The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Turn of the Screw" (1898)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Turn of the Screw” was written by Henry James and first appeared in Collier’s Weekly (Jan 27-Apr 16, 1898). James (1843-1916) is one of the most acclaimed of the turn-of-the-century authors and critics. His works, from The Bostonians (1886) to The Spoils of Poynton (1896) to The Ambassadors (1903) to “The Turn of the Screw,” are all firmly in the literary canon. “The Turn of the Screw” is most of the most discussed and analyzed ghost stories ever written. It is treated with much more seriousness by academics and critics than most other ghost stories. But while it is well-written, “The Turn of the Screw” falls short of classic status due to its significant flaws.

Over a holiday a group of people are telling each other stories, and one, Douglas, reads to the group a story written by a woman many years ago; Douglas knew the woman and thought well of her, and she gave him the papers before she died. (What follows is narrated entirely by the woman, which is a crucial point in evaluating the story). The woman, whose name is never given, is hired as a governess by a bachelor, a Harley Street physician. He is a young, handsome, pleasant man who is friendly enough but insists that no matter what happens she is not to communicate with him. The doctor hires the governess to care for two children, who were his brother’s children. His brother died, as did his parents, so he is the children’s guardian, but he cannot look after them, so he hires the governess to do so. The children are a boy, Miles, perhaps 10-12 years old, and a girl, Flora, several years’ younger. The governess travels to Bly, the doctor’s mansion, and meets Flora and Mrs. Grose, the woman who had been maid to the doctor’s mother and who was head of the servants at Bly. The governess is initially taken with Flora as well as with Mrs. Grose. Unfortunately, not long after the governess moves in to Bly Miles arrives at the house, accompanied by a letter from his school which states that he has been dismissed from his school. The letter does not go into particulars about why Miles is no longer welcome at the school, simply that they cannot keep him. Mrs. Grose, who thinks the world of Miles, is aghast at the idea that Miles might be in any way at fault. The governess also discovers that Mrs. Grose is hesitant to say much about the governess’ predecessor and will only say that she left Bly and went elsewhere to die.

For a time everything is fine, and the governess enjoys her position and the children’s company. But one day at twilight she sees a stranger on the house’s tower, and then, one Sunday, she sees the man again, peering through the windows of the house and looking at her. Mrs. Grose says that the man is Peter Quint, a former valet for the doctor who died some time ago. Miles, meanwhile, acts as if nothing is wrong, and does not speak about school (the governess and Grose have not told him about the letter). The governess is afraid that Quint has come for Miles. Mrs. Grose is as well, and mentions how clever and evil Quint was. Then, while out playing with the children, the governess sees a second apparition, an evil-looking woman. Worse, the governess is certain that Flora saw the second figure but said nothing about it, something the governess finds suspicious. Mrs. Grose tells the governess that the second figure is Miss Jessel, the former governess (who also died), that Quint and Jessel were romantically involved before their deaths, and that they interacted with Miles and Flora before they died. The governess sees Quint again, on a stairwell, but she confronts him and is certain that she has in some way defeated him. But that evening Miles sneaks out of his room and goes on to the lawn, disobeying the governess’ orders, and he acts unrepentant when confronted by her about this. The governess concludes that Quint and Jessel have come back from the dead for the children and that the children have been shamming innocence about Quint and Jessel and are tainted with their evil. When the governess tells Mrs. Grose this Mrs. Grose is alarmed, but she is unsure what to do and acts more as the governess’ sounding board and friend than as a co-conspirator. The children refuse to admit that they have seen the ghosts, and they act chummily with each other and innocently toward the governess. Miles in particular acts as if he has no cares, telling the governess how much he wants to go back to school and continuing to act as if nothing had gone wrong there. The governess sees Jessel again, and then tries to get Miles to talk about what happened at the school, but he refuses. The governess writes a letter to the doctor asking him to come visit, but before the letter can be mailed Miles distracts the governess so that Flora can visit Jessel. The governess and Mrs. Grose go in search of Flora, and when they find her the governess sees Jessel and points her out to Flora and Mrs. Grose. Flora acts as if Jessel is not there, and Mrs. Grose claims not to see anything.

After this Flora refuses to see the governess and says awful things to Mrs. Grose. This convinces Grose that something is wrong with Flora. The governess discovers that her letter was stolen by Miles before it could be mailed, so the governess decides to send Flora and Mrs. Grose away and confront Miles. She does, but he is a long time admitting that he took the letter and that something bad happened at school, and even then he only admits that he “said things.” Before he can explain what those things were the governess sees Quint at the window. The governess grabs Miles, who does not see Quint, and shrieks her victory at Quint, but when Quint vanishes the governess discovers that Miles’ “little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”1 

As mentioned, “The Turn of the Screw” is one of the most analyzed horror stories ever written. It is critically celebrated as well, with critics using phrases like “the greatest ghost story ever written.” But those who rank “The Turn of the Screw” above all other ghost stories are revealing their own ignorance of the long and deep history of the ghost story–in which there are a number of stories that combine style and substance in more aesthetically pleasing ways than “Turn of the Screw”–and favoring the technical excellence over stylistic excellence.

The biggest problem with “The Turn of the Screw” is James’ decision to tell the story in the way he did, abandoning the smooth, sophisticated, and readable style of his mid-period, used in novels like The Spoils of Poynton (1897) and What Maisie Knew (1897), in favor of a choppy and shrill first-person narration. This was a deliberate choice on James’ part; his choice of a narrator in “The Turn of the Screw” is an unsophisticated governess, and her narration is, naturally, going to lack the precision of phrase which James shows in his other works. But the question must be asked, by critics as well as by readers: was James’ choice the correct one? Technically, in terms of construction and dialogue and atmosphere, “The Turn of the Screw” is masterful; but is it readable? Is it enjoyable? Does it contribute to an aesthetically satisfying experience? Does the much-lauded ambiguity contribute to the reader’s pleasure, or does it only satisfy James, Jamesians, and those intelligent and smug enough to appreciate a much-gilded lily? “The Turn of the Screw” is a cold, clinical construction, technically superb; but there are other aspects of storytelling which go into making a story a masterpiece, and “The Turn of the Screw” lacks those.

James made other decisions in writing “The Turn of the Screw” which were mistakes. The novel is slow. The governess is given to over-explaining matters, over-analyzing her actions, over-justifying herself, and constantly evaluating and justifying her own motives, emotions, and actions. James likely intended these to lend depth to the possibly delusional character of the governess (see below). But James overdoes these elements to the point of obscuring events and robbing the story of most of its momentum. The story’s sentences are over-long, written in a breathless style and with the emotions constantly pitched to near-hysterical levels. In all likelihood these were deliberate choices on James part—but, again, they render the story less enjoyable and less aesthetically pleasing.

James’ characterization is also sparse. The reader spends a great deal of time inside the governess’ head and thus sees her as a three-dimensional character, but Mrs. Grose is barely one-dimensional, and James spends far too much time telling us how sweet and good the children are rather than showing us why the governess believes that they are. In the latter half of the story Miles is given dialogue to speak, but by story’s end the reader has gained little more insight toward his character. Again, these may have been deliberate acts on James’ part, but, again, the end result is to detract from the story.

What “The Turn of the Screw” is most prized for by critics and scholars is its ambiguity. The central issue of the story is whether the events described by the narrator actually took place. The governess is a stereotypically and perhaps archetypally unreliable narrator. Her narration contains internal contradictions which make her not completely trustworthy. Because of this the story provides material for any number of interpretations of its events, and in that respect it is worthy of the high praise it has received. Decades of criticism have yielded three competing schools of thought about “The Turn of the Screw:”

1) The story is to be taken literally. Miles and Flora are being stalked by the ghosts of Quint and Jessel, and the governess heroically saves the children from being possessed by the ghosts’ evil. “Turn of the Screw” is a ghost story.

2) The story is not to be taken literally. The governess is entirely delusional, a psychologically sick woman gripped with repressed sexuality and frustrated desire for her bachelor employer. She draws the children and Mrs. Grose into her web of delusion and is ultimately responsible for the death of one of her charges. There are no ghosts. “Turn of the Screw” is a story of disturbed psychology.

3) There are ghosts, but they have been unconsciously or subconsciously summoned by the governess rather than existing independently of her. Because she is unaware of her own role in creating the ghosts, she can never completely banish them. “Turn of the Screw” is a horror story.

Cases can be made for each theory, and each theory has its flaws. If the ghosts exist, why can’t Mrs. Grose see them? If the ghosts don’t exist, and the governess is mentally ill, how does the governess know what Quint and Jessel looked like, and why does Douglas think so well of her? If the ghosts are summoned only by the governess, and the children were innocents before her arrival at Bly, what did Miles say to deserve his expulsion, and where did Flora learn the awful language that so appalls Mrs. Grose?

James himself made various statements about the story; in his 1895 notes he described the source for “The Turn of the Screw,” a ghost story told to him by the Archbishop of Canterbury in which the servants 

corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die...and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves by responding, by getting into their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost: but they try and try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children “coming over to where they are.”2 

In the preface to The Aspern Papers (1908) James takes the literal approach, writing “To bring the bad dead back to life for a second round of badness is to warrant them as indeed prodigious....”3 

While all three of the arguments have merit–and one of the brilliant aspects of “The Turn of the Screw” is that it is constructed, deliberately or not, in such a way that there is no one decisive argument, and that any number of interpretations can validly be made–the story is more emotionally satisfying if interpreted as being literal rather than the product of a deluded mind. Even so, the emotional satisfaction is slim compared for the experience.

“The Turn of the Screw” is an intellectual achievement. Its layers of ambiguity provide endless intellectual fun for those who enjoy dissecting stories and teasing out ambiguities. However, it is not satisfying on the most basic level of storytelling.

Recommended Edition

Print: Henry James, The Turn of the Screw and Other Ghost Tales. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.



1 Henry James, The Two Magics. The Turn of the Screw. Covering End (New York: Macmillan, 1920), 213.

2 Henry James, The Notebooks of Henry James (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 178.

3 Henry James, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw, The Liar, The Two Faces (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1936), xxi.