The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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Notes on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This set of Tower Notes is 88 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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The Turn of the Screw: An Introduction

The day after his governess speaks with him by night at his bedside, Miles, the ten-year-old boy in her care, charms her by playing the piano ‘as he had never played’ before. His action, according to the narrator, is intended to misdirect, and, as far as she is concerned, by playing to her, he is also, effectively, playing a game with her. The incident offers something of a paradigm for The Turn of the Screw, as the novella itself seems intent on both playing to its readers and playing a game with them, teasing them ‘out of thought’ as the Grecian urn did Keats. Like Miles’s piano playing, it is full of the artistry of misdirection: suggesting one thing when it means another; changing tack unexpectedly and altering the reader’s conception of events; finally, coming close in its concluding chapters to undermining the conventions of narrative altogether.

Miles’s piano playing is intended to be seen in the context of the character’s unusual – and strong, though at times contradictory – feelings for his young governess. The oddness of their relationship has come to a head the night before, when Miles invites her into his room at night for an intimate tête-à-tête, which may well strike the modern-day reader as overly affectionate and which leads the narrator to (implicitly) promise she will ‘let [Miles] alone’ (she has been keeping a very close eye on him in the previous chapters). She also reveals to him that she has begun a letter to his uncle that will result in him leaving Bly to attend a new school: the two, therefore, are about to be separated. One way of reading this incident is straightforward enough: Miles is understandably annoyed by his governess’s continual surveillance and is keen to carve out a little freedom for himself. But then why does he obviously revel in the intimacy they share (blowing out his candle at the end of the chapter to create a sort of gothic frisson), and why, if he truly wishes to be free of her, does he haunt her for the rest of the novella and play so enchantingly for her the next day that she loses all track of time?

There is a ready answer to this last point in the text: his piano playing is intended to distract her so that Flora might indulge her own (apparently long held) desire to try out the rowing boat on the lake (in the company of the ghost of Miss Jessel as far as the narrator is concerned). Miles’s playing now becomes a ruse to distract his governess and allow Flora a taste of her brother’s newfound freedom. The whole thing is a conspiracy – and perhaps a supernatural one, if the reader believes that the two children are really consorting with spirits of the dead. Later on, however, it is discovered that Miles’s ploy may actually have had another motive (James puts considerable emphasis on his intelligence to make this a convincing possibility): his allowing Flora time to head out for the lake, means that when his governess and Mrs Grose inevitably seek for her he has plenty of time in a house empty of them both to take the letter to his uncle from the narrator that has been left out for posting.

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Henry James