“The Turn of the Screw” is a novella written by Henry James and published in 1898. It first appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine in a serialized version from January 27th to April 16. The novella then appeared with another short story in a volume entitled: “The Two Magics.” It was very popular almost immediately, not only for the Gothic style storytelling but for the ability to look at the text from two different angles both of which change the story completely.
The story is that of a governess who is sent to teach two young orphans who are being cared for at their uncles country house. The uncle stipulates in hiring her that he is never to be contacted and that she is to care for the children entirely on her own. When the governess arrives, she is initially pleased with the children’s manners and beauty, but eventually, she starts to worry that something sinister is at work with them. She begins to see the spirits of two former servants in the house and the children being acting strangely. She believes that they are possessed by the spirits who are using the children to complete some evil deed left undone on earth.
The story has undergone many adaptations including film, television and literary reworkings.
The prolog takes place at a house party where the guests are telling ghost stories. The guests all agree that one story where a child is haunted by a ghost was particularly scary. An older man named Douglas says that he can beat this story. He says that he knows of a story in which two children are visited by a ghost. Everyone at the party urges him to tell the story, but he must send his servant back to his house for it as the story is in written form.
The servant returns with the manuscript shortly, and Douglas gives some background on the story before starting it. The story was written by his sister’s governess with whom he was infatuated. The story comes from when she was just twenty years old, and she took a job as a governess for a young girl and boy who were uncle their uncle’s care. The uncle was a rich bachelor, and the children lived in his country house. The uncle stipulated that she would be alone with the children for long periods of time and that she was to deal with any problems that arose by herself and never write to him. The young woman took the job anyway, possibly because of her attraction to the uncle.
The narrative then shifts to the story from the governess’ perspective. She travels to the house which is named Bly. When she arrives at the house, she meets the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose and one of the children, a little girl named Flora. The governess is impressed with Flora’s beauty and intelligence. She thinks that she hears a child crying in the distance but dismisses it.
The governess asks about the other child that she is supposed to teach and is told that the boy will arrive on Friday. She talks about his good looks and accidentally remarks on the handsomeness of her employer as well. The governess spends the next day with Flora who shows her the house and grounds. In retrospect, the governess says that she was very optimistic about her new position at the time although she later came to think of it as a drifting ship and that she was the only person available to steer.
A few days later, the boy, Miles arrives. The governess receives a letter stating that Miles has been kicked out of his school. This worries her as she fears that Miles may be a troublemaker and she may have to deal with him alone. She questions Mrs. Grose about the boy who is as confused as she, saying that she doesn’t know why he would be kicked out of his school. Mrs. Grose tells her that she has only ever known Miles to act badly on occasion and only ever what could be expected from a young boy. The governess questions Mrs. Grose about the previous governess and is told she was young and pretty but that she died for unexplained reasons.
When the governess goes to pick up Miles, she immediately rejects the idea that he could be a troublemaker as he is a very handsome and calm young boy. She tells Mrs. Grose that she isn’t going to do anything about his expulsion and the housekeeper agrees. The governess soon begins teaching the children and receives no trouble from them.
One evening, she is walking the grounds, and when she comes into view of the house, she sees what looks like a strange man standing on top of one of the house’s towers, looking down at her. They stare at each other for a long moment before he moves away. Thinking back on it, the governess remembers that he never broke eye contact with her while he was turning away. The governess is confused about the encounter but lies to Mrs. Grose about the reason she was out so late, saying that it was because the weather was so beautiful. Meanwhile, her students are doing wonderfully. She is still surprised that Miles, who is such a nice boy, would be expelled from school but decides that it was due to his school being to “horrid” and “unclean” for his refined ways. However, as much as she enjoys the children, she feels that they are oddly impersonal and do not talk about themselves as much as most children.
One day, the governess starts downstairs to meet Mrs. Grose for church only to come face to face with the disturbing intruder from the tower staring at her from outside the window. She races outside to confront the man but by the time she gets to where he was standing he is no longer there. She turns to the window and sees Mrs. Grose come into the dining room. Mrs. Grose is startled by the image of the governess outside of the window. Mrs. Grose calms herself and asks the governess why she looks so frightened. The governess only tells her that she cannot go to church and that what Mrs. Grose just saw was not as bad at what she saw moments earlier. She tells Mrs. Grose about the man and calls him “a horror.” She then says that she feels that she should stay and watch over the home instead of going to church.
When she tells Mrs. Grose what the man looked like – saying that he had very red hair and pale skin– the woman is horrified. She says that the intruder sounds like the former valet of their employer. The valet was called Peter Quint and was in charge of the house until his death the year before. They assume that it was the ghost of this man, Peter Quint and the governess exclaims that he may have been looking for Miles. Mrs. Grose says that Quint had been “too free” with Miles. The governess swears to herself to do all she can to protect the children from the ghost, but she wonders why the children have not mentioned the man.
That night she sleeps badly as she is haunted by the image of Quint’s face. She becomes convinced that Mrs. Grose has left something important out of the story. The next day, the governess is watching Flora play on the banks of a lake when she suddenly feels as though someone else is nearby.
The narrative shifts forward to that afternoon. The governess tells Mrs. Grose that the children know something that they are keeping a secret. She says that she saw a woman at the lake who was dressed all in black with a horrible face. Flora obviously saw her too but said nothing and acted like she didn’t. The governess and Mrs. Grose work out that the woman was Miss Jessel, the last governess of the house.
The governess says that Miss Jessel looked at Flora determinedly and that she is sure that Flora is lying about something. Mrs. Grose reveals that Miss Jessel had an inappropriate romantic relationship with Quint. However, later that night cooler heads prevail, and the governess and Mrs. Grose decide that they will keep their wits about them. The governess feels ashamed of herself for thinking that Flora was capable of deception. Mrs. Grose eventually confesses that her earlier claim that Miles suffered from some bad behavior sometimes was only meant to reference times that he spent with Quint. She says that Miss Jessel had not disproved of their relationship and that whenever he had been with Quint, Flora had been with Miss Jessel.
Mrs. Grose and the governess quarrel over this revelation and the governess worries that the children may be under the ghost’s influence. Mrs. Grose asserts that she won’t punish either of them with so little evidence. The governess stays on guard although nothing more happens for a few days. She finds herself hovering around the children and embracing them more. She wonders if they suspect that something is wrong. The children become closer and closer to the governess, and she wonders if there might be an ulterior motive in their affection.
Soon, though another incident occurs. One night, the governess is reading when she is suddenly startled by noise. She quietly gets up from her bed and goes to the top of the staircase. Her candle blows out, and she sees the ghost of Quint walking up the stairs. Instead of running away, the governess stares the apparition down, and she watches as the figure slowly vanishes. The governess checks on the children and finds that Flora is not in bed although the curtains on her bed have been closed. Frightened, she looks for the girl and soon sees movement behind the window blind. Flora comes out from behind it with a sad expression. She scolds the governess for disappearing in the middle of the night. She says that she sensed that the governess had gotten out of bed and thought she had gone walking around the grounds.
The governess asks her why she closed her bed curtains and Flora explains that she did not want to frighten her if she came back quickly. From then on the governess begins staying up as much as she can at night. On one evening, she sees an apparition of Miss Jessel sitting at the bottom of the stairs with her head in her hands. The apparition disappears as soon as she sees it.
A few evenings pass with no ghosts or visions, and the governess assumes that it is safe to sleep normally. That night, she wakes in the middle of the night again to find that her candle has been extinguished. She assumes that Flora put it out and sees that the girl is sitting at the window again. The governess wonders if Flora is somehow communicating with Miss Jessel’s ghost on the grounds outside. As quietly as she can, the governess creeps out of bed and goes to a window outside the room that faces the same direction. Outside the window, she sees Miles is standing on the lawn.
The next day, the governess tells Mrs. Grose what she saw the night before and what happened when she went to fetch Miles back inside. She went out to retrieve him, and he came to her promptly after which he was quiet as she led him inside. She asked him why he had been outside at that time of night and Miles smiled as he told her that he wanted her to think that he was capable of being “bad.” He told her that he and Flora arranged for her to be awakened by the candle going out so that she would look out the window and realize what was going on. He was happy that she had fallen for it and pleased with his plan.
The governess let him go, but she tells Mrs. Grose that she does not believe he was telling the truth. She believes that the children have been meeting with Quint and Miss Jessel at night. She even says that right now, as they are walking on the lawn they are planning their next meeting with the two ghosts. The governess decides that the children haven’t just been good, they’ve been empty and emotionless and that their lives must now belong to the spirits. She also thinks that the ghosts are going to take things further and use the children to complete some dastardly plan here on earth that they left behind.
Mrs. Grose suggests writing to their employer, but the governess points out that he will think that they are insane. Mrs. Grose further suggests that they think up a way to get their employer to come home and the governess assumes that he will think she set up a lie because she is lonely. She realizes that she would be humiliated and threatens to leave if Mrs. Grose writes to him at any point.
The governess assumes that the children have figured out that she knows about their relationships with the ghosts. The days pass by until autumn without further incident, and the governess begins to wonder if perhaps the children have somehow managed to communicate with the spirits right in front of her without her knowing. She decides that she is going to ask the children point blank about Quint and Miss Jessel but cannot find the nerve to do so. She closes herself in her room to rehearse a speech and while she is in there, suddenly feels the sudden stillness and silence that happen commonly when she is with her pupils. Although the children seem to notice the odd stillness, neither of them mention it. The children ask the governess why their uncle hasn’t visited them and she has the children write letters to them that she does not intend to send.
One day as the group is walking to church, Miles asks the governess when he is going back to school. The governess tries to coax out of him the reason that he was expelled but makes no headway. Miles asks whether his uncle wants him to go back and the governess admits that she doesn’t think his uncle cares either way. Miles announces that he intends to make his uncle care and come to Bly. He marches off ahead of them.
The governess is so disturbed by his plan that she turns away and goes back home. She resolves to leave Bly and sits at the bottom of the stairs to think over the plan before realizing that this was where she saw Miss Jessel’s apparition the last time. The governess jumps up and goes into the schoolroom. There she sees Miss Jessel sitting at a table with her head in her hands again. The ghost rises from her seat and stares intently at the governess. Fed up with the situation, the governess shouts at Miss Jessel and calls her a “terrible, miserable woman.” Miss Jessel seems to understand before she vanishes. The governess is left with a strong feeling that she should not leave Bly.
Mrs. Grose and the children return from church and act like the governess returning home was perfectly normal. The governess manages to get Mrs. Grose aside, and the woman confesses that the children convinced her that the governess would be happier if no mention were made of her absence at church. The governess tells Mrs. Grose about her encounter with Miss Jessel and explains that she feels that the spirit wants Flora. She finally agrees to send for the children’s uncle, and the governess says that she has changed her mind about Miles expulsion and believes that he was wicked.
Mrs. Grose defends the boy, saying that she should take the blame for his relationship with Quint and offer to write to the uncle. But the governess, breaking down in tears, insists that she will write the letter as she does not want to get Mrs. Grose into trouble with such a fantastical story.
As the governess begins writing the letter that night, Miles calls for her and she go to his room. A tense discussion is held where he implies that he wants to get away from the house to somewhere peaceful and that she is bringing him up poorly. He insists that his uncle has to come to Bly to settle things. The governess feels so badly for Miles that she embraces him and the candle goes out. Miles screams and tells her that it was he who blew it out, suddenly.
The next day the governess tells Mrs. Grose that she has written the letter but does not explain that she hasn’t sent it yet. Miles approaches her and asks if she would like to listen to him play the piano. She watches Miles play beautifully on the piano for some time before realizing that she has not seen Flora in a while. The governess asks Miles where his sister is and he laughs and asks how he should know. She searches for Flora throughout the house but cannot find her and assumes that she is “at a distance,” insinuating that she is with Miss Jessel.
Mrs. Grose wonders where Miles has gone and the governess realizes that they have played a trick on her and that Miles must be with Quint. The governess leaves the letter on the table for a servant to take and goes with Mrs. Grose to search for Flora. The women search the lake and realize that the boat is missing and that Flora must have taken it. They soon find the boat on the other side of the lake and Flora with it. Flora smiles as they approach, but as Mrs. Grose embraces her, she gives the governess a grave expression.
Flora asks where Miles is and the governess says that she will tell her if Flora will say where Miss Jessel is. Flora glares at her the governess notices Miss Jessel on the opposite bank of the lake. Flora continues to glare accusingly at the governess, not reacting to the ghost at all. However, the governess soon realizes that Mrs. Grose cannot see the spirit either. She begs the governess to return to the house.
Flora turns petulant and demands that the governess is taken away. The governess assumes that Miss Jessel is speaking through Flora and that the child is “lost.” Mrs. Grose takes Flora back to the house, and the governess cries alone by the lake for a few moments before returning to the house, herself. When she gets back, Flora and Miles are acting perfectly normal.
The next morning, Mrs. Grose wakes the governess to tell her that Flora is ill and has said that she does not want the governess anywhere near her. The governess guesses that Flora is trying to get rid of her. She constructs a plan that involves Mrs. Grose taking Flora straight to her uncle while she stays at Bly with Miles. She tells Mrs. Grose to keep Flora and Miles apart before she leaves. Mrs. Grose agrees and tells the governess that she believes her. She also tells her that her letter to the uncle was not sent as Miles took it. The governess explains that the letter was only a demand for an interview.
Mrs. Grose and Flora leave soon, and the governess intends to confront Miles. The governess learns that, contrary to her orders, Miles and Flora had breakfast together the morning that she left. The governess readies herself for a fight against nature which will need “only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”
The governess dines with Miles. He asks about his sister’s illness, and she assures him that Flora will be fine and that she was not too ill to travel. The servant who prepared their dinner leaves and Miles says that they are alone. The governess asks if they are truly alone. Miles says that they aren’t and there are “others.” The two skirt around the topic of the spirits. She asks him if he enjoyed his day of freedom, implying his time with Quint on the other side and asks if he wants to go again. He says that he does, but he needs to speak to one of the servants first. She asks him if he took the letter that she was sending to his uncle and before he can answer the governess is distracted by Quint’s apparition looking in the window. The governess jumps up and pulls Miles to her. He confesses that he took the letter to see if it said anything about him but it didn’t. The governess is overcome with joy and embraces him. She asks if he stole letters at school, but Miles confesses that he “said things” to boys that he liked.
The governess asks him to clarify. Miles becomes uneasy and he asks the governess asks if “she” is here. The governess says that is Quint who is here but does not say his name. Miles looks in the direction that she is looking and cries out, “You devil!” He asks where Quint is and the governess yells and points him out. Miles’ heart stops. He dies in her arms. The governess assumes that Quint has left his body and this killed him.
The Governess – though she is never named, the governess is the main character and narrator of the story. She is a young woman who travels to a remote country house to care for two children who were recently orphaned and had been turned over to the care of their uncle. The governess confesses some apprehension about the uncle’s edict that she not contact him at all and care for the children completely on her own but she confesses that the uncle’s attractiveness has had some part in swaying her to take the job.
During her stay, the governess is subjected to terrors she did not expect when it is revealed that the children are both haunted by the souls of two servants who used to work at the house. This is, of course, Douglas, the man at the dinner party who is telling the stories interpretation of it. Although he confesses that the governess acted strangely, he admits that she is the most agreeable person he has ever met.
However, in the years since the release of the story many different interpretations have come about. Another interpretation involves the governess being a madwoman. In this story, her rapid swings between contempt for the children versus devotion to them is better explained as is the notion that no one else ever actually saw the apparitions she complained of. Her volatile nature and unreliable narration further this argument as does the idea that at the end of the novel, rather than Miles dying because of Quint’s spirit leaving him, he dies because the governess kills him. This perhaps gives double meaning to James’ line about the “turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”
Miles and Flora – with the idea that the governess may be a madwoman, the children’s motivation changes entirely. Miles and Flora may be scheming, cunning children who are allied with evil spirits or they may be perfectly innocent children who are only strangely well-mannered.
The governess feels that the children harbor a disturbing emptiness and that Miles, in particular, is too beautiful to ever perpetrate any evil. However, once she begins to see the spirits, she quickly turns to believing that the children are plotting her undoing and other evil things with the ghosts. Admittedly, the children do exhibit strange behavior, such as Flora glaring at the governess on the lake side and Miles going outside in the middle of the night just so that she will think he is “bad.”
Mrs. Grose says that Quint was a bad influence on Miles but does not go into any depth about the extent of this influence. The children’s deeds therefore may be harmless childhood pranks and nothing more and the fact that they are usually well behaved might suggest that their evil deeds are only present in the governess’ mind.
Mrs. Grose – The housekeeper of Bly. Mrs. Grose is a kind older woman who seems to love the children very much. She is also secretive and plays into the governess’ ideas about ghostly possession rather quickly. Mrs. Grose is the governess’ main confidant and the source of most of her information about the children and the house. The governess and Mrs. Grose conversations are usually hushed arguments when the governess thinks that the children aren’t listening. In the end, Mrs. Grose takes Flora away from the house, and it is the last we see of her.
Henry James Biography
Henry James was born on April 15th, 1843 in New York City, New York. The son of a lecturer/philosopher and a woman from a wealthy family, Henry had a privileged childhood where he was well-schooled and intentionally exposed to many different scientific and philosophical teachings. His family spent much time traveling Europe while he studied with tutors. In 1861, James received an injury while fighting a fire that made him unfit for military service in the American Civil War.
In 1862, James enrolled at Harvard Law School but later dropped out to study literature. His first published work was a review of “Miss Maggie Mitchell in Fanchon the Cricket,” a stage performance. This review was published in 1863. A year later his first short story, “A Tragedy of Error” was published. He began writing journalism pieces for The Nation and Atlantic Monthly and later worked in as a correspondent for the New York Tribune.
James moved to London in 1869 and began publishing serial installments of stories that would later be collected in book form. The audience for these installments was largely middle-class women, and James struggled to create serious novels based off of what the publishers deemed appropriate for women at that time.
In 1875, he moved to Paris and spent the rest of his life living in Europe. It was also this year that James published his first full-length novel, ‘Roderick Hudson.’ The novel was not well received at the time but has become a classic in more modern times. In 1881, James created one of his best-known works, “The Portrait of a Lady.” This successful novel was followed by a few less well-received ones and his surprising chart-topper, “The Turn of the Screw” a novella that was praised by critics for it’s different interpretations.
During this time James also wrote many shorter narratives such as “Daisy Miller” (1878) that are still well known to this day. In the early 1900’s, James published several less well-known novels and visited America to lecture on the French novelist and playwright, Honore de Balzac.
He also began working on his autobiographies. During the World War I he worked for the military although he did not go off to the front lines due to his age. In 1915, he became a British subject and was awarded the Order of Merit the following year.
Henry James died on February 28th, 1916 in Chelsea, London and was interred at Cambridge Cemetery in Massachusetts.