What can I write by way of introduction to The turn of the screw that hasn’t been written already? Not very much, although with such a well-discussed piece the important things are bound to have been said before. Whether the governess narrating the main body of the tale is seeing ‘genuine’ ghosts – whatever one means by that – or merely hallucinating, through whatever cause, has been continually argued over since the 1930s, whilst the postmodern view, that James is being deliberately ambiguous throughout the text, has, over the last twenty-five years, made it a three-way contest. The nature and purpose of the opening ‘frame’ section have also generated much comment.

Well, one point which I believe is often lost in the acres of critical writing relates to the specific appearance of references in the text to the resonant phrase which is James’s title. In fact the ‘turn of the screw’ appears only twice: once in the introductory section and once in the governess’s narrative. In the former the ‘turn of the screw’ is the addition of one child to the usual Christmas-time ghost story. The addition of another child gives ‘two turns’. We note however that the phrase is uttered by Douglas, the then owner of the manuscript, although it is suggested that its use as the title of the tale is the idea of the unnamed narrator of the frame. The governess’s use of the phrase hardly relates to the children at all, occurring while she is considering her situation, near the end of the narrative, and is deciding that it ‘demand[s], after all … only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.’ (chapter 22) for its resolution. She is screwing herself up for what she hopes will be a final confrontation with the apparition: quite the opposite of our usual inference from the phrase in the light of its use as the title. It’s almost enough to make one question which of the two magics of the title of the initial book appearance of the tale is appropriate here, black or white?

Having mentioned the anonymous narrator of the introductory section, I feel must also point out something which occurred to me only on editing the text: among the many ambiguities of the tale, we learn very little about this person, not even their sex. We might assume that this narrator is ‘Henry James’, although we know that the ‘real’ James also wrote as ‘the governess’ in this tale. He had already assumed a female persona a number of times for a first person narrative, for example in The impressions of a cousin (1883), The path of duty (1884); and, particularly, in Master Eustace (1871, revised 1885), where he had assumed the role of a governess who was witness to violent events. But if the narrator of the bulk of The turn of the screw is female, might not the narrator of the introduction be female too? We have few clues in the text, but observations by the character such as ‘in her [the previous governess] successor’s place’ hint at this narrator’s identification with a female occupation. And whilst some phrases might sit oddly with just any female narrator (‘cried one of the women’, ‘the departing ladies who had said they would stay didn’t, of course, thank heaven, stay.’) these anomalies disappear if we assume that the female in question is the hostess of the country-house in which the introductory scene is set. The sex of the frame’s narrator has been discussed, I find, by Michael J. H. Taylor, but my point about the possibility that this narrator is the hostess (or host, of course) may just be an original one!

Warning : the rest of this introduction contains some spoilers.

Another point which has always puzzled me is that the introductory narrator reports that the governess had never told anyone but Douglas about the events at Bly. This might just be logically correct, given that she didn’t see the guardian again after the events (she saw him twice in London before taking up the post), but surely one must assume that the death of the boy became known to their sole relative. One has to suppose that in those less enlightened times – working backwards, one places the governess’s experiences in the second quarter of the nineteenth century – few enquiries were made, even by the boy’s guardian. But in that case it would seem odd that the governess managed to obtain a good reference from him to enable her to take up later posts, including that of looking after Douglas’s sister; particularly if he didn’t met her to clear up the questions about her involvement to which Mrs Grose’s later attitude should have given rise.

All these queries point up the fact that there is no frame narrative at the end of the tale matching the opening section. Anything we want to know about ‘afterwards’ must be extrapolated from the hints given in that opening chapter. Such absences or silences become increasingly important in James’s later works. One immediately thinks of the unnamed article which is the source of the Newsome’s wealth in The ambassadors and of the last scene between Milly and Merton which is not described in The wings of the dove. However, I can’t recall seeing this missing ‘scene’ in The turn of the screw discussed, either in passing or in detail. Many a conventional writer would have added a chapter beginning ‘As Douglas closed the album…’. Of course in a serial spread over nearly three months of weekly episodes the lack of a closed, symmetric, structure would be less noticeable than it is in the book, when read ‘at one sitting’, perhaps. But this final lack of information takes its place with the lacunae in the rest of the piece. As James wrote later, in the preface, the tale is ‘to the very last grain of its virtue all of a kind; the very kind, as happens, least apt to be baited by earnest criticism’.

The abundance of loose ends with which James leaves us, and the oft-noted ability to read any sentence or scene of the tale as supporting either of two apparently mutually contradictory suppositions – that the governess is ‘good’ and sees ghosts, or that she is ‘deranged’ and imagines them – puts me in mind of an important mathematical result of the 1930s: Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. This proves that within any mathematical system there will exist propositions which are stateable within the language of the system but whose truth value is formally undecidable within the axiom set. It is perhaps in the nature of fiction to leave us like this, with only an ‘open sense of closure’, but many of James’s works herald the modern period of radically unclosed, unstable texts. Some have argued that text which tells us nothing certain about a world, real or, in this case fictional, is not worth reading (see for example, in this case, Anderson in 1989). So why read? Well, The turn of the screw tells us all we need to know about James’s fictional world of Bly and if we do find it ultimately incomplete, even unsatisfying, so much of what we’re told these days is fiction that we should take a very important lesson from it.

Adrian Dover


You may like to know about the exact source of the text presented here, and any errors I encountered while making the edition: these can be found in the note on the text. If you need full details of publications of this tale in James’s lifetime or of a selection of recent critical discussion about it see the bibliography, otherwise just start reading.