The Turn of the Screw

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For other meanings, see Turn of the Screw (disambiguation).
The Turn of the Screw
Two Magics.djvu
Title page of the original (1898) edition of The Two Magics, in which The Turn of the Screw was first published
Author Henry James
Country United Kingdom, United States
Language English
Genre Novella, Horror fiction, Gothic fiction, Ghost story
Publisher William Heinemann, London
The Macmillan Company, New York City
Publication date
13 October 1898
OCLC 40043490
LC Class PS2116 .T8 1998

The Turn of the Screw, originally published in 1898, is a gothic ghost story novella written by Henry James.

Due to its ambiguous content, it became a favourite text of academics who subscribe to New Criticism. The novella has had differing interpretations, often mutually exclusive. Many critics have tried to determine the exact nature of the evil hinted at by the story. However, others have argued that the true brilliance of the novella comes with its ability to create an intimate confusion and suspense for the reader.

Plot summary[edit]

An unnamed narrator listens to Douglas, a friend, read a manuscript written by a former governess whom Douglas claims to have known and who is now dead. The manuscript tells the story of how the young governess is hired by a man who has become responsible for his young nephew and niece after the deaths of their parents. He lives mainly in London and is uninterested in raising the children himself.

The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school, while his younger sister, Flora, is living at a country estate in Essex. She is currently being cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. The governess' new employer, Miles and Flora's uncle, gives her full charge of the children and explicitly states that she is not to bother him with communications of any sort. The governess travels to her new employer's country house, Bly, and begins her duties.

Miles soon returns from school for the summer just after a letter arrives from the headmaster stating that he has been expelled. Miles never speaks of the matter, and the governess is hesitant to raise the issue. She fears there is some horrible secret behind the expulsion but is too charmed by the adorable young boy to want to press the issue. Soon thereafter, the governess begins to see around the grounds of the estate the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognize. These figures come and go at will without ever being seen or challenged by other members of the household, and they seem to the governess to be supernatural. She learns from Mrs. Grose that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another employee, Peter Quint, had had a sexual relationship. It is also implied that Quint sexually molested Miles and the other members of the household. Prior to their deaths, Jessel and Quint spent much of their time with Flora and Miles, and this fact has grim significance for the governess when she becomes convinced that the two children are secretly aware of the ghosts' presence.

Later, without permission, Flora leaves the house while Miles is playing music for the governess. The governess notices Flora's absence and goes with Mrs. Grose in search of her. They find her in a clearing in the wood, and the governess is convinced that Flora has been talking to the ghost of Miss Jessel. When the governess finally confronts Flora, the girl denies seeing Miss Jessel and demands never to see the governess again. At the governess' suggestion Mrs. Grose takes Flora away to her uncle, leaving the governess with Miles. That night, they[who?] are finally talking of Miles' expulsion when the ghost of Quint appears to the governess at the window. The governess shields Miles, who attempts to see the ghost. The governess tells Miles he is no longer controlled by the ghost and then finds that Miles has died in her arms, and the ghost has gone.

Major themes[edit]

Throughout his career James was attracted to the ghost story genre. However, he was not fond of literature's stereotypical ghosts, the old-fashioned "screamers" and "slashers". Rather, he preferred to create ghosts that were eerie extensions of everyday reality—"the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy", as he put it in the New York Edition preface to his final ghost story, "The Jolly Corner".

The Turn of the Screw is no exception to this formula. In fact, some have wondered if he didn't intend the "strange and sinister" to be embroidered only on the governess's mind and not on objective reality. The result has been a longstanding critical dispute about the reality of the ghosts and the sanity of the governess. Beyond the dispute, critics have closely examined James's narrative technique for the story. The framing introduction and subsequent first-person narrative by the governess have been studied by theorists of fiction interested in the power of fictional narratives to convince or even manipulate readers.

The imagery of The Turn of the Screw is reminiscent of the Gothic fiction genre. The emphasis on old and mysterious buildings throughout the novella reinforces this motif. James also relates the amount of light present in various scenes to the strength of the supernatural or ghostly forces apparently at work. The governess refers directly to The Mysteries of Udolpho and indirectly to Jane Eyre, evoking a comparison of the governess not only to Jane Eyre's protagonist, but to Bertha, the madwoman confined in Thornfield.[1]

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

The dispute over the ghosts' reality has had a real effect on some critics, most notably Edmund Wilson, one of the first major proponents of the insane governess theory. Wilson eventually recanted his opinion after considering the governess' point-by-point description of Quint. Then John Silver[2] pointed out hints in the story that the governess might have gained previous knowledge of Quint's appearance in non-supernatural ways. This induced Wilson to recant his recantation and return to his original opinion that the governess was delusional and that the ghosts existed only in her imagination.

William Veeder sees Miles's eventual death as induced by the governess. In a complex psychoanalytic reading, Veeder concludes that the governess expressed her repressed rage toward her father and toward the master of Bly on Miles.[citation needed]

Other critics, however, have strongly defended the governess. They note that James's letters, his New York Edition preface, and his Notebooks contain no definite evidence that The Turn of the Screw was intended as anything other than a straightforward ghost story, and James certainly wrote ghost stories that did not depend on the narrator's imagination. For example, “Owen Wingrave″ includes a ghost that causes its title character's sudden death, although no one actually sees it. James's Notebooks entry indicates that he was inspired originally by a tale he heard from Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There are indications that the story James was told was about an incident in Hinton Ampner, wherein in 1771 a woman named Mary Ricketts moved from her home after seeing the apparitions of a man and a woman, day and night, staring through the windows, bending over the beds, and making her feel her children were in danger.[3][4]

Perhaps the critical perspective that best captures James's own thinking and methods, given the work's notably rococo style, which incessantly qualifies statements and counters any attempt at straightforward exposition, is that of Brad Leithauser:

All such attempts to 'solve' the book, however admiringly tendered, unwittingly work toward its diminution[; its] profoundest pleasure lies in the beautifully fussed over way in which James refuses to come down on either side... the book becomes a modest monument to the bold pursuit of ambiguity.[5]

According to Leithauser, we are meant to entertain both the proposition that the governess is mad and the proposition that the ghosts really do exist, and consider the dreadful implications of each.

James revised the novella substantially over the years. In The Collier's Weekly Version of The Turn of the Screw, Peter G. Beidler presents the tale in its original serial form and presents a detailed analysis of the changes James made over the years. Among many other changes, James changed the children's ages.[6]

Poet and literary critic Craig Raine, in his essay "Sex in nineteenth-century literature", states quite categorically his belief that Victorian readers would have identified the two ghosts as child molesters.[7]


  • The Italian filmmaker Marcello Avallone will direct a 3-D adaptation of the novel.[10] It will be the first Italian-produced and screened 3-D film.[11]

In popular culture[edit]


  • In the film Three O'Clock High (1987) a female teacher being seduced by a bullied male student mentions the book as her favorite.


  • Leon Edel identifies structural and tonal similarities between Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and The Turn of the Screw.[13]
  • Adele Griffin's Tighter (2011) features a modern adaption of the story.
  • There is a modern adaptation of the novel in Toby Litt's "Ghost Story" (2004).
  • Joyce Carol Oates' story "The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly" (featured in the collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque) is a retelling of the novel from the point of view of the ghosts.
  • Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) contains a reference to The Turn of the Screw and suggests that it is the governess's belief in ghosts, and not ghosts themselves, which causes Miles's death.
  • In Peter Straub's novel Ghost Story (1979), the personal anecdote that Sears James recounts to his fellow storytellers in the Chowder Society is a thinly disguised homage to The Turn of the Screw.
  • In Donald Thomas's= novel Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly and Other New Adventures of the Great Detective, Holmes investigates the aftermath of the events described in The Turn of the Screw.


  • The song "The Infant Kiss", from [Kate Bush]]'s album Never for Ever, is about a haunted, unstable woman's almost paedophilic infatuation with a young boy in her care, which was inspired by The Turn of the Screw.[14]


  • The Turn of the Screw: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism edited by Deborah Esch and Jonathan Warren (New York: W.W. Norton & Company 1999) ISBN 0-393-95904-X
  • The Tales of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1984) ISBN 0-8044-2957-X
  • The Collier's Weekly Version of The Turn of the Screw, edited by Peter G. Beidler (Seattle: Coffeetown Press, 2010) ISBN 978-1-60381-018-0
  1. ^ Kaufmann, Professor Linda. Discourses of Desire. ISBN 0-8014-9510-5.  See this book for an argument that Bronte was actually the source of the tale, through Mary Sedgwick Benson.
  2. ^ Smith, John (1957). "A Note on the Freudian Reading of 'The Turn of the Screw'". American Literature. 
  3. ^ "Books: How we all came to love a good ghost story". The Daily Telegraph. 
  4. ^ The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. 
  5. ^ Leithauser, Brad (October 2012). "Ever scarier on The Turn of the Screw". The New Yorker. 
  6. ^ Henry James. Beidler, Peter G., ed. The Collier's Weekly Version of The Turn of the Screw. Collier's Weekly. 
  7. ^ Raine, Craig. "Sex in nineteenth-century literature". In Defence of T. S. Eliot. 
  8. ^ Skidelsky, William (30 May 2010). "Classics corner: The Turn of the Screw". The Guardian. 
  9. ^ TV Choice, London, Anglia and Central edition, 19 December 2009-1 January 2010
  10. ^ "'Turn of the Screw' Ghost Tale Being Adapted in 3-D, Promo Trailer!". BloodyDisgusting. 
  11. ^ "3D Telling of The Turn of the Screw On Its Way". DreadCentral. 
  12. ^ Masters, Tim (23 November 2012). "Hammer takes first steps on stage in Turn of the Screw". BBC News. Retrieved 13 February 2013. 
  13. ^ Tóibín, Colm (3 April 2004). "Darkness of the Heart". The Guardian. 
  14. ^ "Kate Bush interview". Q Magazine. 1990. 

External links[edit]