Places: The Turn of the Screw

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1898

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Ghost

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Places DiscussedBly

Bly. Turn of the Screw, TheCountry house in Essex to which an unnamed young governess, the daughter of a clergyman, is sent to look after two orphaned children whose wealthy uncle lives in London. The large house has two extensive floors, two towers, and grounds that include a pathway to a lake–elements characteristic of residences in gothic stories.

The house is managed by Mrs. Grose, an illiterate but talkative housekeeper, who oversees at least two maids and two servants. The governess has her own room, in which the child Flora has a bed. Flora’s brother, Miles, has a bedroom across the hall. In the schoolroom and nursery, the governess instructs her charges and also listens to Miles at the piano. A winding staircase has a casement window at its landing. Among other downstairs rooms is a dining room with a large window. Several rooms are empty.

Strange sounds that the governess hears in the house make her increasingly aware that apparitions are present that only she seems to see. On one occasion, while she happens to be thinking of her absent employer, the children’s uncle in London, she looks up at one of Bly’s towers and sees, or believes she sees, the ghost of Peter Quint, who in life was the uncle’s valet. Drunken and vicious, he was also the lover of Miss Jessel, the former governess who also is now dead. Miss Jessel appears frequently to the governess and to the children, who refuse to admit the appearances. The governess suspects the children of seeking out the ghosts but can prove nothing.


Lake. Body of water on the estate where the governess, accompanied by Mrs. Grose, finds Flora playing with a mast on a tiny wooden boat. When the apparition of Miss Jessel appears by the child, Flora turns on the governess viciously and the latter faints. Each ghostly sighting causes the governess to jump to various conclusions, accurate or otherwise, depending on one’s evaluation of her psychological makeup.

The first appearances of the two evil ghosts, Mr. Quint and Miss Jessel, occur respectively on a tower and beside a lake, locations that could signify male and female sexuality, respectively. At the time of Miss Jessel’s appearance, Flora, who is being watched by the governess, is engaged in a game involving joining together two pieces of wood, a game that could also have sexual overtones to the governess.

Harley Street

Harley Street. Fashionable London street that later became famous as a region of well-to-do physicians’ offices. The children’s uncle lives on Harley Street, where he interviews the governess twice before hiring her. She is impressed by him and grows enamored.

BibliographyEdel, Leon, ed. Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Covers much of James’s output; ignores the early critical controversy surrounding The Turn of the Screw and focuses instead on explication of James’s symbolic imagery and artistic techniques.James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Edited by Robert Kimbrough. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. An excellent collection of source materials. Covers James’s background sources in his own words and presents a number of his letters regarding The Turn of the Screw. Presents chronologically a variety of critical reactions, from early criticism (1898-1923) through the years of the Freudian controversy (1924-1957) to more recent articles.Tompkins, Jane P., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Turn of the Screw” and Other Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Two essays treat The Turn of the Screw, placing the work in the context of James’s other shorter fiction.Wagenknecht, Edward. The Tales of Henry James. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Thorough discussion of sources and history for The Turn of the Screw. Attacks Freudian readings as serious misinterpretations; presents the novel as a straightforward ghost story designed for sophisticated readers.Willen, Gerald, ed. A Casebook on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1960. Fifteen essays debate the Freudian readings. The essay that started the entire controversy, Edmund Wilson’s “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” is also included, along with an extensive postscript by the same author. Somewhat dated, but recommended for the vigor of the debate.
Categories: Places