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MonkeyNotes-The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
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Literary/Historical Information

Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw at a time when he was distressed by the negative response of the public towards his earlier novels and plays. These books, realistic in their portrayal, dealt with the society of the times and the people living in it. When these books were rejected, James started writing differently. He began dealing with the supernatural and dwelt on the psychological aspects of the characters in his novels. Thus What Maisie Knew and The Turn of the Screw deal with the supernatural and its effect on the central characters of the novel. James called The Turn of the Screw a ‘fairy tale.’ However, the way he has presented the characters and their reaction to the situations, makes for interesting psychological study.

Henry James had heard an anecdote from a friend and he enlarged it into a novel, The Turn of the Screw. In an entry in his notebook of January 12, 1895, he refers to a ghost story related to him by a friend, E.A. Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury who in turn had heard it from a lady. The story was about depraved servants and their ghosts who haunt the children and corrupt them. In 1897, two years after he had heard the story, James wrote the novel. He retained the oral narrative pattern by introducing an anonymous narrator talking about a Douglas, who reads the tale written by a governess.


The Turn of the Screw is set in surroundings that Henry James was familiar with. In 1898, James had bought an archaic dwelling called Lamb house in Rye through a friend. He lived in this house for a good part of his last years as it “gave him a familial and citizenly sense of belonging to a household and a community.” James settled down in this place to enjoy peace and quiet but he experienced something more than these. In his letter to his friend, he mentions the reasons for renting the house. He says, “I felt coerced by some supernatural power that relieves me of all the botheration of a decision or an alternative. I feel absolutely foredoomed to take a lease.” Thus after spending sometime in the house, he dictated to his typist the strange story of a governess taking up a job in a remote area to attend to the needs of two children.

Henry James was familiar with the tales of Mrs. Radcliffe and the Brontes. These writings might have influenced him to create the atmosphere of The Turn of the Screw. In the tradition of such ghost stories and supernatural tales, the novel relates the story of a haunted house visited by a governess who explores it and finds out the dark secrets buried under it. At first, James published the novel in parts in a Journal brought out by Colliers. As this journal had the tradition of illustrating stories, James might have believed that it would appeal to his young readers as he felt that pictorial representations “lived in the imagination, no small part of the time.” Thus he published his gothic romance in the journal with the hope that it would excite the readers of Colliers as much as it had thrilled him to read such stories from a Manhattan journal.

Finally, James ended the novel, The Turn of the Screw with a question mark rather than a full stop because, he felt that, “so long as the events are veiled, the imagination will run riot and depict all sorts of horrors, but as soon as the veil is lifted, all mystery disappears.” To enhance the quality of suspense, James closes the novel without explaining the happenings or solving the mystery. The readers are made to guess and form their own opinions. They are compelled by Henry James to think and conjecture instead of accepting his conclusion blindly.

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