The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


One Christmas Eve in the late 19th century, a group of friends in England gathers in an old house to hear ghost stories. A member of the group, Douglas, whom the unknown narrator says has since died, says he knows a horrible ghost story involving two children. He's never told the story before. The events, Douglas claims, happened long ago to a woman he knew. The woman was his sister's governess and a friend of his.

As the gathered group eagerly awaits the full tale, Douglas gives the story's background: The governess was hired for her first job by a rich, polite London man, who needed her to teach his orphaned niece and nephew. She'd live with the children in a country estate called Bly. The governess, enchanted by the good-looking uncle, took the job but never saw the uncle again. Douglas adds the children's former governess died, but he doesn't explain why. He tells the story by reading the governess's written account.

The governess narrates the rest of the novella in the first person. When she arrives at Bly in June, she immediately loves the sweet eight-year-old girl, Flora, and the generous housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. But she's troubled when she receives a letter stating Miles, the 10-year-old boy, has been expelled from school for unclear reasons. When the governess meets Miles, she is so impressed by him she thinks the school's made a mistake.

While the governess is enjoying summer with the children, she sees a strange man standing in a tower at Bly. She's frightened and wonders if the house has a secret. On a rainy Sunday, while she's in the dining room, she sees the man again. Shaken, she describes the man to Mrs. Grose. The description resembles Peter Quint, a former personal attendant to the children's uncle, who has recently died. The governess and Mrs. Grose become convinced Quint's ghost plans to harm the children, especially Miles. They resolve to protect the children.

One afternoon the governess is at a nearby lake with Flora when she sees someone, perhaps a ghost, watching them. Flora appears to have seen the ghost too but says nothing. The governess thinks the children know about the ghosts and keep quiet on purpose. She believes the second spirit is Miss Jessel, the children's former governess, also deceased. Mrs. Grose implies Peter Quint and Miss Jessel had an affair when they were alive and are now working together to hurt the children at Bly.

The governess wakes up one night and sees Peter Quint again on a staircase. This time she's expecting him. She's shocked, however, to see Flora missing from her bed. Flora is hiding behind the curtain in her room for reasons the young girl doesn't explain. The governess begins to stay awake at night and wander the halls. One night she sees Miss Jessel sitting on a staircase. Another night her bedside candle blows out and she thinks Flora is responsible. The governess goes to a lower room in the tower to look for Miles and finds him outside on the lawn in the dark, looking at a mysterious person in the tower. Miles explains he was only misbehaving to show her he could be bad, and Flora had agreed to keep watch for him. The governess does not believe it was a childish prank. She now believes the children are communicating with the ghosts.

She explains her fears to Mrs. Grose, but when Mrs. Grose offers to write to the children's uncle, the governess threatens to quit. Meanwhile the governess becomes increasingly uncomfortable around the children and worried about what horrors they might see.

On a Sunday in early autumn the governess walks to church with the children. On the walk Miles asks when he's going back to school. When the governess isn't sure how to answer him, Miles says he'll talk to his uncle himself. The governess thinks Miles senses her fear and is manipulating her to gain his freedom from Bly. Disturbed, the governess walks back to the house and sees Miss Jessel sitting in the schoolroom at the writing table.

The governess is now certain Miles was expelled for "wickedness," and she changes her mind about not writing to the children's uncle. Mrs. Grose offers to have a messenger deliver the letter if the governess writes it.

Before Miles goes to bed the governess talks to him and asks how she can help him. Miles replies he only wants to be left alone. She worries Miles has been talking to the ghost of Peter Quint. A chill goes through Miles's bedroom, and Miles blows out the candle.

The next morning the governess and Mrs. Grose can't find Flora. They search the house and grounds, afraid Flora is with the ghosts. When they find Flora outside by the lake, the governess asks Flora where Miss Jessel is. Before Flora can answer the governess sees Miss Jessel on the other side of the lake. Mrs. Grose reassures Flora no one is there. Flora says she's never seen a ghost and screams for the governess to get away from her.

Flora becomes afraid of the governess and runs a fever. The governess tells Mrs. Grose to take Flora to live with her uncle, so the governess can talk to Miles alone. Mrs. Grose reluctantly agrees. Then she admits the letter the governess wrote to the children's uncle was never sent. The governess suspects Miles of taking the letter.

Once they're alone, Miles and the governess talk. Miles confesses he took the letter and opened it. He admits he was expelled from school because of inappropriate things he said to his classmates. The governess tries to get him to confess the things he said, but she's stopped short by another ghostly appearance of Peter Quint. Both Miles and the governess are shocked, and Miles jerks backward into the governess's arms, where he dies.

The Turn of the Screw Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The governess meets the children's uncle.

Rising Action

2 Miles's expulsion is revealed to the governess.

3 For the first time, the governess sees Peter Quint.

4 The governess sees Miss Jessel for the first time.

5 Miles asks when he will go back to school.

6 Flora disappears and becomes ill.


7 Miles is possessed by Peter Quint.

Falling Action

8 Miles dies in the governess's arms.


9 The governess tells her story to Douglas, a friend.

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