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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Who Was Henry James?
  • 0:17 Characters
  • 1:15 Summary
  • 2:21 Themes
  • 3:46 Analysis
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

A novella written by Henry James, 'The Turn of the Screw' is a ghost story. . . or is it? This lesson will summarize the plot of 'The Turn of the Screw,' discuss the characters, and analyze the novella's main themes.

Who Was Henry James?

Henry James (1843-1916) was an author famous for writing fiction that imitates life as closely as possible. You might not expect him to have written one of the most famous, intriguing, and ambiguous ghost stories of the century, but he did.

The Turn of the Screw Characters

There are only a few characters in this novella:

The Governess

First we have the governess, a young unnamed woman hired by a bachelor to take care of his niece and nephew.

The Bachelor

Next, we have the bacheolor, an unnamed man who is responsible for his niece and nephew after the death of their parents.

Mrs. Grose

Then we have Mrs. Grose, the maid at Bly, the country home where Flora and Miles live.

Flora

Then we have Flora, one of the governess's wards. She is a young girl who has not started school yet.

Miles

Next, we have Miles, the governess's other ward. He is school-aged, but at the beginning of the novella, he is expelled for his behavior.

Peter Quint

We also have Peter Quint, a former employee at Bly. Mrs. Grose tells the governess that he seduced Miss Jessel, the previous governess, who is also deceased now. According to Mrs. Grose, he also spent too much time alone with Miles. He appears to the current governess as a ghost.

Miss Jessel

And finally, there is Miss Jessel, the previous governess. She is deceased and one of the ghosts the current governess sees.

The Turn of the Screw Summary

The Turn of the Screw is told from the perspective of a narrator recalling a ghost story he once heard read out loud. The ghost story itself is written from the perspective of the governess to whom the story happened.

Hired by a bachelor to take care of his niece and nephew, the governess barely arrives at their country home before she starts seeing ghosts. When she confides in the maid, Mrs. Grose, she learns that the ghosts are former employees of the estate: Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.

The governess begins to suspect that her wards, Flora and Miles, can see the ghosts, but the children refuse to acknowledge the sightings. She is afraid for them, especially when the ghosts appear inside the house, but she does not write to their uncle because he asked not to be contacted.

More sightings cause the governess to change her mind, but before her letter can be delivered, it is stolen. When Flora falls ill, Mrs. Grose takes her away for her health, leaving the governess alone with Miles. He admits that he stole her letter. Then the governess sees Peter Quint out the window. Miles says Peter Quint's name, which the governess takes as indication that he knows about the ghosts. The novella ends when Miles looks out the window to see Peter Quint and dies suddenly, as if from fright.

The Turn of the Screw Themes

Good Versus Evil

The Turn of the Screw is a very ambiguous story, but some of the characters are distinctly good or evil, and the struggle of good versus evil is a main theme in the novella. Miles and his sister, Flora, are children and represent good. Any problems with their behavior can be traced back to the influence of evil adults, such as Peter Quint. Peter Quint is definitely evil. Even if his ghost is not responsible for killing Miles at the end (one of the most ambiguous scenes in the novella), he is still guilty of seducing Miss Jessel and spending too much time alone with Miles.

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