Turn of the Screw: Theme

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Loss of Innocence


Henry James is concerned in his fiction with the loss of innocence. He sees the world as a place for the experienced to pounce on the unwary. Many of his main characters are young women who are not prepared for the hidden motives of others or their designs. He often tracks the growing awareness of an unassuming person as he or she has to negotiate difficult social situations with unscrupulous friends and acquaintances. A frequent theme is the innocence of Americans as they travel abroad to Europe trying to fit into a more sophisticated and nuanced society (The American, The Ambassadors, “Daisy Miller”). In The Portrait of a Lady, an innocent American heiress is duped and betrayed as she tries to move around in Europe, impressed by the wrong people. What Maisie Knew describes a young girl coming of age who has to live with untrustworthy adults who do not care for her. She must understand enough to choose the right person to live with.


In “The Turn of the Screw,” the innocents are not as easy to identify. From an outward appearance, Flora and Miles are innocent, intelligent, and lovely children. They are kind and thoughtful to their governess, wanting to please her. Apparently, however, they have been secretly corrupted by two ghosts and are actually lost souls. Their story cannot ever really be known directly because the point of view is that of the governess. James is interested by what happens in the mind of the young twenty-year-old governess who confronts evil for the first time. How has she been prepared for this? As a clergyman's daughter she has learned all about heaven, hell, and damned spirits, but to deal with this as a reality is a different matter. James shows what happens to her as she loses her innocence about the children and about the world. Though she tries to keep her reason and her balance, she becomes increasingly obsessive and rigid, attempting to control the outbreak of evil, trying to keep the children for herself as the representative of their own good.


The governess appears to care for the children and to be willing to sacrifice herself for their good. The uncle, by contrast, does not even want to hear about the children and has before irresponsibly left them in the care of Quint, a drunkard and womanizing servant. The governess realizes she has to deal with the situation alone and draw on all her strength. She suddenly understands the children are not innocent and are playing on her; after that, her cynicism takes over. James shows her almost impossible situation—to deal with the knowledge of evil without becoming tainted with it. To her credit, she stays true to her beliefs and perceptions, even giving up her desire for the employer's admiration. James's story seems to show us, however, that even virtue and good intentions cannot save the innocent from the tragedies of the world. As a narrative device he uses a limited point of view, perhaps to show the limitation of human knowledge.


The Supernatural


Henry James is known primarily as a realist author, touching on the social and psychological concerns of his characters. In this story, however, he brings in the supernatural phenomena of ghosts, spirits living on after death to haunt the living. Some people find comfort in the idea of ghosts because it seems to be proof of life after death. Others think of perception of invisible beings as a paranormal phenomenon. The governess in this story prides herself on her rational approach to the situation. She is not an obviously hysterical person, as some critics claim. She wants to be reasonable, drawing on direct observation; she forms hypotheses and tests them, and she reports her conclusions and thought processes. On the other hand, one might say she is predisposed to see ghosts because of her religious background, as such ideas as “damned” and “saved” come from there. She claims that Miss Jessel has told her she suffers damnation, and the ghost is seen holding her head in woe. The narrator feels the frightening and repulsive atmosphere of the ghosts, even before she sees them. She tells the housekeeper with certainty that the ghosts want to possess the children and make them share damnation. This religious interpretation of the ghosts goes beyond her objective observation, for the reader is shown their visual presence but never their intentions.


The purpose of ghost stories is to scare the reader and produce the feeling of horror. The narrator records her own constant horror of the ghosts and their effect with such words as “monstrous” to show that the phenomena she tells about derive their terrible effects from being unnatural and ugly and evil. She says that her “equilibrium” depends on her “rigid will” to shut her eyes to the truth that “what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature” (XXII, p. 80). Ghost and horror stories have always been popular, especially in scientific times when people believe they can control nature. The supernatural monster shows the limit of human control and knowledge. We are forced to consider “what if” we don't know everything?


James is primarily interested in human knowledge and the process of knowing and forming conclusions. He follows the intricate thought processes of his characters, and here, he can indulge himself by watching the mind of an intelligent person confronting something beyond social wisdom or remedies. It seems impossible to the governess that the ghosts should be there, and that they could have corrupted innocent children. These ideas are unthinkable, yet she is forced to think them. She is forced she says to the limit of her sanity.




James is well known for adding the element of human consciousness to his narratives, anticipating the later interest of stream-of -consciousness writers such as Virginia Woolf. Each section of “The Turn of the Screw” is a turn of the screw of horror, of the registering on the mind of the governess the hidden details of evil at Bly. We watch her assumptions and reason break down, bit by bit. James uses point of view to highlight his theme of consciousness. The whole story happens not only to the governess but also in the mind of the governess. She reports when Mrs. Grose agrees or disagrees with her, but these scenes are reported by her in half sentences and innuendos, leaving a lot to the reader's imagination. We have to decide if the narrator is reliable or unreliable. In this way, James invites the consciousness of the reader also to construct the horror story, and the reader decides if he or she is more horrified by ghosts and evil children or by a hysterical governess trying to save their souls. The story is like an embedded figure test where you can see either a vase or two faces, evil ghosts or an evil governess. Interpretation is further complicated by James's almost unreadable style, using long sentences with multiple clauses, double negatives, and vague modifiers, and by baffling suggestive dialogue that hints but never comes to point. His aim is to follow the subtle shifts of human thought in his prose style. The reader thus becomes forced as much as the narrator to choose an interpretation of events. James has cleverly made a meta-narrative, or a narrative about how the human mind makes a narrative, as we watch James creating the governess creating her story. There is thus no objective story, only consciousness creating one.

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