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Literature / The Turn of the Screw

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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. The novel was adapted to a TV series as the follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House as The Haunting of Bly Manor and received another movie adaptation in 2020 called The Turning.

Tropes in The Turn of the Screw:

  • All First-Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: The governess is the youngest daughter of a poor country parson, so you would think that she would have an education, and therefore a writing style, to match. But Henry James is in typical, full blown Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness mode here.
  • Ambiguously Evil: The ghosts. It's possibly they're genuinely malevolent, or it's possible that the Unreliable Narrator is making a lot of assumptions about their character based on a biased view of events she wasn't even there for. Assuming, of course, that there are in fact ghosts in the first place.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Invoked; the first time the governess sees Miles, she decides he can't possibly have done whatever it was that got him expelled from school because he's so adorable. (Of course, she soon changes her mind...)
  • 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").
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Whatever kills Miss Jessell (quite possibly death in childbirth - or suicide after getting pregnant out of wedlock).
  • 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.
    • Other film adaptations:
      • A TV film starring Ingrid Bergman as the governess. Said to be very well done.
      • Another TV film from Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame, starring Lynn Redgrave as the governess, with Megs Jenkins reprising her role from The Innocents as Mrs. Grose.
      • A 1993 Rusty Lemorande film starring Patsy Kensit as the governess and Julian Sands as the Uncle.
      • The Haunting of Helen Walker, (1995), starring Valerie Bertinelli (!) as the governess, and Diana Rigg as Mrs. Grose.
      • Presence of Mind (1999), with Sadie Frost as the governess, Harvey Keitel as the Uncle, and Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Grose (though the character has a different name here).
      • A 2004 British production made for Masterpiece Theater, with Jodhi May as the governess.
      • In a Dark Place (2007), set in modern times, starring Leelee Sobieski in the governess role, and Tara Fitzgerald as Mrs. Grose (more or less).
      • A 2015 BBC adaptation starring Michelle Dockery as the governess. Surprisingly disappointing.
      • The Turning, another modern-day adaptation with Mackenzie Davis in the governess role.
      • A 2022 New Zealand production that tells the tale of a stage production of The Turn of the Screw. It focuses on Julia, a young actress who is called in at the last second to replace another actress who has had a mysterious nervous breakdown. Julia flies in to participate in a crash dress rehearsal the night before the premiere.
  • Framing Device: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: The governess' initial explanation for Peter Quint's sudden appearance.
  • Mature Work, Child Protagonists: The book is a psychological novel for adults that features two Creepy Children and their governess. Many events in the book (adapted many times as a motion picture or television drama) focus on strange things the children say or do. The theme questions how can we be certain what we experience is real.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Are there ghosts? Or are the children just acting out for normal reasons that the narrator is putting a supernatural gloss on?
  • Moral Myopia:
    • Depending on whether the reader believes the governess or not. If she is imagining the ghosts, then she torments and frightens the children with accusations, ultimately driving Flora into hysterics and leading to Miles' death... all the while believing that she is saving them.
    • It also applies with the interpretation that the ghosts are real but benign. The governess makes the automatic assumption that their being ghosts means they have evil intentions for the children, but they could have stayed so the children would not feel abandoned and lonely (as they have already lost their parents and their uncle is rarely around), and could have even attempted to save them from the governess.
  • 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.
  • No Ending: The story abruptly ends as soon as Miles dies, with no explanation of what exactly caused his death or what happened next to the other characters.
  • 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...
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: The governess seems convinced that the children will be liberated from the ghosts if they admit to their existence.
  • 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.
    • There is a short novel, The Case of the Ghosts at Bly by Donald Thomas, in which the events of The Turn of the Screw are investigated by none other than Sherlock Holmes himself.
  • Sanity Slippage: If the ghosts aren't real, then the governess shows signs of this, which has disastrous consequences on her young wards.
  • Supernatural Fiction
  • Title Drop: In both the prologue and the governess' narrative.
  • Unfinished Business: How the governess explains why the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessell have returned.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Whether or not 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 Unreveal: We never find out just what Miles did to get expelled from school.

Alternative Title(s): The Turn Of The Screw