The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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‘old machicolated square tower’ – Machicolations were, originally, a serious of openings in the floor of a protruding gallery at the top of a wall or tower from which stones etc. could be dropped on attackers. No doubt, the machicolations of Bly’s ‘square tower’ were decorative; it is still, however, the building’s most obviously gothic feature. It makes the narrator ‘dizzy’.

‘I had the fancy of our being almost lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!’ – James allows the ‘older, wiser’ narrator to speak for a moment prior to this quotation, referring to Bly as ‘a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house’. It is not a technique he uses frequently as it removes the reader mentally from the impact of the narrator’s immediate impressions, and one of his aims in this fiction is that readers should recognise that the narrator is unreliable and could be misleading them, as well as herself. The basis for this is neatly summarised in this quotation: the narrator is both ‘at sea’ and also ‘in charge’, at least with regard to Miles and Flora, and as the only ‘lady’ living at Bly.

II [Miles arrives back at Bly]

‘The first day had been, on the whole, reassuring; but I was to see it wind up in keen apprehension.’ – This sentence takes us back to the theme, prevalent in the prologue, of ‘turning the screw’. The main point of James’s prologue, in fact, is to make the reader expect something extraordinary – a horror seen by ‘two’ children – and this is a technique that make readers want to trust the narrator. She is telling them the story and they will want it to be something extraordinary and remarkable.

‘I broke the seal with a great effort’ – This is odd, given that the narrator has no particular reason to expect there to be bad news in the letter. She is apprehensive about everything – though in this case she is right to be so.

‘it gave me a second sleepless night’ – Understandably so in this case, perhaps, but it is worth noting that the narrator is not sleeping well.

‘She gave me a look that I remarked at the moment’ – Mrs Grose is of the view that the master’s manservant Peter Quint, who had the running of the house in the previous year, was a bad influence on Miles. The narrator has immediately put two and two together and concluded that Miles has been corrupted in some way by this individual.

‘ “Such things are not for me, miss.”’ – Another reason why Mrs Grose has a strong inclination to defer to the ‘lady governess’. Her illiteracy may even be the reason that Quint was given the running of the house – at least the master could communicate with him by letter – but that is pure speculation. What is important is that the narrator – a young, inexperienced and rather unbalanced individual – is being put in a position where she is given an inappropriate degree of responsibility. She has to decide everything, and, with her youthful self-confidence, she seems quite happy to take on this role.

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Henry James