The Turn of the Screw: Summary, Plot, Characters, Literary Analysis & More

The Turn of the Screw is a chilling ghost story penned by Henry James, first published in 1898.

This novella has long been celebrated as one of James’s most intriguing works, skillfully blending elements of horror and psychological thriller genres.

Set in an old country estate on a dark Christmas Eve, the story follows an unnamed governess who decides to take charge of two young orphans.

As she unravels the mysteries of the previous governess and her sinister relationship with Peter Quint, the children’s uncle, the governess begins to believe that the estate is haunted by the malevolent spirits of Miss Jessel and Quint.

This classic work of horror fiction explores themes of innocence, the supernatural, and the unreliability of the governess’s perspective in a narrative rich with gothic atmosphere.

Set in an old country estate on a dark Christmas Eve, the story follows an unnamed governess who decides to take charge of two young orphans.

The Plot

In The Turn of the Screw, a governess decides to take charge of two young orphans, Miles and Flora, at a remote country estate. She soon learns of her predecessor, the former governess, and becomes convinced that the house is haunted.

The governess believes that the spirits of the deceased former employees, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, are influencing the children’s behavior.

As she grapples with the eerie events and the mysterious figure she sees, the governess’s sanity is called into question, leaving readers to wonder if the ghosts are real or a product of her increasingly troubled mind.


The characters in The Turn of the Screw play pivotal roles in shaping the novel’s atmosphere and narrative.

They contribute to the mystery and psychological tension, especially the governess and the former employees, whose beliefs and actions drive the plot.

The Governess

The central character, the governess decides to take charge of the children and believes in the existence of malevolent ghosts. Her unreliability as a narrator keeps readers questioning the true nature of the haunting.

The Former Employees (Miss Jessel and Peter Quint)

The ghosts of the former governess and valet exert a profound influence on the governess’s beliefs and actions. Their presence adds an element of horror, as their motives and intentions remain shrouded in mystery.

Key Themes

The novella explores themes of ambiguity, innocence, and the psychological impact of the supernatural. It delves into the complexities of child-adult relationships and the unreliability of perception.


The narrative’s ambiguity, with the governess’s wavering beliefs, creates uncertainty about the existence of ghosts, enhancing the story’s eerie atmosphere.

Innocence and Corruption

The children’s innocence contrasts with the potentially corrupting influence of the ghosts, raising questions about the nature of evil and purity.

Psychological Tension

The governess’s psychological state and her worries about the children’s behavior add layers of tension, blurring the lines between reality and hallucination.


The remote country estate serves as a backdrop for themes of isolation, emphasizing the governess’s solitude and vulnerability as she grapples with the supernatural.

Genres in The Turn of the Screw

The novella straddles multiple genres, including gothic horror, psychological thriller, and ghost story.

It combines elements of supernatural horror with psychological ambiguity.

Gothic Horror

The old house, dark atmosphere, and malevolent spirits evoke the classic elements of gothic horror, creating a sense of dread.

Psychological Thriller

The story’s focus on the governess’s mental state and the uncertainty of her perceptions adds a psychological dimension to the narrative.

Ghost Story

The presence of ghosts and their impact on the governess and the children make it a quintessential ghost story, filled with spectral encounters.

Language used in The Turn of the Screw

In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James employs a rich and evocative language that skillfully weaves together elements of psychological tension and the supernatural.

Through the perspective of a young woman, the narrative adopts a captivating and often mysterious tone, reflecting the Victorian era’s fascination with ghost stories.

James’ meticulous prose immerses readers in the eerie ambiance of the tale, where the language itself becomes a conduit for the novel’s unsettling themes, blurring the lines between reality and the supernatural, creating a haunting experience that lingers long after the final page.

Literary devices in The Turn of the Screw

Henry James masterfully employs literary devices to enhance the narrative’s enigmatic atmosphere.

The recurring motif of “governess sees” and her chilling encounters with Quint through the dining room window serve as examples of James’ use of visual imagery to convey a sense of foreboding.

These devices amplify the suspense and ambiguity, drawing readers deeper into the governess’s unsettling experiences, where what is seen may not always be what it seems, echoing the novel’s overarching themes of uncertainty and psychological tension.


Henry James employs similes to vividly depict the eerie encounters within the novel. When the governess sees Quint through the dining room window, the simile “like a shadowy figure in the mist” enhances the reader’s visual perception, adding an element of mystery and suspense to the scene.

This simile engages readers by conjuring a spectral image, aligning with the story’s ghostly themes.


Within the narrative, the governess serves as an unnamed narrator, functioning as a metaphorical window through which readers peer into the complex world of the boarding school and its haunting mysteries.

When she sees Miss Jessel, the metaphor of “a reflection in a murky pool” symbolizes the governess’s distorted perception, inviting readers to explore the depths of her psychological turmoil and the blurred boundaries between reality and illusion.

These metaphors deepen the narrative, inviting readers to delve into the complexities of the governess’s perspective and the overarching themes of the story.


Henry James employs analogies throughout the narrative, enabling readers to grasp complex ideas and emotions.

When the governess sees Miss Jessel, her ghostly presence is likened to “a faded photograph,” allowing readers to comprehend the sense of loss, longing, and nostalgia that pervades the story.

This analogy helps bridge the gap between the living and the dead, conveying the governess’s profound emotional connection with the supernatural realm.


James skillfully utilizes vivid imagery to envelop readers in the Gothic atmosphere of the story.

Through the governess’s perspective, readers witness the eerie sights of Miss Jessel and the strange man, creating sensory experiences that evoke both fascination and fear.

James’ imagery transports readers to the dark and mysterious world of the estate, intensifying the sense of foreboding and uncertainty that permeates the narrative, making it a quintessential work within the Gothic novel tradition.


The imposing country estate symbolizes the isolation and entrapment of the characters, reflecting the Gothic setting.

The governess’s incessant watching and worrying personify her growing paranoia, adding complexity to her role as the sister’s governess.

As Henry James concludes the novella, echoing Edmund Wilson’s ponderings on her reliability, these symbols and personifications intensify the psychological tension, making it a masterful Gothic exploration of uncertainty and dread.


Throughout “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, personification enriches the characters and setting, immersing readers in the Gothic atmosphere.

The governess’s relentless watching and worrying personify her deepening paranoia, portraying her as a character profoundly affected by her circumstances as the sister’s governess. This adds layers to her character and reinforces the overarching sense of unease.

As Henry James concludes the novella, raising questions about the governess’s reliability, these instances of personification contribute to the narrative’s psychological complexity, making it a Gothic masterpiece of suspense and ambiguity.


Henry James employs deliberate exaggeration or hyperbole to intensify the narrative in “The Turn of the Screw”. While the story revolves around two children, the hyperbolic portrayal of the former servant’s sinister influence near the lake adds a layer of suspense and unease.

This literary device serves to heighten the sense of impending danger, emphasizing the governess’s growing anxiety and her relentless quest to uncover the truth.


The novella skillfully incorporates different types of irony to shape the story. Verbal irony is evident when characters, including Mrs. Grose and the former valet, ask questions or make statements that belie their knowledge of the unsettling events, contributing to the suspense and intrigue.

Dramatic irony is prevalent as readers possess information that the characters do not, creating tension and heightening the mystery. These ironic elements add depth and complexity to the narrative, enriching the reader’s experience of this classic work of English literature.


In “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, the use of juxtaposition is a literary device that effectively highlights stark contrasts and creates thought-provoking scenarios. The governess, who also serves as the sister’s governess, is immersed in a world of gothic novels and eerie occurrences.

This juxtaposition between her role as a caregiver and the unsettling events that unfold in the narrative accentuates the complexity of the story. Readers are left to wonder about the reliability of the governess’s perspective, adding an extra layer of suspense and intrigue to this classic work.


Paradoxical statements and situations abound, contributing to the story’s enigmatic themes. The governess concludes her narrative, leaving readers to grapple with the paradox of her reliability, a question that mirrors the doubts posed by Edmund Wilson.

Her constant wondering, watching, and worrying give rise to a paradoxical narrative filled with ambiguity and psychological tension.

This intricate web of contradictions and mysteries in the novella invites readers to engage in a profound exploration of the story’s depths, amplifying its enduring intrigue.


Within “The Turn of the Screw”, there are subtle literary allusions that enrich the narrative’s depth and meaning.

While the governess wonders, watches, and worries about the mysterious events unfolding, these actions allude to the classic tradition of Gothic literature, where characters often find themselves trapped in a web of uncertainty and fear.

The allusions to the Gothic genre serve to enhance the eerie atmosphere and underscore the novella’s thematic exploration of psychological tension and ambiguit


“The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James employs repetition strategically to heighten its themes and emotional impact. The repetition of phrases like “governess watches” and “governess worries” reinforces the novella’s psychological tension.

It underscores the obsessive nature of the governess’s character and her growing preoccupation with the mysterious events, intensifying the emotional impact on both the character and the reader.

This repetitive motif serves to emphasize the novella’s themes of uncertainty, obsession, and the blurred lines between reality and the supernatural.

The Use of Dialogue 

Dialogue is a powerful tool for conveying character traits, exploring themes, and building narrative tension.

The exchanges between characters, notably the conversations between the governess and Mrs. Grose, reveal their distinctive traits and perspectives. The reference to “while Mrs. Daisy Miller” serves to connect the novella with James’s earlier work, providing context for the governess’s point of view.

Through dialogue, James weaves a complex narrative that delves into themes of innocence, corruption, and the psychological intricacies of the characters, enriching the story’s depth and suspense.

Word Play 

Wordplay techniques like puns and double entendre are not extensively employed. Instead, the novella relies on a more somber and psychological tone to convey its suspenseful and enigmatic themes.

The story’s focus on the boy, the uncle, and the two ghosts, as well as Flora’s departure and the governess’s conviction, places greater emphasis on the narrative’s complexity and psychological tension rather than wordplay.


Instances of parallelism are subtly woven into the structure.

The recurring themes of the country home and the young girl, Flora, form parallel elements that contribute to the novella’s thematic depth.

As the story unfolds, parallel situations arise in the form of the governess’s worries and her role in the children’s school. These instances of parallelism serve to emphasize the psychological intricacies of the narrative and the enduring suspense that drives the story forward.

Rhetorical Devices

“The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James employs rhetorical devices, including rhetorical questions and parallelism, to enhance its persuasive effect on the reader.

As the story unfolds, the governess’s rhetorical questions about Flora’s departure and the events of one evening serve to engage readers and invite them to ponder the mysteries surrounding the narrative.

The rhetorical parallelism in Mrs. Grose’s accounts of the events, as she takes and tells, juxtaposed with Flora’s denials, creates persuasive tension, compelling readers to delve deeper into the enigmatic themes of the novella and the governess’s perspective.

The Turn of the Screw: FAQs

Welcome to the FAQ section for “The Turn of the Screw” book summary. Here, we address common questions about this classic work by Henry James, providing insights, analysis, and answers to help readers navigate its enigmatic narrative.

What makes The Turn of the Screw scary?

“The Turn of the Screw” achieves its scary atmosphere through psychological tension, ambiguity, and the governess’s growing paranoia. The presence of malevolent spirits and the eerie setting also contribute to its sense of dread.

What is the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw?

The novella’s conclusion is open to interpretation. It leaves readers with lingering questions about the governess’s reliability as a narrator and the true nature of the supernatural events, adding to the story’s enigmatic quality.

What happens when governess decides to save the children?

When the governess decides to save the children, she confronts the malevolent spirits, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, in a dramatic encounter. This climactic moment adds to the suspense but ultimately leaves the resolution of the story open-ended.

Summing up: The Turn of the Screw: Summary, Plot & More

“The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James leaves an indelible mark in the realm of gothic literature.

Its intricate narrative, psychological suspense, and enigmatic characters continue to captivate readers, challenging them to unravel its mysteries.

The novella’s use of ambiguity, unreliable narration, and psychological tension contributes to its timeless appeal, offering a riveting exploration of fear, innocence, and the blurred lines between reality and the supernatural.

As readers journey through the governess’s haunting experiences, they are left with lingering questions, inviting them to revisit its pages, debate its interpretations, and appreciate its enduring impact.

The Turn of the Screw remains an iconic work that continues to both perplex and mesmerize audiences, cementing its place as a classic of gothic literature.

Other Notable Works by Henry James

If you are interested in “The Turn of the Screw”, you may be interested in other works by Henry James including:

  • “The Portrait of a Lady” (1881): A novel that explores the life and choices of the independent and spirited Isabel Archer.
  • “The Wings of the Dove” (1902): A story of love, manipulation, and sacrifice among the social elite.
  • “The Ambassadors” (1903): A novel delving into themes of personal liberation and cultural differences.
  • “The Bostonians” (1886): A satirical work centered on the feminist movement in 19th-century Boston.
  • “Daisy Miller” (1878): A novella exploring the clash between American and European cultures through the character of Daisy Miller.

These works, like “The Turn of the Screw,” showcase Henry James’s masterful storytelling and keen examination of human nature and society.

The Turn of the Screw remains an iconic work that continues to both perplex and mesmerize audiences, cementing its place as a classic of gothic literature.