The Turn of the Screw

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Themes and Colors
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Turn of the Screw, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Storytelling Theme Icon

The Turn of the Screw explores the relationship between storytelling and the reality stories depict: can stories be trusted as representations of reality; does the telling of a story always imply some separation or distance from reality; can stories tell something true without telling explicitly the truth? These are not questions the book explicitly answers. But an argument can be made that part of Henry James’s agenda here is to argue that stories—even fictional stories—can powerfully influence the realities they depict.

The structure of this book is a good entry point into what The Turn of the Screw says about the power stories have. The Turn of the Screw begins in one setting—the old home in England where storytellers have gathered to scare each other on Christmas Eve—and then ends in a different setting, at Bly. What happened to the storytellers? Why did Henry James leave them out of the ending? This book is a fiction, so this may seem trivial. But this change from beginning to end is not due to Henry James’s carelessness as a novelist. Rather the change can be read in light of the book’s message about stories: the story in the manuscript Douglas read from overtook the reality of the gathered storytellers the book created at the beginning. James has taken an old literary technique, called a “frame narrative”, in which stories are nested within stories by a series of storytellers, and he uses this technique to show how some stories (such as the governess’s manuscript), if they are sufficiently powerful, can overtake the frames they are placed within (such as the Christmas Eve storytelling party).

The letter the governess receives from Miles’s head-master provides another good example of how stories can complicate and influence reality. The letter is an incomplete story about Miles: it says that he has been expelled from his school but it offers no explanation, and no character in the book seems willing or able to explain to the governess why Miles may have been expelled. This mysterious letter and the stories about Miles that it implies color the governess’s relationship with Miles throughout the story. Why was he expelled? Is he evil or good? Was the letter the result of a false accusation? Because she has no evidence to answer these questions, the stories this letter spawns in her mind take place in the realm of speculation. In other words, they are fiction, but they still come to define her relationship to Miles.

Storytelling ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Storytelling appears in each chapter of The Turn of the Screw. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Storytelling Quotes in The Turn of the Screw

Below you will find the important quotes in The Turn of the Screw related to the theme of Storytelling.
Preface Quotes

"I quite agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children—?"

Related Characters: Douglas (speaker)
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

At a Christmas Eve party in London, the partygoers have been sharing ghost stories, one of which has featured a ghost haunting a child. Douglas, one of the partygoers, attempts to trump this story, bragging that he knows of a ghost story that features not just one but two children. The fact that the novel's main narrative is embedded within this scene highlights the importance of the theme of storytelling. James explores the idea that we tell stories to impress others, and Douglas' dramatic phrase "what do you say to TWO children––?" indicates that he is competing to tell the most disturbing tale. 

This passage is important as it is one of two places where the novel's title is mentioned, and thus provides insight into the function of the phrase "The Turn of the Screw" within the narrative. Douglas says that the appearance of a ghost to an innocent child "adds a particular touch," meaning that the juxtaposition between the horror of the ghost and the child's innocence makes for a good story. Douglas uses the phrase "the turn of the screw" to imply a level of creepiness within the story; however, this phrase also gives a sense of something being closed or sealed. This may foreshadow the governess' feeling that she is trapped at Bly. 

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Chapter 6 Quotes

"Oh, it wasn't him!" Mrs. Grose with emphasis declared. "It was Quint's own fancy. To play with him, I mean—to spoil him." She paused a moment; then she added: "Quint was much too free."
This gave me, straight from my vision of his face—such a face!—a sudden sickness of disgust. "Too free with my boy?"
"Too free with everyone!"

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles, Peter Quint
Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

In response to the governess' suspicions that Quint's ghost is "looking for" Miles, Mrs. Grose confesses that, when he was alive, Quint was especially fond of Miles and liked "to spoil him." She then goes on to say that he was "much too free," a comment that horrifies the governess.

It is important to note that the use of euphemistic expression here leaves the true meaning of Mrs. Grose's words ambiguous. During the Victorian era, sexuality was often referred to with this kind of indirect language; at the same time, due to the strict social codes of the era, "much too free" could mean any number of transgressions. The governess's horror at the thought that Quint was "too free" with Miles suggests that she interprets Mrs. Grose as saying that Quint sexually molested Miles. However, Mrs. Grose's reply that Quint was too free with everyone again throws this interpretation into doubt, all while also hinting at the later revelation that Quint and Miss Jessel had a sexual relationship of their own. 

Chapter 24 Quotes

"It's he?"
I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. "Whom do you mean by 'he'?"
"Peter Quint—you devil!" His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication. "Where?"
…"What does he matter now, my own?—what will he EVER matter? I have you," I launched at the beast, "but he has lost you forever!" Then, for the demonstration of my work, "There, there!" I said to Miles.
But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss…We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Miles (speaker), Peter Quint
Page Number: 395
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel's dramatic conclusion is a masterpiece of creepiness and ambiguity. Miles has confessed that he stole the letter the governess wrote to his uncle, and admits that he was expelled from school for "saying things." Meanwhile, the governess has seen Quint at the window. At first Miles seems confused by what she has seen, referring to it with female pronouns, but then he cries out "Peter Quint––you devil!" It is difficult to determine exactly what happens next, but the novel's conclusion is definite: Miles' heart has stopped, and he is dead.

One way to interpret the ending of the novel is as a final piece of evidence that the ghosts are real and that Quint did corrupt Miles. The fact that Miles shouts Quint's name and seems to expect to see him indicates that Miles believes he is there. It is possible that Miles' heart stops in fright, or because Quint kills him, or because he cannot survive the governess seizing him from Quint's possession (indeed, this is arguably conveyed by the use of the word "dispossessed"). 

Another interpretation reads Miles's fright as being directed at the governess and her frantic behavior. It is possible that Miles's cry "you devil!" is in fact directed at the governess. The governess's repetition of "the quiet day" perhaps suggests that there is indeed no one else there but the two of them. According to this interpretation, it is the governess herself who kills Miles––either by frightening him or by smothering him so tightly that he suffocates. Indeed, this would explain how she knows that his heart has stopped.