Turn of the Screw Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Turn of the Screw: Metaphors

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Turn of the Screw


The title of the story provides a main metaphor for the progression of the story and its effect of horror on the mind of the narrator and the minds of readers. Each of the twenty-four sections of this novella turns the story and predicament of the governess into a tighter and tighter corner with no seeming way out. The metaphor is used first in the frame story as a guest called Griffin tries to tell an unusual ghost story with a child in it. Douglas says, well, if a child in a ghost story is a turn of the screw, how about two children? Each narrator is trying to outdo the others to create more horror.


Within the story itself, the narrator mentions her constant discovery about the evil at Bly, that it gets worse and worse, the more she looks at it. She wonders how she will describe “the strange steps of my obsession” (XIII, p. 52). Yet she is eagerly ready to know the worst. She uses an interesting metaphor in her attempt to convince Mrs. Grose of the ghosts; she speaks of the “chain of my logic” (XIX, p.69) which is too strong for the housekeeper. The governess becomes entangled in her own chains and tries to get Mrs. Grose bound also.


The governess also treats her relationship with the children like a game of chess in which each interaction is a move that turns the game in their favor or hers, coming closer and closer to checkmate. For instance, one big move on the part of Miles is when he confronts her with the question of when he will go back to school. She feels she has almost been cornered because it will bring up why he was dismissed from school in the first place; she fears the involvement of the uncle which Miles threatens. She is so defeated, she goes home to pack and leave, until the next turn of the screw—the appearance of the ghost of Miss Jessel in the schoolroom. This leads her on to wanting to send for the uncle, and so on to the end.


Once Mrs. Grose leaves with Flora, and the governess is alone with Miles, she realizes “It was a tighter place than I had yet turned round in” (XXII, p. 79). She is only able to survive by treating her “monstrous ordeal” as “another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue” (XXII, p. 80). She has to assume there is a virtue in her that is being twisted in odd directions by the situation, that she has not lost her reason or herself. This turn of the screw of virtue goes all the way as Miles dies in her arms, redeemed, as she thinks, only by the extremity of  dying.


Demons and Angels


The imagery is polarized, like the thinking of the governess, by reference to demons or angels. When the governess first comes to Bly she is struck by the perfection of the children, thinking of “Raphael's holy infants” (I, p. 8). As soon as she hears Miles has been dismissed from school, she swings to the imagery of evil, thinking he has “corrupt[ed]” (II, p. 12) the other boys. When she sees Miles in person, she believes him to be beautiful and innocent, the personification of love. He is so innocent, she thinks he has had no history. In hindsight, however, she decides it was all a “trap” (III, p. 14) and a “spell” (IV, p. 20) and that the possessed children were simply crouching like beasts to strike. Later she concludes that their “unnatural goodness”  is a “game” and “fraud” (XII, p. 48). The children are “absent” (XII, p. 49) as the ghosts put evil into them “to keep up the work of demons” (XII, p. 49). She speaks of the “secret precocity” of Miles and the “poison” of his influence that makes her treat him as an adult (XVII, p. 63). She believes that the children play on her; she becomes their puppet, as they jerk her this way and that. She tries to fathom the “enigma” of Miles's “dark prodigy,” sensing that “the imagination of all evil had been opened up to him” (XVIII, p. 66). Miles continues to look like an angel, but the governess has an “initiated view” (XVIII, p. 65) of reality because she can see the ghosts.


The ghosts too, are not ordinary ghosts, but Miss Jessel is “a ravenous demon” (XX, p. 71), suffering the torments of the damned and trying to take Flora with her. Quint is called a beast who hunts and corrupts Miles. In the last scene she feels she is fighting the demon Quint for Miles's soul. She fights  to possess the childrenherself, assuming she is the representative of virtue. The whole drama of heaven and hell takes place between the sensitive characters in the story—the governess and the children. The housekeeper is called “Mrs. Grose” because she does not see ghosts or invisible realities. She is a common sense person that serves as a foil to the governess who feels she has an extraordinary sensitivity and does not know how to communicate her reality to others so they will believe her. At every turn of the screw when she sees more into the depth of evil, she has to confer with Mrs. Grose to give her proof of the monstrous acts going on under their noses. It takes all her reason and will to bring the housekeeper to accept these supernatural events, and of course, we never know if the housekeeper is just humoring her, because it is told from the governess's viewpoint.


Haunted House


Bly has imagery associated with a haunted house. At first, like the children, it seems fair, with its flowers and golden sky. It has two ancient-looking towers, however, with rooks who caw, where the ghost of Quint first appears. The first night the governess notices unnatural sounds in the house. She sees Bly now as a “big ugly antique” and as a “great drifting ship” of which had to take the helm (I, p. 10). She has the impression she will control the doings of Bly at first, for she is in charge. The drifting ship image introduces the idea of lack of order, and lack of what is natural. She begins to believe the children are lying to her, that everything is a fraud. In the autumn with grey skies she sees Bly as “a theatre after the performance” (XIII, p. 52). “Monstrous” is how the governess begins to describe people and events at Bly. Once she sees Quint she begins to wonder if Bly has secrets like Udolpho, the Italian mansion in Mrs. Radcliffe's eighteenth-century mystery.


Many subsequent scenes take place in shadow, at twilight, on rainy days, autumn, or at night, when she sees the ghosts on the stairway, for instance. Frequent images of dark and obscurity, confusion, and fear create a feeling of tension. She has to take her “horrid plunge” into the depths of “what was hideous at Bly” (IX, p. 40) in her account of events there. Bly is a kind of metaphorical “forbidden ground” in conversation with the children in terms of the topic of the return of the dead, and of their memories of Quint and Miss Jessel (XIII, p. 51). Quint's and Miss Jessel's names become forbidden between her and the children, and when she utters them, only at the end, like evocations of the dead, terrible things happen. Bly seems a bottomless void of evil which the governess decides to take on and defeat. To do this she becomes almost a jailor to the children, never letting them out of her sight. Her sternness becomes “judge” and “executioner” for Miles (XXIV, p. 87). After they are alone, she sees him looking out in a melancholy way with his forehead pressed against the window, whose squares are like prison bars. She sees his sense of defeat. Then she sees Quint at the window, trying to get in. The only way Miles gets out of his jail at Bly is to die.


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