Turn of the Screw (Review)

Labels: Great Works


The Turn of the Screw
Henry James, 1898
~100 pp. (varies by publisher

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
May 2011
Like the best of ghost stories, Turn of the Screw is as much a pshychological as it is paranormal thriller. Henry James himself never indicated it was anything other than a ghost story, but critics have debated that point for the past 100 years.

And that is precisely what makes the novella such a delicious read: were there ever ghosts...or not? The story opens as a young woman accepts a position as governess for a wealthy bachelor's orphaned niece and nephew. Upon arriving at her post—in a large, isolated country house—the Governess is at first enchanted with her charges, Flora and her brother, Miles. They appear to be model children.

All goes well...for a while...until there appear sightings of a large, menacing man. The Governess describes him to the Housekeeper, who immediately identifies him as the former valet, Peter Quint. But Quint is dead—as is the former governess, Miss Jessel, who also makes herself known. Both apparitions seem to possess a powerful, malignant hold over the children.

The story is absolutely chilling. Yet it's never clear whether the Governess has truly seen the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel—or whether they are figments of a deteriorating mental state. Has anyone other than the Governess actually seen them? Yes...? No...?

Read very carefully. What are we dealing with—pure, unrepentant evil...sexual repression in a Victorian culture...or something else? Book clubs will certainly have a lively discussion as to what this story is all about.

See our Reading Guide for The Turn of the Screw.


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