Customer Reviews: The Turn of the Screw (Second Edition) (Norton Critical Editions)
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on December 26, 2002
"Washington Square", published in 1880, is not, and will not be, regarded as Henry James's best novel -- the honor would go to "The Portrait of a Lady" or much later works like "The Wings of the Dove" -- but this short but richly woven book deserve our attention. The book is always readable and intriguing while it does not fail to deliver the amazingly realistic characters living in New York City of the 19th century. Certainly, this is the best place for any beginners of James to start.
The book starts with an introduction of a New York physician Dr. Sloper and his only daughter Catherine. While the doctor gained respectable position among the patients, he loses his wife suddenly after the birth of Catherine, who grows up to be a not particularly clever nor beautiful girl. Catherine, painfully shy, becomes a dutiful, but perhaps dull, daughter, the kind of a girl whose awkward behaviors her father approves always with a little detached attitude.
Then, comes a good-looking man Morris Townsend, who has no money but gives a word of "gentleman." But what does that mean when Doctor suspects this is just another fortune hunter, who is seeking for the money Catherine is to inherit after his death? Still, Doctor is half amused, even entertained, by this unexpected visitor who now seems to have gained the love of his daughter. But he didn't expect that Catherine would show surprising obstinate attitude in spite of his threat of disinheriting her.
The book is written, as a whole, with a very tragic note, but as you read on, you will find that, just like Jane Austen's narrator, "Washington Square" has an amusing aspect of comedy at first. The meddling widow Mrs. Penniman, whose wild imagination is one of her weakness, is a good example. She runs around between Morris and Catherine, only to annoy both of them. Henry James's touch when he treats these characters, however, sounds more incisive and even colder than Jane Austen's, if not totally cruel -- and the cruelty is gradually obvious as the plot unfolds.
Our main concern is about Catherine. The story is in itself trite and insignificant (James heard the original episode which the book is based on, in England from actress Fanny Kemble, and the brief note remains), but it is the growth (or change) of the apparently insipid heroine, and the interations between her and other characters (or between those other characters) that always impress us greatly. James's pen ruthlessly cuts into the hearts of those characters, and the intense, skillfully-constructed dialogue which show what is going on in the characters would instantly grip the readers' mind.
Some readers might champion more condensed prose of "The Golden Bowl", deeming "Washington Square" as too lightweight. In a sense, it is, I admit; the novel is not long, and the syntax is very easy to understand (for James, I mean). Still, the book is never dull, always fast-paced (for James, again), and the touching fate of the heroine Catherine is not a thing to be missed.
The novel is turned into films and they are also great, I must add. William Wyler's version is a masterpiece, with Olivia de Havilland/Montgomery Clift/Ralph Richardson trio, but more recent production made in 1997 is also good.
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on January 23, 2006
Washington Square is a searing portrait of selfishness, cruelty and manipulation that brings a radically new psychological depth to the traditional 19th century novel of manners. In Dr. Sloper James created one of his most insidious characters; a clever, genial man of the world who would rather sees his principles confirmed than his daughter happy. Catherine, the plain victim of a suave fortune-seeking fiancé, has to rank with Melville's Bartleby as a model of passive resistance. As she awakens to her father's flaws, Catherine shows the plodding strength of innocence in the face of his high-handed manipulation. The self-absorbed spinster aunt Lavinia completes the picture, using her niece's courtship as a way to work out her own thwarted romantic desires. Everyone is using everyone for something else, in typical Jamesian fashion, but doing it with style--even in this early work, James had an uncanny feeling for the crude drives that veiled themselves behind good manners and the conventions of respectable society. A great read that has to rank as one of James's darkest and most insightful novels.
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on June 20, 2004
Today's readers may not find Henry James's masterpiece "The Turn of the Screw" as creepy as it was when first published. To begin with, there is no gore in the book --the moments of horror are so subtle, but they get under one skin.
"The Turn of the Screw" was first published as a serialized novel in Collier's Weekly. After that it was published in the novel format, both in England and USA. When James wrote this novella was a period of increase of the popularity of spiritual issues. Many people were searching for new ways of explaining death, and they were also loosing their Christian faith. Many were trying to communicate with the Other Side.
But the dead in the novella, as James once stated, are not ghosts, as we know them. However, this belief persisted through time, and even today, most readers assume that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are spectrums or a so-called entity.
On the form, "The Turn of the Screw" has some innovations. Prior to James, most novels were written through one point of view --this narrator told the story and the characters and actions are under his/her way of viewing, judgments, and conclusions. On the other hand, most of James's novels count with a difference: the narrator/character is not aware of everything. In this particular novella, we see the story through the eyes of governess and we know as little as she. Not only she, but also we, has a limited knowledge of the events.
Much can be concluded from the story --it is impossible to have a definitive conclusion. Some say the governess was a good character fighting against evil to protect the two children. But some scholars have researched and concluded that, as a matter of fact, the governess had a troubled mind. In 1934, Edmund Wilson wrote an essay that has become one of the most influential works on Henry James's ambiguity. Based on Freudian theory, Wilson argues that the governess's sexual repression leads her to neurotically imagine and interpret ghosts.
However, postmodernism have led critics to a different conclusion, which adds the two main chains of sturdy of "The Turn of the Screw". Not only are the ghosts in the novel, but the governess can also be mad. For these scholars, every incident can be interpreted as to prove that the governess is mad and to prove that there are ghosts. This irresolvable controversy makes James's work so brilliant and timeless.
Now it is up to each reader to find his/her own ghosts in this brilliant novella --so short and so deep and complex. Contemporary readers may be stunned and still scared with the smartness of the text. As the first narrator introduces the text, he says in the first line "the story had held us", "The Turn of the Screw" will hold every sophisticated reader in his/her seat.
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on May 24, 2006
One of the shorter novels by Henry James and relatively simple, comparing to his other works, "Washington Square" is a story of hidden emotions, fear of breaking conventions, and hypocrisy resulting from those conventions.

Dr. Austin Sloper is a prosperous, respected Manhattan physician, a widower with one daughter, Catherine. He boasts a sharp mind and considers himself a good judge of character. Although Catherine is rather a plain and uninteresting girl, admittedly even by her family, she has prospect of coming into considerable wealth. Therefore, when she meets Morris Townsend, a handsome, but idle man, and falls in love, her father is on guard and after some research fiercely opposes the marriage, on the graounds that Townsend is a fortune hunter. Lavinia, Catherine's aunt, however, tries to "help" the couple... Catherine, in the center of attention and subjected to manipulations from people claiming to love her, would seem to be a miserable creature, but she has perhaps the most puzzling and complex personality of all the characters!

These four people are the core of the novel and their psychological portraits are subtle yet acute (nobody is a flat, archetypal figure), the hidden faults and qualities of the main and background characters make them very real and complex, the irony towards the society is very clear. There are many things the reader has to fathom from hints and allusions, not everything is explicitly said so to some extent the motives of the protagonists are open to interpretation.

Henry James is a master of psychological novel of his time, great observer and talented writer (comparable maybe to Jane Austen, he also wrote about subjects he well knew). Although "Washington Square" is not considered one of his best novels, it is nevertheless a masterpiece. Many of the sentences are so full of sarcasm, witty or so extremely right, that even nowadays they could be uttered without change - I consider James a writer, whose work never ages, which is a kind of paradox, considering how firmly they are placed in his time. In addition, it is delightful to read about New York City and imagine times, when Washington Square was uptown...
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on June 11, 2004
A story told over a hundred years ago, and still sparking serious debate over its intention? Henry James must be proud. Now I like clear writing even more than the next fellow, but I find I really like the ambiguity and startling turns that both the dialogue and the plot take in Henry James's stories. The answers to the simplest questions put to a character always elicit an unexpected response. This makes it tough on a reader, who lazily expects direct, routine answers. It's unsettling and challenging to understand what these characters say, and mean, by their responses.
So, I think that the charm of Henry James is that the reader is asked to use his own imagination in interplay with the writing. It's a puzzle, and the more imagination one brings, the more fascinating the characters. You'll note how little physical description James uses for a character like Mrs. Grose, allowing the reader's imagination to fill in the blanks.
Each generation sees something different in the story. Originally viewed as a ghost story, it was later reviewed to be a Freudian tale, told by an unreliable narrator. Sexual overtones affected the narrative of the governess, making the reader question what she saw, and what she says others saw. This ambigous reality reached not only to perception of the ghosts, but of the actions and motives of the children.
However, I was struck as a 21st Century reader by the awful plight of Miles, the ten-year-old boy asked not to return to school for reasons the school never explains. It is only in the last chapter, when Miles and the governess are alone together, where the governess uses language that seems to promise carnal pleasure to Miles, that the most startling aspect of Miles character is revealed. Abruptly asked whether he was discharged accused of stealing, he instead admits to having told things to "those few he liked." They in turn told others they liked, and it eventually reached the head master. This beautiful, sensitive, intelligent boy was trapped and mortified by the things he said to the few he liked, and only reluctantly reveals this to the Governess. It is left to the reader's imagination what Miles may have said, but given Henry James's own sexuality, much may be supposed.
Then the Governess alerts Miles to the ghost that she has been seeing during their conversation, and she thinks, has been protecting Miles from. He supposes she means the prior governess, who had been "haunting" his younger sister. Instead, in horror, he hears that she means deceased Peter Quint, an unsavory manservant with a penchant for wearing his master's clothes and an interest in the children. Quint's death was unexplained but violent one night as he was coming from town. Can it be that he and Miles had a relationship that causes Miles to be so ashamed and fearful that he dies rather than face his tormentor? It is ambiguous, but the possibility, so real to the reader, does not seem to occur to the governess, who in her zeal to protect Miles, has pushed him to confront the one horror that he could not survive, in order to save him from the ghost she alone sees.
Great story, requiring careful attention, but the ideas have inspired arguments among generations of readers.
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on May 25, 2011
An excellent mystery/horror novel! When I was in 12th grade, my class was assigned this book to read and I absolutely loved it. The characters are done with depth but also have a mystery. You cannot be sure what is exactly happening until the very end. Even still, the author does not end the book with an answer but a question mark. Is the governess really mad or are those kids demon possessed monsters. And what about the mysterious uncle that never makes an appearence in our book? This book will keep you guessing, that is for sure.
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on December 17, 2006
Though James rejected this tale for inclusion in the New York Edition of his works, presumably because it was too simple and straightforward, many readers have not shared his judgment, insisting instead the work has great merit.
Its theme is an intriguing one that raises the following question: Is it better to be clever or good? Even here, for James, the answer is not all that simple, his conclusion being it's probably best to be some subtle combination of both.
Dr. Sloper and Morris Townsend, the central male figures, are clever men, but each is deficient in his own way. The caustically witty Doctor wants to be just, but his pride in being right about Morris as a fortune hunter ultimately overrides his fatherly concerns. For this reason, he becomes a sort of Hawthorne-like villain, a scientific, detached, almost gleeful observer of his own daughter's plight, rather than a suitably caring parent. He suffers, finally, not from an excess of cleverness, but from a defect of generous felt emotion. Morris, too, is a definitely clever character, but at the same time he's the spoiled creation of enabling women, a boy-man who's more a self-interested player at life than a vital participant in it, an early version of the fatherless "It's all about me" youth of later modern fiction.
The heroine Catherine is a sorely beset young woman, pulled this way and that, now by her right-at-all-costs father, then by her fortune hunting suitor. She is a good, dutiful daughter throughout, though the novel details her growth in intelligent personhood. She finally gains the independence needed to tell her manipulative father where his parental rights end and her own moral self begins. Similarly, once her education in life is complete, she is able to avoid a final romantic capitulation, telling the shameless Morris in the novel's last scene what her mature self now requires he hear from her. Naturally, he's too self-involved to accurately understand her real character.
This short novel, finally, is rich in witty literary parody. It's closing chapters read like an inverted "Odyssey," with the patiently waiting Catherine weaving embroidery in Penelope-like fashion, until the surprise return of the long wandering Morris. All in all, despite the masterly author's doubts, this is a work of considerable distinction.
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on December 27, 1999
Henry James's tale is the last of the gothic Victorian novellas, with its richly developed sense of propriety-- a semblance of manners and understatement concealing primitive subliminal impulse. Its dense, symbolic language penetrates deeply into the psyche. There is evil here. But its emanation is ambiguous and amorphous. The characters exist in a pervasive atmosphere of dread. The exact source of that dread has intrigued readers since it was written before the turn the (20th) century. Central to James's fable is the character of the Governess. Was she deluded, predatory or ennobled? Her motives hold the key to the solution-- if there is a solution.
James reveled in brooding, subversive sexual undercurrents. The suspense is ethereal since nothing is sure in James's painstakingly constructed psychological panorama. What is real here? Whose innocence is being corrupted? It's all a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, cloaked in a-- well, ghost story! But riddles are meant to be solved. James has provided us all the necessary clues. The text fills barely 88 pages, but the critical interpretation, covering a century, shows the enduring capacity of 'the Screw' to engage the imagination. The analyses mirrors our changing attitudes toward children, psychology and the nature of evil. The Norton Critical Edition includes an excellent survey of various commentaries over the decades, which provide fascinating insight into contemporary mores as they were pressed into decoding James's great puzzle.
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VINE VOICEon January 24, 2002
This book is clearly a classic, but as many of the reviews reflect, it is not for every audience. Many of the reviewers here are in high school...when I went to high school I had several friends who read this book and were equally unimpressed with it. I read it in my late twenties and was blown away with the combination of elaborate language, complex psychological thrills, and genuine scares. The book must have been quite shocking to its initial audience, and within this context, it still is a shocker. Read this book and focus on the psychological aspects, and you'll likely have a good time. Incidentally, the book was made into a brilliant movie, "The Innocents," starring Deborah Kerr.
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on May 20, 2001
Henry James is one of my favorite authors and this novella is one of my favorite books. It's a ghost story, it's horror, it's suspense, but what set it head and shoulders above most ghost/horror/suspense stories is the fact that it's strictly psychological.
A young governess secures a position at what appears to be a lovely English manor house and she soon discovers that nothing is what is seems and things are definitely not as they should be.
James has a highly stylized way of writing and he loved using long, convoluted sentences, even when saying something quite simple. Some readers might find this a litle jarring, but for me it only adds to the atmosphere of the book.
Over the years there has been much speculation about the meaning of this story, especially the enigmatic ending. I know what I think, but I won't give anything away here. Read The Turn of the Screw yourself and be prepared for a scary evening of surprises and perhaps even a sleepless night.
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