The Turn of the Screw Book Summary
At Christmas time, a group of people in an old country home swapped ghost stories. One story that particularly chilled the group involved the visitation of a ghost to a young boy.
When it was finished, a man in the group, Douglas, asked: “If the child gives the effect, another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children – ?”
Weeks later, when Douglas was able to obtain the manuscript containing this second story, he read the narrative to his listeners, after prefacing it with a bit of background.
The tale’s author was a woman who had been his sister’s governess, and Douglas was the only person to whom she had revealed her dreadful tale before her death. … On a pleasant June afternoon, a young lady of twenty, “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson,” arrived in London to answer an advertisement for the position of governess.
The advertiser was a bachelor who had been left guardian to his young nephew and niece. The uncle, a wealthy and charming gentleman, “beguiled” the young woman instantly.
The terms of her employment were quite simple: she was to take charge of the two children on his country estate of Bly in Essex, and to “never trouble him … neither appear nor complain nor write about anything.” She would be replacing the former governess, a young lady who had died under curious circumstances.
While the mystery surrounding the prior governess’s death did cause the woman to pause and consider, she nonetheless accepted the position and took the coach to Bly. The new governess soon met stout Mrs Grose, the Bly mansion’s head housekeeper, and little Flora, the bachelor’s niece.
The girl was a “vision of angelic beauty,” and the governess looked forward to “teaching” and “forming” the child. Miles, the little boy, was due home in a few days for his school holiday and, according to Mrs Grose, the governess would be equally “taken” with Miles. Both children seemed incapable of giving any trouble.
However, before Miles arrived, the governess received two letters. The first was from her employer, instructing her to handle the details of the second letter, sent from the headmaster of Miles’ school. This second letter in effect stated that Miles was dismissed from school, permanently.
This news worried the governess, but Mrs Grose, upon hearing the report, could not believe it, and urged her to wait until she met Miles before forming a judgment.
A few days later Miles arrived, and the governess beheld his “positive fragrance of purity.” In private she told Mrs Grose that the headmaster’s accusation was “grotesque.” Together they decided not to bother Miles’s uncle further about the matter. The governess enjoyed the summer days in the country.
It was the first time in her life that she “had known space and air and freedom.” Then, while strolling through the garden one day as the children napped, the governess allowed her imagination to wander. She imagined how charming it would be to meet a handsome young man around the turn of the path.
Still deep in fantasy, she rounded the corner of the garden – and it was as though her “imagination had, in a flash turned real.” On one of the towers of the old mansion stood a figure; not the man she had been dreaming of, but a strange fellow who stared at her menacingly for a minute, then disappeared.
The next Sunday evening as the governess entered the rain-shrouded dining room, she became aware of “a person on the other side of the window and looking straight in.”
It was the same man she had seen earlier, but at that instant she realized that “he had come for someone else.” She rushed out of the house to the spot where he stood, but again he had vanished. She looked in through the window, as he had done, and there she saw Mrs Grose, peering out just as she herself had stood a moment before.
When the housekeeper asked for an explanation, the governess told her the whole story. As she described the elusive stranger, a flash of recognition crept across Mrs Grose’s face. The man the governess had seen, she said, was Peter Quint, their employer’s former valet, who had died some time before.
The governess felt that Quint’s hovering presence boded evil for the children; that he wanted “to appear to them.” But the children never mentioned Quint, though, in life, he had been quite friendly with Miles. Not too long after this episode, a second figure appeared to Flora and the governess as they walked near the estate’s lake.
Flora knew the woman as Miss Jessel, the children’s former governess, but went along pretending that all was normal. The governess learned from Mrs Grose that the two apparitions had been lovers while they were alive, the girl having been led by Quint down drunken and corrupt paths.
Neither woman could guess what evil influences the ghosts might have on the seemingly oblivious children. What was particularly disturbing, however, was the children’s secretiveness.
Miles, they felt sure, was now meeting with the ghosts late at night, just as he had met with the lovers, concealing their illicit affair, in life. Over the weeks, the children were several times found leaving their beds to wander the night. But when queried, the unflinching youngsters said nothing.
They were in a world populated by the living-dead, and the governess could find no way to intercede. Summer faded into autumn, and though the governess saw no more spirits, she sensed in the children’s behavior that they were near. One day an animated Miles approached the governess to ask about returning to school.
She side-stepped the question, fearing that the ghosts’ influence might intensify if the boy went beyond her care; but she told him she would write the boy’s uncle and ask him what was to be done. That evening, before putting pen to paper, the governess entered Miles’s room and gently asked him to let her help in his secret troubles.
At that moment, a gush of cold air filled the closed room, blowing out the candle, leaving the two in silent, terrifying darkness. The following day when Flora had disappeared for some time, both Mrs Grose and the governess instinctively hurried to the estate’s small lake, calling out the girl’s name.
They finally discovered her playing in a thicket; on the opposite bank of the lake stood Miss Jessel. The governess, badly shaken, demanded that Flora admit to seeing Miss Jessel, but Flora still would confess to seeing no one. And, when pressed, the once loveable, angelic girl straightway turned into a child demon, spouting filthy language and ordering the governess to leave.
It was decided that Flora, already dominated by evil, would be better off away from Bly. Mrs Grose departed with the child for London that very afternoon. The governess and Miles remained alone. The governess knew by now that the boy had stolen the letter she had written to his uncle before it could be mailed. That evening she confronted Miles about the matter.
Taking the lad and gazing into his face, she suddenly saw, behind Miles, the ghost of Peter Quint glaring at them through the dining room window. Swiftly she drew the boy close to her body, shielding him from Quint’s “white face of damnation.”
Caught off guard by the woman’s abrupt manner, Miles then solemnly confessed to stealing and burning the letter, fearing that the governess was sending a “bad report” to his uncle. With rising courage, the governess now pressed Miles as to why he had been expelled from school.
Miles reluctantly admitted that his lewd speech had caused problems, and the governess shook him in tender exasperation for the months of torment he had caused. In the boy’s surrender, she thought she had won; the white-faced phantom outside the window vanished.
She released her hold on the child and gave him a smile. But suddenly, there against the glass the hideous Quint reappeared. “No more, no more, no more!” the governess shrieked as she again tried to pull the boy close. Miles, his back still to the window, asked, “It’s he?” “Whom do you mean by he?” she replied. “Peter Quint – you devil!” Miles screamed. “What will he ever matter?” cried out the governess. “I have you. …”
But the boy jerked from her grasp, turned, and glared at the now empty window. With the loss of his dead companion, Miles uttered the cry of a hellish creature. He rolled back and fell into the protective arms of his governess, finally at peace. After a minute, the governess found what she truly held. Death had won the child. “His little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”
The Turn of the Screw Characters
The “governess,” an unnamed 20-year-old woman
Mrs Grose, an older housekeeper
Flora, an eight-year-old girl
Miles, a ten-year-old boy
The Turn of the Screw Review
In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James creates a masterful psychological thriller, with “the strange and sinister” occurring in the midst of the usual. He engenders a nightmare quality to his tales; an unspoken, ungruesome “sense of evil” that allows the reader to imagine the horror from within.
Further, blending the innocence of children with ghostly evil makes for a terrifying combination. The terror lies not in the apparitions themselves, but in what is happening to the children; they change from “sweet things” to open liars and mean-spirited little beings.
A particular “turn” is represented by James’s young governess, who is frightened by the all-too-real daytime hauntings, but continually insists on telling the reader how calm she is. And the most haunting turn of all comes with the final questions left hovering before us: Was the deepening spell actually an emanation from forces beyond the dead?
Or was it, in innocent and terrible fact, a manifestation of the young governess’s own unconsciously possessive passion for the spirit of Miles – a passion first kindled by the uncle who had “charmed and beguiled” her, and then left abandoned in a lonely country household to spawn its own deadly ghosts within her soul and the souls of those around her?
In essence asking “What is the source of evil?” this tale, written in an eerily slow-moving, deliberate 19th-century style, has been called the greatest ghost story ever written.
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