Is the governess the heroine or the villain of The Turn of the Screw?

We can interpret the governess in The Turn of the Screw as both heroine and villain of the tale. If we take the ghosts to be real and the governess sane, then the governess seems to be a successful heroine who protects her charges at all costs and rids Miles of his demon, thus ending the demon’s evil work. If we take the ghosts to be imaginary and the governess increasingly insane, then the governess seems to be the true villain of the story, concocting imaginary ghosts and terrifying one of her students into a fever and the other into death. With deliberate ambiguity, James allows for and encourages both interpretations of the governess. He has constructed a two-sided character who will be of one nature for one group of readers and of another nature for a second group of readers. These two groups of readers are established in the prologue, when Douglas introduces the governess and singles out the anonymous narrator by telling him “you will easily judge” her character. In this way, James alerts his readers that they will have to judge the nature of the governess for themselves.

How does the phrase “the turn of the screw” apply to the governess’s tale?

By titling his work The Turn of the Screw, James suggests that the phrase “the turn of the screw” is a fitting representation of the tale. The phrase works as a metaphor that compares a tale’s effect on its recipients to a screw boring into a hole. With each turn of the screw, the story’s point is driven home, and its recipients are pierced further and on a deeper level. James turns the screw a number of times to amplify his novella’s ability to penetrate. He preambles the tale with an intriguing but ambiguous prologue that foreshadows “delicious” dread. James turns the screw when Douglas does, with the introduction of a story involving not one but two children falling prey to supernatural events. The screw turns again when we understand that the children of the governess’s tale are not merely victims but participants in the realm of ghosts and may even be plotting deceits and evil deeds themselves. With the suggestion that the governess is insane and that she, not her imaginary ghost world, is the villain, the plot thickens even more.