Study Guide

The Turn of the Screw Literature and Writing

By Henry James

Literature and Writing

"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 –?"

"We say, of course," somebody exclaimed, "that they give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them." (Prologue.2)

From the beginning, this story is all about the writer and/or narrator. We're very conscious of the fact that we're being told a story, and that it's carefully constructed by someone. This "turn of the screw" conversation loosely compares the crafting of the story to building something with one's hands, highlighting the image of the writer as a craftsman.

I can see Douglas there before the fire, to which he had got up to present his back, looking down at his interlocutor with his hands in his pockets. "Nobody but me, till now, has ever heard. It's quite too horrible." This, naturally, was declared by several voices to give the thing the utmost price, and our friend, with quiet art, prepared his triumph by turning his eyes over the rest of us and going on: "It's beyond everything. Nothing at all that I know touches it." (Prologue.3)

These preliminary scenes serve two purposes; firstly, they tell a little story of their own (that of Douglas and the governess), and secondly, they steadily increase the reader's curiosity and anticipation, along with those of Douglas's audience.

So far had Douglas presented his picture when someone put a question. "And what did the former governess die of? – of so much respectability?"

Our friend's answer was prompt. "That will come out. I don't anticipate."

"Excuse me – I thought that was just what you are doing." (Prologue.15-16)

Here, one of the guests comments aptly upon Douglas's steady buildup of the story before it even begins; this could be seen as a playful comment upon the rather heavy-handed devices of suspense so often employed by authors of the genre.

"What is your title?"

"I haven't one."

"Oh, I have!" I said. (Prologue.18)

Again, we're reminded that this is a piece of writing – the Prologue's narrator is clearly a writer (we know that it is actually he who published this story, supposedly), and he's always thinking in terms of literary construction.

It may be, of course, above all, that what suddenly broke into this gives the previous time a charm of stillness – that hush in which something gathers or crouches. The change was actually like the spring of a beast. (3.8)

Wow, foreshadow much? The Governess has a way of leaving us with little mini-cliffhangers; she warns us every time things are about to get worse. This is a profoundly literary strategy – it builds reader anticipation skillfully, without being too heavy-handed or giving things away early.

It was not that I didn't wait, on this occasion, for more, for I was rooted as deeply as I was shaken. Was there a "secret" at Bly – a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement? (4.1)

Interestingly, the first references that spring to mind when the Governess sees Quint from afar are literary ones; this keeps the story within a certain literary framework and recalls the genre of gothic horror.

I find that I really hang back; but I must take my plunge. In going on with the record of what was hideous at Bly, I not only challenge the most liberal faith – for which I little care; but – and this is another matter – I renew what I myself suffered, I again push my way through it to the end. (9.4)

Here, the Governess acknowledges the documentary nature of her task – even though it pains her, she forces herself to keep writing to the end.

Would exasperation, however, if relief had longer been postponed, finally have betrayed me? It little matters, for relief arrived. I call it relief, though it was only the relief that a snap brings to a strain or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation. It was at least change, and it came with a rush. (13.4)

The Governess really has a way with catchy chapter endings – she gives hints at what is to come, but refuses to give away more (except the constant implication that what's coming is really bad). This strategy is what makes the story obviously a short story, not a personal manuscript as we are meant to believe; in this clear structure, we can see the hand of the fiction writer behind all of this, despite its pose as a kind of testimony.