This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ gothic ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898).
This article series provides a summary of The Turn of the Screw, the ending or the twist and a short analysis.
Henry James (1843-1916) was an American Author of literary realism and literary modernism. But he has also written ghost stories, stories of the supernatural and the spiritual. His themes compose romance, the fear of marriage, the doppelgänger motif and of course the supernatural that subtly sneaks into real life, ever posing the question if the paranormal is real or not. Often with an unreliable narrator, told in the first person, the events can be explained either by the existence of a real ghost or something that the mind conjured up. His ghost story genre lies in the genre of Romance, where the magical co-exists with everyday life, which creates an eerie uncanny feeling. His stories are always based in the real world of human action, psychology and morality. It therefore is up to the reader to interpret the story as they wish, which can lead to wonderful lively discussions.
This article contains one of his most gothic, dark, scary and famous ghost stories. The Turn of the Screw questions if there are ghosts or that the mind can play tricks on a person, out of love and protectiveness. Miles can’t escape his inevitable doom and deadly fate by not being the person what is expected of him. His fate was sealed when he behaved differently.
The Turn of the Screw (1898)
At Christmas around the fireplace a couple friends gathered round to tell ghost stories. ‘“I quite agree – in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was – that is 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, what do you say of TWO children -?”’ Then Douglas begins to tell the story written down by a woman, who has been dead for twenty years, his sister’s governess.
A twenty year-old woman, a school teacher, is asked by a gentleman who impressed her to be governess to his orphaned niece and nephew who stay at Bly Manor in the care of housekeeper Mrs. Grose. After the former governess had died under awkward circumstances, the new governess has to take care for Miles. She hesitated for the serious duties, the loneliness, and the death of her predecessor, but the salary was good and the splendid gentleman, made her succumb. But the wry thing was, she never saw him again and she had to handle everything by herself without ever bothering him. This was her story:
Upon arriving at Bly Manor, she thought the house was splendid and the 8 year-old little girl Flora the most beautiful child she had ever seen. And Mrs. Grose was very glad to see the governess, but tried not to show it. In anticipation of 10 year-old Miles returning home, she gets a letter from the master who sends her a letter from the headmaster about Miles and tells her to deal with him without reporting back. This gives her much distress for Miles had been dismissed from school, for reasons yet unknown.
But looking upon the angelic Flora she can’t imagine Miles being bad. Still Mrs. Grose implies that a boy should be naughty upon which the governess asks her what her predecessor thought of Miles. But Mrs. Grose won’t tell tales. When the governess picks up Miles at the station she looks upon him and thought him as beautiful and innocent as his sister. She and Mrs. Grose decide to see it out. But the governess that summer was off her guard, enchanted by the house, the summer and the children.
On her afternoon stroll through the garden she often fantasizes that she would meet someone. She was very proud of herself by doing such a good job all by herself. ‘(…) I stopped short on emerging from one of the plantations and coming into view of the house. What arrested me on the spot – and with a shock much greater than any vision had allowed for – was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real. He did stand there! – but high up, beyond the lawn and at the very top of the tower to which, on that first morning, little Flora had conducted me.’ It was a strange man she had never seen before. ‘Was there a “secret” at Bly – a mystery of Udolpho for an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?’
She doesn’t tell Mrs. Grose of her unsettling meeting. She tells herself this visitor was a bold intruder and that she shall see no more of him. ‘This was not so good a thing, I admit, as not to leave me to judge that what, essentially, made nothing else much signify was simply my charming work. My charming work was just my life with Miles and Flora, and through nothing could I so like it as through feeling that I could throw myself into it in trouble. The attraction of my small charges was a constant joy, leading me to wonder afresh at the vanity of my original fears, the distaste I had begun by entertaining for the probable gray prose of my office.’
But the mystery why Miles was expelled remains. ‘Perhaps even it would be nearer to the truth to say that – without a word – he himself had cleared it up. He had made the whole charge absurd.’ Making her think of a sordid vindictive turn of the headmaster. And she found no wickedness in him. She was under the spell of the children and aware of it, whilst being sent letters from home where things didn’t go well.
Then, on a Sunday evening she saw the strange visitor again, staring at her through the window. When she rushed outside to meet him, he had gone. Now she does tell Mrs. Grose and wants to share her fright. ‘What IS he? He’s a horror.’ And now she fears for the children. When she describes his features and appearance to Mrs. Grose, she recognizes him. It’s Peter Quint, the master’s former valet. He died, just like the former governess.
‘She herself had seen nothing, not the shadow of a shadows and nobody in the house but the governess was in the governesses plight; yet she accepted without directly impugning my sanity the truth as I gave it to her, and need by showing me, on this ground, an awestricken tenderness, an expression of the sense of my more than questionable privilege, of which the very breath has remained with me as that of the sweetest of human charities.’ They decide to bear it together.
The governess even thinks that Quint was looking for little Miles. He wants to appear to the children and she has to keep him at bay. But the governess is certain that if she should see him again, she would offer herself bravely to the experience, and serve as an expiatory victim to guard the children. Quint was too free with Miles, spoiled him if he were at Bly. Mrs. Grose was afraid of him, he was so clever, so deep. But he was in charge of everything while the master was away, even of the children. ‘I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one’s own committed heart, we were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I – well, I had THEM.’
One afternoon when the governess and Flora are at the lake playing, she sees a figure standing at the other side. While Flora doesn’t appear to notice him, she even turns her back to the lake. Upon which the governess believes that she did saw him, but kept it to herself, which terribly unnerves her. The governess just knows Flora saw HER, and tells Mrs. Grose. A woman in black, pale and dreadful who the governess believes she’s Miss Jessel her predecessor. She looked at Flora with intention and THAT’S what Flora knows. Mrs. Grose tells her more about Miss Jessel, that Quint was dreadful and did as he wished with her. Whereupon the governess sobs that the children are lost.
Evening comes and the two women, now friends, share their concerns. Mrs. Grose tells the governess about the time spent between Quint and Miles and Miles lying about it, while Miss Jessel approved and spent time with Flora. One night the governess has a third encounter with Quint, in the house at night on the staircase. When she gets back to her room where Flora was sleeping in bed, she had gone. Only to emerge from the other side of the window blinds. But she only responds saying that she woke up and went looking for her, but saw no one. But the governess believes she lied and grabs her firmly. ‘“You see, you see, you KNOW that you do and that you already quite suspect I believe it; therefore, why not frankly confess it to me, so that we may at least live with it together and learn perhaps, in the strangeness of our fate, where we are and what it means?”’
Later that night the governess awakes and finds Flora’s bed empty again and the child standing behind the blinds looking out of the window. The governess is sure she’s face to face with the apparition and quietly leaves the room to watch her from another window. ‘The moon made the night extraordinarily penetrable and show me on the lawn a person, diminished by distance, who stood there motionless and as if fascinated, looking up to where I had appeared – looking, that is, not so much straight at me as at something that was apparently above me. There was clearly another person above me – there was a person on the tower; but the presence on the lawn was not in the least way I had conceived and had confidently hurried to meet. The presence on the lawn – I felt sick as I made it out – was poor little Miles himself.’
Upon this sight she rushes downstairs and to the terrace to bring Miles to his room. Then she asks him why he was outside. ‘“Well,” he said at last, “just exactly in order that you should do this.” “Do what?” “ Think me -for a change -BAD!” (…) “And when did you go down?” “At midnight, When I’m bad I AM bad!” “ I see, I see – it’s charming. But how could you be sure I would know it?” “Oh, I arranged that with Flora.” his answer rang out wit a readiness! “She was to get up and look out.” “Which is what se did do.” It was I who fell into the trap!’
The governess then, thinks differently of the children, of what Miles is really capable of and what he might do. ‘O yes, we may sit here and look at them, and they may show off to us there to their fill; but even while they pretend to be lost in their fairytale they’re steeped in their vision of the dead restored. He’s not reading to her,” I declared; “they’re talking of THEM – they’re talking horrors!” (…) Their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness. It’s a game,” I went on; “it’s a policy and a fraud!” (…) “They’re not mine – they’re not ours. They’re his and they’re hers!” “Quint’s and that woman’s. They want to get them.”
Mrs. Grose realizes they need the master’s help to take the children away from Bly and the evil, but the governess is afraid to lose face in front of him. Meanwhile she gets more distressed and nervous, obsessed even with the fear of encountering the hideous apparitions and their harassments. ‘What it was most impossible to get rid of was the cruel idea that, whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw MORE – things terrible and unguessable and that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past.’
Then one Sunday going to church Miles challenges the governess by asking her when he can go back to school, addressing her with ‘my dear’ and wanting to consort with his own kind. He knows she’s afraid of dealing with his dismissal from school and that he can take advantage of it by gaining more freedom and by threatening to call his uncle to Bly. Everything is out between them. She even thinks of running away. She rushes back to Bly to gather some things, and sinks at the foot of the stairs, where a month earlier she saw Miss Jessel. Shaken she goes to the school room where she encounters the ghost of Miss Jessel and realizes she must stay. And to sent for their uncle, to show Miles he’s mistaken. A power struggle between them has begun.
‘It was extraordinary how my absolute conviction of his secret precocity (or whatever I might call the poison of an influence that I dared but half to phrase) made him, in spite of the faint breath of his inward trouble, appear as accessible as an older person – imposed him almost as an intellectual equal.’ She then cried out that she wants to save him, that she’d rather die than giving him pain. ‘But I knew in a moment after this that I had gone too far. The answer to my appeal was instantaneous, but it came in the form of an extraordinary blast and chill, a gust of frozen air, and a shake of the room as great as if, in the wild wind, the casement had crashed in. The boy gave a loud, high shriek, which, lost in the rest of the shock of sound, might have seemed, indistinctly, though I was so close to him, a note either of jubilation or of terror.’
When Miles asks the governess to play with him, time passes and she realizes Flora has gone. She and Mrs. Grose search the house and the governess fears that Miss Jessel has taken her outside. They both go out to the lake to search for her. When they find her at last at the other side of the lake. ‘She smiled and smiled, and we; but it was all done in a silence by this time flagrantly ominous.’ Now it’s time to confront Flora. ‘“Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?”’ Whereupon she appears at the other side of the lake. Invoking a frantic outburst of the governess, who is now convinced of the possession of Flora and her wickedness and the awareness of Mrs. Grose finally seeing her. But to her astonishment Mrs. Grose asks where she should see anything. She tries to sooth the child who now looks ugly and hideous in the eyes of the governess. While Flora say she has never seen anything and that she thinks she’s cruel to her. And wants to be taken away from her, she cried. The governess knew then she had lost.
The next morning Mrs. Grose informs the governess that Flora has taken ill and now fears the governess. She then fears that she will speak ill of her to her uncle. She urges Mrs. Grose to take Flora away to her uncle and to let her be alone with Miles. But the two children mustn’t meet before she goes. She still thinks she has a chance to save Miles. Then Mrs. Grose confesses that she heard Flora say the most horrible things about the governess last night. And she also rather believes it’s THEM than just two bad children.
Now the governess is alone with Miles and is planning on confronting him. She implies she wants to make him talk, him meaning Quint, whereas Miles thinks she wants a confession about why he was dismissed from school. ‘I was just nearly reaching port, a perverse horror of what I was doing. To do in ANY way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse? (…) So we circled about, with terrors and scruples, like fighters not daring to close. But it was for each other we feared! That kept us a little longer suspended and unbruised. “I will tell you everything,” Miles said – “I mean I’ll tell you anything you like. You’ll stay on with me, and we shall both be all right, and I WILL tell you – I WILL. But not now.”’
Then the governess accuses him of stealing her letter to be sent to his uncle. Upon this Quint appears. She keeps Miles unaware of his presence. It was like fighting with a demon for a human soul. His face all white like that of Quint. He then confesses he took the letter. He also confesses that he had said some things to people at school, to people he liked. ‘(…), and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he WERE innocent, what then on earth was I?’ She tries to show Quint to Miles in the window, whereupon he asks if he should see Miss Jessel. She forces him to look at the window. Upon which Miles falls in her arms. ‘We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, disposed, had stopped.’
This is the story written down by the governess. An insecure, young woman with only Mrs. Grose as her friend. She can therefore be called an unreliable narrator. Everything we read is told from her perspective only. Note how she switches from one point of view to another, mostly manipulated by Miles, if indeed that is the case. Although she seems aware of her own obsession, and proves that she’s not entirely delusional, still her mind can be played tricks with by Miles, or her own fears.
She refuses to believe these angelic children can be wicked, so they must be possessed or under the influence of Quint and Miss Jessel and is supported by the idea by Mrs. Grose. Although Mrs. Grose has never seen the ghosts, nor can the governess prove the children did. But she is convinced that they even talk to them. She can’t believe the children are indeed bad, defying her and playing with her without parental guidance or firm oversight.
Although Quint and Miss Jessel came close to being teachers and still can be of an influence, either as a ghost or the teachings they have left behind. The question is, did the ghosts torment the governess or did the children torment her, or did the governess torment the children with her obsession and fears?
And what did Miles do at school? She said that he had said things to people he liked, just like he wrote in the letters he sent home. Was he secretly gay? Did Quint assault him? Was Miles traumatized or believed being bad because he felt something for his peers. Did he act out to proof he was a ‘real boy’? Was he afraid that the governess would find out and think of him badly and when she finally confronted him, she showed the evil Quint to him in the window, only reflecting to him his own face, that convinced him that thus he must be wicked and evil and did he die of fright?
There’s much hidden in the dialogue between the governess and Miles to read it over and over. Her own perception outshines the objective events and as every adult usually does, they think for the child, the more so when Miles doesn’t want to talk. In this case, whatever was the matter with Miles and if there were ghosts or not, the governess’ obsession with both the children and the ghosts had a deadly outcome.
Read more about Henry James:
- Henry James: The Altar of the Dead [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Beast in the Jungle [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: De Grey A Romance [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Ghostly Rental [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Great Good Place [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Jolly Corner [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Last of the Valerri [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Owen Wingrave [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Real Right Thing [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Sir Edmund Orme [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Third Person [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Way It Came [Summary & Analysis]
- The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) review