The Unsaid in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

The ambiguous nature of the Turn of the Screw has led to many interpretations of its meaning since its publication in 1898. Cranfill and Clark (1970) survey the many forms of this ghost story and demonstrate its appeal to academics and non-academics alike. Questions linger about the ghosts and whether or not they were a manifestation of the repressed feelings for the governess’s employer (Heilman (1947).  Renner (1988) on argues that the timing of the appearance of the ghosts is significant.  Vague allusions to corruption (TS 18) are scattered throughout the novel, an important key that can be used to make meaning of the story.  This paper proposes that The Turn of the Screw is a ‘controlled experiment ‘(Bromwich 2011) of narrative form that through the use of plot and allusion, examines Victorian ideas of innocence and sexuality.

A turn of the screw is an action that makes a bad situation worse; especially one that forces someone to do something (Cambridge Dictionary).  With this definition in hand, an esoteric name for a ghost story transforms into an apt title for a novella in which the governess’s actions bring her into worse and worse circumstances.  In judging a book by its title alone, it could at a glance be taken for a charmingly named construction manual.  The marionette strings that James uses to control the action of the plot are not very well disguised.  James is deliberately ambiguous (Beidler 1992).  If we peek too closely, we might see a glimpse of that man behind the curtain.  The problem is that all the subterfuge, this borderline melodrama and the lack of explanation could be considered a retroactive continuity on the part of the narrator.  The connection between Douglas and the first narrator may be of a homosexual nature (Taylor 1988), which then foreshadows that between Miles and Quint.  Taylor’s argument is plausible, but does not fully account for narrator bias.  By the time it is set down in its present form for the reader, this is a thrice repeated story.  The governess has written it several years after the events at Bly.  Douglas reads her account aloud to the gathering, how faithfully is a matter of debate  The first narrator says he made an ‘exact transcript’ (TS 6) of the governess’s own writing, but we cannot verify whether that is in fact the case.

In essence, the story, through repetition by the various narrators, could have been corrupted, which is an important theme in the Turn of the Screw.  Contamination as understood by the governess is corruption (TS 18), a concern for a young girl arriving at a country house straight from being ‘privately bred’ (TS 24).  It is also a concern carried from the Romantics into the Victorian age.  Upon first meeting her charges, the governess is profuse with praise for the wonderfulness and innocence of the children.  Flora was “the most beautiful child’ (TS 12), Miles a ‘positive fragrance of purity’ (TS 21).  The governess describes herself as being ‘easily carried away’ (TS 13).  These descriptions comport with the Romantic idea of original innocence (Sky 2002).  The Romantics were taken by Rousseau’s idea of original innocence as a counterpoint to original sin: “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.” (in Sky 2002).  Nature to the Romantics (and subsequently to the Victorians) was not a thing to be feared, but was pure.  James takes Rousseau’s words to heart, in that the more time the governess spends with the children; the more she starts to see them not as paragons of beauty and purity, but as evil, corrupted children.  As with much of the rest of the story, the very nature of that corruption, while a horror, is never explained.  It is a frustration for the reader, but a wonderful feat for the author.

At the age of twenty, on her own and in charge for the first time, the governess was in a liminal state between that of childhood innocence and the sexual adult who must contend with the fall from purity into original sin (Sky 2002).  While Heilman’s (1947) refutation of the governess’s repression of her sexual awakening is not without merit, the arguments of the Freudians cannot be summarily dismissed.  Not repression, but suppression.  It is as she was fantasizing about her employer that the governess first comes upon Quint: “[w[hat arrested me on the spot – and with a shock much greater than any vision had allowed for – was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real. . . . . (TS 24).  The governess is also struck with this supposed gentleman’s lack of a hat (TS 25).  A red-haired man of Quint’s description was to be understood as a criminal man (Renner 1988), and criminals could not be seen as innocent or pure.

No words are exchanged between the governess and either of the ghosts.  Nowhere in the story does anyone other than the governess profess to see Quint, or Miss Jessel.  The governess has conflated the appearance of this man both with fears of her own desires as well as with that of his being there when he supposedly died.  He is unnatural; therefore he represents death of innocence, of life itself.  He is a particular danger for the two most innocent, Flora and Miles.  He is a danger at least until the governess comes to think that Miles is beyond saving, which is why she does not send him away with Flora.

Miles’s uttered confession, what there was of it (TS 123) signifies the end of the story, the end of his life, and thus the end of innocence.  In his lack of full explanation he, too, could stand for a symbolic death of the last of the governess’s innocence. She did indeed let herself be carried away.  From a sheltered twenty year old girl who was excited at the prospect of seeing her employer, to a girl who saw corruption and evil everywhere when no one else did, is evidence of a girl overwhelmed.  She was becoming a woman, leaving behind her original innocence.  She was indeed ‘carried away’, and far from retreating into any former semblance of her life, she moved on to another position, took a fancy for someone else, as Douglas alludes to in the prologue.

The abrupt end to the story leaves the reader with many questions about the governess.  One such question: what is to be believed if the story hinges on the recollection of a potentially mad woman (Bromwich, 2011) who may have smothered Miles to death? (Beidler 1992)  What is to be made of it is that Henry James is a master of plot, and of showing us what might have happened without telling it.  As Stephen King says “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s (2000).  Description is on full display in The Turn of the Screw.  The governess’s explanation to Mrs. Grose over why she didn’t say anything about seeing Quint was ‘for reasons.” (TS 34).  What are those reasons?  The reader is left to decide for themselves.

In a short one hundred and twenty pages, the Turn of the screw controls the plot and every word the governess utters.  A turn of the screw stands for the control James has over the plot as much as his narrator, the governess, has over the actions at Bly.  Victorian ideals of innocence and sexuality are on display, and because of these the governess perhaps brings about the death of one of the innocent children under her charge.  The ghosts serve as symbols for the death and possible corruption of that innocence that the governess tries to very closely guard, to her detriment.  The lack of full explanation of anything is a function of the narrative style, or experiment (Bromwich 2011) that James uses to tell his tale, as well as those Victorian ideals that prevent description of anything that might lead to corruption.  The number of retellings and the survival of this unsaying yet verbose story speak to the success of James’s experiment.

Works Cited


‘A Turn of the Screw.’  Cambridge Dictionaries.  Web. 21 Mar. 2017


Beidler, Paul Gorman. 1992. Frames in James :  The Turn of the screw, What Maisie knew, and the Ambassadors. Theses and Dissertations. Paper 107.  Accessed 21 March 2017


Bromwich, David. 2011. Introduction. In The Turn of the Screw. By Henry James.  New York. Penguin Books  xiii-xxxv


Cranfill, Thomas M. And Robert L. Clark, Jr. 1970. The Provocativeness of The Turn of the Screw.  Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 12(1), 93-100.


Heilman, Robert B.  1947. The Freudian Reading of the Turn of the Screw.  Modern Language Notes, 62(7), 433-445.


James, Henry.  1908. The Turn of the Screw.  New York: Penguin Books.


King, Stephen. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner.


Renner, Stanley. 1988.  Sexual Hysteria, Physiognomical Bogeymen, and the “Ghosts’ in The Turn of the Screw. Nineteenth Century Literature, 43(2), 175-194


Sky, Jeanette. 2002. Myths of Innocence and Imagination: The Case of the Fairy Tale. Literature and Theology, 16(4) 363-376.


Taylor, Michael J. H. 1982. A Note on the First Narrator of “The Turn of the Screw.’  American Literature, 53(4), 717-722.