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The Turn of the Screw
Henry James


THE TALE

THE PLOT

The Turn of the Screw is a story within a story.

To a group of people who have been trading ghost stories, a man named Douglas reads a personal account written by his sister's governess years before. His reading of this "horrible" story is prefaced by some facts about the governess's background.

The daughter of a poor country parson, the young woman was twenty when she went to London to apply for her first job, in answer to an ad placed by a handsome and charming bachelor. The man had been named guardian of his orphaned niece and nephew, and needed a governess to care for them at his country estate. At first, the young woman was reluctant to take the position, but the uncle prevailed upon her and she agreed. He asked only that she never bother him with news of the children.

Her own story begins, as Douglas reads it aloud, on the day she sets out nervously for the country estate called Bly. Bly turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The house is large, the setting serene, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, friendly. Flora, the little girl, is beautiful and perfectly behaved. The little boy, Miles, is still away at school. Her life would be perfect, the governess thinks, if only her dashing employer could see how well she is serving him.

But right away, things start to go wrong at Bly. By letter, the governess learns that Miles has been expelled from school, but no explanation is given. Nor can Mrs. Grose shed light on the matter. In her efforts to put together a picture of the boy's troubled past, the governess uncovers only the mysterious death of the children's former governess, Miss Jessel.

One evening, as she is strolling through the grounds and daydreaming about her employer, the governess believes she spies the figure of a man on the tower at one end of the house. At first she mistakes the man for her employer, but she quickly realizes her mistake. This man is no one she has ever seen.

It isn't until the man's second appearance- outside the dining room window- that the governess confides in Mrs. Grose. When she describes him to the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose recognizes the man as Peter Quint, the former valet of their employer. This identification causes one problem: Peter Quint is dead!

Another day, while she sews and Flora plays beside the lake, the governess senses someone watching them from across the water. When she finally faces the presence, she finds not Peter Quint, as she had expected, but the figure of a woman dressed in black. There is no doubt in the governess's mind. The figure is the ghost of Miss Jessel.

The young woman turns to Mrs. Grose with her terrible theory that Peter Quint is after Miles and Miss Jessel after Flora. At this suggestion of a conspiracy between the ghosts, Mrs. Grose confides to the governess that there had- in life- been something between the pair.

After the two sightings, all the governess can think about is shielding the children from the spirits of the depraved Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. The ghosts have not appeared to anyone else. But to the governess they seem to be everywhere: at the window, on the stairs, on the lawn at night.

Her fears grow as she suspects that the children see the ghosts as well, and are conspiring to hide that fact from her. Everything about their behavior seems- to her- to point to this theory. In addition, she still has not resolved the mystery of Miles's expulsion from school. More and more, she feels certain that the two mysteries- that of the dismissal and that of the ghosts- are somehow intertwined.

The tension increases one afternoon when Flora slips away while Miles is playing the piano for his governess. When she discovers Flora is missing, the governess announces to Mrs. Grose that the girl has gone to meet Miss Jessel, and that Miles- who has also disappeared and is probably now with Peter Quint- helped to arrange the meeting. The two women find Flora exactly where the governess suspected they would, on the far shore of the lake, where she had first spotted Miss Jessel.

Unable to contain herself any longer, the governess asks the little girl directly about Miss Jessel. Flora is angered and Mrs. Grose shocked by the mention of the dead woman's name, but as the governess speaks that name she witnesses Miss Jessel rising on the shore before them. She cries out and gestures toward the ghost, but Flora and Mrs. Grose don't seem to see it.

Flora's agitation deepens into hysteria, and Mrs. Grose takes her away from Bly. The governess, alone with Miles, is determined to make the boy confess to the evil that led to his dismissal from school. As she questions Miles after dinner, the face of Peter Quint appears to her at the window. As she tries to keep Miles's back to the window, the young woman feels that she's struggling with the ghost for the soul of the little boy.

Miles becomes aware of the attention his governess is directing toward the window. He has learned from Flora of the incident at the lake and now asks if Miss Jessel is there with them. The governess says no, but she tells him that "the horror" is at the window.

Miles guesses that "the horror" is Peter Quint. His eyes search the room wildly, but he doesn't see Quint anywhere. As the governess clutches the boy in her arms, he lets out a little groan. The face in the window disappears. And suddenly the governess realizes that Miles's heart has stopped.

[Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

  • THE GOVERNESS

    The governess is the principal narrator of The Turn of the Screw. It is her account, written in the first person, that is read aloud. The youngest daughter of a poor country parson, she went to London at the age of twenty to look for work. Although apprehensive about accepting the position of governess at Bly, she was so infatuated with her prospective employer that she took the job. An unsophisticated young woman, she finds the large country estate of Bly is "a different affair" from the home she has just left.

    From these few facts, the governess may seem quite unremarkable. But at the heart of all controversy about The Turn of the Screw lies controversy about the true character of this young woman. What sort of person is she? Almost every scene of the story can be read in two ways, depending on your estimation of the governess's character.

    Some readers see her as a conscientious employee, attempting to serve her employer and perform her duties in the face of enormous strain. They believe she is devoted to shielding her charges from the threat of evil at any cost to herself. For these readers, The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story. The ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel do exist in the story.

    Other readers contend the governess is mad. They believe she is a sexually repressed young woman whose frustrated desires for her absent employer cause her to see spirits. These readers claim that her courage and heroism are nothing more than attempts to show her value to the employer who has ignored her. They say the governess is unreliable. At one point in the story, they note, she lies to the housekeeper about having a conversation with the ghost of Miss Jessel. For these readers, who do not believe in the existence of the ghosts, The Turn of the Screw is a psychological novel.

    You can have many questions about the governess's character. Note that James seems to encourage those questions by not giving this major character a name. Her namelessness seems to emphasize both the ambiguities and the eerieness of the story: she's like an unfinished painting, with the reader forced to paint in the blank spots.

    What do you think the governess's true nature is? That's the question you must decide for yourself as you read the story.

  • MRS. GROSE

    Mrs. Grose is a longtime resident of Bly. She is now the housekeeper, but started as a personal maid to her current employer's mother. In the eyes of the governess, she is a "stout simple plain clean wholesome woman," and "a magnificent monument to the blessing of a want of imagination." As you read, see if you agree with the governess's estimation.

    Mrs. Grose serves as the governess's confidant (see Point of View). In her conversations with Mrs. Grose, the governess articulates her feelings, and you have an opportunity to overhear them. It is from Mrs. Grose that the governess learns the few facts that she knows about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. And it is in these conversations that the governess develops her increasingly elaborate theories about the children's conspiracy with evil spirits.

    Mrs. Grose defers to the governess on most matters. After all, the governess is her superior. Mrs. Grose can't read or write, whereas the governess is an educated woman. Throughout the tale, the housekeeper's plain heartiness and realistic attitude offer a solid contrast to the young woman's more high- strung and fanciful nature.

    Does Mrs. Grose believe the governess's story of the ghosts? Some readers point to her moving Flora from the governess's room- and eventually taking Flora from Bly- as evidence that Mrs. Grose is actually trying to save the girl from the governess. Yet, after hearing the bad language that Flora uses when she falls ill and becomes delirious, Mrs. Grose announces that she does believe in the presence of the two evil ghosts.

  • MILES

    Miles is ten years old. After the death of their parents he and his sister, Flora, were left in their uncle's care. They were tutored at Bly by the former governess, Miss Jessel, until her mysterious death. During that period, Miles spent a great deal of time with Peter Quint, his uncle's valet at Bly. When Miss Jessel died, Miles was sent away to school. As the story opens, he has just been expelled- possibly for using bad language (he "said things"). At first his governess can't believe that such a charming, angelic- looking boy could be guilty of any wrongdoing. But as the story proceeds, she suspects that the ghosts she sees are after Miles's soul. Eventually, she believes that Miles is in league with them.

    Miles's nature is as ambiguous as the natures of the other major characters in the story. Is he a child on the verge of losing his innocence to the corrupt spirit of Peter Quint? If you believe that, you'll agree with the governess that he and his sister are conspiring against her to meet with the ghosts. Or is he simply a normal ten-year-old, usually well-behaved but sometimes mischievous, who wants to return to school so he can be with boys his own age? If you believe that, you'll believe that through no fault of his own, Miles has become the object of the governess's unhealthy obsession.

    Even Miles's fate at the end of the story is left unclear. Is it the departing spirit of the evil Peter Quint that causes Miles's heart to stop? Or has he simply been scared to death by his own governess?

  • FLORA

    You know even less about Flora than about Miles. She is younger than Miles and like him is exquisitely beautiful and charming. As with her brother, there is no proof that Flora communicates with the spirits of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. She does nothing more to arouse suspicion in her governess than get out of bed twice in the middle of the night. To the governess, this constitutes clear proof that Flora is conspiring with Miles and the ghosts. But when Miss Jessel's name is finally mentioned, the child is so upset that she suffers a nervous collapse. Would this be the reaction of a child who has been consorting with evil spirits?

  • DOUGLAS

    Douglas appears only in the prologue to the tale. He is one of the houseguests trading ghost stories as The Turn of the Screw begins. It is Douglas who remembers the story of a ghost appearing to two children, and it is he who reads the governess's written account aloud.

    He gives you your first glimpse of the governess. "She was a most charming person... the most agreeable woman I've ever known in her position.... We had... talks in the garden- talks in which she struck me as awfully clever and nice... I liked her extremely."

    The testimony Douglas gives about the governess makes him an important character in the story. He's the only person who has an independent opinion about the governess; everything else you learn about her is from the manuscript she herself wrote. Douglas's respect for the governess, therefore, makes you more inclined to believe her story. On the other hand, some readers have raised the possibility that Douglas's fondness for the governess developed because as a boy he was in love with her. In their opinion, Douglas's childhood infatuation with her was perhaps as unwholesome as they believe the governess's feelings for Miles are and Douglas is just as unreliable a narrator as the governess is herself.

  • THE UNCLE

    Miles's and Flora's uncle looms large in The Turn of the Screw, but he is not present during the events of the story. He sets the events of the tale in motion, however, by hiring the governess to take charge of his orphaned niece and nephew.

    The uncle is wealthy and handsome, and the governess is so anxious to please him that at times she doesn't seem to behave sensibly. In fact, to many readers it is the governess's repressed sexual desires for her employer that cause her to imagine the ghosts. To you, he may seem a somewhat sinister figure, or at least a very cold and aloof one. What do you think of an uncle who hires a governess for his niece and nephew and then orders her not to bother him with any news of them? Though you don't see the uncle, he adds greatly to the sense of mystery and secretiveness that permeates The Turn of the Screw.

  • PETER QUINT

    You learn little about Peter Quint- only the information the governess gleans from Mrs. Grose. Quint is the master's former valet, who was inclined to take liberties with his position. He tried to dress like his master, and he became overly friendly with the master's young nephew, Miles. He apparently had an affair with the former governess, Miss Jessel. After her departure, he was found lying dead on the road, apparently from a fall he suffered while drunk.

    These are the facts about Quint. In the governess's telling of them, however, this red-haired servant becomes the center of all the corruption in the story. His friendship with Miles takes on sinister (possibly demonic and sexual) overtones. The governess is convinced that even after death Quint is determined to regain his influence over the boy and his sister. She is battling him for the souls of the children, she believes. Quint's final appearance (perhaps real, perhaps only in the governess's mind) results in Miles's death.

  • MISS JESSEL

    The children's former governess, Miss Jessel, a lady by the social standards of the day, apparently had a sexual relationship with the brutal, lower-class servant, Peter Quint. Miss Jessel left Bly for a brief vacation, and about the time she was expected to return, word came that she had died.

    This is all you know for sure about her. But in the eyes of her replacement- the governess who narrates The Turn of the Screw- Miss Jessel is a specter who has returned from the dead and is in league with Peter Quint. Whereas Quint seems to direct most of his evil attention toward Miles, Miss Jessel seems determined to claim Flora.

[Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

After a brief prologue set in an old house on Christmas Eve, The Turn of the Screw is set in summer and early autumn at the country estate of Bly. The big, old house has a tower, open windows, fresh curtains, and bright flowers on its extensive grounds, which include a shallow lake.

To the governess who is the main character in the story, Bly is beautiful enough to increase her feelings of gratitude toward her employer, yet different enough from her own home to seem strange. Sometimes it seems romantic, provoking fantasies of life in a castle, but at other times it's ugly enough to remind the governess of a big, old drifting ship with only herself at the helm. The grounds are peaceful, making the presence of evil seem unlikely- almost impossible- and yet so isolated that the presence of an unknown man seems an immediate threat.

Bly has been likened to a Garden of Eden, a place of beauty and serenity spoiled by the evil that visits it. Like the exquisite, other-worldly beauty of Flora and Miles, it offers a striking contrast to that evil.

Some readers have wondered if the house at Bly isn't based in part on James's own estate, Lamb House. Others have wondered if he didn't subconsciously take it from a magazine in which one of his earlier stories appeared. The Christmas 1891 issue of Black and White, an illustrated London weekly, contained a drawing called The Haunted House. The picture shows a frightened girl and boy looking at a house (with a tower) from which an eerie light is shining. The children are separated from the house by a lake ringed with dense undergrowth. In the same issue of the magazine is Sir Edmund Orme, a tale by Henry James. James would have undoubtedly looked at the magazine his story appeared in. Would the memory of one of the illustrations in the magazine contribute to the setting for The Turn of the Screw?

THEMES

The following are themes of The Turn of the Screw.

  1. THE ACTUAL AND THE IMAGINARY

    Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, James saw in the tale of the supernatural a place where "the actual and the imaginary" could meet. There is sometimes a fine line between what is and what is not of this world, and in The Turn of the Screw, you cross that line many times. In the tale, it is often not clear what actually happens and what the governess imagines.

    The governess arrives at Bly knowing that her employer wants never to see or hear from her again. But before long, she imagines meeting him on her evening walks, and she fantasizes about his satisfaction with her performance. When she sees the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, The Turn of the Screw you wonder if they are real or imagined. You may decide simply that the governess thought she saw the ghosts, and leave it at that. But then the governess embellishes her story. In a second telling of her encounter with Miss Jessel in the schoolroom, the governess claims that the ghost spoke to her, though in her first telling you heard only what she said to the ghost. At points like these, the governess seems to have wandered beyond reality. The actual and the imagined have become fused in her consciousness and are fused in the tale as a whole. In the end, is it an actual ghost or merely the governess's mad imaginings that causes Miles's death?

  2. AMBIGUITY

    Closely related to the theme of actual versus imaginary is the theme of ambiguity. Is the governess courageous or neurotic? Are the children good or evil? Does Mrs. Grose believe in the ghosts or not? Henry James could have given you the answers. He could have explained why Miles was expelled from school and how Miss Jessel died. He could have graphically described the evil visited upon the children by the depraved Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. But are those specifics the point of the story? Isn't the point rather what the mind makes of those mysteries, how understanding or misunderstanding flourish in an environment of ambiguity? The ghost story as a form appealed to James because there such ambiguity was possible. The unanswered questions raised in The Turn of the Screw have helped to make it a popular tale for almost a century. The controversy that rages about possible answers has, at times, almost eclipsed the tale itself.

  3. EVIL

    The suggestion of evil permeates The Turn of the Screw, whether you believe the ghosts exist in the story or are products of the governess's insanity. As the governess sees their tormented spirits returning to threaten the children, the corrupt Peter Quint and the dishonored Miss Jessel seem as evil in death as they did in life. Here the suggestion of wrongdoing is greatest- in some unspeakable and unnatural evil visited upon the children first by the living couple and then by their ghosts. Whatever it is that the four do together (the possibilities have sexual overtones), it is so terrible as to be unmentionable. Even the minor mysteries- Miss Jessel's untimely death, Miles's unexplained dismissal from school- seem to be rooted in evil.

    Images that are traditionally associated with good only serve to bring evil into sharper focus. The daughter of a country parson is visited by ghosts. The peaceful estate of Bly is an Eden from which Quint and Miss Jessel have been expelled. The children's angelic beauty offers a marked contrast to their hideous natures that would conspire with spirits. Their model behavior seems a sign of their corruption and their silence a constant reminder of their secret.

    The theme of The Turn of the Screw is not merely the evil that infiltrates Bly, but the evil latent in each of us as well. It's for that reason that James didn't spell out in detail the nature of Peter Quint's crimes. Henry James wrote, "Only make the reader's general vision of evil intense enough... and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy... and horror... will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself...."

  4. SEXUAL REPRESSION

    Readers of The Turn of the Screw who don't believe in its ghosts are quick to identify sexual repression as one of its themes. According to these readers, the young woman's frustrated sexual attraction to her employer causes her to conjure up ghosts and suggest an unspeakable evil visited upon the children. Her imaginings about what goes on with the ghosts and the children, therefore, are actually related to her frustrated feelings for the handsome uncle.

    The belief that strong feelings that have been repressed in the subconscious may emerge in relation to other circumstances is derived mainly from the work of the Viennese psychologist, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Readers who take this interpretation of The Turn of the Screw argue that James, whose brother William was a famous psychologist and who himself was interested in the discipline, was undoubtedly aware of Freud's work. Some readers have even argued (unconvincingly, others feel) that James might have derived his story of a disturbed governess from a case history of one of Freud's patients.

    Readers who believe the story is primarily about sexual repression in a troubled mind find sexual symbolism in the governess's sighting of Quint on a tower (a symbol of male sexuality) and Miss Jessel on a lake (a symbol of female sexuality), as well as in Flora's toy boat and mast (a flat piece of wood with a hole in it, and another piece that is inserted into the hole). They claim that as the story progresses, the governess turns her sexual attentions on Miles, and they cite as evidence statements with sexual overtones, such as her description of herself and Miles being like embarrassed newlyweds in front of the maid.

STYLE

The Turn of the Screw was written in the late 1890s, and belongs to what is called the late period in the work of Henry James. His concern in this period was no longer chiefly with manners, as it was when he wrote Daisy Miller twenty years earlier, but with human consciousness. The stories are no longer as concerned with how characters behave, as with how characters think and feel.

By the time he wrote The Turn of the Screw, James had begun dictating to a secretary- rather than writing- his stories. Some readers believe that dictation caused his sentences to become longer and more convoluted, capturing the rhythms of the thought process. Here is an example from Section XIII of The Turn of the Screw.

After these secret scenes I chattered more than ever, going on volubly enough till one of our prodigious palpable hushes occurred- I can call them nothing else- the strange dizzy lift or swim (I try for terms!) into a stillness, a pause of all life, that had nothing to do with the more or less noise we at the moment might be engaged in making and that I could hear through any intensified mirth or quickened recitation or louder strum of the piano.

This sentence reads like the transcript of a person's speech, which- more accurately than prose- reflects thoughts as they occur in a person's mind. Whether or not dictation influenced James's style, he was developing a "stream of consciousness" technique.

James was a master stylist. The language of his descriptions was always precise. James's fiction of all periods drew on his enormous vocabulary, which included many archaic words and expressions borrowed from languages other than English. In The Turn of the Screw, one character "blenches," or recoils in fear. "Raison de plus," says another, using a French expression meaning "All the more reason."

When James revised The Turn of the Screw in 1908 for the publication of his collected novels and tales called the New York Edition, he made changes that placed greater emphasis on the psychological aspects of his tale. The changes may seem minor- he removed many commas and changed some verbs of perception to verbs of feeling. The effect, however, was great. With fewer commas, the governess's thoughts run together more. They seem less organized, less carefully measured. And having the governess say "I felt" instead of "I saw" emphasizes not what happened, but the governess's feelings about what happened. The prose style puts the story more within the mind of the governess, thereby creating more of the ambiguities for which The Turn of the Screw is so famous.

POINT OF VIEW

The Turn of the Screw is unusual in that it has two narrators. One exists only in the prologue. That first narrator, who is nameless, describes the scene in an old house where a number of houseguests are telling ghost stories. He then introduces a guest, Douglas, who tells the others about the governess. The rest of the tale is Douglas's reading of the governess's story.

The governess is considered the principal narrator, and the story is told from her point of view. She is also what some readers call the central intelligence- the character through whose eyes you see the story. James gives you her thoughts and perceptions directly, and presents them through her conversations with Mrs. Grose. Mrs. Grose is what James's readers call the confidant- the character who serves as a sounding board for the ideas of the central intelligence. (See also Point of View in the discussion of Daisy Miller.)

Telling The Turn of the Screw from the point of view of its main participant has an enormous effect. In fact, it's the main reason for the sense of mystery surrounding the story. In a sense, readers are at the governess's mercy. They know only what she tells them.

Why do some readers refuse to believe the governess's story? Probably because, to them, the governess is a perfect example of an unreliable narrator. They believe that the governess is the victim of an obsession so strong that it drives her to the edge of madness, and in this agitated condition she hallucinates the threatening ghosts. These readers point out that she is the only one who sees the ghosts, and that many of the events she finds sinister can be explained in other ways. These readers find The Turn of the Screw one of the most subtle and most ambiguous examples of first-person narrative in all literature.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

The Turn of the Screw is counted among the tales of Henry James, despite its length of some 53,000 words. (That's the length of a short novel; most of James's other tales run only about 10,000 to 20,000 words.) It was first published in twelve installments in Collier's Weekly in 1898. Publishing a long work of fiction in installments was common among magazines at the turn of the century. "Serialization," as this practice was called, was so popular that it was not unusual for James to see the first part of one of his stories published in a magazine before he had even decided how that story would end.

The Turn of the Screw's birth as a long magazine serial undoubtedly influenced its structure. It comprises a prologue and twenty-four parts; these short sections gave James many opportunities to leave his readers hanging in suspense and so encourage them to buy the next issue of the magazine.

The Turn of the Screw can also be described more simply as a ghost story- one of the classic ghost stories in literature. The ghost story was a form James used often; it was for him what the romance (a tale of the extra-ordinary) was for the earlier American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne: a middle ground for the meeting of what Hawthorne called "the actual and the imaginary."

The British novelist Virginia Woolf suggested that James "uses the supernatural effectively.... where some quality in a character or in a situation can only be given its fullest meaning by being cut free from facts." As you read, try to decide if that's an apt description for the events of The Turn of the Screw. James himself said once that "a good ghost-story, to be half as terrible as a good murder- story, must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life." Again, as you read The Turn of the Screw, you'll want to decide if it is indeed "terrible"- that is, terrifying- and if that terror results from its connections to everyday life.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1986 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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