An unnamed narrator describes a house party at which ghost stories are told. The guests agree that a story in which a ghost visits a child is especially eerie, and an older guest named Douglas indicates that he knows a story in which a ghost visits two children. Everyone present wants to hear the story, but Douglas insists that he has to send his servant to his house in London to get it, as the story is in written form, penned many years earlier by Douglas’s sister’s governess, with whom Douglas was apparently infatuated.
The manuscript arrives, and Douglas provides some background before reading it to the party. When the young woman who wrote the manuscript was twenty years old and just finished with her education, she answered an advertisement for a position as governess. The employer was a rich, attractive bachelor responsible for educating his orphaned niece and nephew, who lived at his remote country house. The position was isolated and lonely, and the bachelor stipulated that she must deal with all problems by herself and never seek to correspond with him. Nevertheless, the young woman accepted the position, perhaps because of her attraction to her employer.
The governess’s narrative opens with her drive to Bly, a country home in Essex, a county in eastern England. Here she meets the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and the younger of her two charges, Flora, an exceptionally beautiful and charming little girl. From her room, the governess thinks she hears the footsteps and crying of a child in the distance but dismisses them, optimistic about the opportunity to teach and shape her beautiful charge.
Talking with Mrs. Grose, the governess asks about Flora’s brother. Mrs. Grose emphasizes the boy’s good looks, and the governess remarks impulsively upon her employer’s handsomeness. Mrs. Grose tells the governess that Flora’s brother will arrive on Friday, at which the governess decides that she and Flora will meet him together. She spends the entire next day with Flora, who shows the new governess her home with delight. Summing up her feelings in retrospect, the governess expresses her then-optimistic attitude toward her new position in contrast to her present feelings toward Bly as “ugly,” a drifting ship of which she herself was at the helm.
By the time we finish the prologue and begin the governess’s narrative, we know that the story to come is a ghost story and that it involves a governess who is in love with her employer. Ordinarily, given this basic story premise, we would expect the story to be a gothic romance and to have an unrealistic plot, primarily in the sense that it would contain supernatural elements but also in the idea that a governess might aspire to rise above her station and win the love of a rich gentleman—something that happens in gothic romances such as Jane Eyre but not in real life. In other words, to read a story like this, we would normally be prepared to put aside our cynicism about whether these events could actually happen and simply enjoy the story. The main function of the prologue, however, is to tell us not to do this.
The prologue depicts an audience for the governess’s story that is adult, worldly, and cynical rather than naïve or sentimental. The narrator makes it clear that some of the guests are more sophisticated than others and that those who remain to hear Douglas’s story are a select group. This group is characterized as “arch,” meaning deliberately or even forcedly ironic and playful. The group’s members are fairly aggressive about reading between the lines of what Douglas says to draw sexual inferences, as Mrs. Griffin does about Douglas and the governess. The guest who wisecracks about the former governess dying of “so much respectability” is insinuating that the former governess is less than respectable, perhaps morally and sexually loose. This guest treats Douglas’s story skeptically, even cynically, refusing to take things at face value and ready to make inferences of a sexual nature. When we learn more about this former governess—Miss Jessel—we see that this guest is absolutely right and perhaps conclude that we are intended to read The Turn of the Screw in the same way: viewing the characters realistically rather than romantically, treating the story skeptically, and reading between the lines for sexual overtones.
From the first sentence of her narrative, in Chapter I, the governess calls attention to her own sharp swings in mood and attitude, a focus that makes her seem sensitive, emotional, nervous, and introspective but not necessarily reliable. Her perceptions of things at Bly are clearly shaped by her emotions and her imagination, and often her judgments seem excessively hasty or intense. Her reaction to Flora, in particular, seems excessive, as she describes Flora in such idealized terms (“radiant,” “beatific”) that we get little sense of Flora as a real child. The governess feels affection for Mrs. Grose, but her feelings often change quickly, though briefly, to suspeicion. The governess reports hearing footsteps and crying outside her room, and she gets the sense that Mrs. Grose is too glad to see her, both of which provide foreshadowing and create the sense that something is going on that we have yet to learn about. However, the governess’s sensitivity and volatility also create a feeling of uncertainty about whether we can trust her point of view. This question is one of the central problems of The Turn of the Screw, and it develops and deepens rather than resolves.
[. . . ] I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm!