Lost Book Club: 'The Turn of the Screw'
Wednesday, October 31, 2007; 12:00 PM
Jen Chaney and Liz Kelly -- co-authors of washingtonpost.com's weekly "Lost" analysis (in season) -- continue the "Lost" Book Club series with a discussion of Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," one of several books that may offer some clues into the past, present and future of "Lost."
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Jen Chaney: Happy Halloween, everyone. What better way to spend it than by spending some time with you "Lost" fans, hashing over a good ghost story.
Well, some might not have found "Turn of the Screw" as "good" as others. Personally, I had a hard time getting into it. In fact, I read the beginning about four times before I finally settled into the story. Once I did, I really enjoyed it and discovered a nugget or two that could be useful keys to "Lost"-land.
Liz, what about you?
Liz Kelly: Well, Jen, I have to confess... though I girded my loins (like Mrs. Grose) to give this story a fair shake, I wasn't transported by it. I, too, stumbled over the language and found myself a bit confounded by the slow pace and, well, lack of much really happening.
And, trust me, I wanted to like this. I'm a big fan of James-ian era texts and flowery language. Somehow, this text, though, didn't satisfy. Maybe we can draw more out of it in today's discussion...
Happy All Hallows Eve...: Trick or Treat!
So I like Henry James, I really do...i've read a bunch of his writings and they are all a little bit dark...
Oh wait i'm getting him mixed up with Thomas Hardy. Oh well. (enjoy the rambling, i'm already on a sugar high!)
I have to say the most enjoyable part about this book was getting to the end and hoping beyond hoping that that's not what writers of "Lost" are going to do to us. Continue to "Turn the Screw" in the story and then just leave us after three more years with our own interpretations...
Nevertheless ... I thought this was an appropriate choice because this was the text behind which Desmond hid the video for the Hatch, right? So at that moment the plot was thickening....so maybe too literal of an explanation....
Looking at the book by itself, I wonder if the whole ghost story thing was really a sign of the new governess's craziness. It seemed like the children and the housekeeper were at times humoring her. But then again that final scene was pretty terrifyng ... and what exactly did Miles do at school to get himself kicked out?
Jen Chaney: Ah, the annual Halloween sugar high. It does wonder for productivity, doesn't it?
I have said before, and will repeat again, that I think the ending of "Lost" may be open to interpretation, but closed enough that it satisfies. They aren't going to leave people hanging at the end of the series and asking, "Wait, what just happened?" At least that's my guess.
Something occurred to me as I was reading your question -- we are assuming that turning the screw means tightening it, a metaphor for the tension that James subtly raises as the story continues. But couldn't that turning also go the other way? Is it possible that it could be a metaphor for the governess, who seems to have a screw loose, and at the end of the story finally gets unhinged entirely? Just a thought. Have another fun-size Snickers bar and mull that one over.
Liz Kelly: I'm with Jen on her interpretation of the Governess slowing coming apart the deeper we get into her story.
Unlike some of the other books we've read where we draw direct correlations between the text and "Lost," I'm not sure we can do the same for James's text. I see no Sawyer or Jack or Locke reflected in the characters of Flora or Miles or the Governess. Instead we are left with, as Jen already pointed out, the hint that the "Lost" story -- like this book -- may be told by one or more unreliable narrators.
Brisbane Australia: I think Henry James got it right. "Turn of the Screw" is a better ghost story than "Lost," and you don't get sold toothpaste every ten minutes. In a sense the audience does get screwed with, on a regular basis, however.
Liz Kelly: Good point, although I'd point out that one can easily sidestep the commercial interruptions by recording and watching later or waiting until the end of each season and watching it in its entirety on DVD. That's how my husband and I watched the first season and became hooked. I'm not sure we would have if we'd had to cool our jets through ads every 10 minutes.
Jen Chaney: True. These days, if the ads bother you that much, it's easier than ever before to avoid them.
Plus, I don't know if you read this particular piece of critical analysis of "Turn of the Screw," but some scholars say James's work is nothing more than a 175-page subliminal ad for Paxil.
Fairfax, Va: Some mention must be made of the finest film version of James' novel: "The Innocents," starring the late great Deborah Kerr. There's a scene where Miss Giddens is playing hide-and-seek with Miles and Flora. She hides behind some drapes. She turns and looks out the window...
I've seen the movie many times and I still get the willies!
Jen Chaney: Oh, thanks for bringing that up. Many people say that's the best screen version of this story. With Kerr's sad, recent death, I suspect more people will revisit it.
Liz Kelly: Yes, I need to add that to my Netflix list, too. I have to admit I was a big fan of "The Others" with Nicole Kidman. Well done and satisfyingly creepy.
Speaking of creepy, did you dress up for the occasion, Jen?
Thought on the Uncle: Maybe this is a warning. The uncle, who tries to ignore and really just abandons his niece and nephew, leading to the nephew's death, is like the no longer present founders of the Initiative. They can pretend terrible things aren't really happening, and live a life of wealth and leisure with a clear conscience.
Jen Chaney: Interesting idea. It seems like there has to be some significance behind "Turn of the Screw" being the book that hides the initiation film in the Hatch. Especially because they make a real point in the show of making it obvious which book it is.
We've raised the possibility that it could signify Desmond's unreliability as narrator. It also could say something, as you suggest, about the Dharma Initiative, perhaps that they too are telling a version of the story that isn't true.
That seems to be a theme in terms of what LindeCuse have suggested about the show. Lindelof specifically mentioned the movie "Capricorn One" as something worth paying attention to, and that's all about a cover-up involving a NASA mission. (Decent movie, too, by the way.) Clearly something at the core of the narrative, at least as we understand it thus far, has to be incorrect; it's a question of figuring out which portion we've been misled about and to what extent.
Liz Kelly: One thing that struck me about the book and possible "Lost" clues is the book's concentration on children who are implicit in tricking someone or of possible interest to some supernatural power.
This got me to thinking about the children on "Lost" -- Walt and the several other "Lostie" kids who were spirited away by the Others for who knows what purpose. And, of course, the Others' mania for baby-making. Do they want children to continue their community or because children can do something which the adults can not?
Jen Chaney: That's a really intriguing point, Liz. In "Turn of the Screw," even if you believe the governess is kinda nuts, it still seems like the kids hold some sort of power over her. They also don't talk like normal kids at all. "Did you fancy you made no noise? You're like a troop of cavalry!"
Honestly, who says that? Maybe that's simply a language thing, since people undoubtedly spoke differently in the late 1800s. But either way, I definitely got the impression those kids were wise beyond their years, in a way not entirely dissimilar from Walt and his special powers.
As far as the Others, my impression so far is that the child-obsession is more about continuing the community, but you're right, they also may want to take advantage of some special powers that only children possess.
Literatu,RE: It is not like you to be late, Liz.
Liz Kelly: So sorry. Had a doozy of a tech problem on this end that was only visible from the live site. So Jen and I were back here happily answering questions, thinking everything was fine.
All should be well now.
I've seen folks atwitter on boards after Daniel Dae Kim's DUI arrest.
Could someone in the main cast fall victim to the dreaded "DUI Curse" that has befelled three other actors on the show?
Jen Chaney: Anything is possible. If I were a cop in Hawaii and I needed to make my monthly quota, I would follow "Lost" cast members to every bar and restaurant in town.
Kim's arrest is definitely unfortunate. If one believes in curses, it also would seem to portend his character's demise. All three of the other DUIers -- Libby, Anna Lucia, Eko -- wound up getting killed off after their arrests. I think that's pure coincidence, but it's definitely something to fire up conspiracy theories. And I love a good, completely outlandish conspiracy theory.
Liz Kelly: This was big news in Celebritology land last week. We've almost come to expect "Losties" to turn up on the police blotter. I was a little surprised that Daniel Dae Kim was the latest, though. He just doesn't strike me as the party type.
My readers suggest to Lindecuse that they spring for drivers for all cast members from this point on... and possibly a few MADD pamphlets.
Inspired "The Others"?!: All right, now that I've read the book -- I can so see how this book inspired the Others. The unreliable narrator thinking her kids have gone crazy, the ghostly hauntings (but not exactly in the case of the movie). Sweet.
Jen Chaney: Yes, the whole vibe of the book really matched the tone of Alejandro Amenabar's direction of "The Others." I visualized everything I read as looking dark, gray and gloomy.
While the plots didn't match exactly, the stories definitely had some parallels, as you point out.
I also think it's interesting -- and maybe significant, or maybe not -- that Ms. Hawking, the woman Demond meets in "Flashes Before Your Eyes," is played by Fionnula Flanagan, who played a key role in "The Others." (The fact that her name is Hawking also ties in beautifully with our November book club selection, which we will reveal later.)
Is it possible that we should think of Demond as a bit like the governess in "Turn of the Screw," a narrator whose view of history -- or in his case, the future -- we should not necessarily trust?
Liz Kelly: Or do we turn that on its ear and assume that Desmond is the only reliable one? Is he (and by extension our governess) actually the one speaking the truth -- no matter how far-fetched and unlikely it may seem?
Jen Chaney: Da-naaaa!
Good point, Liz. In a way, Desmond is creating a reality. He has visions, but he seems to believe they must be followed to the letter for some larger purpose. I'm still not sure whether he's right to be loyal to the narrator in his own head who is giving him these visions. I say this mainly because I still think it stinks that Charlie died.
It's also worth noting that Flanagan's character in "The Others" is the one who confirms the plot-twist truth of the movie, which I will not share in case any newbies want to watch it this Halloween night. So if there's a connection -- and who knows if there is? -- we would have to believe what she tells Demond is true as well.
Liz Kelly: To your point above about the seemingly un-childlike speech patterns of the children in the book, I noted the same thing. Two pop culture references kept coming to mind as I read:
1960's Village of the Damned and the Simpsons' spoof on same in which one of the kids says (in a sing-song British voice): "You've been buggering the fishwife."
Jen Chaney: Actually, that was my point. But since Liz and I are partners in "Lost" crime, it doesn't really matter.
In both instances you mentioned, something funky was going on with those kids. So maybe the governess isn't a nut after all. Actually, I think she's a bit of a nut solely for taking the job in the first place. But that's another story.
Mt. Pleasant, Washington, D.C.: I only read the Cliff Notes (the DCPL never transferred it to my branch), but that alone was an interesting read. The question came to my mind: Is Benry the Governess? Protective. Delusional. Thinking he/she knows what's best for the children?
Jen Chaney: Ooh, I like this idea. Especially since she sees ghosts and believes them to be real, as Ben (seemingly) does with Jacob.
Liz Kelly: Well, the same could be said of Jack -- who also thinks he knows what's best for the Losties and makes the decision to call in the helicopter, thereby sealing their fate (and his own -- beard and all).
Jen Chaney: True, but Jack is not obsessed with children in the same way. And he is not seeing Jacob visions, at least not yet.
Give him time.
Oh, and to answer Liz's question from earlier about my Halloween attire, I am, sadly, not dressed for the occasion. In a matter of hours, though, I will be dressing my son as Yoda in an attempt to turn him into a geek well before his first birthday.
Next year, though, I am going as McPatchy.
You've got it all backwards: Lloyd Braun, who we all know was crazy from his Seinfeld appearances, first conceived the idea of "Lost." But to properly develop his idea, he had to travel back in time where he thought he was a governess and wrote a letter to her master, who he thought was Henry James. When Henry James got the letter, he was inspired to write "The Turn of the Screw."
Finally, Lloyd could return to the present where he successfully developed the show but was fired for greenlighting such an expensive show. This is clearly true but few know that it was the cost of the time travel that got to ABC execs because LLoyd LOST his boarding pass.
Liz Kelly: I'm sorry, did someone say crazy?
Jen Chaney: Yeah, who wrote this question, Crazy Joe Devola?
Jen Chaney: Speaking of curses, I think this chat is cursed. It didn't work for the first 20 minutes, and then I chide one of our readers for not attributing a comment to me. And the reader was actually Liz.
Apologies for my stupidity, partner. Good Lord.
Before the hour is over, I fully expect this chat to be arrested for DUI.
Liz Kelly: DUI? Dang. I wish I was at the office today.
Liz Kelly: Seeing as how the only folks submitting questions here are ghosts, maybe we should take a little time to talk about some 21st century "Lost" news -- anyone who has a little money to blow might want to start planning now to attend the annual "Lost" Beach Bow, likely to be held Feb. 2. Basically, join tons of Hawaiians, fans and even some of the cast to watch the season premiere under the stars at Waikiki.
Jen and I will be submitting our travel requests soon.
Jen Chaney: And we have no doubt in our minds that post.com will pay for both of us to go to Hawaii.
In fact, I've already started packing.
Liz Kelly: Let's fly something other than Oceanic, tho.
Deferring to SparkNotes: According to these lovely high school "cheat sheets" SparkNotes two major themes in Turn of the Screw are: "Corruption of the Innocent" and "Destructiveness of Heroism". This really jumped out at me when I read it. Is that not the theme of Lost too?
Liz Kelly: Well, thank you SparkNotes.
That's interesting. In the case of "Turn of the Screw," who is it I wonder who is corrupting the innocents? Is it the dead governess and her lover or the the new governess whose mania infects her young charges. Or is she the innocent being corrupted? In the case of "Lost," one would argue that none of them are really all that innocent. As the flashbacks have revealed over the past few seasons, everyone on the island has something to hide or something from which he or she is running.
What say you, Jen?
Jen Chaney: I'll address "Turn of the Screw" first. I think it's hard to read this and not leave with the impression that it's the governess who ultimately inflicted harm on the children. On first read, it plays as though she literally scared the boy to death. Looking at it again, though, you could easily read it another way: That the boy finally sees what the governess sees -- the ghost of Quint -- and that's what frightens his heart to the point of stopping.
Either way, I think both the governess and the kids are innocents who have been corrupted. And that's true of "Lost" as well. As you say, the survivors of the Oceanic flight are corrupt, but the island -- like Bly does for the kids in "Turn" -- gives them a chance to start over. But the ruling force on the island also seems corrupt as well.
Real quick, I also found this quote by the governess interesting, which she says in reference to the children: "I don't save or shield them. It's far worse than I dreamed. They're lost!"
Chantilly, Va.: So if Ben is the governess, does that make Locke Mrs. Grose? -- believing, but with only peripheral proof that it is really true.
Liz Kelly: I'm sure this is a valid question, but now I just picture them both dressed as old women -- ala Norman Bates dressed as his mother in "Psycho."
(Cue the stabbing music.)
Jen Chaney: I don't think Locke is Mrs. Grose necessarily. She provides a good deal of comfort to the governess, whereas Ben and Locke are adversaries.
And re: "Psycho," I am perfectly prepared to see Jacob spin around in his chair and turn out to be the corpse of an old lady. That would be kind of cool, actually.
Narrator/Storyteller: What about the fact that the story is essentially being read aloud to a group of people? In Lostverse to some extent,and especially with the flashbacks (or flashforwards) we are in essence looking at the Losties time on the island like its a story.
Similarly, we the viewers are looking from the outside in trying to make sense of what's going on--and at every turn, there's a new hint or clue as to what's going on. I did like that as a narrative tool though--the ghostly set up (telling haunting stories by firelight, the anticipation) were great.
Liz Kelly: Good point -- though in "Lost" we are the only ones with the benefit of the omniscient (or as omniscient as it can be) point of view. The "Losties" are not privy to one another's flashbacks.
Liz Kelly: Ha. I said "privy."
Jen Chaney: True, Liz. I also am not sure who qualifies as the storyteller on "Lost" in that scenario.
Liz Kelly: Luckily this accursed chat has come to an end. We are all of us free to pursue our terrifying Halloween afternoons -- Jen to geek up her kid, me to interview Andy Dick (talk about scary!) and all of us to make a few more passes at the Halloween candy bowl.
Without further ado, Jen Chaney with November's "Lost" Book Club selection...
Jen Chaney: Please give my best to Mr. Dick and tell him how much I loved his work in "Reality Bites."
Okay, on to November. We really wanted a challenge for next month. And that's why we've decided to read (brace yourselves) "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking. If there are SparkNotes on this one, let us know. It's very possible we may need them.
In any case, join us on Nov. 21 when we'll reconvene to discuss. Happy Halloween, everyone.
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