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Henry James "the Turn of the Screw"

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ClassicNote on Turn of the Screw

Prologue Summary

Friends gathered around a fire in a country house outside London on Christmas Eve entertain themselves by telling ghost stories. When a man named Griffin tells of a little boy who experiences a ghostly visitation, his friend Douglas notes, a few nights later, that the age of the child "gives the effect another turn of the screw" and proposes a ghost story unsurpassed for "dreadfulness" about two children. The manuscript of this true story has been kept in a locked drawer for twenty years, since the death of its writer. The story, which the writer and now Douglas have kept secret for forty years, Douglas's younger sister's governess, with whom he became friends when he was a university student at home on holiday.

The narrator quickly guesses that the reason the governess kept the story secret was that she was in love, and Douglas refuses to say more until the governess's manuscript arrives by post in three days. All the members of the group, eager to hear the answers to their questions about the story, pledge to stay at the country house, including a group of ladies who have planned to leave before three days time. When Douglas has bid the group a hasty good-night in the midst of their inquiries, one woman notes that regardless of whom the governess loved, Douglas was clearly in love with the governess.

The narrator notes that his narrative comes from an exact transcript, created when Douglas later gave him the governess's manuscript before his own death. On the fourth night at the country house, Douglas prepares to read his story to a reduced group, its small size increasing the thrill even further. (The ladies have indeed departed despite their earlier protestations.) He prefaces his actual reading with background information about the governess, the youngest daughter of a poor country parson from Hampshire, who at age twenty answered an advertisement placed by a gentleman seeking a governess for his orphaned niece and nephew.

The inexperienced young woman, who had never left Hampshire before, met with the gentleman on London's fashionable Harley Street. She was immediately impressed by his wealth, good looks, and bold manner, and, the narrator suggests, ultimately accepted the position because he made it appear as if he was doing her a favor by offering her the opportunity. The children lived at his lonely country house, Bly, in Essex, where little girl was currently looked after by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and to which the little boy, who, though very young, had been sent away to school, would soon be coming home for the holidays. The death of their previous governess, which the gentleman notes caused "great awkwardness," had necessitated this arrangement.

Here, one listener demands of Douglas the cause of the governess's death, while another wonders if the position required danger to life. Douglas again tells his friends they shall soon hear the answers and instead speaks of how governess's youth and naпvetй allowed her "seduction" by the gentleman - that her love for him, combined with the generous salary he offered, led her to accept the position at the time of a second interview. The beauty of this love, Douglas says, is that she only saw the gentleman twice. The man had a single condition which had frightened off all previous applicants. He made the governess promise that she would never contact or trouble him, instead dealing with all problems herself and getting money from his solicitor. Having agreed to his conditions, the governess never saw the gentleman again. Not until the next evening does Douglas begin reading the story.

Prologue Analysis

To a far greater degree than most other books, The Turn of the Screw faces an interpretive crisis. Is it simply a ghost story, as Douglas intimates, or is the governess, from whom we will hear the rest of the tale, a madwoman and an unreliable narrator? James, in addition to being a novelist, was also a literary critic and the question of interpretation was one with which he was familiar.

The majority of the novel purports to be the manuscript written by the governess and is thus written in the first-person from her limited point-of-view. In speaking of the manuscript in the framing section, rather than simply beginning with the governess's narrative, James emphasizes that it represents the perspective of a single person. This opening framing section notably sets itself apart from the story. As told from an objective authorial perspective, in which the unnamed narrator himself speaks about his own transcription of the manuscript into the book his reader holds in his/her hands, it seems at first glance to provide the reader with trustworthy background information necessary for the story.

However, it is important to note that all the information provided about the governess comes not from the narrator but solely from Douglas, a man whom the characters themselves note was clearly in love with the governess. We hear from Douglas - rather than see for ourselves - that the governess was a young innocent whose employer took advantage of her inexperience. Douglas's words, unsurprisingly condemnatory of a man loved by this woman, shape the reader's assumptions as s/he begins the governess's narrative and demand s/he question the reliability of the story's narrators. Because of Douglas's emotional connection to the governess, we cannot be wholly certain about her innocence nor about the gentleman's conniving.

If we do accept Douglas's retelling of the governess's encounter with her employer, however, her tenuous position with regards to both gender and class becomes apparent. Her profession places her between two worlds. She seeks to align herself with the upper class world of her employer, who sees her, unlike the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, as the appropriate companion for his young wards. At the same time, she eschews identification with the servants, whom the employer enumerates alongside buildings and livestock - "a cook, a housemaid, a dairywoman, an old pony, an old groom, and an old gardener." The governess's desire to align herself with the upper class, however, are threatened by her employer's dismissal of the previous governess's death as a hindrance rather than a tragedy and by her need to accept the job because of a salary which "much exceeded her modest measure."

This opening section also reveals the origin of the book's title. Telling a ghost story in which a child is visited by a ghostly apparition, Griffin gives the already frightening tale one "turn of the screw."

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