The Turn of the Screw

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The Turn of the Screw
First page of the 12-part serialization of
The Turn of the Screw in Collier's Weekly
(January 27 – April 16, 1898)
Author Henry James
Country United States
United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Horror fiction, gothic fiction, ghost story
Publisher The Macmillan Company, New York City
William Heinemann, London
Publication date
October 1898
OCLC 40043490
LC Class PS2116 .T8 1998

The Turn of the Screw, originally published in 1898, is a novella written by Henry James. The story, a part of gothic and ghost story genres, first appeared in serial format in Collier's Weekly magazine (January 27 – April 16, 1898). In October 1898 it appeared in The Two Magics, a book published by Macmillan in New York City and Heinemann in London.

Due to its original content, The Turn of the Screw 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.



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.

The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school, while his younger sister, Flora, is living at a summer country house in Essex. She is currently being cared for by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Miles and Flora's uncle, the governess' new employer, 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, around the grounds of the estate, the governess begins to see 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 a sexual relationship. Before 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, who that night at last talks to her about his expulsion; 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. However, he was not fond of literature's stereotypical ghosts. 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".

With the The Turn of the Screw, many critics have wondered if the "strange and sinister" were only in the governess's mind and not part of 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 gothic fiction. 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 the character of Jane Eyre, but to the character pf Bertha, the madwoman confined in Thornfield.[1]

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

Edmund Wilson was one of the earlier proponents of the theory questioning the governess's sanity. Wilson eventually recanted his opinion after considering the governess's 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 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, where 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.

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.[6]

Publication history[edit]

The Turn of the Screw was first published in the magazine Collier's Weekly, serialized in 12 installments (January 27 – April 16, 1898). The title illustration by John La Farge depicts the governess with her arm around Miles. Episode illustrations were by Eric Pape.[7]

In October 1898 the novella appeared with the short story "Covering End" in a volume titled The Two Magics, published by Macmillan in New York City and by Heinemann in London.[8]

James revised The Turn of the Screw ten years later for his New York Edition.[7] In The Collier's Weekly Version of The Turn of the Screw (2010), the tale is presented in its original serial form with a detailed analysis of the changes James made over the years. Among many other revisions, James changed the children's ages.[9]


Among the various adaptations and reworkings of James's novella are The Turn of the Screw, a 1954 opera by Benjamin Britten (left, 1968) and The Nightcomers, a 1972 prequel film directed by Michael Winner (right, photographed 2010) and starring Marlon Brando.

The Turn of the Screw has been the subject of numerous adaptations and reworkings in a variety of media, and these reworkings and adaptations have, themselves, been analysed in the academic literature on Henry James and neo-Victorian culture.[10] It was adapted to an opera by Benjamin Britten, which premiered in 1954,[10] and the opera has been filmed on numerous occasions.[11] The novella was adapted as a ballet score (1980) by Luigi Zaninelli,[12] and separately as a ballet (1999) by Will Tucket for the Royal Ballet.[13] Harold Pinter directed The Innocents (1950), a Broadway play which was an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw,[14] and a subsequent eponymous stage play, adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz was presented in a co-production with Hammer at the Almeida Theatre, London, in January 2013.[15] A new musical theater adaptation of the story had its world premiere in the Washington DC area in February 2015.[16]

There have been numerous film adaptations of the novel.[12] The critically acclaimed The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton, and Michael Winner's prequel The Nightcomers (1972) are two particularly notable examples.[10] Other feature film adaptations include Rusty Lemorande's 1992 eponymous adaptation (set in the 1960s[11]); Eloy de la Iglesia's Spanish-language Otra vuelta de tuerca (The Turn of the Screw, 1985);[12] Presence of Mind (1999), directed by Atoni Aloy; and In a Dark Place (2006), directed by Donato Rotunno.[11] The Others (2001) is not an adaptation but has some themes in common with James's novella.[11][17]

Television films have included a 1959 American adaptation as part of Ford Startime directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Ingrid Bergman;[11][18] the West German Die sündigen Engel (The Sinful Angel, 1962),[19] a 1974 adaptation directed by Dan Curtis, adapted by William F. Nolan;[11] a French adaptation entitled Le Tour d'écrou (The Turn of the Screw, 1974); a Mexican miniseries entitled Otra vuelta de tuerca (The Turn of the Screw, 1981);[19] a 1982 adaptation directed by Petr Weigl primarily starring Czech actors lip-synching;[20] a 1990 adaptation directed by Graeme Clifford; The Haunting of Helen Walker (1995), directed by Tom McLoughlin; a 1999 adaptation directed by Ben Bolt;[11] a low-budget 2003 version written and directed by Nick Millard;[19] the Italian-language Il mistero del lago (The Mystery of the Lake, 2009); and a 2009 BBC film adapted by Sandy Welch.[19]

Literary reworkings of The Turn of the Screw identified by James scholar Adeline R. Tintner include The Secret Garden (1911), by Frances Hodgson Burnett; "Poor Girl" (1951), by Elizabeth Taylor; The Peacock Spring (1975), by Rumer Godden; Ghost Story (1975) by Peter Straub; "The Accursed Inhabitants of House Bly" (1994) by Joyce Carol Oates; and Miles and Flora (1997)—a sequel—by Hilary Bailey.[21] Further literary adaptations identified by other authors include Affinity (1999), by Sarah Waters; A Jealous Ghost (2005), by A. N. Wilson;[22] and Florence & Giles (2010), by John Harding.[10] Young adult novels inspired by The Turn of the Screw include The Turning (2012) by Francine Prose[23] and Tighter (2011) by Adele Griffin.[24]

The Turn of the Screw has also influenced television.[25] In December 1968, the ABC daytime drama Dark Shadows featured a storyline based on The Turn of the Screw. In the story, the ghosts of Quentin Collins and Beth Chavez haunted the west wing of Collinwood, possessing the two children living in the mansion. The story led to a year-long story in the year 1897, as Barnabas Collins traveled back in time to prevent Quentin's death and stop the possession.[25] In early episodes of Star Trek: Voyager ("Cathexis", "Learning Curve" and "Persistence of Vision"), Captain Kathryn Janeway is seen on the holodeck acting out scenes from a holonovel which appears to be based on The Turn of the Screw.[26]



  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 (PDF). 
  5. ^ Leithauser, Brad (October 2012). "Ever scarier on The Turn of the Screw". The New Yorker. 
  6. ^ Raine, Craig. "Sex in nineteenth-century literature". In Defence of T. S. Eliot. 
  7. ^ a b Orr, Leonard (2009). James' The Turn of the Screw: A Readers Guide. London, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 24. ISBN 9780826430199. 
  8. ^ James, Henry (1996). Complete Stories, 1892–1898. New York: Library of America. p. 941. ISBN 9781883011093. 
  9. ^ Henry James. Beidler, Peter G., ed. The Collier's Weekly Version of The Turn of the Screw. Coffeehouse Press. 
  10. ^ a b c d Dinter, Sandra (2012). "The mad child in the attic: John Harding's Florence & Giles as a neo-victorian reworking of The Turn of the Screw" (PDF). Neo-Victorian Studies. 5 (1): 60–88. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Haralson, Eric L.; Johnson, Kendall (2009). Critical Companion to Henry James: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Infobase Publishing. p. 293. ISBN 9781438117270. 
  12. ^ a b c Brown, Monika (1998). "Film Music as Sister Art: Adaptations of 'The Turn of the Screw.'". Mosaic (Winnipeg). 31 (1). 
  13. ^ Jays, David (1 July 2006). "Ballet - From page to stage". Financial Times. Accessed 5 January 2015.
  14. ^ Baker, William (2008). Harold Pinter. A&C Black. p. 32. ISBN 9780826499707. 
  15. ^ Masters, Tim (23 November 2012). "Hammer takes first steps on stage in Turn of the Screw". BBC News. Retrieved 13 February 2013. 
  16. ^ Clements, Jennifer (5 February 2015). "Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith: creating the new musical Turn of the Screw at Creative Cauldron"[1]". DC Theatre Scene.
  17. ^ Skidelsky, William (30 May 2010). "Classics corner: The Turn of the Screw". The Guardian. 
  18. ^ Koch, J. Sarah (2002). "A Henry James Filmography". In Griffin, Susan M. Henry James Goes to the Movies. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 335–358. ISBN 9780813133249. 
  19. ^ a b c d Hischak, Thomas S. (2012). American Literature on Stage and Screen: 525 Works and Their Adaptations. McFarland. p. 253. ISBN 9780786492794. 
  20. ^ Holland, J. (2006). "Turn of the Screw (review)". Notes. 62 (3): 784. doi:10.1353/not.2006.0020. 
  21. ^ Tintner, Adeline R. (1998). Henry James's Legacy: The Afterlife of His Figure and Fiction. Louisiana State University Press. pp. 371-82.
  22. ^ Heilmann, Ann. (2010) "The Haunting of Henry James: Jealous Ghosts, Affinities and The Others". In: Rosario Arias and Patricia Pulham (eds.), Haunting and Spectrality in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Possessing the Past. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 111-130.
  23. ^ "The Turning by Francine Prose". Kirkus. 1 August 2012. Retrieved 10 September 2016. 
  24. ^ "Tighter by Adele Griffin". Kirkus. 15 April 2011. Retrieved 10 September 2016. 
  25. ^ a b Sborgi, Anna Viola (2011). "To think and watch the Evil: The Turn of the Screw as cultural reference in television from Dark Shadows to C.S.I.". Babel: Littératures plurielles. 24: 181–94 (see paragraph 8). 
  26. ^ Ruditis, Paul (2003). Star Trek Voyager Companion. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 25.


  • 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

Further reading

  • Smith, Allan Lloyd. "A Word Kept Back in "The Turn of the Screw". In Clive Bloom (ed), Creepers: British Horror and Fantasy in the Twentieth Century. London and Boulder CO: Pluto Press, 1993, pp. 47–63.

External links[edit]