Two Turns of the Screw:
A Comparison of the Novel
and the Short Story

English 3335
Summer I 1998
Jack H. David Jr.

The task of comparing the novel, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, with the short story by Joyce Carol Oates, of the same name, is very simple on one level, and very difficult on another. On the simplest level, there is only one thing the two works truly have in common—the title. The two works are different in so many ways, that the task of comparing them is much like comparing two different works that were chosen at random. But there must have been a reason that Oates chose to recycle the title of such a classic work of literature. On a deeper level, there must be something that binds the two works together, at least from Oates’ perspective.

What does "The Turn of the Screw" mean? Literally, it refers to thumb screws, medieval torture devices that were used to inflict pain on the victim. The tighter the screws were tightened—the more it hurt. The pain eventually would be so intense that the victim would confess to crimes that he or she was not even guilty of committing—just to stop the pain.

Figuratively, "The Turn of the Screw" denotes the infliction of the pain and stress of life. Each new painful life experience turns the figurative screw a little tighter, making the cumulative pain greater, until the person can take no more and has a breakdown. The inference is that each of us experiences this phenomenon to one degree or another, although our breaking points may vary considerably. Other similar figures of speech include "another nail in the coffin" and "the straw that broke the camel’s back."

This also reminds me of Pink Floyd’s concept album: Another Brick in the Wall. In this case, the wall is a figurative wall that we build around ourselves to insulate us from the world. Each stressful event in our life adds another brick in the wall until we are unable to feel anything—then we are comfortably numb.

In the novel, James applies the concept of the figurative thumb screws to the governess. If the reader accepts the interpretation that the ghosts were a product of her imagination, the applicability of the title is especially relevant. Her father was a minister, and she was raised in a Victorian society that was known for its repression of sexuality. She was infatuated with the children’s uncle, but knew that she could never have him. She was all alone out in the country with no one to talk to but the children. All these things together caused her to have a breakdown, which resulted in her delusions about the ghosts.

If the reader accepts the novel as a genuine ghost story, then the title could still apply. In that case, the ghosts slowly and deliberately tortured her until she acted irrationally, and at least appeared to be disturbed.

In Oates’ short story, Patrick Quarles, the protagonist, is faced with the responsibility of dealing with his sick uncle, and then is plagued by the strange feeling that someone is watching him. In the short story, there is no doubt that someone is indeed following him—watching him—stalking him.

Something weird really is happening, but Quarles is not sure, at least at first, if it is real. By comparison, in the novel, something weird may be happening, but the governess is convinced that it is real. In either case, the tension mounts as the psychological screws are turned.

While reading these two works, looking for similarities beyond the title, I found that the similarities were there, but definitely not on the surface. They are both set in England. The English setting suggests dark foreboding characters that suppress their emotions. They both involve obsession with the secrets of other people. The protagonists of both works are both being watched, or believe they are being watched by mysterious unknown personages.

One thing that both works have in common is their ambiguity. In the novel, we can only guess if the ghosts are real or the product of the governess’ imagination. In the short story, we are left to speculate the identity and purpose of the stalker. Just as the governess is probably mentally unbalanced, the stalker apparently is as well.

The anonymous stalker apparently sees himself in Patrick Quarles, and feels driven to try to help the younger man avoid some of the painful life experiences that he has endured. The stalker is concerned by what he had seen—Quarles following a pubescent girl. Maybe the stalker had been stalking other people for years, and upon seeing Quarles following the girl—saw himself from an outside perspective—and didn’t like what he saw.

I have one final comment on the similarities of these two works. In the novel, the governess was haunted—either by real ghosts or her internal demons. In the short story, both Quarles and the stalker were haunted as well by their past, their inadequacies—by their own internal demons.

I personally believe that Ms. Oates did not adequately justify borrowing the title of James’ novel. It would have been more interesting if she would have slightly altered the title—such as "Another Turn of the Screw," or "The Screw Yet Turns." The two works were not similar enough to warrant using the exact same title. Some things are best left to their proper place in history.