The Turn of the Screw

tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links

The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a classic ghost story which has defied conclusive interpretation ever since it was first published. A governess in a remote country house is in charge of two children who appear to be haunted by former employees, who are now supposed to be dead. But are they? The story is drenched in complexities – including the central issue of the reliability of the person who is telling the tale. This can be seen as a subtle, self-conscious exploration of the traditional theme of the haunted house, filled with echoes of sexual and social unease. Or is it simply, “the most hopelessly evil story that we have ever read”?

Henry James portrait

Henry James – by John Singer Sargeant

The Turn of the Screw – critical commentary

The film versions and the opera adaptation are explicit interpretations of the novella – because both of them make physically manifest the figures of Peter Quint and Miss Jessell. The text of the novella offers no such manifestations. These two characters do not appear in the story at all: they are only described by the governess and discussed by her with others.

At no time does anyone else see the figures the governess claims to have observed. She is always alone at such moments as her sightings occur. There is no evidence in the text that anybody else sees the figures the governess claims to see.

The governess ‘discusses’ Peter Quint and Miss Jessel with Mrs Grose, but in an oblique and ambiguous manner whereby she elicits confirmation of her impressions from the housekeeper, who has known Quint and Jessel as former employees and is gullible enough to share the views of the governess.

Because the narrative is delivered entirely from the point of view of the governess, readers only have her opinions and impressions on which to make judgements. She convinces herself for instance that the two children are devoted to her, but a close reading of their reactions to her reveal a growing irritation and hostility. She becomes psychologically oppressive to them, and eventually frightens Miles to death.

And because she never reveals the content of the letter which was sent to the house, we never learn why Miles has been expelled from his school.

Narrative structure

The novella appears to be that of a classic ‘framed narrative’ – which is normally a ‘story within a story’. It is introduced as a tale told by one guest (Douglas) to others at a weekend house party. It is one of the other guests (un-named) who presents the story. However, once the narrative begins, these intermediary narrators never reappear.

The story also comes to the reader via an extraordinarily oblique route. It is introduced by one (outer) narrator who is part of a group assembled for a weekend house party. He describes a fellow guest (Douglas) reading the manuscript of someone else’s story.

The governess has written down her account of events and given the manuscript to Douglas. Some time later Douglas gives the outer narrator the original manuscript, and the narrator makes a copy of it. It is the copy which forms the main part of the narrative. No reason is given why the outer narrator didn’t present the original text.

The Turn of the Screw – study resources

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Oxford Worlds Classics – Amazon UK

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Oxford Worlds Classics – Amazon US

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Dover Thrift – Amazon UK

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Dover Thrift – Amazon US

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Penguin Classics – Amazon UK

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Penguin Classics – Amazon US

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon UK

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon US

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – eBook versions at Project Gutenberg

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – the preface to the 1908 New York edition

The Turn of the Screw – a history of critical interpretations.

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – Text, Contexts, Criticism – at Amazon UK

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – A Reader’s Guide – at Amazon UK

The Turn of the Screw The Turn of the Screw – The Collier’s Weekly Version

Red button Henry James – biographical notes

Red button The Turn of the Screw – a book review

Red button The Turn of the Screw – audioBook version at LibriVox

Red button The Turn of the Screw – unabridged audioBook version

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Red button Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, web links, study resources

The Turn of the Screw – plot summary

The plot summary that follows is deliberately brief – because it is difficult to give an account of the narrative without at the same time offering an interpretation of its deeper possible meanings.

The Turn of the ScrewAn unnamed narrator listens to a male friend reading a manuscript written by a former governess whom the friend claims to have known and who is now dead. The manuscript tells the story of how the young governess is hired by a man who has found himself responsible for his niece and nephew after the death of their parents. He lives in London and has no interest in raising the children. The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country home in Essex. She is currently being cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. The governess’s new employer gives her full charge of the children and explicitly states that she is not to bother him with communications of any sort. The governess travels to her new employer’s country house and begins her duties.

Miles soon returns from school for the summer just after a letter from the headmaster stating that he has been expelled. Miles never speaks of the matter, and the governess is hesitant to raise the issue. She fears that there is some horrid secret behind the expulsion, but is too charmed by the adorable young boy to want to press the issue.

Shortly after, the governess begins to see around the grounds of the estate the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognize. These figures come and go at will without ever being seen or challenged by other members of the household, and they seem to the governess to be supernatural.

She learns from Mrs. Grose that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and Miss Jessel’s illicit lover Peter Quint both died under curious circumstances. Prior to their death, they spent most of their time with Flora and Miles, and this fact takes on grim significance for the governess when she becomes convinced that the two children are secretly aware of the presence of the ghosts.

Later, Flora runs away from the house while Miles plays music for the Governess. They notice and go to find her. The governess and Mrs. Grose find her in a clearing in the wood, and the governess is convinced that she has been talking to Miss Jessel. When Flora is forced to admit this, she demands to never see the governess again. Mrs. Grose takes Flora away to her uncle, leaving the governess with Miles.

That night, they are finally talking of Miles’ expulsion when the governess sees the ghost of Quint at the window. The governess shields Miles, who screams at her as he attempts to see the ghost. The governess tells him that he is no longer under the control of the ghost, and finds that Miles has died in her arms.

Principal characters
Narrator an unnamed outer narrator
Douglas possessor of the original manuscript, who introduces the story to fellow guests
The uncle unnamed guardian of two young children
The governess unnamed young woman, who has written the original account of events
Mrs Grose the housekeeper at Bly
Miles a young schoolboy
Flora his sister
Peter Quint a former valet
Miss Jessel a former schoolmistress

The Turn of the Screw – film version

The Innocents – 1961 adaptation by Jack Clayton (dir)

There are several film versions of the story – of which Jack Clayton’s 1961 version starring Deborah Carr is perhaps the most widely admired. The story was adapted for the screen by William Archibald and Truman Capote, with additional scenes by novelist and playwright John Mortimer, and the version was re-named The Innocents – the title alone of which is a form of ‘interpretation’.

Red button See reviews of the film at the Internet Movie Database

Literary criticism

Red button Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago University Press, 1983.

Red button Robert Kinbrough, Henry James: ‘The Turn of the Screw’, New York: Norton Critical editions, 1966.

Red button T.J. Lustig, Henry James and the Ghostly, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Red button Shlomith Rimmon, The Concept of Ambiguity: The Example of James, University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Red button John Carlos Rowe, The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James, University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Red button Gerald Willen (ed), A Casebook on Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969.

Red button Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers, New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1976.

Henry James's study

Henry James’s study

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Opera version

Benjamin Britten (1954)

Ghost stories by Henry James

Red button The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868)

Red button The Ghostly Rental (1876)

Red button Sir Edmund Orme (1891)

Red button The Private Life (1892)

Red button Owen Wingrave (1892)

Red button The Friends of the Friends (1896)

Red button The Turn of the Screw (1898)

Red button The Real Right Thing (1899)

Red button The Third Person (1900)

Red button The Jolly Corner (1908)

Other works by Henry James

Henry James The Aspern PapersThe Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Spoils of PoyntonThe Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James Daisy MillerDaisy Miller (1879) is a key story from James’s early phase in which a spirited young American woman travels to Europe with her wealthy but commonplace mother. Daisy’s innocence and her audacity challenge social conventions, and she seems to be compromising her reputation by her independent behaviour. But when she later dies in Rome the reader is invited to see the outcome as a powerful sense of a great lost potential. This novella is a great study in understatement and symbolic power.
Daisy Miller Buy the book from Amazon UK
Daisy Miller Buy the book from Amazon US


The Cambridge Companion to Henry JamesThe Cambridge Companion to Henry James is intended to provide a critical introduction to James’ work. Throughout the major critical shifts of the past fifty years, and despite suspicions of the traditional high literary culture that was James’ milieu, as a writer he has retained a powerful hold on readers and critics alike. All essays are written at a level free from technical jargon, designed to promote accessibility to the study of James and his work.

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

Henry James web links Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of James’s novels and stories for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production features, film reviews, box office, and even quizzes.

© Roy Johnson 2010

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