Friday, December 1, 2023

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw, an 1898 novella by Henry James, is one of the most famous of all ghost stories. And a very complex ghost story it is.

A young woman, whose name we never learn, is offered a position as governess to two orphan children. Their uncle and guardian imposes an unusual condition. He does not want the governess to trouble him at any time on the subject of the children. She is to take complete charge of his house at Bly, and to take complete responsibility for the children.

Miles is ten and his sister Flora is two years younger. Miles has just arrived home from his boarding school for the holidays. Bly House is much more cheerful and comfortable than the governess had feared it would be and the children are adorable. Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, is kind and competent and the governess is sure that they will all get on splendidly.

The only fly in the ointment is a letter that has just arrived from the headmaster of the school. Miles has been expelled, and the headmaster has declined to give any reason. The governess is concerned but as soon as she meets Miles she realises that he is sweet innocent boy. She cannot believe he could have done anything very wrong.

All is well until the governess sees a man, a man on whom she has never before set eyes, standing on one of the two towers that form an odd part of the design of the house. Not long afterwards she is frightened by a man’s face peering in at a window. From her description Mrs Grose thinks that the man must resemble Peter Quint, but Peter Quint is dead. Peter Quint had been the children’s uncle’s valet and had for some time been placed in charge of the household at Bly.

There had been rumours of a scandal involving Peter Quint and the previous governess, Miss Jessel. Miss Jessel is also dead. Nobody seems to want to talk about Peter Quint or Miss Jessel although Mrs Grose felt that Quint had been a bad influence on Miles. From what little Mrs Grose has to say on the subject it seems that there was a sexual relationship between Quint and Miss Jessel.

The new governess is deeply shocked by such goings-on. A short time later she sees Miss Jessel by the lake. She is certain that Flora has seen her as well although the child denies it.

The whole picture starts to become horrifyingly clear to the governess. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were evil and depraved and now they are reaching out from the grave to corrupt and destroy two innocent children. The children may already be partially corrupted. The governess must somehow save the children.

As the struggle of the governess against the forces of darkness for the souls of the children draws towards its climax several disturbing things will be obvious to the reader. No-one but the governess has seen the two ghosts. The governess has convinced herself that the children have seen the ghosts even though they deny it. She has become obsessed. And it will occur to the reader that perhaps the whole thing is the product of the governess’s overheated imagination. It might also occur to the reader that this woman’s certainty that she is dealing with evil forces may be the result of her horror at the thought that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were having sex. It might also be due to her own sexually repressed nature.

The governess could be a kind of unreliable narrator. She is certainly inclined to interpret every facet of the children’s behaviour as evidence of evil forces at work.

Of course there is also the possibility that it isn’t a delusion and that demonic forces are indeed targeting the children. James keeps us guessing right to the end.

I’m certainly not going to reveal what happens at the end but in fact you can’t really spoil the ending of this story. If you ask half a dozen scholars to explain the events of the last few pages they’ll be quite capable of giving you half a dozen explanations. It’s not just that there are two possibly ways of interpreting the story. There really are quite a few interpretations that can be put forward.

To add to the mystification no-one knows exactly how the author intended it to be interpreted. No-one is even sure if Henry James believed in ghosts. He had an interest in the subject but that does not imply belief. What does seem certain is that James was being deliberately ambiguous. That’s why the novella remains so fascinating.

It’s also undeniably disturbing, often in very subtle ways. Very highly recommended.


  1. Replies
    1. No, I haven't. In fact I've only ever seen one of Britten's operas. Sounds interesting.

    2. Try this: