The Turn of the Screw Summary
by Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw Summary

The Turn of the Screw is a novel by Henry James in which a governess begins to suspect that the children in her care are under the control of ghosts.

  • The governess is hired to care for two children, Miles and Flora. She goes to live with them in Bly, where she sees the ghosts of her predecessor, Mrs. Grose, and her employer's former valet, Peter Quint.

  • The children exhibit strange behavior, and the governess fears begins to fear that they are possessed.

  • Miles falls ill. The governess attempts to protect the children from the ghosts, but Miles ultimately dies.

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

It is a pleasant afternoon in June when the governess first arrives at the country estate at Bly, where she is to take charge of Miles, age ten, and Flora, eight. She faces her new position with some trepidation because of the unusual circumstances of her situation. The two children are to be under her complete care, and their uncle, who engaged her, has been explicit in stating that he does not wish to be bothered with his orphaned niece and nephew. Her uneasiness disappears, however, when she sees her charges, for Flora and Miles seem incapable of giving the slightest trouble.

The weeks of June pass uneventfully. Then, one evening, while she is walking in the garden at twilight, the governess is startled to see a strange young man at a distance. The man looks at her in a manner that suggests a challenge and then disappears. The incident angers and distresses the young woman; she decides that the man is a trespasser.

On the following Sunday evening, the governess is again startled to see the same stranger looking in at her through a window. He stares piercingly at her for a few seconds and then disappears. This time the governess realizes that the man had been looking for someone in particular, and she thinks that perhaps he bodes evil for the children in her care. A few minutes later, the governess tells the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, of the incident and describes the appearance of the man. Mrs. Grose tells her that it is a perfect description of Peter Quint, the valet to the governess’s employer—but Mr. Quint is dead.

One afternoon shortly afterward, a second apparition appears. This time Miss Jessel, the former governess, appears in the garden to both the governess and the little girl, Flora. The strange part of the situation is that the little girl refuses to admit to the governess that she sees the figure and knows who it is, though it is obvious that she understands the appearance fully.

The governess learns from the housekeeper that Quint and Miss Jessel had been lovers while alive, though the young woman came from a very fine family and the man had been guilty of drunkenness and worse vices. For what evil purpose these two spirits wish to influence the seemingly innocent children, neither the housekeeper nor the governess can guess.

The secrecy of the children about seeing the ghosts is maddening to the two women. They both feel that the boy is continuing to see the two ghosts in private and conceals that fact, just as he had known of the illicit affair between the valet and the former governess in life and had helped them to conceal it. Yet, when in the presence of the children, the governess sometimes feels that it would be impossible for the two children to be influenced into evil.

The third time the ghost of Quint appears to the governess is inside the house. Unable to sleep, she is reading late at night when she hears someone on the stairs. She goes to investigate and sees the ghost, which disappears when faced by her unflinching gaze. Each night after that, she inspects the stairs, but she never again sees the ghost of the man. Once, she glimpses the apparition of Miss Jessel sitting dejectedly on the lowest stair.

Worse than the appearance of the ghosts is the discovery that the children have been leaving their beds at night to wander on the lawn in communication with the spirits, who are leading them to unknown evil. It becomes apparent...

(The entire section is 3,011 words.)