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Literature: The Turn of the Screw

Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) introduces us to the memoirs of an anonymous governess, which relate her eerie experiences at the country estate of Bly. Young and inexperienced at the time, the governess initially adored her two charges, the "angelic" Miles and Flora. Soon, however, her glimpses of a strange man and an equally strange woman convince her not only that dark doings are afoot, but also that the children are directly involved. With the help of Mrs. Grose, the stolid housekeeper, the governess seeks to save the children from unimaginable evils...

The Turn of the Screw still ranks as one of the Victorian era's most famous tales of the supernatural, yet half of its appeal is the ambiguously Unreliable Narrator. The story could either be about a brave but overmatched governess trying to defend her charges from evil spirits, or about an insane governess who subjects innocent children to her own murderous hallucinations. It's equally spooky either way.

The novella has inspired numerous film, television, stage, and even ballet adaptations, as well as sequels and the occasional Perspective Flip. Of these, the best-known are the film The Innocents (based on a Broadway play that was itself an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw) and Benjamin Britten's opera.

Tropes in The Turn of the Screw:

  • Big Fancy House: How the governess initially perceives Bly—although she admits that if she saw it again, she would probably think differently.
  • Brain Fever: Flora, after the governess accuses her of conspiring with the ghosts.
  • The Casanova: Peter Quint, according to Mrs. Grose. And, perhaps, the Master of Bly.
  • Creepy Child: Miles and Flora. The extent of their creepiness, however, depends on how you judge the narrator's sanity.
  • Creepy Children Singing: An important part of the Britten opera (especially "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son").
  • Daylight Horror: Most of the ghost sightings occur when there is still light outside.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Whatever kills Miss Jessell (quite possibly death in childbirth).
  • Evil Redhead: Peter Quint.
  • False Friend: Some scholars see Mrs. Grose as this, noting that the governess always got more hysterical after her talks with her, only noted details about the ghosts when Mrs. Grose provided them about the people (notably Mrs. Grose asks if the first ghost "had red hair" and the governess suddenly agreed that he did indeed). The main interpretation is that before the Governess came, Mrs. Grose ran the house, and she wanted her old job back (of course all of this falls into the "there were no ghosts" camp).
  • The Film of the Book: Several, notably The Innocents.
  • Genre Savvy: The governess frequently imagines herself in the role of a Gothic or romance heroine, albeit while forgetting their tendency to be driven insane...
  • Ghostly Goals: If you believe the governess, Peter Quint and Miss Jessell are attempting to murder the children.
  • Haunted Heroine: If the governess isn't an Unreliable Narrator, then she's this.
  • Heartwarming Orphan: How the governess initially perceives Miles and Flora, before she decides that they're actually in cahoots with dark forces.
  • I Just Knew: A variant on this phrase occurs repeatedly:
    "But how do you know?"
    "I know, I know, I know!" My exaltation grew. "And you know, my dear!"
  • I See Dead People: The governess is the only person who admits, at least, to seeing the ghosts.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: The story is supposed to be the main character's diary, as read to the author. Bookends deal with how the story is read to him, and his reaction.
  • Love at First Sight: The governess falls for the Master immediately, and sometimes fantasizes about obtaining his approval. Her obsession usually emerges only obliquely, as in her excuses for his lack of interest in the children.
  • Lying Creator: James stated that the novel is a straightforward ghost story and not an example of Unreliable Narrator, but many critics argue that James was being intentionally deceptive when he made such statements. James is known for his use of Unreliable Narrator in other works.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: The governess' initial explanation for Peter Quint's sudden appearance.
  • Money, Dear Boy: James intended this novella to bring him some much-needed cash, which it did.
  • Nameless Narrative: The governess remains unnamed throughout.
  • Never Learned to Read: Mrs. Grose is illiterate.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Subverted. The governess makes much of her graciousness to and intimacy with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, but consistently condescends to her. Possibly Fair for Its Day, seeing as noticing that servants were people too was enough to put you in the stated trope at the time.
  • Not-So-Imaginary Friend: The governess believes that Miles and Flora spend their time with the ghosts, much as they did when Peter Quint and Miss Jessell were still alive.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Given what ultimately happens to both Flora and Miles...
  • Parental Abandonment: Or, rather, avuncular abandonment. The Master of Bly refuses to have anything to do with the children.
  • Perspective Flip: Hilary Bailey's Miles and Flora, as well as Joyce Carol Oates' The Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly.
  • Supernatural Fiction
  • Unfinished Business: How the governess explains why the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessell have returned.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Whether the governess is just imagining the ghosts is a matter for debate. James claimed that it was just a simple ghost story, but he was also known for writing stories from biased or unreliable perspectives.

The ShiningGhost FictionThe Woman in Black
Sienkiewicz Trilogy 19 th Century LiteratureTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Peter GrimesOperaLa Fille Du Regiment
Ambrose BierceGothic HorrorBram Stoker
The TroopHorror LiteratureUndead on Arrival

alternative title(s): The Turn Of The Screw; The Turn Of The Screw
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