The Turn of the Screw
By Henry James (1843-1916)
A Study Guide
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
.......Before a fireplace on Christmas Eve, a man named Griffin tells holiday revelers a story about a little boy who awakens his mother to show her a ghostly apparition in his room. After the conclusion of the story, one listener remarks that it is the only story of his acquaintance about a specter appearing to a child. But a gentleman named Douglas says he knows of a case involving two children in spectral events of “uncanny ugliness and horror and pain.”
.......When the audience prods him to tell the story, he says it is in the form of a handwritten manuscript locked in a drawer in his London apartment. “I shall have to send to town for it,” he says.
.......Under questioning, he informs the group that a woman dead for twenty years wrote the manuscript—a record of the horrors she experienced before accepting a position as governess to Douglas’s sister. The governess was a charming and agreeable woman who confided in him—though he was ten years younger than she—one summer when he was home from Trinity College. He was the only person to whom she told her story and, before she died, she left the manuscript in his care. 
.......In the morning, Douglas sends for the manuscript. After it arrives, the listeners gather in eager anticipation to hear the story. (At this point in the story, the unnamed narrator of The Turn of the Screw informs the reader that Douglas entrusted the manuscript to him shortly before Douglas died.) Before reading the tale, Douglas presents the following background information.
.......The story is about a twenty-year-old daughter of a Hampshire parson travels to London to answer an advertisement for a governess. Her prospective employer is a handsome young bachelor who lives in a large and luxurious house on Harley Street. After she arrives for an interview, she falls immediately under the spell of his charm and gallantry. In addition, his house impresses her with its size and elegant appointments. However, she would be working at his country estate in Essex as the superintendent of his nephew, about ten, and niece, eight. They are the children of his brother, a soldier who died two years before. His parents had been their guardians until their recent deaths, and now he has become their guardian. He says he has tried to do the best for them, hiring an excellent staff at the estate, called Bly. However, because his affairs consume all his time, he cannot supervise their upbringing. Keeping watch on the children until the arrival of a governess is the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who had served as maid to the young gentleman’s own mother. She dotes on the children, in part because she never had children of her own. There had been a previous governess, an excellent, but she has died. Besides Mrs. Grose, the staff includes a cook, a maid, a groom, a garden, and a dairywoman, all reliable.
.......The new governess must accept one condition of employment: She must never bother her employer under any circumstances. Offered a good salary, the parson’s daughter accepts the job even though she thinks the estate might be lonely and depressing. It appears that her decision to become the new governess was influenced by an attraction to the young gentleman.

Reads Manuscript

.......Douglas then begins to read the manuscript, written in first-person point of view. Following is the summary of it in third-person point of view except for quoted passages.

.......The parson’s daughter arrives in June at her employer’s country estate in Essex to assume her duties as governess and general overseer of day-to-day activities. Her first sight of the estate impresses her: 

I remember as a most pleasant impression the broad, clear front, its open windows and fresh curtains and the pair of maids looking out; I remember the lawn and the bright flowers and the crunch of my wheels on the gravel and the clustered treetops over which the rooks circled and cawed in the golden sky.
.......Flora “was the most beautiful child I had ever seen,” she writes in the manuscript. The governess’s room is elegant, with mirrors, luxurious draperies, and a large state bed. And the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, seems wonderful: “stout, simple, plain, clean, wholesome.” On her first day at Bly, the young lady thinks she hears a far-off cry of a child and the sound of footsteps near her door. But she does not bother herself about these occurrences, for she is only too happy now to turn her attention to her job.
.......Flora moves into the governess’s room. Miles, away at school, is due to arrive within days. At supper, Mrs. Grose tells the governess that the boy is every bit as engaging as sister.
.......Three days later a short note from the governess’s employer arrives. Accompanying it is a sealed envelope containing a letter. In the note, the young gentleman tells the governess that he recognizes the handwriting on the sealed envelope as that of the boy’s schoolmaster. She is to read it and deal with it but not to report back about its message. Opening the letter, she  she reads disconcerting news: The school has expelled Miles. 
.......“They won’t take him?” Mrs. Grose asks.
.......“They absolutely decline.”
.......The governess says the letter indicates “that he’s an injury to others.” Surprised, Mrs. Grose says it is cruel of the school authorities to make such a charge about so endearing a child.
.......Toward evening, the governess asks Mrs. Grose whether she has ever known Miles to be bad. She answers yes, explaining that a boy who has never been bad is not a real boy. The next day the governess asks the housekeeper whether her predecessor had died at the estate. No, Mrs. Grose says. She simply went home on a vacation, then died. The children’s uncle did not disclose the nature of her death.
.......On the day of Miles’s return to Bly, the governess picks him up at an inn where a coach had dropped him. She finds him a handsome, charming lad in whom “there was something divine I had never found to the same degree in any child.” How could he have caused harm to anyone? 
.......The summer goes wonderfully well. The children dutifully attend to their school lessons, and the governess enjoys “space and air and freedom, all the music of summer and all the mystery of nature.”
.......One afternoon while walking on the grounds, the governess sees a man on one of the building’s two crenelated towers. She wonders who he is—someone living in secret at Bly or perhaps an insane relative kept in confinement? 
.......When she goes inside, she does not mention the man to Mrs. Grose. For several days, she feels uneasy about the experience, then concludes he must have been a traveler who had stolen into the house unseen and left the same way. She again devotes herself entirely to the children who, she says, are “a constant joy.” Miles never speaks of the school or its students or master.

Sees Same Man

.......One Sunday, while preparing for a church service late in the day, she goes to a dining room for a pair of gloves she had left there and sees the same man looking in through a window. Cold runs through her, and she has the feeling that he had come to Bly for someone—not her, but someone else. Mustering courage she hurries outside and runs around the house to the window. But the man is nowhere in sight. When she looks through the window as he did, she comes face to face with Mrs. Grose. After the latter walks around to the window, the governess informs her of what she saw, noting that she had previously seen him on one of the towers, and says he frightens her. 
.......The governess then describes him: He wears no hat. He has red hair and whiskers. His face is pale and long, his eyes sharp and small. Mrs. Grose’s reaction to the description suggests that she knows the man. She says, “But he is handsome?” The governess says, “Remarkably!” A moment later Mrs. Grose identifies him as Peter Quint, the valet of the children’s uncle when he was staying at Bly. 
.......“They were both here last year,” Mrs. Grose says. After the master left, Quint was in charge of Bly for a short while, then he, too, left. When the governess asks where he went, Mrs. Grose shocks the governess with this answer: “God knows where! He died.”
.......Although Mrs. Grose has never seen an apparition of Quint, she does not express doubt about the governess’s story. Instead, she supports her and shows her only kindness. The governess tells her that Quint seemed to be looking for someone—Miles, she thinks. Mrs. Grose asks, “What if he (Miles) should see him (Quint)?” The governess then suggests that “he wants to appear to them (both children).”
.......Mrs. Grose tells her that Quint had played with and spoiled Miles and was “much too free” with everyone at Bly. When the governess asks whether Quint was a bad person, Mrs. Grose says she knew he was but the master did not. Later, the governess learns that Quint had been found dead with a head injury on a nearby road after he had left a tavern and attempted to walk down an icy slope. The governess now sees her mission as a heroic one: “to protect and defend the little creatures” against the evil around them. Oddly, she feels a certain fulfillment, a certain joy, in acting as their protector. “They had nothing but me, and I—well I had them,” her manuscript says.
.......One afternoon, the strange happenings at Bly become even stranger—and more frightening. Flora is eager to go outside, so the governess takes her for a stroll while Miles remains indoors reading a book. When they come to a pond (which everyone at Bly calls a lake), they pretend it is the Sea of Azof, for Flora has been studying geography. After the governess sits on a stone bench to do stitching, she becomes aware of a third presence across the lake even without looking up. It could simply be a worker about the place—or perhaps a postman, a messenger, a boy from the village. Before mustering courage to raise her eyes, she listens for signs of alarm from Flora. But the little girl, who is making a tiny boat from scraps of wood, remains silent. Finally, the governess faces the intruder.
.......Indoors two hours later, the governess, distraught, throws herself into Mrs. Grose’s arms and tells her that the children know all about the strange happenings. “It’s too monstrous: they know, they know.” Then she discloses that a woman appeared at the pond—pale woman in black—and that Flora saw her. 
.......“She has told you?” Mrs. Gross says.
.......“Not a word—that’s the horror. She kept it to herself.” 
.......But, she says, she could tell that Flora saw her by the look on her face. She worries that the child will keep seeing it without telling anyone. The governess further discloses that the woman had looked only at Flora, had fixed her gaze on her with “awful eyes” that signified she wanted “to get hold of her.” The woman was beautiful, the governess said, “but infamous.”
.......Mrs. Grose now realizes that the description fits that of Miss Jessel, the previous governess, now dead. She says Quint and Miss Jessel were both infamous, that she did whatever Quint wanted her to do—implying that they had engaged in a liaison. Moreover, Quint and Miles were often together for hours at a time. When Mrs. Grose told him not to associate with Quint because he was a lowly servant, the boy told her she was no better than he.

Sees Quint

.......Early one morning while the governess is searching the upstairs hallway on a premonition that something is amiss, her candle suddenly goes out and, by the first light of dawn, she sees Quint on the stairs gazing at her as he had done before. This time she decides to stare down the apparition. A minute later, it turns and leaves.
.......When she returns to her bedroom, she notices that Flora is gone. To her relief, however, the little girl emerges from behind a window blind, saying she had been looking out on the grounds because she thought “someone” was out there. When the governess asks Flora whether she had seen anything, the girl says no. The governess thinks she is lying.
.......On another occasion, the governess awakens about 1 a.m. and discovers that Flora is again behind the blind, staring out the window. Without disturbing her, the governess goes to another room to see what Flora is looking at. Out on the lawn, she sees Miles in the moonlight.
.......On the terrace the following afternoon, she tells Mrs. Gross about the incident. After taking Miles into the house, the governess says, she asked him why he had gone out in the middle of the night. He replied that he wanted her to “think me—for a change—bad!” He kissed her then, and she hugged him close. Miles went on to say that he had left his bedroom at midnight after instructing Flora to look out the window for him. Knowing that the governess would discover Flora at the window and then investigate, Miles waited outside for the governess to appear.
.......The next day, the governess discusses the matter further with Mrs. Grose, saying she is convinced that the children have been meeting with the apparitions. She regards it as singularly suspicious that neither child has ever mentioned Quint or Miss Jessel, as if they have been making a conscious effort to conceal a relationship with them.
.......“Even while they pretend to be lost in their fairytale, they're steeped in their vision of the dead restored,” the governess says. “Their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness. It's a game . . . it's a policy and a fraud!" 
 Mrs. Grose seems stunned. Then the governess says, “It has been easy to live with them, because they're simply leading a life of their own. They're not mine—they're not ours. They're his [Quint’s] and they're hers [Miss Jessel’s]!"
.......When the governess says Quint and Miss Jessel could ultimately destroy the children, Mrs. Grose urges her to persuade her their uncle to take them away. But the governess says he would only dismiss the story she would tell, claiming it was a ploy to get him to notice her. She warns Mrs. Grose not to appeal to the young gentleman on her behalf. If she does so, the governess says, “I would leave on the spot.”
.......As time passes, the governess expects to encounter Quint or Miss Jessel from time to time, but they do not reappear. Meanwhile, autumn arrives and Bly “with its gray sky and withered garlands, its bared spaces and scattered dead leaves, was like a theater after the performance—all strewn with crumpled playbills.”
.......Eventually, she becomes convinced that the children have seen more than she has seen—“things terrible and unguessable.” Although suspicious of the children, she does not hate them. 
.......One Sunday morning, when the two adults are walking to church with the children—Mrs. Grose in front with Flora and the governess in the rear with Miles—Miles asks, “When in the world, please, am I going back to school?” After the governess asks whether he was happy at school, Miles replies that he is happy anywhere but that “I want to see more of life.” He also says he wants to be around children his own age, not just Flora. Outside the church—after Mrs. Grose, Flora, and other worshipers are inside—Miles inquires whether his uncle knows how he is getting along.
.......“I don’t think your uncle much cares,” the governess said.
.......Then, Miles replies, he will get his uncle to come to Bly. At that, he “marched off alone into church.”
.......Unnerved by the conversation, she remains outside the church wondering what to do. To get things straightened out with her employer on the matter of Miles would be desirable, but the master made it clear that he does not want to be disturbed at matters at Bly under any circumstances. She thinks about leaving, giving up, and decides to return to the house to pack her belongings. When she enters the schoolroom to retrieve personal items, there, seated at a table, is Miss Jessel, as if saying she had just as much right to be there as her successor. The governess blurts out, “You terrible, miserable woman!” A moment later, the apparition disappears.
.......After Mrs. Grose returns with the children, none of them questions the governess about her absence from church. The children had suggested that they say nothing, Mrs. Grose later tells the governess, because “they said you would like it better.” To this, Miles had added, “We must do nothing but what she likes.”
.......The governess then tells Mrs. Grose that she saw Miss Jessel again. This time, the governess says, Miss Jessel spoke, saying she suffers “torments . . . of the damned” and wants to “share them” with Flora. The governess also says she plans to send for her employer. “If [Miles] thinks I’m afraid to—and has ideas of what he gains by that—he shall see he’s mistaken,” she says.” She plans to show her employer the letter from school about Miles’s expulsion.
.......That evening, after deciding to remain at Bly for the time being, she sits down to compose a letter to the children’s uncle while Flora sleeps soundly. But before getting a start on it, she gets up and goes into the hallway to listen at Miles’s door “for some betrayal of his not being at rest.” But Miles calls out to her to come in. When she enters, he asks, in his charming way, “What are YOU up to?” When she asks how he knew she was at the door, he says, “Did you fancy you made no noise? You are like a troop of cavalry.” They begin to talk, and Miles says he was lying awake thinking about her and about “this queer business of ours . . . the way you bring me up and all the rest.” She assures him that he will return to school—another one—and points out to him that he has never spoken of what went on at his old school. He repeats his request to see his uncle, and she asks his whether there is anything he wants to tell her, thinking perhaps that he will own up to seeing Quint. Then she breaks down, saying, “"Dear little Miles, dear little Miles, if you knew how I want to help you!  It's only that, it's nothing but that, and I'd rather die than give you a pain or do you a wrong . . . .” Suddenly, she feels a blast of cold air and the room goes dark. She looks about in wonderment, saying, “Why, the candle’s out.”
.......“It was I who blew it out, dear,” Miles says.
.......On the afternoon of the next day, Miles behaves like a perfect little gentleman and, in the schoolroom, plays the piano for the governess. She listens intently, so intently that she forgets about Flora. When she later awakens from her reverie, she notices with alarm that the little girl is absent. After searching the upstairs, she goes downstairs in hopes that the child is with Mrs. Grose. But the latter says she thought Flora was with the governess. The governess then concludes that Flora is with Miss Jessel: “She’s with HER!” When Mrs. Grose asks where Miles is, the governess says he is with Quint in the schoolroom. She says Miles played the piano for her as part of a trick to divert her attention from Flora. 

Goes to Lake

.......She then leads Mrs. Grose outdoors to find Flora, leaving a letter to the children’s uncle on a hall table for a servant, Luke, to pick up. The governess heads for the lake, believing that Flora had gone there to commune with Miss Jessel. Mrs. Grose follows close behind. When they arrive, the little girl is nowhere in sight. Thinking she has gone out in the boat, they search further and find the boat—empty. Suddenly, they exclaim in unison, “There she is!” Flora is a short way off, smiling. Mrs. Grose runs to her and hugs her while the governess remains at a distance. Flora then asks the governess where Miles is. The governess replies, “Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?”
.......A moment later, the governess sees the apparition across the lake, where it had stood the previous time. The governess feels relief, for now Mrs. Grose is there to see it, too. But Mrs. Grose sees nothing. The governess exclaims that the image is as “big as a blazing fire,” but Mrs. Grose—looking at the governess with “negation, repulsion, compassion”—says, “She isn’t there, little lady, and nobody’s there—you never see nothing, my sweet.” Flora stares at the governess “with her small mask of reprobation.” She, too, denies seeing anything, says she never has, and declares that she now dislikes the governess. Crying, she tells Mrs. Grose, “Take me away from her!”
.......The governess thinks the crying scene is an act.  While Mrs. Grose and Flora return the house, the governess remains outdoors crying and sobbing for a long time. By the time she goes back inside, all of Flora’s belongings have been removed from the governess’s room.
.......Early the next morning, Mrs. Grose awakens the governess to inform her that Flora is running a high fever seemingly precipitated by fear—not of Miss Jessel but of the governess. The governess looks into Flora’s room and says, “She resents, for all the world like some high little personage, the imputation on her truthfulness and, as it were, her respectability.” Mrs. Grose admits that Flora is displaying a “grand manner.” After the governess reiterates her belief that the children are involved in a nefarious plot, she tells Mrs. Grose to take Flora to her uncle so that she will no longer be under the influence of Quint and Miss Jessel. The governess says she will remain behind to look after Miles, who lately has been cordial toward her. Mrs. Grose agrees with the plan. Furthermore, although she has not seen apparitions, she says, she has heard Flora say horrible things—“really shocking . . . beyond everything” about the governess. The governess is relieved to know that Mrs. Grose now appears to realize that evil has indeed invaded Bly. There is more. Mrs. Grose noticed that the letter to the children’s uncle was gone from the table when she returned from the lake with Flora.  She questioned Luke about it, and he said he did not even know that a letter had been left for him to post. Mrs. Grose concludes that Miles took it. 
.......Mrs. Grose then leaves with Flora.
.......It is November now. Miles is looking out a window. After a while, he turns around and tells the governess he is now content at Bly and asks her whether she is, too. She answers that she enjoys his company and stays on because of “the tremendous interest I take in you till something can be done for you that may be more worth your while.” Moments later, she asks him whether he took the letter she left on the table in the hall.
.......Suddenly, Peter Quint appears at the window, staring in at her with his “white face of damnation.” Miles, meanwhile, says, yes, he took the letter. Heartened that he has admitted the deed, she draws him to her and enfolds him in her arms while still observing the apparition. Miles says he took the letter “to see what you said about me.” The apparition vanishes as Miles says, under questioning, that he found nothing upsetting in the letter, then burned it. The governess then asks him what he did at school to cause his dismissal. Miles answers that he said offensive things to classmates, which they repeated to school authorities.
.......“What were these things?”
.......Before Miles can answer, Quint appears again at the window. The governess shouts at him: “No more, no more, no more!” Miles questions her about what she sees and asks, “It’s he?” The governess asks whom he means by he? He answers, “Peter Quint—you devil! Where?” The governess says, “There, there!” 
.......In the concluding paragraph of her manuscript, the governess writes:

But he [Miles] had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day . . . [Then] he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.  I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

The story begins in the 1890's at a Christmas gathering outside London. It then flashes back to the 1840's, when the main character seeks employment during an interview at a house on Harley Street in London. The scene then shifts to a country estate in Essex, a county bordering London on the east and northeast, where most of the story takes place. The estate, called Bly, consists of a mansion with two crenelated towers, spacious grounds, and a pond referred to as a lake. 


Narrator 1, Unnamed Person: See Narration.
Narrator 2, Douglas: See Narration
Narrator 3, the Governess: The main character of the story. She is a demure twenty-year-old, the daughter of a Hampshire parson, who serves as governess for two orphans, Miles and Flora, and superintends affairs at Bly, the estate where the children live. During the interview in which she is hired, she becomes strongly attracted to her employer, a handsome young bachelor who is the uncle of the children. But he remains in London while she lives at Bly, putting him out of reach and perhaps motivating her to take action that will eventually attract his attention. While at Bly, she sees apparitions of two deceased persons, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, who had worked at Bly. For additional information, see Narration
Employer of the Governess: A handsome, charming, and apparently wealthy young bachelor who hires the parson's daughter (Narrator 3, the governess) to look after upbringing of Miles and Flora, the orphaned children of his brother. A condition he imposes on her at the time of her hiring is that she must never contact him about any matters arising from her employment as governess. 
Mrs. Grose: Housekeeper at Bly. She is a kind and reliable woman who loves Flora and Miles and supports the governess in her care of the children. 
Miles: Charming boy, about ten, who was orphaned by the death of his father, a soldier who died when Miles was about eight. Although he seems to be a perfect little gentlemen, Miles was expelled from school for a reason that school authorities fail to elaborate on in a letter received by the governess. The letter says only that "he’s an injury to others." The governess believes that he is under the influence of the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. 
Flora: Beautiful, engaging eight-year-old girl, who was orphaned by the death of her father. She is the brother of Miles. The governess believes that he is under the influence of the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. 
Peter Quint: Deceased valet of the governess's employer when the latter was living at Bly. The governess sees apparitions of him and believes he is attempting to corrupt Miles.
Miss Jessel: Deceased former governess of Miles and Flora. The current governess (the parson's daughter) sees apparitions of her and believes she is attempting to corrupt Flora.
Luke: A servant at Bly.
Griffin: A storyteller in the opening chapter of the novel. 
Mrs.Griffin: Griffin's wife. She asks Douglas (Narrator 2) whether the governess was in love with her employer.
Others: Cook, maid, groom, gardener, and dairywoman at Bly. They are mentioned by Douglas but do not have speaking roles in the dialogue. 

Type of Work and Year of Publication

The Turn of the Screw is a psychological horror story with Gothic overtones that probes the psyche of the main character, who sees—or imagines she sees—malevolent ghosts at an old estate in the county of Essex, England. Because of its length, the work falls into the category of short novel, or novella. It was serialized in Collier's Magazine, an American publication, in 1898. 


Henry James is said to have adapted the The Turn of the Screw from a story told to him in 1895 by Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 to 1896, and from research on the human psyche conducted by Cambridge University scholar Edward Gurney, co-founder in 1882 of the Society for Psychical Research, which investigated paranormal phenomena. In addition, an allusion in the first paragraph of Chapter 4 suggests that James may also have used (or was influenced by) a novel by English writer Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823).  The allusion is in the second sentence of the paragraph: “Was there a ‘secret’ at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?” In her popular Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Radcliffe wrote about a young orphan who is mistreated by guardians. Much of the action takes place in a foreboding castle in a remote setting.


Three narrators tell the story. The first narrator, unnamed, sets the scene and repeats what he hears at a Christmas gathering when revelers are telling stories around a fireplace. The second narrator, Douglas, boasts that he knows a chilling ghost story, then presents introductory background for his tale. Next, he reads the tale from a manuscript handwritten by a young woman, unnamed, who experienced the events in the story and entrusted her manuscript to Douglas. As Douglas reads her story word for word, the young woman becomes the third narrator even though she has been dead for twenty years. Long after the holiday gathering, Douglas gives the manuscript to the first narrator. Thus, the latter has all that he needs to write The Turn of the Screw—the manuscript and the memories from the holiday gathering. The most important narrator is, of course, the young woman, who is also the novel’s protagonist. Her manuscript makes up approximately ninety percent of the wording in the novel. A central question the novel raises but does not answer is whether the apparitions that the young woman sees are real ghosts or figments of her imagination. Therefore, the reliability of her narration is open to question.


Paranormal vs Paranoidal: Are Peter Quint and Miss Jessel paranormal phenomena or manifestations of a paranoid mind? The ability (or inability) to distinguish the real from the unreal is a central issue in The Turn of the Screw—and sometimes in life itself.
Alienation: The Turn of the Screw is a story of progressive alienation for the main character. First, circumstances separate her from her family in Hamphsire, then from the her employer in London, for whom she has a strong attraction. After she sees the apparition of Miss Jessel at the lake in the presence Mrs. Grose and Flora, the housekeeper and the little girl both declare no such image exists. Mrs. Grose says, “She isn’t there, little lady, and nobody’s there—you never see nothing, my sweet.” Flora tells the governess, “I think you're cruel. I don't like you!" Mrs. Grose and Flora then return to the house, leaving the governess sobbing in painful isolation. At the end of the novel, Miles dies, leaving the governess alone to confront her ghosts.
Need for Attention: The narration suggests, but does not explicitly say, that the governess suffers from a frustrated desire to be noticed by her employer, the handsome young uncle of Flora and Miles. Harboring such a desire, according to one interpretation of the story, could have caused her to imagine the ghosts so that she could become a heroic protector of the children. The young gentleman would then think highly of her for keeping the children from harm. But even before she sees the ghosts, she betrays a need to be noticed, as indicated in the following passage from Chapter 3 in which the governess is taking a leisurely evening walk on the grounds of Bly. Note the use of publicly in the last sentence.

It was a pleasure at these moments to feel myself tranquil and justified; doubtless, perhaps, also to reflect that by my discretion, my quiet good sense and general high propriety, I was giving pleasure—if he [the young gentleman] ever thought of it!—to the person to whose pressure I had responded. What I was doing was what he had earnestly hoped and directly asked of me, and that I COULD, after all, do it proved even a greater joy than I had expected. I daresay I fancied myself, in short, a remarkable young woman and took comfort in the faith that this would more publicly appear.
Repressed Desire: The narration also suggests, but again does not explicitly say, that the young governess could be suffering from repressed sexual desire for her employer. But rather than consciously acknowledging this desire, according this interpretation of the story, she projects it onto the apparitions, believing that they intend to corrupt the children—that is, involve them in perverted acts.


The climax of a literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. According to the first definition, the climax of The Turn of the Screw occurs in Chapter 20 when the governess sees the apparition of Miss Jessel and calls it to the attention of Mrs. Grose and Flora. But Mrs. Grose says, “She isn’t there, little lady, and nobody’s there—you never see nothing, my sweet.” Flora, too, says she sees no apparition and never has. Here was an opportunity for the governess to prove the validity of her observations; instead, the occasion causes Flora to reject her and precipitates the tragic events that follows. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final chapter, when the governess sees the apparition of Quint and points it out to Miles. Miles exclaims, "Peter Quint—you devil! Where?" A moment later Miles dies. 

Ambiguity, Uncertainty, Mystery

Author Henry James well knew that life is not simple and not easily fathomed. To reflect the dubiety and puzzlement of life, he infused The Turn of the Screw with ambiguity, uncertainty, and mystery, posing many unanswered questions, including these: Is the governess motivated, wittingly or unwittingly, by an attraction to her employer? Does his refusal to visit Bly or become involved with the children indicate that he is aware of baneful activities there? Does the governess really see ghosts? Why was Miles expelled from school? Is he a hellion in the guise of an angel? Are the children plotting against the governess? How did Miss Jessel die? In the last words he speaks before he dies (Chapter 24), Miles exclaims, “Peter Quint—you devil!” Do the words you devil refer to Quint or the governess? (Refer to the last six paragraphs of the story to see the context of these words.)

Meaning of the Title

In the first chapter of the story, Douglas uses the phrase turn of the screw to indicate that a ghost story has a more terrifying effect if a specter targets a child rather than an adult, as in a story just completed by a man named Griffin. Then Douglas asks his listeners what they would say of a ghost story with two children. One of them says such a story would cause two turns of the screw. Here is the passage: 

......."I quite agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, terror what do you say to TWO children—?"
......."We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that they give two turns!
Driving the Reader On

James keeps the reader turning the page by leaving him in suspense at the end of most of the chapters. For example, Chapter 4 ends when the narration of the governess says, "I wondered why SHE [Mrs. Grose] should be scared." The reader wonders why, too, and turns the page. At the end of Chapter 5 is a four-word sentence: "Mr. Quint is dead." How did Quint die? The reader must read Chapter 6 to find out. At the end of Chapter 6, the governess is seated on a bench, sewing, after feeling the presence of a specter across the lake from her. Her eyes remain on her needlework until, in the last sentence of the chapter, she says, "I faced what I had to face." The reader must turn to Chapter 7 to learn more. At the end of Chapter 7, the governess—talking with Mrs. Grose about the danger the children face—says, "It's far worse than I thought—they're lost!" Again, the reader must turn to the next chapter for more information. 


Study Questions and Essay Topics

1.  Write an essay arguing that the apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are real and that they influence the behavior of Miles and .....Flora. Support your view with passages from the novel and scholarly research.
2.  Write an essay arguing that the apparitions of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are figments of the governess’s imagination. Support your .....view with passages from the novel and scholarly research.
3.  Why does the children’s uncle wish to remain apart from them?
4   To what extent do the country estate and its environs affect the behavior of the main characters?
5.  Why was Miles expelled from school?
6.  Is the governess infatuated with her employer? If so, does her infatuation affect her behavior at Bly?

Highly Praised DVD Versions of the Story Now Available at Amazon.com
Two highly praised DVD versions of The Turn of the Screw are now available at Amazon.com. The older of the two is a 1961 black-and-white film version called The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave. The 100-minute production received excellent views. The newer version is a color production aired on Masterpiece Theatre in 2000 and released to DVD in 2004. The 120-minute film, starring Jodhi May and Colin Firth, also received excellent reviews. For further details on The Innocents click here or on the image at the far left. For further details on the Masterpiece Theatre version click here or on the image showing the governess in a blue dress.