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The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw is one of the better-known pieces of short fiction by Henry James. It is one of the most effective ghost stories ever written, one that lends itself well to stage and film adaptation - something that has been done, well and badly, many times.

It can also be read as a sort of psychological detective story. The reader is challenged to determine if the protagonist, a nameless governess, is reliably reporting events or is some kind of hysterical neurotic with an overheated imagination. (Freudians have had a lot of fun with a sexual interpretation of her experiences. ) To further muddy the waters, her written account of the experience - a story within a story -- is being read many years later at a Christmas house party by someone who claims to have known her.

Warning: wikipedia contains spoilers

Briefly, a young governess is hired by a man who has found himself responsible for his niece and nephew after the death of their parents. He lives in London and has no interest whatsoever in the children. The boy is at a boarding school. The girl, Flora, is living at his country home being cared for temporarily by the housekeeper, Mrs Grose.

He gives the governess full charge and makes it clear he never wants to hear from her again.

She travels to the house and begins her duties. Shortly thereafter, the boy, Miles, turns up. He has been expelled from his school. For some mysterious reason, the headmasters feel he is a threat to the other boys.

The governess begins to see and hear strange things. She learns that her predecessor, a Miss Jessel, and her lover Quint, a clever but abusive man, died under curious circumstances. Gradually, she becomes convinced that the pair are somehow using the children to continue their relationship from beyond the grave. The sexual implications are only hinted at, of course, but were a real part of the horror for the story's original readers.

The governess takes action with tragic consequences. A strong pessimism runs through much of James' writings. This story is no exception.

An opera based on the story was composed by Benjamin Britten.

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