Henry James - The Turn of the Screw

Plot Overview

A An anonymous narrator recalls a Christmas Eve gathering at an old house, where guests listen to one another’s ghost stories. A guest named Douglas introduces a story that involves two children—Flora and Miles—and his sister’s governess, with whom he was in love. After procuring the governess’s written record of events from
his home, he provides a few introductory details. A handsome bachelor persuaded the governess to take a position as governess for his niece and nephew in an isolated country home after the previous governess died. Douglas begins to read from the written record, and the story shifts to the governess’s point of view as she narrates her strange experience.
The governess begins her story with her first day at Bly, the country home, where she meets Flora and a maid named Mrs. Grose. The governess is nervous but feels relieved by Flora’s beauty and charm. The next day she receives a letter from her employer, which contains a letter from Miles’s headmaster saying that Miles cannot return to school. The letter does not specify what Miles has done to deserve expulsion, and, alarmed, the governess questions Mrs. Grose about it. Mrs. Grose admits that Miles has on occasion been bad, but only in the ways boys ought to be. The governess is reassured as she drives to meet Miles.
One evening, as the governess strolls around the grounds, she sees a strange man in a tower of the house and exchanges an intense stare with him. She says nothing to Mrs. Grose. Later, she catches the same man glaring into the dining-room window, and she rushes outside to investigate. The man is gone, and the governess looks into the window from outside. Her image in the window frightens Mrs. Grose, who has just walked into the room. The governess discusses her two experiences with Mrs. Grose, who identifies the strange man as Peter Quint, a former valet who is now dead.
Convinced that the ghost seeks Miles, the governess becomes rigid in her supervision of the children. One day, when the governess is at the lake with Flora, she sees a woman dressed in black and senses that the woman is Miss Jessel, her dead predecessor. The governess is certain Flora was aware of the ghost’s presence but intentionally kept quiet. The governess again questions Mrs. Grose about Miles’s misbehavior. Mrs. Grose reveals that Quint had been “too free” with Miles, and Miss Jessel with Flora. The governess is on her guard, but the days pass without incident, and Miles and Flora express increased affection for the governess.
The lull is broken one evening when something startles the governess from her reading. She rises to investigate, moving to the landing above the staircase. There, a gust of wind extinguishes her candle, and she sees Quint halfway up the stairs. She refuses to back down, exchanging another intense stare with Quint until he vanishes. Back in her room, the governess finds Flora’s bed curtains pulled forward, but Flora herself is missing. Noticing movement under the window blind, the governess watches as Flora emerges from behind it. The governess questions Flora about what she’s been doing, but Flora’s explanation is unrevealing.
The governess does not sleep well during the next few nights. One night, she sees the ghost of Miss Jessel sitting on the bottom stair, her head in her hands. Later, when the governess finally allows herself to go to sleep at her regular hour, she is awoken after midnight to find her candle extinguished and Flora by the window. Careful not to disturb Flora, the governess leaves the room to find a window downstairs that overlooks the same view. Looking out, she sees the faraway figure of Miles on the lawn.
Later, the governess discusses with Mrs. Grose her conversation with Miles, who claimed that he wanted to show the governess that he could be “bad.” The governess concludes that Flora and Miles frequently meet with Miss Jessel and Quint. At this, Mrs. Grose urges the governess to appeal to her employer, but the governess refuses, reminding her colleague that the children’s uncle does not want to be bothered. She threatens to leave if Mrs. Grose writes to him. On the walk to church one Sunday, Miles broaches the topic of school to the governess. He says he wants to go back and declares he will make his uncle come to Bly. The governess, shaken, does not go into church. Instead, she returns to the house and plots her departure. She sits on the bottom stair but springs up when she remembers seeing Miss Jessel there. She enters the schoolroom and finds Miss Jessel sitting at the table. She screams at the ghost, and the ghost vanishes. The governess decides she will stay at Bly. Mrs. Grose and the children return, saying nothing about the governess’s absence at church. The governess agrees to write to her employer.
That evening, the governess listens outside Miles’s door. He invites her in, and she questions him. She embraces him impulsively. The candle goes out, and Miles shrieks. The next day Miles plays the piano for the governess. She suddenly realizes she doesn’t know where Flora is. She and Mrs. Grose find Flora by the lake. There, the governess sees an apparition of Miss Jessel. She points it out to Flora and Mrs. Grose, but both claim not to see it. Flora says that the governess is cruel and that she wants to get away from her, and the governess collapses on the ground in hysterics. The next day, Mrs. Grose informs the governess that Flora is sick. They decide Mrs. Grose will take Flora to the children’s uncle while the governess stays at Bly with Miles. Mrs. Grose informs the governess that Luke didn’t send the letter she wrote to her employer, because he couldn’t find it.
With Flora and Mrs. Grose gone, Miles and the governess talk after dinner. The governess asks if he took her letter. He confesses, and the governess sees Quint outside. She watches Quint in horror, then points him out to Miles, who asks if it is Peter Quint and looks out the window in vain. He cries out, then falls into the governess’s arms, dead.

Character List

The Governess -  The protagonist of the novella, a twenty-year-old woman who has been put in charge of educating and supervising Flora and Miles at the country estate of Bly. The governess has had a very sheltered upbringing and little life experience, and her new job puts an immense responsibility on her, since she has no one to supervise or help her. She is intelligent as well as sensitive and emotionally volatile. Over the course of two short interviews with her employer, she fell in love with him, but she has no opportunity to see him or communicate with him. She is extremely protective of her charges and hopes to win her employer’s approval. She views herself as a zealous guardian, a heroine facing dark forces. However, we never know for certain whether the ghosts and visions the governess sees are real or only figments of her imagination. No one else ever admits to seeing what she sees, and her fears, at times, seem to border on insanity. Read an in-depth analysis of The Governess.
Mrs. Grose -  A servant who acts as the governess’s companion and confidante. Mrs. Grose, who is illiterate, is very aware of her low standing in comparison with the governess and treats the governess with great respect. Mrs. Grose listens patiently to the governess’s constantly changing theories and insights, most often claiming to believe her but sometimes questioning whether the ghosts may not be imaginary. The governess, however, tends to overwhelm Mrs. Grose, often finishing Mrs. Grose’s sentences or leaping to conclusions about what Mrs. Grose is saying. Thus, it can sometimes be difficult for us to judge whether Mrs. Grose is as strongly on the governess’s side as the governess thinks. Mrs. Grose cares deeply about Flora and Miles and consistently defends them against the governess’s accusations. Read an in-depth analysis of Mrs. Grose.
Miles -  A ten-year-old boy, the elder of the governess’s two charges. Miles is charming and very attractive. He seems unnaturally well behaved and agreeable for a child, never fights with his sister, and tries constantly to please his governess. He is expelled from school for an unspecified but seemingly sinister reason, and although he seems to be a good child, he often hints that he is capable of being bad. The governess is alarmed by the fact that Miles never refers to his own past and suspects that wicked secrets belie his perfect exterior. Read an in-depth analysis of Miles.
Flora -  An eight-year-old girl, the younger of the governess’s two charges. Flora is beautiful and well mannered, a pleasure to be around. Although the governess loves Flora, she is disturbed that Flora, like Miles, seems strangely impersonal and reticent about herself. Flora is affectionate and always ready with an embrace or a smile. She is so unusually well behaved that her first instance of misconduct is disquieting. The governess eventually becomes convinced that Flora sees the ghost of Miss Jessel but keeps these sightings secret. Read an in-depth analysis of Flora.
The Children’s Uncle  -  The governess’s employer, a bachelor who lives in London. The uncle’s attractiveness is one of the main reasons the governess agrees to take on her role at Bly. The uncle is friendly and pleasant, likely rich, and successful in charming women. He hires the governess on the condition that she handle his niece, nephew, and all problems at Bly herself. He asks not to be bothered about them.
Peter Quint -  A former valet at Bly. Red-haired, handsome, and exceedingly clever, Quint was “infamous” throughout the area of Bly. According to Mrs. Grose, he was a hound and “too free” with everyone, Miles and Flora included. The governess describes his specter as an unnaturally white, silent “horror.” She believes Quint’s ghost is haunting Bly with the intention of corrupting Miles.
Miss Jessel -  The governess’s predecessor. Mrs. Grose describes Miss Jessel as a lady, young and beautiful but “infamous.” Miss Jessel apparently had an inappropriate relationship with Quint, who was well below her class standing. The governess describes Miss Jessel’s black-clad ghost as miserable, pale, and dreadful. The governess believes Miss Jessel’s ghost is haunting Bly with the intention of corrupting Flora.
Luke -  A servant at Bly. Luke is expected to deliver the governess’s letter to the children’s uncle, but he cannot find it. Miles uses Luke as an attempted escape route and asks to see Luke before telling the governess what she wants to know.
Anonymous Narrator -  The narrator of the prologue. The anonymous narrator is an educated guest at the Christmas Eve gathering. The narrator is most likely a man, since he speaks disdainfully of the sensation-hungry women at the gathering. The narrator may be a stand-in for Henry James, as he mentions he has a title for the tale at the end of the prologue. As Douglas repeatedly hints, the narrator will find a deeper meaning in the story.
Douglas -  The teller of the governess’s tale at the Christmas Eve gathering. Douglas knew the governess, who had been his sister’s governess after her time at Bly, and may have been in love with her. He is the only one who has heard the tale, since the governess left him in charge of her manuscript after she died. Douglas was fond of the governess and introduces her as a “most agreeable” person, giving her credibility regarding the tale to come.
Griffin -  A storyteller at the gathering. Griffin tells a ghost story involving a child and his mother.
Women at the Gathering -  Guests at the house. The women are characterized as sensation hungry and eager to hear the most “dreadful” and “delicious” ghost stories. 

Analysis of Major Characters

The Governess

Although the governess adores Miles and Flora when she first meets them, she quickly becomes suspicious of their every word and action, convinced that they hope to deceive her. She is fickle, however, and frequently switches back to being absolutely sure of their pure innocence. At these times, her affection for the children can be intense. She embraces them often and with passion, going so far as to kiss Miles. The ambiguity of the text allows these displays of affection to appear both harmless and inappropriate. Her volatile relationship with the children renders her an unreliable narrator and a dubious source of information. According to Douglas, the governess’s confidant and admirer, she is “the most agreeable person” he has ever known “in her position.” However, he says also that she was “in love,” as though this is an excuse for her behavior, which he admits is questionable. Mrs. Grose’s increasing skepticism casts doubt on the governess’s visions and fears and suggests that the governess may indeed be losing her mind.
The governess, with her overabundant concern for the children and her violent suspicions of them, may be regarded as either a heroine or a villain. On one hand, she seems to be an ambitious young woman who unwittingly places herself in a position in which she is forced to struggle heroically to protect her charges from supernatural forces. On the other hand, she seems to be a sheltered, inexperienced young woman whose crush on her employer and nervous exhaustion at being in charge of two strange children result in an elaborate and ultimately dangerous fabrication or hallucination. James provides only the governess’s side of the story, which may be inaccurate in whole or in part. In any case, the governess’s account is by no means the full account, which we never learn.

Mrs. Grose

An illiterate servant at Bly, Mrs. Grose provides the governess with open ears and loyal support. Although the governess thinks her simple minded and slow witted, Mrs. Grose knows more of the story than the governess fathoms and is as capable of piecing things together as is the governess, though slower to leap to dire conclusions. Although Mrs. Grose is the source for most of the governess’s information, the governess does not take her words at face value or ask Mrs. Grose for her opinions. Instead, the governess uses Mrs. Grose as a “receptacle of lurid things.” The governess frequently attempts to seize moments alone with Mrs. Grose so that she can try out her latest speculations. Mrs. Grose is usually skeptical of these speculations, but the governess takes Mrs. Grose’s incredulity for astonished belief. Like the reader, Mrs. Grose is willing to hear the governess out but doesn’t necessarily agree with her logic or conclusions.


Miles might be either a cunning and deceitful plaything of ghosts or merely an innocent, unusually well-mannered young boy. The governess repeatedly changes her mind on the matter, leaving Miles’s true character in question. When the governess first meets Miles, she is struck by his “positive fragrance of purity” and the sense that he has known nothing but love. She finds herself excusing him for any potential mishap because he is too beautiful to misbehave. Yet she also senses a disturbing emptiness in Miles, an impersonality and lack of history, as though he is less than real.
Once the governess begins having her supernatural encounters, she comes to believe that Miles is plotting evil deeds with his ghostly counterpart, Quint, and indeed Miles does exhibit strange behavior. For example, he plans an incident so that the governess will think him “bad,” and he steals the letter she wrote to his uncle. Mrs. Grose tells us that Peter Quint was a bad influence on him, but we have no way to measure the extent or precise nature of this influence, and Miles’s misdeeds may be nothing more than childish pranks. The fact that Miles is otherwise unusually pleasant and well behaved suggests that the sinister quality of his behavior exists only in the governess’s mind. The governess eventually decides that Miles must be full of wickedness, reasoning that he is too “exquisite” to be anything else, a conclusion she bases only on her own subjective impressions and conjectures.


Like Miles, Flora might be either angelic or diabolical. She appears to be a completely wonderful little girl, even preternaturally so, well behaved and a pleasure to be around. The governess thinks Flora possesses “extraordinary charm” and is the “most beautiful child” she has laid eyes on. Flora seems, however, to have a personality quite distinct from these glowing descriptions. When the governess questions Flora as to why she had been looking out the window, Flora’s explanation is evasive and unsatisfying. Flora’s next turn at the window turns out to be, according to Miles, part of a scheme to show the governess that Miles can be “bad.” At this point, the governess has already assumed Flora to be conniving and deceptive, but this is the first instance in which Flora seems to be exhibiting unambiguous deceit. The story remains inconclusive, however, and we never know for sure what Flora and Miles are up to. Flora may very well be the innocent child the governess thought her to be, her strange, diabolical turns existing only in the governess’s mind.

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