The Turn of the Screw

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Since THE TURN OF THE SCREW is told in the first person by the governess, everything hinges on whether she is a reliable narrator. An innocent, susceptible young woman, the daughter of a minister, she has been hired by a wealthy bachelor to look after Miles and Flora, his orphaned nephew and niece.

There is no question of the governess’ good will, at least on a conscious level, and her honesty--she reports what she thinks she sees--but she has fallen desperately and hopelessly in love with her employer, and would like nothing better--as she herself admits--than to earn his gratitude by rescuing the children from some danger. Moreover, the atmosphere at Bly, the employer’s country house, is Gothic and vaguely sinister from the first--excellent circumstances for seeing ghosts, whether there are any to see or not.

The ghosts are those of Peter Quint, the employer’s former valet, and Miss Jessel, the former governess, who apparently died while giving birth to an illegitimate child. In life, these two had been sent away because they threatened the social order (sexual immorality, in particular, could not be tolerated); in death, the governess believes, they are trying to avenge themselves by claiming the children for their own.

The story centers on the struggle between the governess and the ghosts for the children’s souls, with the added hint that the real evil may lie in the governess’ possessiveness. The evil is real--that much at least is clear, in this deliberately ambiguous tale which has haunted the imaginations of generations of readers.


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 story designed for sophisticated readers.

Willen, Gerald, ed. A Casebook on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960. Fifteen essays debate the Freudian readings. The essay that started the entire controversy, Edmund Wilson’s “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” is also included, along with an extensive postscript by the same author. Somewhat dated, but recommended for the vigor of the debate.