“No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

A Victorian Tale of Horror


Reading Schedule

Preface, Chs. 1 & 2 Jan. 4
Chs. 3, 4 & 5 Jan. 4
Chs. 6 – 12 Jan. 4
Chs. 13-18 Jan. 8
Chs. 19-22 Jan. 11
Chs. 23-24 Jan. 13

A Quick Critical History

For some 30 years after its publication, the popular Turn of the Screw was seen primarily as a simple ghost story.  Some few critics, like Edna Kenton in 1924, suggested that the focus is not on the children, but on the governess who is “pathetically trying to harmonize her own disharmonies by creating discords outside herself.”  Then, in 1934, Edmund Wilson published a psychological analysis of the governess in the literary magazine Hound & Horn.

Wilson’s Freudian interpretation claimed that the governess’s ghosts are hallucinations, extensions of her “neurotic case of sex repression.”  The story has a “false hypothesis which the narrator is putting forward and a reality which we are supposed to divine.”  She may be obsessing on her employer (whom she has met but once), and she strikes up a disturbingly intimate relationship with Miles.  Freudian symbols, he said, abound:  Quint on the tower, Flora’s toy boat, Miss Jessel at the lake, etc.

The controversy around the critique raged, becoming almost more important than the novel itself.  In 1938, Wilson printed some retractions and revisions of his original work, and other critics traced historical evidence of James’s intent (as evidenced by his own forwards, letters, and other documents), claiming that the author plainly wished to write a ghost story, plain and simple.  Wilson in 1948 printed yet a third critique, claiming that he has “forced a point,” and that James did not consciously intend the story to be ambiguous.  Instead, Wilson now claimed, James was going through a difficult time himself, having so much of his work previously devoured by critics, and that his “faith in himself had been somewhat shaken”–his self-doubts were unconsciously placed in the governess.  In fact, not only is the governess deceived, argued Wilson, but “James is self-deceived about her.”

Finally, in 1959, critic John Silver found more psychological and textual answers to Wilson’s antagonists.  Abandoning the sexual issues, Silver argued that the mind of the governess was “warped,”  the story she tells is “untrue,” and that “James knew exactly what he was doing” in his manipulation of the first-person narrator.  Critics even today publish articles and even books arguing both sides of the issue.

But what did James mean when he called his novel “a trap for the unwary”?

Some Reading Tips


  • For the Victorians, sometimes what is not said is as important as what is.  Consider what is omitted from the text and how this omission creates meaning or makes meaning ambiguous.
  • More, where is critical information missing from the text because of the characters’ willful censoring of it? Treat this as a psychological choice.


  • As a narration told in retrospect, where or how is the Governess reliable?  How might you describe her psychological condition?
  • What elements of the narration strike you as reliable or true?  How can you mark these as more reliable?
  • Think, too, of it as a genre:  not merely fiction, but journal/confessional.  What does this say of the Governess?
  • What is repression and how does it work?

Victorian Style

  • Victorians, proper as they are, don’t always write openly or frankly.  The full meaning of the text is suggested or intimated instead.
  • James is famous for his long sentences, but in the hands of the Governess, how does sentence structure reveal her psychological or emotional condition?

James on James

From a Letter to H. G. Wells: . . .I will express more articulately my appreciation of your various signs of critical interest, as well as assure you of my sympathy in your own martyrdom.  What will you have?  It’s all a grind and a bloody battle–as well as a considerable lark, and the difficulty itself is the refuge from the vulgarity.  Bless your heart, I think I could easily say worse of the T. of the S., the young woman, the spooks, the style, the everything, than the worst any one else could manage.  One knows the most damning things about one’s self.  Of course I had, about my young woman, to take a very sharp line.  The grotesque business I had to make her picture and the childish psychology I had to make her trace and present, were, for me at least, a very difficult job, in which absolute lucidity and logic, a singleness of effect, were imperative.  Therefore I had to rule out subjective complications of her own–play of tone, etc.; and keep her impersonal save for for the most obvious and indispensable little note of neatness, firmness, and courage–without which she wouldn’t have had her data.  But the thing is essentially a pot-boiler with a jeu d’espirit.

Discussion Questions

Here are some discussion questions around the first six chapters to get you started.

1.     Examine James’s use of syntax—the lengths of sentences, their convolutions, the thickness of paragraphs, his use of punctuation, etc.  Choosing one or two thicker paragraphs as an example, what observations about syntax can you make which may have parallels in the Governess’s psychology?  (Beware: do not discuss the meanings of the words here—just their structure!)

2.     In the third paragraph of Chapter IV (p. 19), the Governess describes Miles’s school as a “little horrid unclean school-world.”  Set up a sizable opposition chart on this image, including connotations of these terms.  Where does the Governess place Miles and herself on this chart? What hypotheses might you draw about her psychology from her oppositional ideas (Structuralism!)?

3.     Examine the last two paragraphs of Chapter IV. Make a list of details offered in this encounter with Quint. Which stand out? What details might she have included that are omitted (as one might expect from a ghostly encounter)? What details does she spend more time with than others? To what effect?  On the whole, then, what anomalies in the choice of details might give us certain insights into the Governess’s psychology?

4.     Examine the use of dashes in Chapters II and V as used between the Governess and Mrs. Grose.What pattern of interaction do you see between them? What subjects do they center around? Are the two characters of a like mind or are there miscues and errors in communication between them? Who would you say is most at fault, if so? What hypotheses can you draw from these patterns?

5.     In Chapter VI (p.28?), the Governess confesses her state of mind in the paragraph beginning, “I scarce know how to put my story into words.” No nuance here—what the heck is going on with her? Can you identify the truth of her emotions from the fantasy?


Following its release, most of the reviews of TofS were positive, describing it as brilliant.  However, the times being what they were, many saw what James was about (or failed to see it) and were disgusted.  Here’s one:

From The Independent:

“Most Hopelessly Evil Story”

The Turn of the Screw is the most hopelessly evil story we have ever read in any literature, ancient or modern.  How Mr. James could, or how any man or woman could, choose to make such a study of infernal human debauchery, for it is nothing else, is unaccountable.  It is the story of two orphan children, mere infants, whose guardian leaves them in an English country house.  The little boy and little girl, at the toddling period of life, when they are but helpless babes, fall under the influence of a governess and her lover who poison the very core of their conscience and character and defile their souls in a way and by means darkly and subtly hinted rather than portrayed by Mr. James.  The study, while it portrays Mr. James’s genius in a powerful light, affects the reader with a disgust that is not to be expressed.  The feeling after perusal of the horrible story is that one has been assisting in an outrage upon the holiest and sweetest fountain of human innocence, and helping to debauch–at least by standing by–the pure and trusting nature of children.  Human imagination can go no further into infamy, literary art could not be used with more refined subtlety of spiritual defilement.