The Turn of the Screw

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Book Review

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

In this Victorian novel, party guests share ghost stories. A man named Douglas presents a manuscript he claims is a true story, written by a young, unnamed governess he once loved.

The governess answers an ad from a handsome playboy, who serves as guardian for his orphaned niece and nephew. The man lives in town, and the children live at his country estate with servants. He tells the governess that if she takes the job, he wants absolutely no communications from her concerning the children or the estate. The governess, while a little perplexed, is smitten with the man and wants to prove she can handle the job.

Aided by the kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, the governess initially finds her new position pleasant. The niece, Flora, is smart, beautiful and loving. Miles is away at school, until the governess receives a letter from the headmaster saying he’s been expelled and must never return. The governess worries about what kind of a child would elicit such a response, until she meets Miles for herself. He, like his sister, seems amazing and perfect. She and Mrs. Grose can’t fathom why he has been sent home.

The governess teaches and bonds with Miles and Flora. Things are good, until she starts seeing people lurking on the property and watching the children. She tells Mrs. Grose, who says the descriptions match those of former servant Peter Quint and the governess’s predecessor, Miss Jessel. Mrs. Grose mentions that the pair paid undue attention to the kids during their time at the estate. Quint died in a drunken accident, and Miss Jessel died while away on holiday. The governess and Mrs. Grose vow to protect the children from what can only be the ghosts of Quint and Jessel.

Not wanting to alarm the kids, the governess doesn’t mention that she often sees the ghosts while the children are playing. One day, she sees a slight reaction from Flora and realizes the girl sees Miss Jessel’s ghost, too. Flora pretends she doesn’t. This is the governess’s first clue that there may be more to the children than the perfection she’s seen.

She begins catching the children sneaking out and looking for the ghosts. They still refuse to admit they see the apparitions. When Miles tries to get the governess to send him back to school, she’s all the more confused about whether the children like or fear the ghosts. One night, the governess and Mrs. Grose chase down the missing Flora and find her near the lake where the former governess’s ghost stands watching. Mrs. Grose can’t see Miss Jessel’s ghost. Flora claims she can’t either, leaving readers to wonder if these ghosts only exist in the mind of an unreliable, possibly insane narrator.

Flora turns against the governess, and Mrs. Grose takes Flora away from the country estate. Despite the uncle’s directive, the governess has written telling him he needs to come. Miles reveals he found and burned the letter. Miles never explains why he was expelled, except to say that he said some things to other boys. When Quint appears at the window, the governess tries to stop him from getting near the boy. Quint’s image disappears, and Miles falls dead in the governess’s arms.

Christian Beliefs

None

Other Belief Systems

The governess believes evil ghosts are haunting the children in her care.

Authority Roles

The governess fiercely devotes herself to the children’s safety. It is ultimately unclear whether she is deeply loyal or murderous and insane. The uncle wants to be completely hands-off in caring for Miles and Flora. He hires a governess but doesn’t want to know anything about what’s happening with the children or the estate. Mrs. Grose is an ally who grows increasingly concerned when she can’t see the spirits the governess insists are right in front of them.

Profanity & Violence

When Quint’s image disappears from the window, Miles falls dead in the governess’s arms.

Sexual Content

Nothing overt, but some critics believe the text hints Quint and Jessel had a sexual relationship resulting in pregnancy and/or that they sexually abused the children.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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