Henry James and "The Turn of the Screw": The Governess and the Ghosts

Pre-University Paper, 2010

20 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of contents:

The “Turn”

Henry James – The Turn of the Screw – The Governess and the Ghosts
I. Henry James and his motives for writing a ghost story
II. “The Turn of the Screw” – Summary
III. The governess
IV. The apparitions and the governess’s attitude towards them
V. “The Turn of the Screw” and the Gothic novel
VI. An appeal to readers of contemporary supernatural literature


The “Turn”

Henry James’s title of his novel could not have been more allusive. He writes “The Turn of the Screw” at the turn of the century when people were both excited and nervous about what to expect of the new century. He gives the ghost-story another turn of the screw as the tale involves a second child. And even the author is at a turn ing point, because he decided, for the first time, to rent an old house, where he stays until his death. What happens if one turns the screw? Does it all get worse or does giving the screw two turns produce a status that restores its former orientation? Certainly a turn alters something. The governess in “The Turn of the Screw” wonders what happens if someone turn s out to be, for instance, innocent and this thought is instantly followed by another: What then on earth is the governess? This tendency to relate everything to one’s personal situation is perfectly human, but problematic. Can one unconditionally trust one’s own perception? Even the governess doubts this. She and the ghosts will be analysed and carefully interpreted in order to understand James’s narrative and the problems of human doubts and awareness.

I. Henry James and his motives for writing a ghost story

Henry James was born in New York City on April 15. He lived an “international life”, as he often travelled and moved from America to Europe and back. His works reflect his various experiences. He was acquainted with many writers of his time, including Tho­reau, Emerson and Hawthorne. He is famous for his magnificent use of language and style and his subtle characterizations. In 1898 his tale “The Turn of the Screw” first appeared as a series in the “Collier’s”, a weekly newspaper. His story was a success, Oscar Wilde called it “a most wonderful, poisonous little tale” [1], and therefore it is pecu­liar that James himself eagerly declared in several letters that it is “essentially a pot-boiler” [2]. Indeed, he made money but also achieved fame.

The idea of a wrongly suspected servant can already be read in a notebook entry of March 1892, that means well before he wrote the “Turn of the Screw” but there the ser­vant turns out to be “utterly innocent” [3]. This would indicate Peter Quint’s possible inno­cence. Another notebook entry of January 1895 surely can be seen as the inspiration for his tale[4]: A ghost-story, “mere vague and undetailed” [5], told by the archbishop of Canter­bury, but James was impressed by the “strangely gruesome effect in it” [6]. James borrows the element of the servants that corrupt orphaned children and their recurrence as “evil presences” [7]. He took these notes when he was asked to write a story set around Christ­mas and created a real masterpiece,. Apparently, he had different reasons to write such a story, of course, he wrote it for money and in shortage of time. However, it made him, this time as an American writer, a true follower of Edgar Allan Poe or Nathaniel Haw­thorne who established America’s proficiency for supernatural tales.

II. “The Turn of the Screw” – Summary

The story is set in a country house on Christmas Eve. The guests of the party, including the nameless narrator, are telling ghost stories. Douglas, one of the guests, tells the story of a young governess who is in charge of two children. He offers some remarks in advance about her first meetings with her charming employer in Harley Street, then he starts reading aloud the manuscript he got from the governess herself before she died.

The governess relates her positive impressions of her working place, the old country house Bly, where she takes care of her employer’s orphaned niece and nephew. A letter arrives concerning the boy’s expulsion from school. Since the governess cannot talk to his uncle in London, whom she promised not to worry about anything, she questions Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, whether the boy is “bad” like his headmaster has written. The governess receives that he is capable of being bad just as any boy. Though, it makes her suspicious. Nevertheless, she is highly impressed by young master Miles even more than by his enchantingly beautiful sister Flora. Hereafter she and Mrs Grose decide to keep Miles dismissal from school a secret. Ambling alone or looking out of a window the governess several times gets sight of a hatless man that Mrs Grose later, after the governess has described him, guesses to be Mr Peter Quint, the master’s for­mer valet, who is already dead. He has had a relationship with Miles. By a lake, the governess sees another apparition that she believes to be Miss Jessel, her predecessor who has died, too. She suggests that these two infamous lovers came back from the dead to get hold of the children, who she now eagerly begins to protect. Sharing time with the children seems to ease her, until she, again, meets Quint. The children pretend to have nothing in mind, but the governess thinks they are aware of their dead atten­dants and try to trap her in order to meet them. She gets more and more suspicious and eventually, after further appearances of the ghosts and a futile questioning of Miles, she wants to contact his uncle despite her vow not to bother him. Flora, Mrs Grose and the governess are by the lake, when Miss Jessel appears, but no one apart from the governess declares to see the woman. Flora now dislikes her governess, even is dis­gusted and finally gets ill, so that Mrs Grose takes her to her uncle to London. Then Miles and the governess are alone and she wants him to confess that he sees the ghosts without directly mentioning them. Miles admits that he has stolen the letter she wrote to his uncle and that he has said bad things at school, but nothing else. Then, the governess sees Quint outside the window. Miles just guesses that it is his dead friend but seemingly cannot see him, while the governess has the impression of fighting for the boy’s soul. When the apparition is gone she realises that Miles’s dispossessed heart has stopped.

III. The governess

When Douglas gives some information about the governess in advance, he characterises her in most positive terms. She was his sister’s governess after the events at Bly. So after all she did not lose her profession and according to Douglas she was “the most agreeable woman [he has] ever known in her position” [8] and “awfully clever and nice” (James, p. 9). The frame narrator then guesses that they were in love. The governess sent the manuscript of her dreadful story to Douglas, who is the only friend she ever told about the happenings at Bly.

She is the “youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson” (James, p. 11) and comes from Hampshire “at the age of twenty” (ib.). According to Mrs Grose she is young and pretty as the master likes his employees to be. She is “fluttered, anxious” (ib.) when she first meets her charming employer, because she has never done such a job before. Nonetheless since she falls in love with her advertiser, she agrees to condi­tions that other applicants did not accept. She takes it all very seriously. And her inexpe­rience also intensifies her impressions of Bly, of the children and not least of the ghosts. Besides, she herself admits that she is “rather easily carried away” (James, p. 17) and that she has got a vivid imagination. She certainly likes her profession, but as Robert Weisbuch states, the governess suffers from social and economic unimportance and therefore invests herself overmuch [9]. Often her problem is that she does not want to com­municate neither with Mrs Grose nor with her employer, because she wants to show her ability and power to handle the situation alone and be very rational in all the actions she takes. She wants to be a “screen” (James, p. 42) in order to save the children. So she can be seen as very responsible and brave when she even tries to shield them from su­pernatural forces. Moreover, this implies that she really means to be very good and that she is “not evil by intent”[10]. However, she can be evil in the sense that she is limiting the children’s personal freedom or being over suspicious or even acting in similar ways as the apparitions she fears.

Being a governess was a very ambiguous profession during the Victorian age. On the one hand, the governess was an enlightened teacher of children, who was socially and geographically mobile. On the other hand, she was a malevolent figure that crossed bor­ders of any kind (e.g. status) and was often linked not only to the rational but also to the irrational[11]. Since the governess epitomises the anxieties of her society, she is well-fitting for a ghost story. She is an absolute figure of border, as novelists like Charlotte Brontë or Marguerite Gardiner point out when they claim the governess is “neither fish or [sic] flesh, lady or servant” [12]. And because she is something in between she seems to be able to cross the borders and sense the neither living nor dead presences. Further­more, the governess can easily have a “tendency to ill-health, discontent, nervousness, morbidity, hysteria and insanity” [13], so that no one can say for sure (not even the governess herself[14] ) whether she is completely innocent. The fact that she has got no name supports her insecure and not clearly defined position as governess. In reply to the complaint that he has not sufficiently characterised his heroine, James only claims that it was his exact intention to keep the governess “crystalline” so that the reader is free to speculate on her[15].


[1] Gard, Roger, Henry James – The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul , London, 1968, p.

[2] Esch, Deborah & Warren, Jonathan, Henry James – The Turn of the Screw, W. W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 19992, p.

[3] Esch & Warren, p.

[4] Dorothy Scarborough, an important interpreter of “The Turn of the Screw“, claims that James took his inspiration from a publication of the Society for Psychical Research. It is likely that James was familiar with these reports, because his brother William was also a member of this society. James himself yet did not mention them as a source for his tale. Compare Esch & Warren, p.

[5] Esch & Warren, p.

[6] Ib.

[7] Ib.

[8] James, Henry, The Turn of the Screw, Penguin Popular Classics, London etc.., 1994, p. 9. All further quotations of the novel are taken from this edition. Abbreviated as James.

[9] compare Freedman, Jonathan, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge etc., 1998, p.

[10] Freedman, p.

[11] For the governess of the nineteenth-century compare Lustig, Timothy J., Henry James and the Ghostly Cambridge University Press, Cambridge etc., 1994, p.

[12] Lustig, p.

[13] Lustig, p.

[14] For examples of the governess’s doubts in “The Turn of the Screw” also compare James, p.

[15] compare Esch & Warren, p. 126, where James writes about the governess in his preface to the “New York Edition” of all his works edited by Edel, Leon

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Henry James and "The Turn of the Screw": The Governess and the Ghosts
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Franziska Gotthard (Author), 2010, Henry James and "The Turn of the Screw": The Governess and the Ghosts, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/265181


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