The Turn of the Screw is an intriguing puzzle that stimulates readers to unravel its mysteries. If the ghosts are real, the governess is a positive heroine who struggles bravely to save the children; if they are her hallucinations, she inflicts the consequences of her disturbed mental state on the children. In the first case, James has written a superbly scary ghost story; in the second, he has given us a fine psychological study of a woman going insane. Or perhaps he has done both things simultaneously. These conflicting approaches and the variety of interpretations they can support provide ample material for lively discussion. The multiplicity of convincing explications of this story can also lead to a consideration of how we read literature in general, that is, of how a chosen approach helps determine what we will find in a given work. Going a step further in this direction brings us to the question of how we "interpret" people and events in our everyday life.
Given his longstanding interest in the genre, James was apparently undisturbed by the fact that ghost stories were classified as "minor" literature. Readers might consider how The Turn of the Screw conforms to the conventions of the gothic novel and of the ghost story as well as how it modifies or transcends them. They can then speculate on why such stories have always appealed to a broad public.
1. How does Douglas prepare his audience for the tale in the prefatory chapter? How does James simultaneously prepare us for the story?
2. Take sides in the debate over whether the governess is an unreliable narrator or whether she is to be believed or whether her reliability always remains a mystery. Support your choice with details from the first few chapters of the story.
3. Maintaining the position chosen for topic two, describe the circumstances surrounding several of the apparitions. What is most frightening about them? What makes you consider them the governess's hallucinations? Why is it impossible to make a final decision about the ghosts' "reality"?
4. What aspects of the governess's behavior indicate that she may be insane? When does this possibility first suggest itself? Is her possible insanity related to her isolation? Is it related to her unrequited love for the master?
5. What attributes make Quint the most demonic figure in the story? How does sexuality play a significant role in his depiction as a devil?
6. Is Miss Jessel's depiction as consistently "diabolic" as Quint's? In what ways is she a mirror image of the governess?
7. What convinces Mrs. Grose that the ghosts are real? Does her belief in the governess's visions ever waver? Why is she so eager to take Flora to London?
8. What images emphasize the sweetness and innocence of the children? How are these images reversed after the governess begins to suspect them of seeing the ghosts? What "evidence" supports the idea that the children are duplicitous?
9. Try to imagine the story as told from the point of view of Miles and Flora. Can it be read as a tale of cruelty to children? To whom is Miles referring at the end when he says "you devil!"?
10. What, or who, kills Miles?
11. What social and economic aspects of the life of a governess are indicated through the situation of the heroine/narrator? How does the presentation of Miss Jessel reinforce or complicate this image?
12. How are the Master, the governess, Mrs. Grose, Quint, Miss Jessel, and the children in the story related to each other in terms of social class? How do these relationships influence their individual behavior and their attitudes toward one another?
13. Compare The Turn of the Screw to the film The Innocents. Does the film preserve the story's ambiguity?
14. Compare The Turn of the Screw to your favorite ghost story in terms of setting, characterization and plot. Speculate about why ghost stories have always fascinated so many readers.