The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller
By Henry James
Lancer Books 1968
Won from Allie at A Literary Odyssey
The Turn of the Screw
I wasn't sure how I would react to this famous ghost story. I don't do scary very often or very well and so I purposely started out reading this story only during daylight hours. I found that, although it was extremely atmospheric, I wasn't as freaked out as I had worried I might be.
The story begins with a man proposing to read a ghost story that was entrusted to him by a young woman. There is great dramatic tension leading up to the actual reading of the tale but once you get into it, you may forget completely about the group of characters experiencing the story along with you. A governess gets her first job and meets with her new boss. He is the uncle of two young children and our narrator is sent to the mansion to take care of the girl and then her brother when he is expelled from school. As she gets to know the angelic children, she begins to see strange figures around the grounds and the house. She becomes convinced that they are the spirits of the former groundskeeper and the former governess, both of whom have a malevolent pull on her innocent charges.
I have to confess that I didn't love this story. I think James did an excellent job of really creating the atmosphere. You understand just how big and isolated this huge house and its occupants are. That being said, I failed to really feel any human connection between the governess and the children or the governess and the housekeeper, who is the only other character in the story. I couldn't understand why she didn't just leave (with or without her charges). I really felt the similarities between this story and Jane Eyre, which I listened to last month. I felt like I had already read a story about a creepy house, an angelic student, and a distant (yet very desirable) employer.
The major point of contention for those who read this story is the line between reality and imagination. Many critics claim that what the governess sees is all in her head as the result of being unable to cope with the isolation. Others claim that the ghosts are real and that this story is about the loss of innocence as she pines for her employer and her young charges stand on the edge of adolescence. I think the best thing about this story is that you may never be able to answer this question.
Daisy Miller is not a scary story (unless you are frightened by American girls who seems to lack manners!). The novel centers around Winterbourne, a privileged American man vacationing in Geneva and Rome who encounters a rude young boy and his older sister Daisy. Daisy and Winterbourne begin a complicated series of flirtations, where she tempts him to take her to the Roman ruins without a chaperone and dangles an Italian man in his face in order to make him jealous. Winterbourne's family and acquaintances are shocked at Daisy's behavior and urge him to leave her alone. But he can't help falling for her charms.
In this story, Henry James again succeeds brilliantly at not telling you quite what is going on. Because this story is told from Winterbourne's point of view, we never know if Daisy is intentionally acting like a hussy or if she is just a free spirit who is so naive that she does not realize she is breaking all rules of social decorum. This is a brilliant character study of both Daisy and Winterbourne.
This story is quick read and I think it is fascinating to read it as a woman in the 21st century, who has to worry about so few of the social restrictions that are imposed upon Daisy and the women of her time. It will either make you feel very lucky to be living when you do or make you angry that a time existed when women were restricted and judged in this way.
What is your favorite Henry James novel or short story??