The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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In this sense, the prologue, in which the initial narrator of the novella invents the title ‘The Turn of the Screw’, is like a broader reflection of the idea that the tale is really more about authorial manipulation than it is about a pair of ghosts and their effect on the novella’s small cast. Apart from simple entertainment and excitement, the purpose of such manipulation is to provoke exactly what Douglas’s audience immediately engages in: speculation.

Once that point is conceded, a good deal of James’s artistry in The Turn of the Screw becomes clear. Quint, for example, is far more interesting a creation because he does not have to conform to any of the restrictions that characters in novels or novellas usually have to conform to: he can be the hatless and unconventional Romantic; he can be a drunken ‘demon’; he can be a pederast; he can be an evil ghost in the service of the devil; he can be a socialist (some people think his physiognomy is intended to recall George Bernard Shaw); he can be a womaniser, and at the same time the true and faithful lover of tragic Miss Jessel if the reader so wishes. All of these possibilities are hinted at somewhere in the text (with the exception perhaps of the pederast, which is included here because recent readers have often seen it as an element in the story). In perhaps a slightly less limitless fashion, much the same thing could be said of Miles and Flora, though the reader may suspect all along that the two children are, despite the tragedy of their having been orphaned at a young age, far more ordinary – certainly duller and naughtier – than the narrator makes them. Indeed their governess has a rare moment of perspicacity (at that point in the narrative when Flora rejects her) in which she finally appears to see the younger of the two as she really is:

Flora continued to fix me with her small mask of reprobation, and even at that minute I prayed God to forgive me for seeming to see that […] her incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failed, had quite vanished. I've said it already—she was literally, she was hideously, hard; she had turned common and almost ugly.


This transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary is an important clue to James’s purposes. Everything the reader learns in The Turn of the Screw is communicated through the distorting lens of the narrator, and that lens (as the above quotation suggests) exaggerates the ordinary into some remarkable thing – and always some remarkable thing that is remarked upon by the narrator. For a simple village girl, she is an extraordinary – if unknowing – egoist: everything seems to conspire to make her the heroine of her tale and the centre of everyone’s attention, and what Douglas (and James) do self-consciously when they ‘turn the screw’, she does largely unconsciously, though quite naturally, by seeing herself as part of some grand gothic romance.

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Henry James