The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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‘a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her.’ – a reversal of expectations: Jane Eyre gets on well enough with Adele Varens, but the latter is obviously very spoilt.

‘I slept little that night – I was too much excited’ – This is, perhaps, a natural enough reaction for a young girl embarking on her first position of employment, but James is gradually giving his reader the impression of a highly-strung narrator, who has a tendency to overreact, particular in respect of the two children she looks after. The girl, Flora, has just been described as ‘the most beautiful child I had ever seen’, which may conceivably be true, but sounds like hyperbole.

‘The large, impressive room, one of the best in the house’ – As a governess, the narrator is a working woman of the middle-class; she is not a servant – as, for example, is Mrs Grose – and these distinctions are made sharply in the novella. This is why the narrator is given a bedroom suitable for a ‘lady’.

‘the great state bed, as I almost felt it’ – The bed is not a ‘state bed’ (one appropriate to visiting nobility), but the narrator feels it is almost as grand. Despite her youth, the narrator has a strong sense of her own status, augmented by the master’s decision to devolve so much authority onto her.

‘as to be positively on her guard against showing it too much.’ – There has been a scandal in the household, and the reader can assume it was widely known. Mrs Grose is very pleased to have a new governess.

‘so beatific […] radiant image […] angelic beauty’ – Adults can have a tendency to dote on children in their care and can be prone to hyperbolic language, but the narrator has only just met Flora and there is something rather extreme about her reaction to the child. She ascribes to it a ‘restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about my room’, indicating an immediate and unusual emotional engagement with the child.

‘the possible recurrence of a sound or two […] that I had fancied I heard.’ – This is straight out of Jane Eyre. In Brontë’s novel, the heroine hears various strange disturbances connected with the unknown presence of the insane Bertha Mason in the house where she lives. In The Turn of the Screw it is ‘the cry of a child’ that the narrator fancies she hears. She is already becoming rather neurotically focused on Flora’s well-being.

‘a light footstep’ – This is hardly surprising in a house full of other people; nor is hearing ‘the cry of child’. These are subtle indications that the narrator may not be entirely ‘balanced’.

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Henry James