the turn of the screw

The novella by Henry James (1843 – 1916) is for sheer size not really suited to try wordsubstitution on, but it will do the trick all the same. Time consuming it may be, but that does not prevent the actors from the RSC to perform this very exercise on every Shakespeare play that nowadays runs in Stratford : this helps them to understand what is going on on stage.

But is it obligate? for a few key scenes perhaps. But reading attentively will by now be sufficient to recognize familiar patterns if and when they occur. Which is a good thing too, because you are on your own this time. I would love to reveal the story’s brilliant simplicity, but Henry James won’t have it :

“So long as the events are veiled the imagination will run riot and depict all sorts of horrors, but as soon as the veil is lifted, all mystery disappears, and with it the sense of terror.”

To explain a mystery without unveiling it, is like squaring the circle ; it is allowed, but one better don’t even try. Which leaves only one approach open, and that is to make you read the narrative just for the pleasure of unveiling the events yourself :

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion – an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him. It was this observation that drew from Douglas – not immediately, but later in the evening – a reply that had the interesting consequence to which I call attention. Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw he was not following. This I took for a sign that he had himself something to produce and that we should only have to wait. We waited in fact till two nights later; but that same evening, before we scattered, he brought out what was in his mind. – – – — —  –  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – –  – “I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?” – – – — —  –  – – – – – – – – – – – —  – “We say, of course,” somebody exclaimed, “that they give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.” 

If you want to hear about them too, time has come to purchase a copy of the novella. Or to open the free available Ladder-edition by Adrian Dover. And to be aware that Henry James once described The Turn of the Screw  as

“a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation, an amusette to catch those not easily caught (the ‘fun’ of the capture of the merely witless being ever but small), the jaded, the disillusioned, the fastidious.”

Another author then, who likes to fool the best part of his audience. And, judged by his aim, Henry James has thrown the glove at Sherlock Holmes himself. He was, after all, a contemporary. But, for the sake of his own pleasure, he has to play things fair, because there is no fun in fooling Sherlock with a problem that has no solution. And the problem itself is ‘pure and simple’. A description that rules out obscurity for obscurity’s sake, and rather points at the efficient use of words in a poem. As a matter of fact, the beauty of the problem that Henry James composed is in its solvability. And in the amusette’s very design to be elementary. Which, of course, is no help to poor witless Watson. If he, for instance, notices the anomaly in the novella’s opening paragraph, he can be trusted to explain it away as not necessarily an anomaly within the world of the story itself. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, takes for granted that Henry James expects his more attentive readers to appreciate the clue.

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