83 pages 2 hours read

Henry James

The Turn of the Screw

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1898

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Summary and Study Guide


Henry James published his novella The Turn of the Screw in 1898. While James himself dismissed the ghost story as a “potboiler,” literary critics have argued it is a complex study of the narrator’s psychology. This study guide refers to the 1981 Bantam Classics edition of the text, titled The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction.

Plot Summary

The novella begins with a Prologue, in which a man named Douglas introduces a manuscript he plans to read to a small gathering. It was written by a governess, who entrusted the manuscript to Douglas shortly before she died.

Following the Prologue, the governess’s first-person narrative account begins with her arrival at Bly, a country estate in England. Just 20 years old, she has secured her first job as a governess for two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, who reside at Bly. The children’s uncle lives in London and is their guardian. When the governess interviewed for the position with the handsome uncle, she was beguiled by his charms, but he directed her to take full responsibility of the children and never contact him again. Although the enormity of the responsibility makes her anxious, the governess’s worries are allayed when she meets the friendly housekeeper at Bly, Mrs. Grose, as well as her young charges. Indeed, Flora, age 8, and Miles, age 10, radiate such extraordinary beauty and innocence, the governess concludes they will never cause her trouble.

Despite the governess’s optimism, a series of disturbing events occur, beginning with a letter that arrives from the school where Miles is enrolled. The letter states that Miles has been expelled, without any further explanation. Alarmed, the governess turns to Mrs. Grose for insight, but together, they cannot fathom how such a perfect boy could commit any offense worthy of this harsh consequence. The governess decides to ignore the letter for the time being. The days pass blissfully, until one evening, while strolling alone through the gardens, the governess sees a strange man perched on one of Bly’s towers. She is startled but tells no one, until she sees the man’s face again, peering into the dining room window. After he vanishes, she shares her shocking experience with Mrs. Grose and describes the man’s appearance. Mrs. Grose gasps and identifies him as Peter Quint, the uncle’s valet, who died before the governess arrived. According to Mrs. Grose, Quint was depraved, and he corrupted the former governess, Miss Jessel, who is also dead. While together at Bly, the wicked pair were far too “free” with Miles and Flora.

One afternoon, while sitting by the pond with Flora, the governess sees the apparition of a woman in black and knows immediately it is Miss Jessel. Moreover, because Flora assiduously ignores the apparition, the governess becomes convinced the children are engaged in clandestine communications with the ghosts. After concluding that Quint and Miss Jessel have returned from the dead to continue their corruption of the children, the governess resolves to protect her charges and save their innocent souls from possession by the demons. She confides everything in Mrs. Grose, and the astonished housekeeper pledges to support the governess’s battle against evil.

As the summer months unfold, the governess glimpses the ghosts only twice, but she sees the mark of their vile influence in the children’s behavior, particularly that of Miles. She discovers the boy outdoors in the middle of the night, and although he makes a pretense of wanting to prove he could be bad, she assumes he was conspiring with Quint. Miles later demands to know when he will return to school, giving fresh urgency to the question of what happened there, but the governess dreads facing the matter and remains evasive. Shortly thereafter, Miles resumes his charming ways and invites the governess to listen as he plays the piano. The music temporarily lulls her, but she suddenly realizes Flora is missing. She rushes to the pond with Mrs. Grose in tow, certain the girl has gone there to communicate with Miss Jessel’s spirit. Just as they find Flora, the governess sees her predecessor’s figure across the pond and petitions both Flora and Mrs. Grose to acknowledge the sight. While Mrs. Grose looks but fails to see the apparition, Flora grimaces silently and then asks Mrs. Grose to take her away. The governess admits that Flora is “lost.” The next morning Mrs. Grose departs with Flora, leaving the governess and Miles alone at Bly.

Determined to succeed with Miles where she failed with Flora, the governess believes she can save his soul by eliciting a confession regarding his transgressions at school. She asks him directly about the matter, but before he can answer, Quint’s face appears again at the window. Quickly turning Miles toward her, the governess presses him for an answer until he confesses he said “things” to his classmates. She is elated by this display of loyalty to her, considering it a repudiation of Quint, and embraces the boy, only to discover his heart has stopped.