The Turn of the Screw Summary

In The Turn of the Screw, a governess begins to suspect that the children in her care are under the control of ghosts. Miles has started using foul language, and Flora walks the ground at night. The governess sees the ghosts of past employees Peter Quint and Mrs. Grose. Miles dies soon after.

  • The unnamed governess is hired by her unnamed employer to care for his 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.

  • Miles has been expelled from school for foul language and bad behavior. At night, Flora walks the grounds of the country estate, where the ghost of Mrs. Grose appears across the lake. The governess fears that the children are possessed.

  • At the end, Miles falls ill. Neither child appears to have actually seen the ghost, and when the governess screams at one, Miles dies, confessing his sins.


(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 to the governess that the children are not good within themselves. In their imaginations, they are living in a world populated by the evil dead restored.

In such an atmosphere, the summer wears away into autumn. In all this time, the children give no sign of awareness of the apparitions. Knowing that her influence with the children is as tenuous as a thread that is likely break at the least stress, the governess does not allude to the ghosts. She herself sees no more manifestations, but she often guesses from the children’s attitudes that the apparitions are close at hand. What is worse for the distressed woman is the thought that what Miles and Flora are seeing are things still more terrible than she imagines, visions that sprang from their association with the evil figures in the past.

One day, Miles comes to the governess and announces his desire to go away to school. She realizes that it is only proper that he be sent to school, but she fears the results of ghostly influences on the boy once he is beyond her care. Later, opening the door of the schoolroom, she again sees the ghost of her predecessor, Miss Jessel. As the apparition fades, the governess realizes that her duty is to stay with the children and combat the spirits and their deadly influence. She decides to write immediately to the children’s uncle, breaking his injunction against being bothered in their behalf. That night before she writes, she goes into Miles’s room and asks the boy to let her help him in his secret troubles. Suddenly a rush of cold air fills the room, as if the window had been blown open. When the governess relights the candle blown out by the draft, the window is still closed, and the drawn curtain has not been disturbed.

The following day, Flora is briefly missing. Mrs. Grose and the governess find her beside the garden pond, and the governess, knowing that the girl had gone there to see the ghost, asks her where Miss Jessel is. The child replies that she only wants to be left alone. The governess can see the apparition of Miss Jessel standing on the opposite side of the pond. The governess, afraid that the evil influence is already dominating the little girl, asks the housekeeper to take Flora to London to request the uncle’s aid. In place of the lovable, angelic Flora there has suddenly appeared a little child with a filthy mind and filthy speech, which she uses in denouncing the governess to the housekeeper. That same afternoon, Mrs. Grose leaves with the child as the governess has requested.

That evening, immediately after dinner, the governess asks Miles to tell her what is on his mind before he leaves the dining room. When he refuses, she asks him if he stole the letter she had written to his uncle. As she asks the question, she realizes that standing outside the window, staring into the room, is the ghost of Peter Quint. She pulls the boy close to her, shielding him from any view of the ghost at the window, while he tells her that he did take the letter. He also informs her that he has already been expelled from one school because of his lewd speech and actions. Noting how close the governess is holding him, he suddenly asks if Miss Jessel is near. The governess, angry and distraught, shrieks at him that the ghost of Peter Quint is just outside the window. When Miles turns around, the apparition is gone. With a scream, he falls into the governess’s arms. At first, she does not realize that she has lost him forever—that Miles is dead.

The Turn of the Screw Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ghost stories would appear at first not to be James’s natural genre, but like all of his mature fiction, The Turn of the Screw exhibits important complications. The tale is framed by a nameless narrator relating how one evening a man identified only as Douglas read a manuscript—which is the story one is about to read—to an audience eager to hear a ghost story. From the outset, then, the story is placed at several removes from the reader. Questions about Douglas, the narrator, and the authorship of the manuscript all remain maddeningly unresolved. It is also futile to attempt to resolve the question of whether the ghosts in the story are real.

The tale is simple enough in outline. The nameless governess has been hired by her similarly nameless employer to look after his orphaned nephew and niece, Miles and Flora. Sent down to Bly, the employer’s country house, for this purpose, the governess encounters two ghosts: that of Peter Quint, her employer’s dead former valet, and Miss Jessel, her predecessor as the children’s governess. From the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the governess learns that Quint and Miss Jessel were intimate and that they may have corrupted the children.

In a series of bizarre incidents, the governess becomes convinced that the ghosts have indeed possessed the children, and she resolves to protect her charges from further harm by keeping them there at Bly, under her watchful eye. (Miles was to have returned to school, having been expelled earlier for possibly immoral conduct.) Her vigilance fails, however, as Flora is discovered wandering near the lake one night where Mrs. Grose sees the ghost of Miss Jessel. Directing Mrs. Grose to take Flora to her uncle, the governess confronts Miles alone and tries to liberate him from the ghosts by extracting a confession of his past sins. At the climactic moment, Quint’s specter appears at a window, in response to which the governess shields Miles, who confesses his crimes and then dies in the governess’s arms.

There the story ends, and one can see why it has elicited the large volume of commentary that it has. The reader cannot know whether the ghosts are real or are a product of the governess’s hysteria. One does not know if Miles is guilty, as he admits, or is prodded into a false confession by the governess’s incessant inquisition; the reader is not told why Miles dies.

The Turn of the Screw Summary

A Terrible Tale
The Turn of the Screw begins on Christmas Eve during the 1890s, in an old house, where a group of...

(The entire section is 1372 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Summary and Analysis

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis

A group of people, gathered at a country house in England, sit around the fire telling ghost stories. One gentleman suggests that the visitation by a ghost to a child is especially thrilling. Another gentleman called Douglas relates that spectral haunting to two children is even more so. He says he knows just such a story, given him by a lady of his past acquaintance, the governess of his sister when he was in his youth. Being infatuated with her, Douglas becomes privy to a story from her own past. She later gives him the manuscript of the story. Douglas sends to London for it so that he can read it to the other guests.

As the party is waiting for the manuscript to arrive, Douglas fills in...

(The entire section is 915 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis

Mrs. Grose’s vagueness to the governess’s inquiries does not change the closeness of their relationship. The governess is overwhelmed by how beautiful Miles (like Flora) is, and cannot understand how such a marvelous child could be expelled from school. She refuses to acknowledge the letter from the headmaster, nor does she inform her employer, according to his wishes.

The governess becomes more and more infatuated with her charges. She does not grow tired of her duties, as many governesses do. Yet she enjoys her time alone in the evenings, after the children have gone to bed. One such evening finds her outside talking a walk around the grounds, thinking of her employer, whom she has...

(The entire section is 903 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 5 and 6 Summary and Analysis

Mrs. Grose comes outside and observes the governess looking white as a sheet. The governess explains that she saw a man looking in the window. In answer to Mrs. Grose’s questioning, she explains that he is evidently no gentleman, was not wearing a hat, and that he always seemed to be outside the house, but never in. He had very red, curly hair and whiskers. His eyes are small, very fixed, and strange. He is wearing nice clothes that she knows are not his. She thought he looked like an actor, though she says she has never actually seen one in person. She decides she cannot go to church because she must stay at home to watch over the children. Mrs. Grose can identify the man as Peter Quint, who used...

(The entire section is 979 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 7 and 8 Summary and Analysis

The governess searches for Mrs. Grose and in horror tells her that the children are aware of the ghosts. Mrs. Grose asks if Flora actually looked at the ghost, but she did not, according to the governess, who simply “knows” that they have been aware of the spirits for some time. The ghost at the lake was not that of Quint but of Miss Jessel, the previous governess. She is described as very beautiful, a lady, and “infamous.”

Mrs. Grose is unwilling to believe that the children know about the ghosts and seem to be comfortable with their presence. The governess insists that, if she were making this all up, she would not know all the details of their physical appearance, which Mrs....

(The entire section is 980 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 9 and 10 Summary and Analysis

The governess gives herself in to the role of protector of Miles and Flora. She irresistibly holds them, lavishing her affections on them in a most ostentatious way, wondering what they might think of her actions. Yet they return her affection in kind. They find many ways in which to please her, entertaining her, concentrating even harder on their lessons, telling her stories, etc. In complete innocence and perfection they show themselves to be the opposite of what she has begun to think they are. She has not yet thought about Miles’ school situation, and Miles does not seem to be too concerned about it either. She can get no hint from him about what had happened at his old school that had caused...

(The entire section is 937 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 11 and 12 Summary and Analysis

The governess finds time eventually to talk to Mrs. Grose about what had happened the night before, when she found Miles out on the lawn after midnight. Mrs. Grose gives the governess the sense that she believes her, but she is unwilling to fully believe the culpability of the children in what the governess sees as an atmosphere of evil.

On reaching Miles out on the lawn, the governess asks him what he is doing outside in the middle of the night. Miles mischievously replies that he did so in order that she would think him “bad.” He seems delighted at the prospect of being considered “naughty,” which is the exact opposite of what she, Mrs. Grose, and the entire household believe. He...

(The entire section is 931 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 13 and 14 Summary and Analysis

The governess continues to spend her time absorbed in Miles and Flora, proceeding with lessons and activities. At no time, however, does either child mention the former servants, Peter Quint or Miss Jessel, nor does the governess herself. She seems to get the sense that the children are trying to get her to admit that she is trying to get information out of them. In their lessons, the children refuse to make any reference to their former governess, nor to what they have learned before under her tutelage. They enjoy her stories of her former life, of her family and past pets, but they make no mention whatsoever of any aspect of their lives before her arrival.

A month passes, and the...

(The entire section is 920 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 15 and 16 Summary and Analysis

When Miles announces that he will get his uncle to come down to Bly, the governess stops outside the church and cannot go in. She concludes that Miles knows that his uncle has forbidden her to contact him about the children and that she is honoring that request, despite the troubling incidents at the house, in order to gain a better standing in his eyes. She is shaken at this revelation of the depths of manipulation to which Miles will sink. Her opinion that he is doing this in order to force her to send him back to a school for the purpose of his gaining more freedom from the company of women (despite his professed adoration of her). She is most of all concerned that a boy so young has developed a...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 17 and 18 Summary and Analysis

The governess returns to her room and, with Flora beside her, is intent of finishing the letter she is writing to her employer, informing him about the events going on at Bly, including the few facts she knows about Miles’ ambiguous dismissal from school. She hears Miles call her from his room. She leaves Flora and goes to see what the boy wants. He is in a good mood and simply wants her company. He says he has not slept because he is thinking so hard. When the governess asks of what he is thinking that is keeping him awake, he states that it is she. She appreciates that, she says, but would prefer that he go to sleep. He then states that he is thinking about this “queer business of theirs.”...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 19 and 20 Summary and Analysis

The governess, accompanied by Mrs. Grose, goes down to the lake in search of Flora, who has disappeared from the house as the governess was talking to Miles. As the pair go down to the lake, Mrs. Grose asks if the governess thinks that Flora has gone into the lake. Her companion states that, if she has, the water is not that deep. She thinks instead that the girl has gone to the spot where the ghost of Miss Jessel had appeared on their last visit to the lake. Mrs. Grose asks if she thinks that the children actually talk to the ghosts. The governess replies that they say things that would appall the grown-ups if they heard them.

Mrs. Grose is grateful for a chance to at last see what the...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 21 and 22 Summary and Analysis

The next morning the governess awakens to find Mrs. Grose at her bedside with the news that Flora is ill and feverish. She is afraid, not of the presence of Miss Jessel, but of the governess herself. She persists in denying that she saw anything, as the governess charges, who believes that Flora and Miles have devised this plan in order to make her look bad in the eyes of their uncle. She says that Flora means to get rid of her, with which Mrs. Grose agrees.

The governess states that Mrs. Grose must take Flora and leave Bly and let her deal with Miles. She believes that the boy might yet come to her side...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

The Turn of the Screw Chapters 23 and 24 Summary and Analysis

Finding themselves alone, Miles and the governess are at a face-off. In response to Miles’ remark that the two of them are alone, she says that they are not absolutely alone, to which he agrees. She says that they have “the others.” Miles states that, though they have “them,” they do not much count. The governess picks up her knitting to occupy herself. She sees that Miles is looking out the window, and she feels that he is struggling to break free to tell her everything. He merely states that Bly “agrees” with him. She mentions that he has seen a lot of it, since he has been free from her to roam around the grounds. She asks if he likes it, to which he replies, “Do you?” He then...

(The entire section is 937 words.)