Posted by: Jeanie F | October 24, 2009

Return of the Screw

It’s always an interesting experience to go back and reread something that has made a strong impression on you many years past. One of my most significant of these experiences came about two years ago when I reread Atlas Shrugged, a book that had strongly influenced me when I first read it in high school. I was shocked to discover that not only was it overblown politcal pap, but it was poorly written political pap at that.

My experience rereading The Turn of the Screw was less dramatic. It’s true – I couldn’t help but notice certain passages were pretty seriously over-written. Consider, for example, this single sentence:

It was a pity that I should have had to quaver out again the reasons for my not having, in my delusion, so much as questioned that the little girl saw our visitant even as I actually saw Mrs. Grose herself, and that she wanted, by just so much as she did thus see, to make me suppose she didn’t, and at the same time, without showing anything, arrive at a guess as to whether I myself did!

Yes, I had to read that several times to figure out that our unidentified narrator was saying, “I wonder why I didn’t question Flora about the ghost, when I saw it so clearly.” Still, the formal language adds to the overall mood of propriety and isolation that, even today, keeps this ghost story plausible to the modern reader.

The real surprise, with this reading, is that in my original reading I didn’t grasp both the extreme unreliability – probable insanity – of the narrator and the underlying homo-erotic themes. I suppose 1971 was a much more innocent time.

In spite of discrepencies between my readings then and now, I have to say that I still considered The Turn of the Screw a good, and creepy, ghost story.  Although I didn’t feel compelled to run to the neighbors for protection this time through, the images of Quint and Miss Jessel beckoning from across the lake or staring moodily out of the tower window still give the effect “another turn of the screw.”

Grade: B+


  1. I was just talking about this yesterday with some friends. It’s really incredible to reread books many times through the years and see how they affect you differently. You pick up new themes, change your opinion of characters or decide that something that seemed so romantic in high school now seems deranged and creepy. You notice all these differences when nothing has really changed but you! I love that! I read Turn of the Screw in high school and it didn’t really leave much of an impression on me. It would definitely be interesting to try it again ten years later.

  2. A few that have held their high position – or even improved – over time for me were:

    Grapes of Wrath (and all other Steinbeck)
    The Dollmaker (I do love Depression Era fiction)
    The Dubliners
    All poetry by Yeats
    All Jane Austen
    To the Lighthouse

    Not so much:
    Catcher in the Rye
    Ayn Rand (as noted before)
    Hemmingway (who I never much liked)
    Taylor Caldwell

    But I agree – it’s an interesting exercise to re-evaluate past favorites!

  3. I read Turn of the Screw and saw the movie (with Deborah Kerr) as a kid and have never forgotten either. Two others that had a similar effect are The Other and Harvest Home, both by Thomas Tryon.

    Your observation about the unreliable narrator in TOTS is well taken. Perhaps I’ll read it again.

  4. Oh yes, The Other was DEFINITELY a creepy book!

    I’ve been trying to think of the title of another really scary book I read years ago with creepy kids and someone (one of the kids?) who ends up out on a roof with the ghostly villain beckoning. Ring a bell?

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