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Henry James (~1846-1916) was a New Yorker turned Brit who was known for several literary accomplishments. Among them, two resonate for the ages: his novels and literary theory. In The Turn of the Screw, James examines the troubled relationship of a Victorian governess and her two charges.
The story is an account of a young governess who resolves the deep, dark issues in the lives of her two young pupils, Miles and Flora. They are seemingly haunted by the ghosts of their former governess and male accomplice. It's never clear what they did to the children, but their impact was clearly negative--to the point that Miles gets kicked out of school. In the end, our heroine courageously confronts the demons and duplicitous Miles, who perishes in her arms. This is a tragedy which addresses many issues of child care, education, and adult relationships.
James, the novelist, was a prolific writer who aimed at representing life in its real light and context. His stories, like The Turn of the Screw, exemplify the attention to detail and keen perception of human nature. During this story of suspense and literally untold horrors, it soon becomes evident that all characters exist in a very real environment--full of doubt, questions, fear, loyalty, and despair. The author allows all characters to experience these base emotions, within their own capabilities and realities.
James, the theorist, believed that novels--as all art--existed to benefit life in a practical sense. Novels existed to broaden the experience of the readers' lives by providing them new experiences and/or aspects of those already visited. This concept is in stark contrast to those who, like Oscar Wilde, believed that art is for its own sake.
James' work and stories reflect a time long gone but which can still teach a lot about the human experience. His acute observations of human character and psychology were unprecedented and set the stage for modern English novels. The realities in his stories were less described in physical terms and more in terms of the emotions of his characters. This is his true contribution to English literature.