The Turn of the Screw Critical Overview - Essay

Henry James

Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Tenor Peter Pears (right) as Quint in a 1954 English Opera Group production of the novel Published by Gale Cengage

James's The Turn of the Screw is considered one of literature's greatest ghost stories. Since its publication in 1898, it has been popular with both critics and the public. For the critics, the debate has always been sharply divided. When it was first published, the issue was whether the tale was artistically sound or a morally objectionable story. Many critics, like an Outlook reviewer, note both: "it is on a higher plane both of conception and art. The story itself is distinctly repulsive." Likewise, a Bookman reviewer notes: "We have never read a more sickening, a more gratuitously melancholy tale. It has all Mr. James's cleverness, even his grace." And a review in the Independent says that, "while it exhibits Mr. James's genius in a powerful light," the book "affects the reader with a disgust that is not to be expressed."

Those who found negative things to say about the book were often commenting on the subject matter, the damnation of children, which was a taboo and relatively unexplored theme at the time. A reviewer for the Independent expresses this feeling best, noting that Miles and Flora are "at the toddling period of life, when they are but helpless babes," and that through their participation in reading the story, readers assist "in an outrage upon the holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence" and help to corrupt "the pure and trusting nature of children." Some early reviewers did purely enjoy the tale as a good ghost story, and recognized James's efforts to improve his medium. A reviewer for the Critic states that the story is "an imaginative masterpiece," and William Lyon Phelps, the stenographer to whom James dictated the story, calls it "the most powerful, the most nerve-shattering ghost story I have ever read," providing for "all those who are interested in the moral welfare of boys and...

(The entire section is 767 words.)