The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The governess narrates the rest of the novella. She arrives at Bly, the uncle's country estate, in June. She's pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the landscape and the "angelic" charm of the young girl, eight-year-old Flora. She likes the matronly housekeeper Mrs. Grose, though she's thrown off by how glad Mrs. Grose is to see her.

During her first few days at Bly, the governess feels restless and sometimes hears "the cry of a child," though she admits her early, small feelings of unease may mean more to her in hindsight after what she's experienced. She loves meeting Flora. Mrs. Grose assures her she will also love 10-year-old Miles, "the little gentleman." Miles is scheduled to return from school later in the week.

Flora shows the governess around the estate. The governess is impressed with Flora's confident navigation of empty hallways, crooked staircases, and tall towers. Bly reminds the governess of "a castle of romance." She feels she's fallen into a story-book or fairy-tale. After she leaves Bly she's able to see it as "a big ugly antique but convenient house."

Analysis

The governess is telling the story after many years have passed. She can see the truth better afterward than she could at the time. She refers repeatedly to details that disturbed her after the fact but seemed innocent at first, such as Mrs. Grose's guarded happiness to see her.

But from the first sentences she indicates she has mixed feelings immediately: "a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong." She records sensory impressions of the beautiful, imposing estate. As a young woman who grew up in poverty, she's thrilled to be treated like "the mistress or a distinguished visitor" by the staff. The grandeur of the setting contrasts with the governess's humble origins. The few eerie impressions she gets—the cry of a child, a "light footstep" in the hall—are, she thinks, just part of adjusting to her new surroundings. They are uncanny but not yet frightening. This adds truth to the governess's claim to have seen ghosts. If the governess hears the ghostly sounds before meeting the children and when she is in a stable state of mind, perhaps they are not figments of her imagination after all.

Flora, compared to "one of Raphael's holy infants," is almost too beautiful to be believed as a character. Like her uncle she is uniquely compelling, physically attractive, and enchanting to the point of putting others under a spell. The governess's reference to being "carried away in London" is meant to be a joke about the uncle's appeal to women, but it has overtones of possession and seduction.

The governess herself appears to be an optimistic, hopeful woman with an almost childishly big imagination. As a young woman she sees Bly as "a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite." The governess's new home is so surreal and magical to her she imagines herself as a character in a story—the main character. She's "strangely at the helm" of a ship, given full authority over the house. She'll reveal herself to be confident and a little narcissistic. The reader may wonder whether the governess has a firm grip on reality or not.

Her tour of Bly with Flora contrasts appearances and reality. The house has towers (a feature commonly associated with a castle), winding staircases, and lots of empty space. It's the perfect setting for a mysterious story or a piece of gothic fiction. When the governess is older, she's cast off the spell of the house and can see it as it truly is—unattractive, convenient, and old. But at first the house works to enchant her just the way its residents do.

James sets up conventions of an otherworldly tale on purpose. In James's 1908 Prologue to The Turn of the Screw, he writes that he wanted to tell "a fairy-tale pure and simple." Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are meant to be malevolent fairies, "wooing their victims forth to see them dance under the moon."

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