The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Prologue | Summary

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Summary

Near the end of the 19th century, an anonymous narrator spending Christmas with friends at an English country house tells the story of a time in the past. The friends share ghost stories—a Christmas Eve tradition. They're especially intrigued by a story involving a child. Douglas, a member of the group, mentions he knows a story involving two children—another "turn of the screw" to the eerie story they just heard—and more intense. The story he has to tell is so horrible no one but Douglas has heard it before. He keeps the written story in a locked drawer in his apartments in London. His curious friends clamor to hear the tale, so Douglas sends a key by post to a servant to retrieve the manuscript and send it back to the country by post.

Douglas explains the events happened to a family friend: his sister's governess. The governess has been dead for twenty years. The story took place forty years ago. She tells Douglas the story when he visits home one summer from Trinity, a college in Cambridge, England. Douglas believes the governess never told anyone else the story because "she was in love," a fact the story makes obvious. When Douglas leaves for bed the remaining friends speculate about Douglas's own affections for the governess. They're eager to hear the story, but they'll have to wait a few days for the written manuscript to come in the mail.

The anonymous narrator says they're going to tell the story exactly as they transcribed it "much later" from Douglas's account, adding they are writing the Prologue after Douglas's death. Douglas receives the manuscript and sets up the story for his audience. The governess came from a poor pastor's family and took her first teaching job at the age of twenty. She interviews with a handsome bachelor on Harley Street, a fashionable area of London. His wealth and kindness impress her. He wants a governess to teach and look after his young, orphaned nephew and niece, who live at his country estate in Essex (northeast of London). The estate has an experienced housekeeper named Mrs. Grose and a full staff of servants, but the governess will be in charge. The children's former governess, who's done her job well, has died.

Douglas's friends interrupt to ask what killed the former governess. Surely, they think, the new governess wouldn't take a job if it brought "necessary danger to life." Douglas says the governess does find out what killed her predecessor, and he'll tell them later in the story. He adds that the bachelor uncle seduces the governess into taking the job, which many candidates had turned down.

The uncle has one peculiar requirement. He tells the governess she is never to bother him about anything she needs. He will send money through his solicitor but won't contact her directly. The governess still gladly accepts the job. She never sees the children's uncle again.

Douglas picks up the governess's story from there. When he mentions the story has no title, the anonymous narrator says they've thought of one.

Analysis

The winter setting adds an eerie Gothic effect contrasted with the Christmas holiday, which is traditionally a time for joy and celebration. The anonymous narrator remarks a Christmas Eve tale in an old house should be "gruesome." Christmas is often connected in literature to the otherworldly and the appearance of spirits. (Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, the famous story where a miser meets three ghosts on Christmas Eve, was published in 1843.)

The Prologue shows how the story's narrators and audience are layered. The information is filtered through multiple recipients. The ghost story, which makes up most of the narrative, was written in a letter intended for Douglas, who only reveals the contents after the letter writer is dead. Douglas reads the story aloud, making it an oral narrative. The Prologue sets up a group of listeners who react to the tale, and who are minor, unnamed characters in The Turn of the Screw themselves. The story becomes a story once it has an audience, and this will color the governess's narration too—she has an awareness of audience.

James also introduces the element of waiting and added suspense, pointing out its effect on a reader or audience. The guests wait for the letter to arrive; then they wait for Douglas to set up the story. The tale's buildup is already affecting their experience; they're invested before the tale even begins. The Turn of the Screw itself was first published as serialized installments in a magazine, so the first readers had to wait after suspenseful turns in the plot for the next installment, rather than reading the entire novella at once.

The guests at the country house enjoy ghost stories as entertainment. They speculate with good humor on Douglas's romantic connection to the governess, despite Douglas's obvious distress at recalling the disturbing tale. The guests are simply eager for a good story. The anonymous narrator says the tale "will make a tremendous occasion of Thursday night." When Douglas says the story won't reveal the secret of the governess's love in "any literal vulgar way," a group member is disappointed. This moment in the novella foreshadows how the reader may perhaps feel when reaching the end of the story and discovering much information has been left hidden.

James adds to the sense of mystery by not naming the narrator of the Prologue or providing any identifying details, except for their connection to the group of guests at an English country house. He also does not name the governess who will narrate the story. Names add authenticity and specificity to characters, and anonymous narrators increase the sense there may be more to the story than meets the eye.

The Prologue drops several hints for the reader about the story's importance. The governess's letter has stayed in a drawer for years and will only now be revealed. Dramatic characters are set up for the story to come—the naive young woman, the dashing and wealthy bachelor, the large country house. The novella will continue to follow conventions of gothic fiction: a vulnerable woman finding herself in a strange, isolated place, the appearance of threatening household members, and vague allusions to sexual desire.

The uncle first appears to the governess like a character "in a dream or an old novel." This is the first hint of the governess's feeling she herself is a character in a story or fairytale. She tends to fictionalize her own life.

There are many unanswered questions for readers and audience. Why would the uncle, who presumably cares about the children, not want to be contacted even if a problem arises? Why did the children's previous governess die, and was her death connected to the job? Why had so many other candidates turned the job down? Why did the governess never see the uncle again? Douglas is a good storyteller. He doesn't want to spoil the story by giving away the plot.

When the anonymous narrator says they've thought of a title, the narrative implies they've noticed Douglas's phrase "turn of the screw" and thought it would fit the story. The phrase does seem to fit, even before the reader hears the tale. A "turn of the screw" evokes plot twists, physical (or emotional) torture, and events "turning" or becoming more than they appear.

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