Analysis of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

“The Turn of the Screw” was first published as a serial in Collier’s Weekly in 1898 and appeared later the same year in book form, in The Two Magics. Quickly becoming Henry James’s most popular piece of short fiction, The Turn of the Screw reflects the significant shift that occurred in James’s writing during the late 1890s—the period identified as his “experimental phase.” Characterized by an increasing ambiguity that worked to undermine the narrative conventions of realist fiction, The Turn of the Screw and James’s other experimental texts (including What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age, and The Sacred Fount) move beyond the strict Realism that characterized his early work and suggest the modernist techniques that would typify his “major phase” novels of the first decade of the 20th century.

The ambiguity of James’s popular novella substantially added to the suspense that made it a favorite thriller among contemporary readers. That same ambiguity has continued to structure conversations, beginning in the 1950s, about whether the ghosts in James’s text are “real” or the narrator’s hallucinations. Because these accounts often unwittingly recreate the narrative strategies they set out to critique, recently they have become the subject of intellectual analysis in their own right.

Told as a story to a fictional audience, James’s text initially seems to conform to traditional forms of realist narrative. However, the account that the narrator, Douglas, reads to his listeners is a first-person narrative written by the governess who cares for the two children, Miles and Flora, at the center of the drama. This partial and arguably hallucinatory account is the only version we get of the strange events that occur at her employer’s rural mansion, Bly. A central question, therefore, addresses the issue of whether the governess is an unreliable narrator. The events she describes involve the ghosts of two former employees: Miss Jessel, the first governess of the two children, and Peter Quint, the valet, both of whom are dead at the time the narrative opens. The story focuses on the governess’s sustained attempts to protect her two charges from the corrupting visitations of these two ghosts. Requested by Bly’s absent master, with whom the governess fell in love before his departure, never to trouble him about the children, the governess enlists the aid of Bly’s faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. In attempting to learn why Miles has been dismissed from school and why both children hide their contact with the ghosts—vague hints of drink and sex inform the mysteries—the governess is forced to confront the children and, in the process, Miles dies.

The Realism of Henry James


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