Monday, November 27, 2006

46. The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, and Two Other Stories

by Henry James

Well, I didn’t like The Turn of the Screw nearly as much as I thought I would. In fact, I can’t say I even really understood it, which is disappointing. It’s something of a ghost story that’s being retold at Christmas and it involves a nameless narrator in care of two children. From what I gather, she’s a new governess and the children are home from school. The boy, Miles, has been kicked out of his boarding school for stealing letters while the girl, Flora, is living at home in the care of Mrs. Grose. Their uncle is living elsewhere and I don’t know where their parents are. Probably dead. So, the governess starts seeing apparitions of former servants Mr. Quint and Miss Jessel and I think the ghosts are somehow controlling what the children do. The governess is scared but reluctant to call the uncle lest he think her incapable. The boy dies at the end. Are the ghosts real or is it all in governess’s mind? That seems to be the main question, but, man, did it take lot of hinting around to get there.

After reading the Wikipedia entry on the story it seems that my interpretation isn’t too far off. As in, it’s unknown if the ghosts are real or if the governess is just crazy. There are a few details I missed though: the uncle doesn’t want to have anything to do with the children, which is why the governess doesn’t want to call him. After learning that Miss Jessel and Mr. Quint were lovers she worries that the two are using the children to continue their relationship, which…ew. I remember something about the governess being worried for the children’s innocence, but I totally did not pick up on that. I’ve become a fan of James’s writing, but this one just didn’t do it for me. When I see “classic ghost story” I think of Poe and The Turn of the Screw is like Poe on Nyquil, which is to say “sleep-inducing.”

I enjoyed The Aspern Papers so much more. It’s the story of a literary historian so obsessed with getting the letters a famous American poet wrote to his lover that he actually goes to the woman’s house in Venice to win them from her. Here the narrator meets Juliana, the lover many years older though still single, and her niece Tina, a middle-aged woman who’s also single. Together the two occupy a large house; at the narrator’s suggestion they rent out some rooms overlooking the garden where he may write and enjoy the flowers. They don’t know the real reason he’s there, but after Tina reveals her aunt’s romantic history, the narrator expounds on his love of Aspern’s work and his enthusiasm for the locked up letters. Juliana becomes ill and, in her sleep, the narrator sneaks into her room to look for the papers, but she suddenly regains her wits and screams at the narrator, causing him to run from the house. When he returns he learns from Tina that Juliana has died and that, yes, there are papers to be had. The price for the papers? Becoming Juliana’s “relation” by way of marrying Tina. He runs off again, only to return, having rethought the proposition, and find that Tina’s burned the papers. This was actually much more suspenseful than The Turn of the Screw and the ending was both satisfying and amusing. It serves the (yet another) unnamed narrator right that his obsession crushes him as much as it sustains him.

I feel similarly about the two short stories: I liked The Beast in the Jungle but didn’t understand what happened in The Jolly Corner. In the former, a man has been worried for his entire life that something horrible will happen to him. He’s so worried that he never takes a chance on anything and let’s a potential romance with long time friend May pass him by. Upon her death May tells him the real truth, that his curse is not to have something bad happen but that nothing will happen to him at all. Ever. You’ll have to look up a summary for The Jolly Corner because I just read through it without picking up on anything.

I guess I see where people have problems with Henry James now: sometimes he writes these great, detailed, and engrossing stories, but sometimes he’s just boring.


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