The Turn of the Screw  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Turn of the Screw is a novella written by Henry James. Originally published in 1898, it is ostensibly a ghost story that has lent itself well to operatic and film adaptation. Due to its ambiguous content and narrative skill, The Turn of the Screw became a favorite text of New Criticism. The reader is challenged to determine if the protagonist, a nameless governess, is reliably reporting events or instead is some kind of neurotic with an overheated imagination.

To further muddy the waters, her written account of the experience—a frame tale—is being read many years later at a Christmas house party by someone who claims to have known her. The account lends itself to many different interpretations, including those of a Freudian nature. Many critics have tried to determine what exactly is the nature of evil within the story.


Plot summary

An unnamed narrator listens to a male friend reading a manuscript written by a former governess whom the latter 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 found himself responsible for his niece and nephew - both extremely beautiful children - after the death of their parents. He lives in London and has no interest whatsoever in the children. The boy is at a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country home in Essex where she is cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. He gives the governess full charge of the children and makes it clear he never wants to hear from her again regarding them. The governess travels to her new employer's house and begins her duties. Shortly thereafter, the boy, Miles, turns up after being expelled from his school. The governess infers that the headmaster feels that Miles is a threat to the other boys.

The governess begins to see and hear strange things. She learns that her predecessor, a Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint (another former servant of the household), a clever but abusive man, died under curious circumstances. Gradually, she becomes convinced that the pair are somehow using the children to continue their relationship from beyond the grave. The governess takes action against the perceived threat, eventually culminating in the death of Miles.

Major themes

Throughout his career James was attracted to the ghost story genre. But he was not fond of literature's stereotypical ghosts, the old-fashioned screamers and slashers. Rather, he usually created 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.

He certainly followed this formula in The Turn of the Screw. In fact, some critics have wondered if he didn't intend the "strange and sinister" to be embroidered only on the governess' mind and not on objective reality. The result has been a long-standing critical dispute over the reality of the ghosts and the sanity of the governess.

Beyond the dispute, critics have closely examined James' narrative technique in 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 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.

Literary significance & criticism

The dispute over the reality of the ghosts has taken an actual toll on some critics, most notably Edmund Wilson. He was one of the first proponents of the insane-governess theory. But he was eventually forced to recant this view under fire from opposing critics who harped on the governess' point-by-point description of Quint. Then John Silver ("A Note on the Freudian Reading of 'The Turn of the Screw'" American Literature, 1957) 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 go back to his original view that the governess was unbalanced and the ghosts existed only in her imagination.

William Veeder sees Miles's eventual death as induced by the governess. But he traces the governess's motive back through two larger strands: English imperialism (based on the oblique reference in the introduction to India, where the parents of Miles and Flora died) and the way patriarchy raises its daughters. By a complex psychoanalytic reading, Veeder concludes that the governess takes out her repressed rage toward her father and the master of Bly on Miles.

Other critics, however, have defended the governess strongly. They point out that James' letters, his New York Edition preface, and his Notebooks contain no definite evidence that The Turn of the Screw was intended as anything except a bona fide ghost story. James' Notebooks entry indicates that he got the initial idea for the tale from Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This interesting origin, like almost everything else about the story, has generated critical commentary.

Besides the dispute over the reality of the ghosts, critics have also tried to trace possible sources for characters in the tale. For instance, some critics have suggested that Quint, given his very Irish description, was inspired at least partly by George Bernard Shaw. Again, there's no evidence in James' letters or his other comments on the story to support or refute such speculation.

One thing is clear: The Turn of the Screw continues to be the subject of extensive critical comment. The tale has also remained one of James' most popular works with the general reader. In odd testimony to the story's appeal, a glimpse of the book was included at a key moment in ABC's television show Lost.

Allusions/references from other works

An opera, The Turn of the Screw, was written by Benjamin Britten in 1954. The Turn of the Screw has been filmed many times with the best regarded version being Jack Clayton's 1961 film entitled The Innocents, co-written by Truman Capote and starring Deborah Kerr. The story has also been converted into a ballet by William Tuckett. The 2001 movie, The Others, echoes some elements of characterization and setting from The Turn of the Screw, though the movie eventually develops in a very different direction. An episode of CSI, first broadcast May 6, 2004, was titled "Turn of the Screws" and contained several references to James' work. The third episode of the second season of Lost refers to a film reel hidden on a shelf behind the book titled "Turn of the Screw". The 1972 movie Dr. Phibes Rises Again, which shares the topic of a relationship beyond death with James' novel, depicts the character Baker reading a copy of The Turn of the Screw & The Aspern Papers before being killed.

Other versions include an early live television play The Turn of the Screw (1959) directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Ingrid Bergman; Dan Curtis's well-regarded TV movie The Turn of the Screw (1974) with Lynn Redgrave; a 1974 adaptation for French TV; The Turn of the Screw (1982), which is actually a German-made operatic adaptation; a 1989 adaptation for Shelley Duval's Nightmare Classics starring Amy Irving; Rusty Lemorande's The Turn of the Screw (1994) with Patsy Kensit and Julian Sands, which updated the story to the 1960s; the TV movie The Haunting of Helen Walker/The Turn of the Screw (1995) starring Valerie Bertinelli; a theatrical adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher in which one woman plays the governess and a man fills the rest of the roles; Presence of Mind (1999), an acclaimed Spanish-made adaptation with Sophie Ward and Harvey Keitel; and a British TV adaptation The Turn of the Screw (1999) with Jodhi May and Colin Firth. Michael Winner's The Nightcomers (1972) purports to be a prequel that concerns itself with the relationship between Quint (Marlon Brando) and Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham). The film In A Dark Place (2006) is a modern interpretation of the story. The Quentin storyline and the Gerard storyline from the American soap opera Dark Shadows (1966) borrowed some elements from James' fiction. There is also a modern adaptation of the novel in Toby Pitt's "Ghost Story", published in 2004. A short film, "Turn," inspired by the novella was in development at Lai Khe Film Productions in early 2008. "Turn" will be released in May 2008.


  • 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

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Turn of the Screw" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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