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Dylan Flores
Dylan Flores

The Turn of the Screw: How Henry James Created a Psychological Thriller

Literary Notes on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw is a novella by Henry James that was first published in 1898. It is one of his most famous and controversial works, as it has been interpreted in various ways, from a ghost story to a psychological thriller. It is a part of James's experimental phase of writing and has a double structure that creates ambiguity and horror. The story revolves around a governess who claims to see the ghosts of two former servants and tries to protect the children under her care from their influence. However, it is unclear whether the ghosts are real or products of her imagination, and whether she is a heroic or a delusional figure.

literary notes on turn of the screw

The Narrative Structure of The Turn of the Screw

The novella uses a frame narrative technique, which means that it is a story within a story. It begins with an unnamed narrator who recalls a Christmas Eve gathering at an old house in England, where guests listen to ghost stories. One of them, Douglas, introduces a story that involves two childrenFlora and Milesand his sisters governess, with whom he was in love. He has obtained her written record of events from his home, and he reads it aloud to the others. The narration then shifts to the governesss point of view as she tells her strange experience.

This narrative structure creates a distance between the reader and the main story, as it is filtered through multiple layers of narration. It also raises questions about the reliability and credibility of each narrator. For instance, how accurate is Douglas's memory of his sister's governess? How trustworthy is his source? How faithful is he to her manuscript? How objective is he in presenting her story? Similarly, how reliable is the governess herself? How truthful is she in recounting her experience? How sane is she in perceiving her reality? These questions are never fully answered in the text, leaving room for multiple interpretations.

The Gothic Elements of The Turn of the Screw

The novella employs many elements of Gothic fiction, which is a genre that originated in 18th-century England and features stories of horror, mystery, and the supernatural. Some of the Gothic elements that the novella uses are:

  • The haunted house: The setting of the story is Bly, an isolated country estate that has a history of secrets and tragedies. The house is described as a "big, ugly, antique, but convenient house" that is "a rambling, spacious, comfortable" place. However, it also has a sinister aspect, as it is the site of the deaths of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, the former valet and governess who allegedly corrupted the children and now haunt them as ghosts. The house also has dark and hidden corners, such as the tower and the staircase, where the governess encounters the apparitions.

  • The innocent children: The protagonists of the story are Flora and Miles, two young orphans who are under the care of their uncle and his governess. They are portrayed as beautiful, charming, and well-behaved children who seem to have no faults or flaws. However, they also have a mysterious side, as they are implied to have a secret communication with the ghosts and to conceal their knowledge from the governess. They also exhibit some disturbing behaviors, such as lying, stealing, and disobeying.

  • The sinister servants: The antagonists of the story are Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, two former servants who worked at Bly and died under mysterious circumstances. They are described as evil and immoral people who abused their positions and influenced the children in a negative way. They are also depicted as ghostly figures who appear to the governess at various times and places, trying to lure the children away from her. They are contrasted with Mrs. Grose, the current housekeeper who is loyal, kind, and supportive of the governess.

  • The supernatural: The story involves the presence of ghosts or spirits that haunt the house and the children. The governess claims to see them and to hear their voices, but no one else does. She also believes that they have a malevolent intention and that they want to possess the children's souls. However, it is unclear whether these ghosts are real or imaginary, and whether they are manifestations of the governess's own fears and fantasies.

The Psychological Aspects of The Turn of the Screw

The novella also explores the themes of madness, repression, sexuality, and power through the governess's perspective. Some of the psychological aspects that the novella examines are:

  • Madness: The governess's sanity is constantly questioned throughout the story, as she sees and hears things that no one else does. She also becomes obsessed with her mission to save the children from the ghosts, even at the cost of their happiness and well-being. She may be suffering from a mental illness such as paranoia or hysteria, or she may be influenced by her own imagination or subconscious desires.

  • Repression: The governess's repression of her emotions and impulses may be a cause or a consequence of her madness. She is a young woman who lives in a strict Victorian society that imposes moral and social norms on her behavior. She is also in love with her employer, who is a wealthy bachelor who hired her on the condition that she never contact him or bother him with any problems. She may be projecting her repressed feelings onto the ghosts and the children, creating a fantasy world where she can express her love and fear.

  • Sexuality: The governess's sexuality is another aspect of her repression that may affect her perception of reality. She is attracted to her employer, but she never sees him or speaks to him after their first meeting. She may be transferring her sexual frustration onto Peter Quint, who is his opposite in terms of class and character. She may also be jealous of Miss Jessel, who had an illicit affair with Quint and who may have been pregnant with his child. She may be competing with her for his attention and for the children's affection.

  • Power: The governess's power is another theme that relates to her psychology. She is in charge of the children's education and welfare, but she also has to deal with their resistance and deception. She is in conflict with the ghosts, who challenge her authority and threaten her role. She is also in subordination to her employer, who gives her orders but does not support her or appreciate her efforts. She may be using her power to control or manipulate the children and to assert herself against the ghosts.

The Literary Influences of The Turn of the Screw

The novella draws on previous works by authors such as Ann Radcliffe, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe. Some of the literary influences that the novella reflects are:

Article with HTML formatting (continued): (1794) and The Italian (1797). These novels feature young heroines who are trapped in remote and gloomy castles by tyrannical villains and threatened by supernatural forces. Radcliffe also uses the technique of "explained supernatural", which means that she provides rational explanations for the seemingly paranormal events in her stories. The Turn of the Screw is influenced by Radcliffe's use of Gothic settings, themes, and devices, but it also differs from her in that it does not offer clear resolutions for the mysteries and ambiguities in the plot.

  • Charles Dickens: Dickens was an English writer who wrote popular novels such as Oliver Twist (1838) and Great Expectations (1861). These novels feature orphaned or neglected children who face various hardships and dangers in a corrupt and cruel society. Dickens also uses elements of Gothic fiction, such as dark and decaying environments, grotesque and violent characters, and hints of the supernatural. The Turn of the Screw is influenced by Dickens's portrayal of innocent and vulnerable children who are exposed to evil influences and who may have hidden secrets or sins.

  • Edgar Allan Poe: Poe was an American writer who wrote short stories and poems that are considered classics of Gothic and horror literature, such as The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and The Raven (1845). These works feature unreliable narrators who suffer from psychological disorders or delusions and who experience terrifying or bizarre events that blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Poe also explores themes such as madness, death, guilt, and obsession. The Turn of the Screw is influenced by Poe's use of psychological terror and his creation of ambiguous and unreliable narrators who may be haunted by their own minds.

The Critical Reception of The Turn of the Screw

The novella has been interpreted in various ways by critics and readers over time. Some of the critical approaches that have been applied to the novella are:

  • The Apparitionist vs. Non-Apparitionist Debate: This is one of the oldest and most enduring debates about the novella, which concerns whether the ghosts are real or not. The apparitionists argue that the ghosts are objective entities that exist independently of the governess's perception, and that they have a malicious intention to harm the children. The non-apparitionists argue that the ghosts are subjective illusions that are products of the governess's imagination, and that they reflect her own fears and fantasies. Both sides have cited textual evidence to support their claims, but neither has been able to provide a definitive answer.

  • The Psychoanalytic vs. Feminist Readings: These are two of the most influential readings of the novella, which focus on the governess's psychology and gender respectively. The psychoanalytic readings apply theories such as Freud's or Lacan's to explain the governess's behavior and perception. They suggest that she is suffering from a mental disorder such as hysteria or paranoia, or that she is projecting her repressed sexual desires onto the ghosts and the children. The feminist readings apply theories such as Gilbert and Gubar's or Sedgwick's to challenge the patriarchal assumptions of the text. They suggest that she is a victim of oppression and exploitation by her male employer and his male servants, or that she is resisting their domination by asserting her authority and agency.

  • The Adaptations and Revisions of The Turn of the Screw: The novella has inspired various adaptations and revisions in different media such as film, opera, theater, and literature. Some examples are: The Innocents (1961), a film directed by Jack Clayton; The Turn of the Screw (1954), an opera composed by Benjamin Britten; The Turn of the Screw (1999), a play written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz; The Turning (2020), a film directed by Floria Sigismondi; A Jealous Ghost (2005), a novel written by A.N. Wilson; Florence & Giles (2010), a novel written by John Harding; This House Is Haunted (2013), a novel written by John Boyne; etc. These adaptations and revisions have variously updated, modified, expanded, or subverted the original story, offering new perspectives and interpretations.


The Turn of the Screw is a complex and fascinating novella that has captivated and puzzled readers for over a century. It is a masterpiece of Gothic fiction that combines elements of horror, mystery, and romance. It is also a rich and nuanced text that explores themes of madness, repression, sexuality, and power. It is a challenging and rewarding work that invites multiple readings and responses, and that continues to inspire new adaptations and revisions.


  • What is the meaning of the title "The Turn of the Screw"? The title "The Turn of the Screw" is a metaphor that suggests the increasing intensity and horror of the plot. It implies that each new event or revelation is like a turn of a screw that tightens the tension and suspense. It also implies that the governess's mental state is like a screw that is being twisted and distorted by her experience.

  • What is the significance of the black veil in the novella? The black veil is a symbol of mystery and terror in the novella. It covers a portrait or an object in one of the rooms of Udolpho, which the governess glimpses once and is horrified by what she sees. She never reveals what it is, but she associates it with the ghosts and their evil influence. The black veil also represents the ambiguity and uncertainty of the novella, as it conceals something that may or may not be real.

  • What is the role of Mrs. Grose in the novella? Mrs. Grose is the housekeeper of Bly and the only friend and ally of the governess. She provides information and support to the governess, but she also complicates her situation. She confirms the identity and history of the ghosts, but she never sees them herself. She agrees with the governess's suspicions about the children, but she also doubts her actions and motives. She helps the governess to protect the children, but she also fails to prevent their tragedy.

  • What is the relationship between Miles and Flora in the novella? Miles and Flora are brother and sister who are under the care of their uncle and his governess. They are very close and affectionate with each other, but they also have a secret communication that excludes the governess. They are influenced by the ghosts, who may have corrupted them or possessed them. They are also in conflict with the governess, who tries to save them from the ghosts but also alienates them from her.

  • What is the ending of The Turn of the Screw? The ending of The Turn of the Screw is ambiguous and open to interpretation. In the final scene, the governess confronts Miles in his bedroom, where she sees the ghost of Peter Quint at the window. She embraces Miles and tells him to confess his involvement with Quint, but Miles denies seeing anything. He then cries out Quint's name and falls dead in her arms. The reader does not know whether Miles died from fear, shock, or suffocation, or whether he was freed from or taken by Quint's spirit.



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