LOST Reading Project: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Ambiguity. Spectres, ghosts, and apparitions. Good versus evil. Children captured by Others. Illicit or unrequited passion. Incipient insanity.

These are some of the elements that The Turn of the Screw shares with the TV series LOST. In a season two episode (Orientation), Desmond tells Jack and Locke that the DHARMA Initiative orientation film is on the shelf behind The Turn of the Screw. As anyone who’s been watching the show for a while knows, the books that are featured or mentioned are there for a purpose. James’s ghost story, The Turn of the Screw shares quite a bit in common with LOST.

First and last, there’s the ambiguity. I read James’s story to the tragic end, and my first thought was, “I don’t get it.” I re-read some sections and became even more confused. I wondered whether the narrator was at all trustworthy, whether she was sane, whether the ghosts were real or imaginary. (LOST fans: do those questions sound familiar?) The “screw” of the narrative does turn around and around, presenting a different view of the events in the story with each turn.

Ghosts appear —or are they real? Are the appearances in LOST real, or do they only appear to those who see them as some sort of aberrant psychological experience? Lots of dead people have appeared in LOST to various of the survivors: Jack’s dad, Yemi, Ben’s mother, Boone, Ana-Lucia. Are these messengers from beyond the grave evil or good? Then, there’s Hurley’s imaginary friend who leads him to the edge, both literally and figuratively, almost exactly the same thing that happens to the governess narrator in The Turn of the Screw.

The two children in The Turn of the Screw are also ambiguous characters. They may or may not be innocent children. They may be influenced by the evil spirits that the governess sees. According to the governess, the spirits are trying to capture the children and lead them to the pit of hell. In LOST, there’s a similar motif of Evil Others who capture children and do something to them or with them. Or the Others may not be evil at all.

The governess who narrates James’s story, who is the only one who says she sees the evil apparitions, admits from the beginning that she is in love with her employer, a shadowy figure whose main concern is that he not be bothered. Is she making up all the supernatural events in the story to impress her employer? To get his attention? Are the LOST characters also trying to get or to escape attention?

Are they all mad? Is the island imaginary or does it exist in another parallel universe? Do the ghosts that the governess sees exist in a parallel universe, or is she simply psychologically disturbed?

James leaves the ending to his story deliberately ambiguous. I certainly hope the writers and producers of LOST don’t do the same. From a review in Life magazine, 1898 by reviewer “Koch”:

Henry James does it in a way to raise goose-flesh! He creates the atmosphere of the tale with those slow, deliberate phrases which seem fitted only to differentiate the odors of rare flowers. Seldom does he make a direct assertion, but qualifies and negatives and double negatives, and then throws in a handful of adverbs, until the image floats away on a verbal smoke. But while the image lasts, it is, artistically, a thing of beauty. When he seems to be vague, he is by elimination, creating an effect of terror, of unimaginable horrors.”

What effects are the LOST writers producing as they turn the screw around and around from one season to the next? Are the LOST characters headed on a downward spiral into madness and death, or are they moving toward a resolution of their emotional and psychological dilemmas as they redeem themselves through suffering on the island?

We’re back to unresolved ambiguity —so far.

11 thoughts on “LOST Reading Project: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

  1. Thanks for reviewing this. I’m a “LOST” fan and was unfamiliar with this book. I do hope they producers of “LOST” end up with resolution rather than ambiguity!

  2. I’m saving your post to read later, cause I’m in the middle of Turn of the Screw right now. I didn’t know it was a LOST book, though!

  3. Ah, a Lost post in the middle of July. Sigh. Thanks, Sherry…

    I actually hope the end of the series doesn’t completely tie everything up in a neat bow~I would almost chose ambiguity instead if it meant a surprise ending. We’re expecting great things, dear writers and producers!

  4. I watched a movie adaptation a few years ago, and I skimmed the book after Lost made reference to it. You summed up the similarities very well!

  5. Thanks for a ‘Lost’ fix in July. Can you believe we have so long to wait? I’ll be pulling “The Turn of the Screw” off the shelf tonight. I read it so long ago (in college), I’ve totally forgotten it….

  6. Okay, I finished it. And I think she’s dotty – I don’t think the apparitions are real. Just my opinion, of course – cause he doesn’t really tell us, does he? James does a wonderful job of setting the scene – I had to stop reading one night when my husband went to bed. Too spooky – all the ghastly faces at windows and across the lake. Shiver.

  7. Sasha J.

    The Turn of the Screw is the worst book I’ve ever read, the only book I’ve ever wanted to burn. I think drawing comparisons between Lost and Turn of the Screw, Lost comes out looking very unfavourable. I like Lost, but even mentioning Turn of the Screw makes me feel angry, so I can’t watch it anymore. That’s how much I hate this book.

    I think it was when we had to write an essay on it. Spent an entire week of my summer holiday trying to do it, I actually bought a copy in a charity shop and put it on the bonfire. It made me feel so much better.

  8. I followed the link to this review you posted today. You must have done this one before I started reading your blog b/c I totally don’t remember it. I love your comparisons between the book and the show. Do you want to post a link to it on the LOST Book Challenge blog? I know it wouldn’t count for the challenge but I think people would be interested in it anyway.

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