The Turn of the Screw

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Turn of the Screw
Turn 228.jpg
Written by: Henry James
Central Theme:
First published: October 1898

Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) introduces us to the memoirs of an anonymous governess, which relate her eerie experiences at the country estate of Bly. Young and inexperienced at the time, the governess initially adored her two charges, the "angelic" Miles and Flora. Soon, however, her glimpses of a strange man and an equally strange woman convince her not only that dark doings are afoot, but also that the children are directly involved. With the help of Mrs. Grose, the stolid housekeeper, the governess seeks to save the children from unimaginable evils...

The Turn of the Screw still ranks as one of the Victorian era's most famous tales of the supernatural, yet half of its appeal is the ambiguously Unreliable Narrator. The story could either be about a brave but overmatched governess trying to defend her charges from evil spirits, or about an insane governess who subjects innocent children to her own murderous hallucinations. It's equally spooky either way.

The novella has inspired numerous film, television, stage, and even ballet Adaptations, as well as Sequels and the occasional Perspective Flip. Of these, the best-known are the film The Innocents (based on a Broadway play that was itself an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw) and Benjamin Britten's Opera.

Tropes used in The Turn of the Screw include:
  • Big Fancy House: How the governess initially perceives Bly--although she admits that if she saw it again, she would probably think differently.
  • Brain Fever: Flora, after the governess accuses her of conspiring with the ghosts.
  • Casanova: Peter Quint, according to Mrs. Grose. And, perhaps, the Master of Bly.
  • Creepy Child: Miles and Flora. The extent of their creepiness, however, depends on how you judge the narrator's sanity.
  • Christmas Ghost Story: According to the very first lines of the novel:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Whatever kills Miss Jessell (quite possibly death in childbirth).
  • Evil Redhead: Peter Quint.
  • False Friend: Some scholars see Mrs. Grose as this, noting that the governess always got more hysterical after her talks with her, only noted details about the ghosts when Mrs. Grose provided them about the people (notably Mrs. Grose asks if the first ghost "had red hair" and the governess suddenly agreed that he did indeed). The main interpretation is that before the Governess came, Mrs. Grose ran the house, and she wanted her old job back (of course all of this falls into the "there were no ghosts" camp).
  • The Film of the Book: Several, notably The Innocents.
  • Genre Savvy: The governess frequently imagines herself in the role of a Gothic or romance heroine, albeit while forgetting their tendency to be driven insane...
  • Ghostly Goals: If you believe the governess, Peter Quint and Miss Jessell are attempting to murder the children.
  • Haunted Heroine: If the governess isn't an Unreliable Narrator, then she's this.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: How the governess initially perceives Miles and Flora, before she decides that they're actually in cahoots with dark forces.
  • I Just Knew: A variant on this phrase occurs repeatedly:

"But how do you know?"
"I know, I know, I know!" My exaltation grew. "And you know, my dear!"

  • I See Dead People: The governess is the only person who admits, at least, to seeing the ghosts.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: The story is supposed to be the main character's diary, as read to the author. Bookends deal with how the story is read to him, and his reaction.
  • Lying Creator: James is accused of this. Word of God stated that this story was simply a ghost story but a few notable critics such as H.C. Goddard have argued that the story is really about suppressed sexuality and the ghosts are a result of the governess' sexual frustration. Marcia Eaton, an aesthetics professor, writes "James himself said that the story was just a ghost story. Some critics ... try to show that he [James] was intentionally deceptive when he made such statements."
  • Money, Dear Boy: James intended this novella to bring him some much-needed cash, which it did.
  • Nameless Narrative: The governess remains unnamed throughout.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Subverted. The governess makes much of her graciousness to and intimacy with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, but consistently condescends to her.
  • Not-So-Imaginary Friend: The governess believes that Miles and Flora spend their time with the ghosts, much as they did when Peter Quint and Miss Jessell were still alive.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Given what ultimately happens to both Flora and Miles...
  • Parental Abandonment: Or, rather, avuncular abandonment. The Master of Bly refuses to have anything to do with the children.
  • Perspective Flip: Hilary Bailey's Miles and Flora, as well as Joyce Carol Oates' The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly.
  • Supernatural Fiction
  • Unfinished Business: How the governess explains why the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessell have returned.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Possibly.