The Turn of the Screw


Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw: Preface Summary & Analysis

An unnamed narrator describes a party he attended one Christmas Eve at which the partygoers had gathered to tell “strange tales” (ghost stories). An attendee named Griffin tells the guests a story in which a ghost visits a young boy, and the listeners are all especially shocked by Griffin’s story’s inclusion of children in the story of a ghost visitation. This prompts a second attendee, Douglas, to bring up a story he knows in which two children are visited. He describes this inclusion of a second child as his story’s “turn of the screw.”
The atmosphere set here is deliberately eerie and tense—it is a winter night, the house is described as old and—and it serves to set the stage for the atmosphere that will be sustained throughout the book. The listeners’ shock at hearing that there will be not one, but two children visited by ghosts in Douglas’s story touches upon the tangled relationship between youth and innocence later explored in this book.
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Douglas has access to the story’s original manuscript, which was written by the governess who was taking care of the two visited children. The governess had also been Douglas’s own sister’s governess, and from his description of her an attendee of the party named Mrs. Griffin deduces that Douglas likely was in love with her. Douglas announces to the partygoers that he will send his servant to retrieve the manuscript, if they are willing to wait in order to hear him read them the story. The attendees excitedly agree to await the arrival of the manuscript, and when it arrives the next day they meet to hear Douglas’s reading.
The listeners are drawn to Douglas’s story because he knew the governess personally, and he has access to the original manuscript. This is significant because it makes Douglas's story—within the context of the party—not just a story but rather the truth, which makes Douglas’s telling more powerful and exciting for the listeners at the party. Storytelling is becoming a strong presence here rather than a passive, entertaining element of the party.
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Douglas gives his listeners some background information about the governess. The youngest daughter of a poor country parson, she had read of the position in an advertisement. She went to London where she met the children’s wealthy uncle who’d become their guardian upon the death of his younger brother, their father. Facing difficulty taking care of the children (named Miles and Flora), this wealthy uncle sent them to his country home, an estate called Bly, where they lived and were taken care of by an “excellent woman” named Mrs. Grose, who was still at Bly, and a recently deceased governess (the circumstances of whose death Douglas does not explain). With this background information now provided, Douglas begins reading the manuscript to the partygoers.
The governess’s backstory (her underprivileged upbringing) sets her up as someone likely to be impressed (and therefore potentially deceived) by the uncle’s lavish estate. Here we also find out the extent to which the children have been abandoned or left behind by the adults in their life: once by their parents, once by their uncle, and finally by the recently deceased governess. This sets them up as the victims they’ll later be portrayed to be.
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