Plot Shapes: The Turn of the Screw

I’ve been studying The Turn of the Screw lately.

  • A group of people are sitting around the fire telling Christmas ghost stories, as you do (this is a Victorian UK thing).
  • Storyteller (Douglas) claims that the story he’s about to tell comes from his sister’s governess, who has been dead 20 years.
  • He sends away for story, which later, before his death many years later, he gives to the unnamed narrator.
  • Douglas reads the story at this post-Christmas house party back in the day, which the narrator copies out exactly from the manuscript.  However, the setup that the narrator gives is from memory.
  • Then we get to the main body of the story.  For now, let’s just leave it at that, but there are more layers there.
  • The “frame” story never intrudes again, and never closes.  You never go back to the narrator or Douglas again–it’s not a frame story at all.

At first the significance of this didn’t hit me.  Okay, so it’s not a frame story, it’s just an introduction; that’s fine.  But this is kind of a standout as far as stories go.  Much like An American Werewolf in London, the story just…stops.  There is no wrapup, no denoument, no validation.  It just stops.

But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall.  I caught him, yes, I held him–it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

That’s the last paragraph of the story.  We don’t get what happened to the governess, what happened when that was the end of the story among the friends listening, or what happened with the narrator, as he wrote that all down.

Everyone talks about how the plot of The Turn of the Screw is about whether or not the two children were seeing ghosts or had just gone mad–or whether the governess had seen ghosts, etc.

Nobody talks about how the governess could have just been writing fiction–nobody has heard of these two kids dying in the first place–or how Douglas could have written this–there’s a hint in the beginning that he did (“But Douglas, without heeding me, had begun to read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author’s hand”), or it could have been the narrator making all this up.  Clearly, Henry James made all this up–but which, if any, of the successive levels of narration are unreliable (if any?).  Is there a truth or a falsehood to this narrative at all, or is it all in the reader’s mind?

Is this a story more about readers than it is about ghosts?  About how we forget that we’re reading a story at all?

As far as I can tell, the shape of this plot is a downward spiral, not just in “madness,” but into what makes a story in the first place.


(A note on the pacing and style in The Turn of the Screw.  The sentences and paragraphs tend to be long, full of clauses and punctuation–and interruptions–and multiple layers of reality; a paragraph isn’t just a straightforward relation of events, but a description of how the governess tells the story of what happened to Mrs. Grose, that shifts into straight narration of what happened, completely ditching the level of narration by the end of the paragraph sometimes.


Mrs. Grose watched them with positive placidity; then I caught the suppressed intellectual creak with which she conscientiously turned to take form me a view of the back of the tapestry. I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority–my accomplishments and my function–in her patience under my pain.  She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch’s broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan.  This had become thoroughly her attitude by the time that, in my recital of the events of the night, I reached the point of what Miles had said to me when, after seeing him, at such a monstrous hour, almost on the very spot where he happened now to be, I had gone down to bring him in; choosing then, at the window, with a concentrated need of not alarming the house, rather that method than a signal more resonant.  I had left her meanwhile in little doubt of my small hope of representing with success even to her actual sympathy my sense of the real splendor of the little inspiration with which, after I had got him into the house, the boy met my final articulate challenge. As soon as I appeared in the moonlight on the terrace, he had come to me as straight as possible; on which I had taken his hand without a word and led him, through the dark spaces, up the staircase where Quint had so hungrily hovered for him, along the lobby where I had listened and trembled, and so to his forsaken room.

This whole book is like an unclosed parenthesis.

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