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.
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.