The Turn of the Screw

by Henry James

Start Free Trial

Is there evidence of child sexual abuse in The Turn of the Screw?

Quick answer:

The Turn of the Screw is a highly psychological novel that explores the effects of isolation on human nature. The story is written in a way that it does not provide enough information for the reader to know for sure what is going on between Quint and Jessel and the little boy and girl. However, sexual abuse is hinted at throughout the novel, but it also seems unlikely due to the distance between them, as well as Flora's age compared to Quint's.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the novel The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, the characters of Peter Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessel, a governess, consistently appear to siblings Flora and Miles, in an apparent quest for their souls. Both, Quint and Jessel, are deceased. However, the children's governess senses that their influence on the children (when they were alive) was clearly corrupting and "contaminating." The assumption is that this is the reason why the two want to come back from beyond: To complete the destruction of the children.  

However, the writing style of Henry James offers a lot of intimations that do not give away much information. This is an attempt to appeal to the reader's own psychological schema so that it is the reader, and not the writer, who will "fill in the blanks" as to what went on between the children and the two dead servants. This way, the connection that is created between the reader and the story becomes more in-depth.

Yet, specific words typical of the Victorian vocabulary of the day are cited each time the actions of Quint and Jessel are remembered. The words include: Corruption, contamination, evil, and the libertine idea of little Miles being so openly flirtatious with his governess. These terms and ideas invite the reader to assume that both Miles and Flora had been exposed to some form of carnal knowledge.

However, The Turn of the Screw is hardly the tale of two abused children under the spell of their dead abusers: It is actually an in-depth analysis of the effects of isolation in the human psyche. It includes Gothic elements that only help accentuate the tragedies of despair and fear in human nature. In all, the possibility of sexual abuse is there, but it is insinuated as a possibility and not offered as a fact in the novel.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial