I know he's a respectable critic, but I think Rubin and others of similar mind may be overthinking it. He's Henry James. He wrote a Henry James ghost story. It's just the sort of ghost story you would expect Henry James to write if Henry James wrote a ghost story.

I couldnt possibly watch out of season order first because as Janet say the universe would implode and second for the reason above, that I would enjoy season three more if theres a less good season in the middle. So you would think it was a cut and dried thing But one can always find reasons for indecision. Suppose season two is terrifying and confusing at the same time and not in a good way?

I'm concerned that it's extremely gory. There was mention of something very gruesome in one article I read, and it wasn't in season 1. Which although it was about horrible violence didn't actually depict it,

"I didn't feel the abandonment of the conspiracy story line as a loss at all"

It wasn't so much the abandonment per se, but its abruptness. All of a sudden it seemed like it was just no longer there.

"I would enjoy season three more if theres a less good season in the middle"

That makes sense. And there's also the fact that they're extremely different. #2 deals with political corruption, crooked cops, and organized crime, which the others don't, really. At least not directly.

"Suppose season two is terrifying and confusing at the same time and not in a good way?"

It's not really terrifying at all--it has a much different feel in that regard compared with #1. And I found it more complicated than confusing; you just have to pay attention, as there are a lot of crosses and double-crosses.

"There was mention of something very gruesome in one article I read"

Do you remember what it was? I remember one scene that was pretty harrowing but not particularly bloody.

It involved eyes.... I don't know whether the act itself occurred on screen or the victim was just found in that condition.

And yes, the abruptness of the abandonment of the conspiracy did make it feel like kind of a glitch. I wondered if maybe they just literally ran out of time to devote more than a remark or two to it and still fit in everything else they wanted to say.

"I don't know whether the act itself occurred on screen or the victim was just found in that condition."

Yes, I remember it -- it's the latter.

"the abruptness of the abandonment of the conspiracy did make it feel like kind of a glitch."

Yes, that's a good description. It wasn't enough to ruin the ending by any means, but for me it was a noticeable hiccup.

Started to listen to the Turn of the Screw and its very enjoyable so far.

My Chicago hairdresser said only watch Season 1 of TD

Well, I’m not going to take her advice. Though I sort of wish subsequent seasons would have Cohle and Hart. Probably best to quit while they’re ahead. 2 and 3 are by the same writer.

But I read the director and the camera guy fell out and the original director only directed some episodes in season 3.

That’s not necessarily a big problem. Nick Pizzolatto seems to be the major creative force in the whole thing and he’s there throughout.

Everyone I know that has watched #3 reckons it's almost as good as #1. #2 obviously gets more mixed reactions.

Watched Cold Pursuit last night, the U.S. remake of In Order of Disappearance, by the same director. If you've seen the original it's not really worth the time. It's neither as tense nor as darkly funny, and while Liam Neeson's not bad, he's no Stellan Skarsgard.

Came home to find my lodger, a PhD student, eating breakfast at 2.30 pm. He lay awake all night watching Season Three of TD. He started at the back. Then he tried a bit of Season 2 but said it was too complicated.

That settles it.

I encouraged him to finish the task with Season 1.

Yeah. Start in the afternoon and stay up all night watching it so when you get to the last couple of episodes it's 4am or something and you're exhausted. A good prescription for psychological health. :-/

I know: its just I was exactly like this at his age.

Im an hour into the story on audible and it does not have the fiddliness people complain about in James. Maybe they edited the audio

Or maybe you have a greater ability to follow him than "people", in this case I, do. I.e. you're smarter. :-) I really think I'd be unable to follow a good many of his sentences if I were hearing them read aloud.

I just listened to a sample of an audiobook of it, and it's actually very helpful hearing it read because the reader does the hard work and puts in pauses and adds emphasis. Might not work with his more convoluted sentences, of course. Anyway, you can listen to it here:

I see what you mean, though I can't really be sure from that sample whether it would help all that much, as it doesn't include the kind of complex passages that can sometimes be confusing. But I can certainly see that it would be more listenable than I thought.

The narrator for the Audible version is Emma Thompson. You just would not know you are listening to long fiddly sentences

There's a piece by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker about a commemoration in 2016 of the funeral service of Henry James that has this about reading his work out loud:

There was certainly something bracing and vivifying in the service of commemoration, thanks in part to the readers: the actors Simon Paisley Day, Olivia Williams, and Miriam Margolyes, whom Whartonians will recall as Mrs. Mingott in Martin Scorsese’s film of “The Age of Innocence” (1993), and whose elocution remains as ringingly clear as one could hope for — and, it must be said, as James’s prose requires. Indeed, the happy surprise was to learn how fluent he sounds in the reading, or rather in the reading out. Little is more frightening, to the innocent student of literature, than the first sight of a page of “The Golden Bowl,” with those unhurried sentences rolling away into the middle distance like the tributaries of some great, untraceable river. Spoken in public, though, and propelled by the onward pressure of the voice, they make more immediate and more graspable sense. Given that James, bewilderingly, dictated the novel in the first place, you could argue that to hear it aloud is somehow to restore the text to its original form, and to follow the river to its source. Either way, if Margolyes were hired by Harvard to declaim the book, at the start of every course in twentieth-century fiction, the numbers signing up for James would quadruple on the spot.
Love that "those unhurried sentences rolling away into the middle distance like the tributaries of some great, untraceable river".

The New Yorker had such great articles


That certainly sounds appealing. It occurs to me though that my ADD tendency is probably a bigger problem.

I just dont buy it much any longer

I used to enjoy it many many years ago. Not sure why I stopped reading it--partly just lack of leisure I guess, and then I just sort of got out of the orbit it's in.

"my ADD tendency"--I have a problem with even very straightforward things, like the mystery novels that I gravitate toward when I have a long drive. I'm constantly having to back up and listen to a bit again because my mind wandered. I don't think I'd be able to use my phone for it if it didn't have that wonderful button that backs up 15 seconds at a tap.

Im somewhat over halfway through the story on Audible. The ghostliness of the ghosts - and the isolation of the governess - certainly adds to the suspense, because one does have to wonder if all the conversations with the children, where she 'just knows' they know what she's talking about are ironic and double edged. She is sounding so hysterical now I would be half way to thinking the ghosts are in her mind, except for that Mrs Grose, the servant, seems to agree they are there

I don't think it would ever have crossed my mind that they weren't real if a critic hadn't made the claim. I read somewhere a couple of weeks ago that Edmund Wilson changed his mind twice about it: first thought they were in her mind, then was persuaded otherwise, then was persuaded back. It does seem like it would be hard to explain away Mrs. Grose.

Another New Yorker piece says the book is “a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity”:

Its profoundest pleasure lies in the beautifully fussed over way in which James refuses to come down on either side. In its twenty-four brief chapters, the book becomes a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity. It is rigorously committed to lack of commitment. At each rereading, you have to marvel anew at how adroitly and painstakingly James plays both sides. ...

Although “The Turn of the Screw” is much the most famous of James’s ghostly tales, he wrote supernatural fiction throughout his life—more than seven hundred pages in all. The genre obsessed him. ...

I’ve said that either interpretation of the book (real ghosts/real madness) can seem worse than the other, but this is true only as you’re reading along. You can snap shut the cover of the book, much as you would close up a crypt, on the tale of the unhinged governess and her ill-fated charges. But the crypt creaks open again if she is not mad. When the completed book is once more on the shelf, the more frightening interpretation is the one wherein some actual supernatural agent is loose and walks among us.

If the governess is mad, she has unwittingly killed a bright and beautiful little boy; this is a tragedy, but a local one. If the ghosts are genuine, however, there are jagged cracks in the firmament above us all, and nobody is safe.

The greatest of ghost stories have intuitively understood this radical asymmetry. Evil and Good are not equally or complementarily matched. Good may triumph in the end, and the saved soul may find its way to the celestial bedrock of Heaven. But Evil, for all of its eventual defeat, will never go down easy. It has a cobra-skin shimmer, a mesmerism all its own. Consigned to everlasting misery, the damned are restless in their perdition. Some of them are too nasty for hell, and they sometimes get in among us.

That reminds me of what someone in Absalom, Absalom says about the man she considers a monster: "Heaven won't have him, and hell dare not." Or something like that.

Maybe I'll read TotS again sometime with this in mind, but I'm genuinely puzzled as to what positive indications are found in the text to suggest that the ghosts aren't real. You can always say there's no proof that they are not real, but that's not evidence.

I meant to say no proof that they are real. No note from James saying "In case you're wondering, the ghosts [are|are not] only in the mind of the governess."

For me, my suspicions are because she seems to read a lot out of silence on the part of the children. They seem to be communicating quite clear things to her without saying anything. Please no spoilers as I am half way through. I skipped most of Marianne's post because a quick glance indicated it might have a spoiler. Sorry, I will try to catch up to the conversation as soon as I can

Im an hour from the end and Im convinced the governess is compeay nutz

I was more inclined to think Henry James is nuts. :-)

I Listened to the end while making Sunday lunch. I thought it was a good story and I thought the fact that one doesn’t quite know if the ghosts are real adds to it.

Marianne’s quotation from the New Yorker seems to be absolutely right. Its the ambiguity of the evil which is so perfectly done. Are we in the Exorcist or is the governess seeing things? It’s very well done. And quite often its true to life. Most personal evil is not ‘literally Adolf Hitler.’ The devil does not always leave an obvious calling card

True about real life evil, of course. But I don't see it in the story. No point in reading it again with that question in mind, because I'd be too aware of it.

I assume the people who are committed to the likelihood that the ghosts are not real have some way of accounting for things like the ending (avoiding the spoiler).

I keep thinking about this question and when browsing around for opinions came across this amusing comment at Goodreads:

The first paragraph, that is. The second is not of interest.

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