The Turn of the Screw is a novella written by Henry James. Originally published in 1898, it is a ghost story that has lent itself well to operatic and film adaptation. Due to its ambiguous content and narrative skill, The Turn of the Screw became a favorite text of New Criticism. The reader is challenged to determine if the protagonist, a nameless governess, is reliably reporting events or instead is some kind of neurotic with an overheated imagination.
To further muddy the waters, her written account of the experience—a frame tale—is being read many years later at a Christmas house party by someone who claims to have known her. The account lends itself to many different interpretations, including those by Freudian psychologists and those trying to determine who or what exactly is the nature of evil within the story.
An unnamed narrator listens to a male friend reading a manuscript written by a former governess whom the latter 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 whatsoever in the children. The boy is at a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country home where she is cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. He gives the governess full charge of the children and makes it clear he never wants to hear from her again regarding them. The governess travels to her new employer's house and begins her duties. Shortly thereafter, the boy, Miles, turns up after being expelled from his school. For some mysterious reason, the headmaster feels that Miles is a threat to the other boys.
The governess begins to see and hear strange things. She learns that her predecessor, a Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint (another former servant of the household), a clever but abusive man, died under curious circumstances. Gradually, she becomes convinced that the pair are somehow using the children to continue their relationship from beyond the grave. The governess takes action against the perceived threat, with tragic consequences.
Throughout his career James was attracted to the ghost story genre. But he was not fond of literature's stereotypical ghosts, the old-fashioned screamers and slashers. Rather, he usually created ghosts that were eerie extensions of everyday reality—"the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy," as he put it in the New York Edition preface to his final ghost story, The Jolly Corner.
He certainly followed this formula in The Turn of the Screw. In fact, some critics have wondered if he didn't intend the "strange and sinister" to be embroidered only on the governess' mind and not on objective reality. The result has been a long-standing critical dispute over the reality of the ghosts and the sanity of the governess.
Beyond the dispute, critics have closely examined James' narrative technique in the story. The framing introduction and subsequent first-person narrative by the governess have been studied by theorists of fiction interested in the power of fictional narratives to convince or even manipulate readers.
Literary significance & criticism
The dispute over the reality of the ghosts has taken an actual toll on some critics, most notably Edmund Wilson. He was one of the first proponents of the insane-governess theory. But he was eventually forced to recant this view under fire from opposing critics who harped on the governess' point-by-point description of Quint. Then another commentator pointed out hints in the story that the governess might have gained previous knowledge of Quint's appearance in non-supernatural ways. This induced Wilson to recant his recantation and go back to his original view that the governess was unbalanced and the ghosts existed only in her imagination.
William Veeder sees Miles's eventual death as induced by the governess. But he traces the governess's motive back through two larger strands: English imperialism (based on the oblique reference to India in the introduction) and the way patriarchy raises its daughters. By a complex psychoanalytic reading, Veeder concludes that the governess takes out her repressed rage toward her father and the master of Bly on Miles.
Other critics, however, have defended the governess strongly. They point out that James' letters, his New York Edition preface, and his Notebooks contain no definite evidence that The Turn of the Screw was intended as anything except a bona fide ghost story. By the way, James' Notebooks entry indicates that he got the initial idea for the tale from Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury. This interesting origin, like almost everything else about the story, has generated critical commentary.
Besides the dispute over the reality of the ghosts, critics have also tried to trace possible sources for characters in the tale. For instance, some critics have suggested that Quint, given his very Irish description, was inspired at least partly by George Bernard Shaw. Again, there's no evidence in James' letters or his other comments on the story to support or refute such speculation.
One thing is clear: The Turn of the Screw continues to be the subject of extensive critical comment. The tale has also remained one of James' most popular works with the general reader. In odd testimony to the story's appeal, a glimpse of the book was included at a key moment in ABC's television show Lost.
Allusions/references from other works
An opera, The Turn of the Screw, was written by Benjamin Britten in 1954. The Turn of the Screw has been filmed at least five times. The best regarded version, entitled The Innocents, was directed in 1961 by Jack Clayton and starred Deborah Kerr. The story has also been converted into a ballet by William Tuckett. The 2001 movie, The Others, echoes some elements of characterization and setting from The Turn of the Screw, though the movie eventually develops in a very different direction.