The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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‘a story not particularly effective’ – The fact that a story is told that is even less exciting than the one of the ‘little boy’ and his mother further dissipates the tension. The opening of The Turn of the Screw is indeed an investigation into the nature of story-telling and audience manipulation. One narrative has sparked an idea in Douglas, and the first narrator – skilled in story-telling himself – recognises the ‘sign’ that a story is gestating in Douglas’ mind, as a story running along hackneyed lines plays out in the background unnoticed. All this is raising expectations in the reader that a really good story is about to be told.

‘ “We say, of course […] that they give two turns!”’ – Douglas has been reminded of a story he has heard and read many years earlier by the tale briefly referred to at the opening of the novella. His notion of recounting it is politely received by ‘somebody’ thus, though the effect of an apparition to two children is, on the face of it, no more effective than the original tale (where the ‘turn of the screw’ is that the mother sees the ghost as well), and possibly less so, as the mother represents a less impressionable adult witness. However, more is going on here than meets the eye: Douglas is playing with his audience. He wants to signal that he has something in mind and his emphasis on ‘TWO children’ subliminally suggests a doubling of the tension, as does his waiting ‘two nights’ before he tells his tale. So he is ‘turning the screw’ of his audience’s expectations, and, of course, James is doing the same for his readers.
‘before the fire’ – He is impressively silhouetted in a manner essentially to a showman advertising his cleverness. He is also ‘looking down at his interlocutor.’

‘his hands in his pockets.’ – This indicates a casual gathering of friends who know each other well, but is also suggestive of Douglas’ secrets – secrets he is promising finally to reveal.

‘ “Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It’s quite too horrible.”’ – The mild mangling of grammar here (‘heard’ requires an object; the adverb ‘quite’ cannot intensify ‘too’) is deliberate, and Douglas’ speech stands in stark contrast to James’s fluent narration. The inelegancy of his expressions, as well as implying a colloquial context, suggests that ‘words’ almost ‘fail him’ at the enormity of the horror he is contemplating. His obvious attempt to wind up his audience ‘naturally’ works perfectly, and now his story has ‘the utmost price’.

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Henry James