Exploring Theme part 1: Henry James #amwriting

A late 19th– early 20th-century writer whom many have heard of but never read, Henry James, has a great deal to tell us about using a story’s themes to create memorable characters. You may be familiar with some of his works, such as The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl. His novels are still being made into movies and adapted as plays.

2WritingCraft_themeMany of James’s books feature one common theme—lust.

Lust for sex. Lust for money. Lust for control.

Lust for power.

The Golden Bowl is the story of deception, manipulation, lust for money, and lust for control. Many of James’s novels feature people in his contemporary world going through their lives. But he takes his characters down to their fundamental emotional components, peels back the veneer of civilization, and exposes their motives for you, the reader.

James understood the potential of a strong theme. He threaded his themes through every conversation and scene as if the theme was background music, an orchestra playing a musical score. Like a Roger Williams film score, James’s themes subtly, insidiously, propel the plot, reinforce emotions, and support the dramas as they are played out. This is why his novels are still considered among the most powerful works of modern fiction.

512px-The-Turn-of-the-Screw-Collier's-1AHenry James is famous for his novels and short stories laying bare the deepest motives and manipulations of the society he knew. However, he wrote one of the most famous novellas ever published, The Turn of the Screw.

On the surface, The Turn of the Screw is different from his other forays into Victorian society, a Gothic horror story. The four main themes are the corruption of the innocent, the destructiveness of heroism, the struggle between good and evil, the difference between reality and fantasy. A fifth theme is the perception of ghosts. Are the ghosts real or the projection of the governess’s madness?

However, there are several subthemes interwoven into the fabric of the narrative.



The lust for control.


Via Wikipedia:

The Turn of the Screw is an 1898 horror novella by Henry James which first appeared in serial format in Collier’s Weekly (January 27 – April 16, 1898). In October 1898, it was collected in The Two Magics, published by Macmillan in New York City and Heinemann in London. The novella follows a governess who, caring for two children at a remote estate, becomes convinced that the grounds are haunted. The Turn of the Screw is considered a work of both Gothic and horror fiction.

On Christmas Eve, an unnamed narrator and some of their friends are gathered around a fire. One of them, Douglas, reads a manuscript written by his sister’s late governess. The manuscript tells the story of her hiring by a man who has become responsible for his young niece and nephew following the deaths of their parents. He lives mainly in London but also has a country house in Bly, Essex. The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school, while his younger sister, Flora, is living in Bly, where she is cared for by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Flora’s uncle, the governess’s new employer, is uninterested in raising the children and gives her full charge, explicitly stating that she is not to bother him with communications of any sort. The governess travels to Bly and begins her duties.

Miles returns from school for the summer just after a letter arrives from the headmaster, stating that he has been expelled. Miles never speaks of the matter, and the governess is hesitant to raise the issue. She fears there is some horrible secret behind the boy’s expulsion, but is too charmed by him to want to press the issue. Soon after, around the grounds of the estate, the governess begins to see the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognize. The figures come and go at will without being seen or challenged by other members of the household, and they seem to the governess to be supernatural. She learns from Mrs. Grose that the governess’s predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another employee, Peter Quint, had had a close relationship. Before their deaths, Jessel and Quint spent much of their time with Flora and Miles, and the governess becomes convinced that the two children are aware of the ghosts’ presence. [1]

Lust for control—whether real or imagined, the ghosts refuse to move on, refuse to relinquish control of the children.

All these themes are woven around the delicate subject of the governess’s unhealthy romantic attachment to the boy.

Many theories abound regarding the governess and the ghosts:

Inquiries Journal says:

projection definitionProjection may explain what role the ghosts play in “Turn of the Screw,” but it does not explain why the governess feels she needs to use projection as a defense. The governess appears to be experiencing an inner battle that is affecting her perception of reality. She has fallen in love with a boy much younger than herself. Society sees this pedophilic behavior as corrupting the child. The governess’s conscience tells her that she must reform her ways. Her id tells her that she is right in pursuing what she desires. In “The Turn of the Screw,” the governess is using an unconscious means of defense, projection, to protect herself from her superego, while continuing to hold onto her sexual desires. [2]

James leaves several loose ends still hanging when we reach the final page of the novella. This asks the reader to reach their own conclusions about how these themes affect the characters as they go forward in their lives. Regardless of whether the ghosts are real or imagined, the story takes us on a dark journey.

What I take home from Henry James’s intense focus on his themes and the inner workings of his characters is this: find a strong theme and use it to underscore and support our characters’ motives.

Our characters are people. People are a mix of good and bad at the same time. Some lean more to good, others to bad. Either way, they act with good, logical intentions, believe themselves unselfish, and desperately want what they think they deserve.

Most importantly, they lie to themselves about their own motives and obscure the truth behind other, more palatable truths.

I always think that inserting a whiff of human frailty into a character makes them more interesting, more relatable.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “The Turn of the Screw,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Turn_of_the_Screw&oldid=1073476225  (accessed March 13, 2022).

[2] Literary Analysis: Turn of the Screw – Inquiries Journal www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/65/literary-analysis-turn-of-the-screw  © 2022 Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse LLC. All rights reserved. ISSN: 2153-5760. (Accessed March 13, 2022).


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4 responses to “Exploring Theme part 1: Henry James #amwriting

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