Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

Few books have attracted as many readers and as much critical attention as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. The sheer volume of literary criticism on this novella is immense. One of the giant literary figures at the turn of the twentieth century, James lived on both sides of the ocean. Although born in New York, he spent much of his adult life abroad in Europe. His cosmopolitan education and experience provided him with a wealth of material for his work (Eimers 2008, 279). James wrote 22 novels, more than 100 short stories, and over 300 pieces of literary criticism.

On the verge of his “major phase” of writing, James wrote The Turn of the Screw (1898). Over a century later, readers are still mesmerized by this tale. The book opens with a group of friends telling ghost stories by the fireside of an old house. Douglas, the host, reads the manuscript of a story about his sister’s governess. Before reading it, he tells his audience that nothing comes close to this story “for general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain” (291).

The governess is hired by a gentleman to teach his niece and nephew, children who became his wards upon the death of their parents. Flora and Miles live at Bly under the care of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. The Master’s one stipulation is that the governess never trouble him about any matters relating to the children. After moving to Bly, the governess notices two figures in and around the estate – the previous governess of the children, and the former valet of the Master. She is horrified to learn that both these individuals have been dead for some time. The governess comes to believe that the children are possessed by these ghostly figures.

The Turn of the Screw is a classic ghost story, suspense novel, and psychological thriller (see my post on the latter format) all in one. But even more intriguing, the narrative is told from the point-of-view of the governess and we are never sure if we can trust her perceptions.

Most of James’s contemporaries accepted the story at face value and trusted the narrator’s perceptions. But in 1934, noted critic Edmund Wilson wrote an influential essay arguing that the governess was neurotic and as such, untrustworthy as a narrator. By the 1970s critics were adopting a postmodern approach that no longer opposed the apparitionist and nonapparitionist readings. (Reed 2008, 102-103).

In an oft-repeated section from his preface to A Portrait of a Lady, James discusses the use of narrators and the “windows” they provide for readers:
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. . . . They are but windows at best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. (1962, 46)
We view all events in The Turn of the Screw through the eyes of an individual who is obsessed with the Master who hires her. It is a limited and distorted “window” that she provides on events. Not surprisingly, it is during this period of James’s writing, that he begins to retreat from a “commenting, hierarchising narrative voice.” (Hadley 2002).

The governess’s psychological issues stem from the ambiguities of her social role. The nineteenth-century governess was an impossible position to hold; women were expected to be models of gentility but had no money or class position to do so (Reed 2008, 107-108; Bell 1993, 98). The governess in The Turn of the Screw spins a fantasy world in which she steps out of her problematic role to marry the Master. Her vision turns from preoccupation to obsession as she projects her secret fears and desires onto the ghostly apparitions (Bell 1993, 114). The ghosts act as doubles for herself and the Master, providing “the ugly realism that haunts the governess’s idealising fantasies” (Hadley 2002, 61).

The Turn of the Screw will not appeal to readers who enjoy action-driven novels. Although the narrative is filled with suspense, momentum is only gradually built as events unfold. The novel ends in a shocking revelation that will make you want to reread the novel.

The isolated country estate and eerie atmosphere dominate the narrative. Anyone who loves stories with a haunting, Gothic ambience (see my post on Gothic influence on the mystery novel) and a penetrating psychological focus will find it difficult to put The Turn of the Screw down.

Bell, Millicent. “Class, Sex, and the Victorian Governess: James’s The Turn of the Screw.” In New Essays on Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, edited by Vivian R. Pollak, 91-119. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Eimers, Jennifer. “A Brief Biography of Henry James. In A Companion to Henry James, edited by Greg W. Zacharias, 277-91. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

Hadley, Tessa. “‘As Charming as a Charming Story’: Governesses in What Maisie Knew and ‘The Turn of the Screw.’” In Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 40-64.

James, Henry. “Preface to The Portrait of a Lady.” In The Art of the Novel. New York: Charles Scribners & Sons, 1962, 40-58.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels. 1898. New York: Signet, 1962.

Reed, Kimberly C. “‘The Abyss of Silence’ in The Turn of the Screw.” In A Companion to Henry James, edited by Greg W. Zacharias, 100-120. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.