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The Turn of the Screw | Quotes


If a child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?

Douglas, Prologue

The Prologue frames the story as a ghostly tale Douglas tells to entertain guests at a Christmas party. His story, however, reveals itself during the Prologue to be much more—a tragic and terrifying account with dire consequences for the children involved. The phrase "turn of the screw" evokes images of torture and pain, as well as plot twists, which keep audiences invested in characters' fates. The addition of children as characters makes the story more poignant and frightening than it otherwise would be.


I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was strangely at the helm!

Governess, Chapter 1

The governess is just settling into Bly, but she can already sense the residents are lost and drifting. The innocent and intelligent children have been left without a guardian, and the governess feels responsible for more than just their education. She'll come to feel responsible for their lives and souls. The phrase "strangely at the helm" indicates she sees herself thrust into a leadership role—she's not prepared, but she's eager to prove herself worthy of the job.


I needed to be remarkable to offer a front to the remarkable things that presently gave their first sign.

Governess, Chapter 3

This quote indicates how the governess views herself. She's narcissistic, eager for adventure and "remarkable things," and concerned about the way she appears to others. These aspects of her character will influence how she responds to the ghosts and how she treats the children.


I don't know what I don't see, what I don't fear!

Governess, Chapter 7

The governess feels she has been given the gift of second sight, the ability to see spirits. Strangely, she does not question this ability in herself: she does not see it as a sign of corruption or madness, nor does she believe the spirits are a threat to her. Instead, and without much evidence, she assumes that the spirits are a threat to the children, and she quickly concludes that the children can see them as well. She then deduces, from this nonexistent evidence, that the children must be corrupt, failing to apply the same logic to herself.


It was the dead silence of our long gaze at such close quarters that gave the whole horror ... its only note of the unnatural.

Governess, Chapter 9

The governess refers here to Peter Quint, whom she's just seen for the third time. She doesn't talk to or communicate with him in any way, as she might with a living human being (even with an intruder or criminal). Quint's silence means she can't learn his motives or how to keep him from returning. Silence is associated with darkness and the unknowable, and within a tell-all narrative, silence is the only thing capable of generating real horror.


Miles and Flora saw more—things terrible and unguessable.

Governess, Chapter 13

The governess assumes that the children, in a role reversal, know more about the spirit world than the governess does and are keeping terrible information to themselves. The governess never learns what they see, making it seem she's innocent while the children are knowledgeable. They become the ones who protect her even as she's trying to protect them.


I want my own sort!

Miles, Chapter 14

Miles makes many short, seemingly innocent statements, which both perplex and frighten the governess. Something in his voice, she says, made one "catch." Here he tries to explain the reason why he wants to go back to school—to be surrounded with other young men his own age. But his "own sort" could also mean the evil spirits the governess still doesn't know much about. His assertion of authority leaves the governess feeling helpless. He wants an education, more than the governess can give him, and he implies he and his "own sort" can easily overpower her.


She rose ... with an indescribable grand melancholy of indifference and detachment ... Dishonoured and tragic, she was all before me.

Governess, Chapter 15

The governess describes her sighting of Miss Jessel in the schoolroom. The ghost of Miss Jessel is a majestic figure who takes on more authority in death than the governess can in life. In some respects, the vision is a wish fulfillment on the part of the governess. Her infatuation with the uncle is clear, although she realizes it could only end in a sordid affair that would leave her pregnant and alone. The dead governess has dignity and authority that she herself lacks and longs for. Miss Jessel belongs in the schoolroom, even as the governess feels out of place. Perhaps for these reasons, the governess describes the ghost of Miss Jessel as suffering the torments of the lost and the damned—evil she can't describe.


Only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.

Governess, Chapter 22

As the governess considers her responsibilities when left alone with Miles, she tries to convince herself she's up to the task. She thinks she's fighting against malevolent demonic forces as an ordinary human being. She describes the situation as something "against nature," meaning the ghosts and their influence on the children are unpredictable and terrifying. Yet she thinks she can handle them and protect Miles using "ordinary human virtue" turned up a notch. This confidence turns out to be a delusion, as Miles's death reveals.


I have likened it to a sentinel, but its slow wheel, for the moment, was rather the prowl of a baffled beast.

Governess, Chapter 24

Here the governess describes "the thing at the window," which she believes to be the ghost of Peter Quint. Earlier she described the ghost as a "sentinel" or a guard who keeps watch. Quint has only watched her from windows and staircases so far, but now Quint transitions from passive to active. He becomes a "beast" who will "prowl" to attack Miles. This quote sets the stage for the rapid action in the final pages.


For there again, against the glass ... was the hideous author of our woe — the white face of damnation.

Governess, Chapter 24

Authorship—who writes the story—is an important aspect of The Turn of the Screw. The governess says Quint is the "author of our woe," implying Quint has controlled her story and its outcome. His "white face" takes on the otherworldly pallor traditionally associated with a ghost. This frightening image contrasts with the detailed description the governess gave of Quint in Chapter 5. Then he seemed human with recognizable facial features. Now he's a creature from another world with godlike powers of "woe" and "damnation." And, more frighteningly, he is in control.


Peter Quint—you devil!

Miles, Chapter 24

Miles's final words stay with the governess the rest of her life, but their meaning is unclear. Is he calling Peter Quint a devil, or is he calling the governess a devil? Miles's "surrender" of speaking Quint's name aloud represents, to the governess, his giving up his soul to the forces of good she represents while Quint is the "devil." But she can't save Miles from death. She might even be the one who kills him from fright or hysteria. The "devil" may be an outside force of corruption, like Quint, or a more insidious form of evil living within the governess.

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