Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Bly. Country house in Essex to which an unnamed young governess, the daughter of a clergyman, is sent to look after two orphaned children whose wealthy uncle lives in London. The large house has two extensive floors, two towers, and grounds that include a pathway to a lake—elements characteristic of residences in gothic stories.
The house is managed by Mrs. Grose, an illiterate but talkative housekeeper, who oversees at least two maids and two servants. The governess has her own room, in which the child Flora has a bed. Flora’s brother, Miles, has a bedroom across the hall. In the schoolroom and nursery, the governess instructs her charges and also listens to Miles at the piano. A winding staircase has a casement window at its landing. Among other downstairs rooms is a dining room with a large window. Several rooms are empty.
Strange sounds that the governess hears in the house make her increasingly aware that apparitions are present that only she seems to see. On one occasion, while she happens to be thinking of her absent employer, the children’s uncle in London, she looks up at one of Bly’s towers and sees, or believes she sees, the ghost of Peter Quint, who in life was the uncle’s valet. Drunken and vicious, he was also the lover of Miss Jessel, the former governess who also is now dead. Miss Jessel appears frequently to the governess and to the children, who refuse to admit the appearances. The governess...
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The Growth of Towns
The governess's employer, the uncle of Miles and Flora, is conspicuously absent from the story, always in the city, at his house on Harley Street. In Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, this was not uncommon. In 1800, London had approximately nine hundred thousand inhabitants. By 1900, just after James wrote The Turn of the Screw, the population had expanded to 4.7 million. For some, city life meant poverty, as the towns were segregated by class, with the poorer inhabitants living in slums. The more wealthy residents, like the governess's employer, lived in more fashionable districts. As the governess notes, "He had for his town residence a big house filled with the spoils of travel and the trophies of the chase." However, like other wealthy landowners who were able to maintain a second residence, "it was to his country home" that the governess is sent.
Sickness and Medicine
The nineteenth century saw many advances in the science of medicine—including a greater understanding of physiology and the use of vaccines and other preventative methods. However, since these methods were not always used universally and since medicine had not yet evolved into a standard, regulated practice, the effectiveness of medical attention was largely due to the individual knowledge and skill of the practitioner. People could not hope for a cure if they were to get sick. As a result, people attempted...
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Bly, a "country home, an old family place" in the country, is a classic setting for a ghost story. When the governess first arrives, she is impressed by the "greatness that made it a different affair from my own scant home." When she receives her first tour of the place by Mrs. Grose, the governess notes the "empty chambers and dull corridors ... crooked staircases," and a "square tower that made me dizzy." All of these descriptions fit the profile of the classic spooky old house. So does the fact that the house features large, sweeping grounds, which include a lake and several pathways, both of which are imbued with the same feeling as the garden, the "lonely place" in which the governess first sees the ghost of Peter Quint.
Although the main body of the story has been written down by the governess, it is unclear as to when she recorded her story, since she notes in the story that she has "not seen Bly since the day I left it" and gives some hypothetical observations that might appear to her "older and more informed eyes" if she were to see it again. For his part, Douglas merely says that when she was his sister's governess, "It was long ago, and this episode was long before." Nevertheless, the governess has written the story down and sent Douglas "the pages in question before she died." As noted in the introduction, Douglas then reads the pages to the narrator and other assembled guests....
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Closer in length to a novella than to a novel, The Turn of the Screw is made up of a brief prologue and twenty-four short chapters. The prologue constitutes what is known as a "frame" in that it explains the circumstances in which the story is told and offers a few tantalizing preliminary remarks. Douglas's assertion that the manuscript he is about to read is the most horrible ghost story he has ever known, his revelation that the governess was in love with the master and his enigmatic remark that "the story won't tell . . . not in any vulgar way" spark the readers' curiosity and prepare them for a thrilling narrative experience. Once Douglas begins to read, he adds no commentary or interpretation so that the governess becomes the primary source of the reader's apprehension of the setting, the characters, and the action.
In The Turn of the Screw, in fact, the author apparently shifts all responsibility for the story to his fictional narrator who is the sole witness of the events and the single testimony to their veracity. James referred to this method of narration as the "indirect vision" by which he meant a work lacking a broad, authoritative perspective to guide the reader and only allowing access to the narrative through the perspective of a limited and fallible observer. He used this technique in many of his tales but nowhere to such an experimental extreme as in this work. Here, he places his protagonist narrator in a situation...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
The Turn of the Screw is an intriguing puzzle that stimulates readers to unravel its mysteries. If the ghosts are real, the governess is a positive heroine who struggles bravely to save the children; if they are her hallucinations, she inflicts the consequences of her disturbed mental state on the children. In the first case, James has written a superbly scary ghost story; in the second, he has given us a fine psychological study of a woman going insane. Or perhaps he has done both things simultaneously. These conflicting approaches and the variety of interpretations they can support provide ample material for lively discussion. The multiplicity of convincing explications of this story can also lead to a consideration of how we read literature in general, that is, of how a chosen approach helps determine what we will find in a given work. Going a step further in this direction brings us to the question of how we "interpret" people and events in our everyday life.
Given his longstanding interest in the genre, James was apparently undisturbed by the fact that ghost stories were classified as "minor" literature. Readers might consider how The Turn of the Screw conforms to the conventions of the gothic novel and of the ghost story as well as how it modifies or transcends them. They can then speculate on why such stories have always appealed to a broad public.
1. How does Douglas prepare his audience for the tale in the prefatory...
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In January of 1895 Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, told Henry James a story about young children in an old country-house haunted by the ghosts of their former servants. This brief anecdote provided the inspiration for The Turn of the Screw, one of the most widely read and controversial of James's fictions. At first glance, it might seem surprising that a sophisticated writer of social and psychological realism should be drawn to the supernatural and that the germ of his most famous ghost story should be provided by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, belief in spectral apparitions was common in the second half of the nineteenth century and many thinkers of the time were interested in the study of ghosts and psychic phenomena. The Society for Psychical Research, of which Henry's brother, the philosopher and psychologist William James, was a leading member, was founded in 1882 and its publications were a source of guidance for various authors of ghost stories, probably including Henry James. Certainly, his depiction of the ghosts in this story conforms to the most up-to-date ideas about their aspect and behavior.
In writing this story, James may also have been influenced by late nineteenth century research into psychological disorders carried out in America and Europe. In particular, his depiction of his protagonist can be related to prevailing convictions about female hysteria which was thought to occur in some...
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Compare and Contrast
1850s: Cholera rages through London and Paris, taking many lives and putting many people on guard against illness.
1890s: Because of better public hygiene, industrial towns have started to reduce the transmission of cholera and other contagious diseases. On a similar note, vaccines and x-rays come into use.
Today: As modern medicine creates antibiotics and other medicines to combat disease, bacteria evolve, prompting the creation of newer medications.
1850s: With rare exception, middle-class women are expected to fulfill their traditional role of bearing and raising children. For those who are unmarried, serving as a governess in somebody else's home, helping to raise other people's children, is an acceptable option.
1890s: Women work more and devote less of their lives to bearing and rearing children, and their expectation of life increases.
Today: Women have many options for both work and family. Some choose not to have children at all, whereas others remain at home, rearing their children and tending the home. Others pursue challenging careers in the same fields as men, and many balance both a career and a family.
1850s: As a result of industrialization, cities increasingly become the center of business, and many English gentlemen keep city residences so they can better handle...
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Topics for Further Study
In The Turn of the Screw, Miles dies at the end, presumably from fright. Research the known causes of heart failure in young children and discuss whether or not you think that it was realistic to have Miles die in this way. Use examples from the novel and your research to support your claims.
The governess in the story believes that the ghosts, although they look like humans, are sinister beings who are trying to steal the children's souls. Research the views regarding ghosts during the nineteenth century in both life and literature and discuss how the governess's beliefs either adhere to or deviate from depictions in other nineteenth-century ghost stories.
The governess is drawn to her employer, a gentleman who has a higher rank than she, and she makes much of the illicit affair between the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and Peter Quint, a man of much lower class. Research the various class titles that existed in England in the mid-1800s, from royalty to the peasantry. Using your research, organize the titles in hierarchical order on a chart, giving a one-paragraph description of each title.
In the story, the governess assumes that the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are evil, and hers is the only point of view given. Put yourself in either Jessel's or Quint's place, and give a short plot summary that narrates the events from the ghost's point of view. You may choose to make your ghost evil, good, sympathetic, or...
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In its uniqueness, The Turn of the Screw rightfully stands beside other nineteenth-century gothic and supernatural masterpieces like Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1866), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). In terms of plot, a comparison can be made with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847) which is referred to in the text. In both works, a governess goes to a remote estate to care for orphaned children, meets a widowed housekeeper who knows a dark secret and falls in love with the master of the house whom she hardly ever sees. The differences in the personalities and the fates of the heroines suggest that James was parodying Bronte's novel even as he paid tribute to it.
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James's talent in the genre of the supernatural, which culminated most perfectly in The Turn of the Screw, is evident throughout his career, from one of his first short stories, "A Passionate Pilgrim" (1871), to the unfinished novel he was working on at the time of his death, The Sense of the Past (1917). Other important supernatural tales are "The Last of the Valerii" (1874), "Sir Edmund Orme" (1891), "Owen Wingrave" (1892), "The Real Right Thing" (1899), "The Great Good Place" (1900), and "The Jolly Corner" (1908). These stories are not characterized by the sinister settings, frightening villains, horrible ghosts, and helpless pure heroines of tradition. This is because James preferred to communicate a sense of terror by the technique of having "the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy" and to focus on the psychology of the characters as they respond to the strange events that touch their lives and often reveal truths previously hidden from their eyes and mind.
A different aspect of The Turn of the Screw comes to the foreground when it is related to a series of works James wrote during the 1890s focusing on innocent children exposed to corrupting influences. Among them are What Maisie Knew (1897) and The Awkward Age (1899), in which adolescent girls risk being morally corrupted by their elders, and "The Pupil" (1891) which centers on the emotional suffering of a boy in an uncaring,...
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In 1961, for Twentieth-Century Fox, Jack Clayton directed a very successful film version of James's story entitled The Innocents using a script by William Archibald and Truman Capote that remains generally faithful to the original. As the governess, Deborah Kerr endows her character with an intense sensitivity and convincingly portrays her complicated responses to seemingly supernatural events which sometimes make her doubt her own sanity. The two children, interpreted by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, project a perfect blend of innocence and duplicity. The interior settings are suggestively claustrophobic and the visual beauty of the outdoor scenes makes the horror that intrudes all the more disturbing. Aided by an appropriately sinister sound track, Clayton maintains a sense of uncertainty and an atmosphere of brooding evil until the very end which shows the governess weeping desperately either for herself or for the children.
Several other adaptations are worthy of note. The great British composer Benjamin Britten, using a libretto by Myfanwy Piper, wrote an opera based on James's story which was warmly received at its debut in Venice in 1954. Considered one of Britten's major accomplishments, this opera creates an intensely emotional atmosphere and conveys in music and voice a disquieting sense of psychological ambiguity. In 1959, during the golden age of television drama, John Frankenheimer directed Ingrid Bergman and Lynn Redgrave in a...
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The Turn of the Screw was adapted as a television movie and shown by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1959. The production was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred Ingrid Bergman as the governess, Isobel Elsom as Mrs. Grose, Paul Stevens I as Peter Quint, and Laurinda Barrett as Miss Jessel.
The Turn of the Screw was adapted as a television movie and shown by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 1974. Directed by Dan Curtis, the production stars Lynn Redgrave as the governess, Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose, James Laurenson as Peter Quint, and Kathryn Leigh Scott as Miss Jessel and features an ending that differs dramatically from James's original text. The movie is available on video from Artisan Entertainment.
The Turn of the Screw was adapted into an opera with a prologue and two acts in 1954, by the famed English composer, Benjamin Britten. The opera was filmed in Czechoslovakia in 1982 by Pgd/Philips. Directed by Petr Weigl, the film features Czech actors lip-synching the musical parts, which are sung by others, including Helen Donath as the governess, Ava June as Mrs. Grose, Robert Tear as Peter Quint, and Heather Harper as Miss Jessel. Filmed in naturalistic settings, as opposed to a stage set, the opera is not widely available but is worth the effort of looking for it.
The Turn of the Screw was adapted as a cable television movie in 1990, co-produced by Shelley Duvall....
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What Do I Read Next?
Although James was American-born, he was an Englishman by preference, and many of his stories, including The Turn of the Screw, take place in England. For other ghost stories that take place in England, a good introduction is The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert and published by Oxford University Press (1989). This massive anthology includes forty-two stories, written between 1829 and 1968, from such literary greats as Walter Scott, Bram Stoker, Rudyard Kipling and Edith Wharton.
One of the most enduring English stories involving ghosts is Charles Dickens's holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843, concerning the famous three ghosts—The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and The Ghost of Christmas Future, along with the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge's friend, Jacob Marley. Together, the three ghosts warm the frigid heart of Scrooge, who realizes the error of his miserly ways. A current version of the short novel was printed in 1999 and is available from Bantam Classics.
Voices of Madness, 1683-1796, edited by Allan Ingram, collects four texts written in Britain in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. All four authors—one woman, three men—were regarded as...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Edel, Leon, ed. Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Covers much of James’s output; ignores the early critical controversy surrounding The Turn of the Screw and focuses instead on explication of James’s symbolic imagery and artistic techniques.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Edited by Robert Kimbrough. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. An excellent collection of source materials. Covers James’s background sources in his own words and presents a number of his letters regarding The Turn of the Screw. Presents chronologically a variety of critical reactions, from early criticism (1898-1923) through the years of the Freudian controversy (1924-1957) to more recent articles.
Tompkins, Jane P., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Turn of the Screw” and Other Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Two essays treat The Turn of the Screw, placing the work in the context of James’s other shorter fiction.
Wagenknecht, Edward. The Tales of Henry James. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Thorough discussion of sources and history for The Turn of the Screw. Attacks Freudian readings as serious misinterpretations; presents the novel as a straightforward ghost...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Beidler, Peter G., Ghosts, Demons, and Henry James, University of Missouri Press, 1989, p. 237.
Edel, Leon, “The Point of View," in The Turn of the Screw: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Kimbrough, W. W. Norton & Company, 1966, pp. 228, 233, originally published in The Psychological Novel: 1900-1950, 1955, pp. 56-68.
Gale, Robert L., "Henry James," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 12: Realists and Naturalists, edited by Donald Pizer, Gale Research, 1982, pp. 297-326.
Goddard, Harold C., "A Pre-Freudian Reading of The Turn of the Screw," in The Turn of the Screw: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Kimbrough, W. W. Norton & Company, 1966, pp. 186-87, originally published in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. XII, June 1957, pp. 1-36.
Heilman, Robert, "The Turn of the Screw as Poem," in The Turn of the Screw: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism, edited by Robert Kimbrough, W. W. Norton & Company, 1966, p. 215, originally published in University of Kansas City Review, Summer 1948, pp. 277-89.
Hoffman, Charles G., The Short Novels of Henry James, Bookman Associates, 1957, p. 71.
Kirby, David, "Foreword," in...
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