The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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Turn of the ScrewInformation

Goodreads: The Turn of the Screw
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1898


A young governess arrives in the country to take charge of a little girl and her brother, the master’s only order being that she should never disturb him with any reports or complaints.  When the ghosts of two dead servants begin to appear, threatening to corrupt the children with their knowledge of evil, the governess thus takes it upon herself to thwart them.


Henry James’s classic novella takes the well-known form of the ghost story and transforms it into something simultaneously more intimate and more terrifying.  Neither the governess nor the author ever specifies the exact nature of the evil threatening the children, though both provide enough information for readers to guess.  This ambiguity allows the audience the utmost freedom for their imaginations, so that each member can suppose the worst as conceived of in his or her own experience.  Far from contenting itself with the types of cheap thrills that might come simply from presenting a ghostly presence wandering through an old house, The Turn of the Screw uses the minds of its readers to create an individualized experience of terror.

Though presented as a ghost story—the typical kind that begins with an audience gathered around a fire at Christmas—The Turn of the Screw invites its readers to consider the terrors it contains as something other than supernatural.  No hard evidence exists for the presence of the ghosts in the house and readers may begin to suspect that the governess has a rather overactive imagination.  Her conviction, however, cannot remain in doubt and she manages to convey in whispered tones and half-formed sentences the nature of the transgressions she so desperately fears.  The tension between the possibility of real evil forces at work in the house and the possibility that an unstable governess is merely projecting those forces creates an even more acute sense of horror—for which is worse and can either be fought?

The interplay of these two possibilities combines to create a many-layered story that will, unlike a ghost story that must rely solely on the element of surprise, bear rereading.  New meanings and nuances jump out in the dialogue even as one progresses through a first reading.  To go back through with a knowledge of the story as a whole will undoubtedly unlock even more.  It is not hard to understand why critics have delighted in combing through The Turn of the Screw.

10 thoughts on “The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

    • Krysta says:

      This was one of my first works my Henry James! I need to get around to his novels one day. But…I wouldn’t advise reading The Turn of the Screw at night!


        • Krysta says:

          I’ve read a lot about James’s convoluted sentence structure, but I think I’ll give his works a try anyway! One’s already sitting on my shelf, so I need to justify its purchase. 😉


  1. DoingDewey says:

    This sounds really interesting! I’ve never read anything with an unreliable narrator, but I think ambiguity is one of the best devices for making something scary so this sounds like the perfect halloween read 🙂


    • Krysta says:

      It was pretty terrifying! I had to stop reading it at night so I could sleep. The governess doesn’t actually narrate, though–it’s a framed story so, it’s actually told by some guy to whom the governess told the story previously. The narrator obviously still doesn’t know what’s going on, though. I bring it up mainly because the framing device seems unnecessary, kind of like James used it because that’s what you do when you tell a ghost story, or something.


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