The Turn of the Screw

Henry James
Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Vision

Throughout The Turn of the Screw, references to eyes and vision emphasize the idea that sight is unreliable. Vision and the language used to describe it are particularly important in each of the governess’s encounters with Quint and Miss Jessel. She deems her first meeting with Quint a “bewilderment of vision,” an ambiguous phrase that suggests she imagined what she saw. Characters lock eyes with each other several times in the novella. The governess shares intense gazes with both Quint and Miss Jessel and believes she can determine the ghosts’ intentions by looking into their eyes. Although she and Miss Jessel do not actually talk, the governess claims Miss Jessel’s gaze appears “to say” she has a right to be there. At times, the governess regards the clarity of the children’s eyes as proof that the children are innocent. In these cases, she determines whether the children are capable of deception by looking at their eyes, when it may be her own eyes that deceive her.

A Ship Lost at Sea

Early on in the novella, the governess imagines herself at the helm of a “great drifting ship,” and the metaphor of Bly as a ship lost at sea soon proves to be appropriate. When the governess goes out to look for the vanished Quint, she describes Bly as “empty with a great emptiness,” as though it is a vast, unlimited sea. After her first ghostly encounters, she decides she will save the children but later cries that they are hopelessly “lost.” Her navigation skills have failed her, and she envisions the children drowning. However, she perseveres, and when she speaks with Miles near the end of the novel, she feels she is “just nearly reaching port.” The ship imagery extends further when, soon thereafter, she imagines Miles “at the bottom of the sea,” a disturbing image that foreshadows Miles’s fate. Ultimately, the governess is the character who is most lost. She cannot find a direction or destination for her theories and suspicions, and her perceptions are constantly changing.

Silence

Sound acts as a signal of life and nature in The Turn of the Screw, and its absence is a predictor of the governess’s supernatural visions. Prior to the governess’s ghostly encounters, she experiences a hush in the world around her. When she first sees Quint in the tower, the sound of birds stops and the rustling of leaves quiets. The governess takes the scene to be “stricken with death.” Nothing else changes, however, and the visual aspects of the world around her are unaffected. The governess’s sense of a hush is more marked when she meets Quint on the staircase. She interprets the “dead silence” of the incident as proof that the encounter is unnatural. In fact, she remarks that the silence is the specific thing that marks the event as unnatural and that otherwise she would have assumed Quint to be a living being. Quint’s subsequent disappearance into silence suggests that the dead dwell in a realm without sound, making silence a mark of the unnatural and unliving.