The Turn of the Screw, a classic of the Gothic genre, follows an unnamed protagonist in her attempts to perform her duties as governess for two children, Miles and Flora, at Bly, the country manor where they live. The governess’s primary desire initially is to care for the children, as she is hired to do. This desire, however, is complicated by the supernatural nature of the governess’s experiences. Following her arrival at Bly, which serves as the novel’s inciting incident, the governess soon becomes suspicious of Miles and Flora, vacillating wildly between wanting to protect them and suspecting them of deceiving her, and of having been corrupted by ghosts.

The two supernatural, ghost-like figures, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, serve as the novel’s primary antagonists. Both Quint and Jessel were once employees at Bly, Quint being a valet and Jessel being a governess, but died prior to the arrival of the story’s protagonist. The lingering presence of the deceased employees establishes the story’s conflict, as it poses several unsettling questions in addition to disturbing the current governess, Mrs. Grose, and the reader—namely, how are the deceased employees appearing? What danger do they pose? What do they want? Furthermore, what is Quint and Jessel’s connection to the children? Attempts to find answers to these questions comprise the novel’s rising action.

The relationship between the governess and the children deepens as the novel progresses. The governess is taken by the charm and apparent purity of her two charges, and the children are likewise fond of their governess. The appearances of Quint and Jessel pose a threat to this relationship. From the outset, it is clear to the governess that Quint and Jessel are primarily interested in connecting, in some way, with Miles and Flora. This drives a wedge between the governess and the children, as the ghosts’ influence has an obvious impact on them and their perception of the governess. 

Initially, the governess is not sure whether the children are aware of Quint and Jessel’s presence. However, certain instances strengthen her belief that they are. Miles’s expulsion is one of the novel’s enduring mysteries, owing to the sharp contrast between the Miles we know and the Miles characterized in the school’s letter. Such a contradiction causes the governess to suspect Quint must be behind the incident. The governess also witnesses the children staring out the window and walking the grounds late at night. These occurrences are clear signs to the governess that the children are aware of, and potentially even communicating with, their deceased caretakers, prompting a shift in her mindset; the governess becomes convinced that the children have already been corrupted by Quint and Jessel, and must be not merely protected but rescued.

The issues at Bly are exacerbated by the governess’s inability to reach out to her employer, the children’s uncle, for help. Her only attempt to do so is intercepted by Miles, who steals a letter intended for his uncle. With only the partnership of Mrs. Grose, who can’t see Quint or Jessel herself, the governess’s mental stability appears to begin to slip, and her reliability as a narrator wavers.

The governess’s possible madness culminates in story’s climax. Upon finding her dead predecessor at the lake with Flora, the governess begins to scream at the apparition and beg both Flora and Mrs. Grose to see her. Flora and Mrs. Grose’s apparent inability to do so causes the governess to suffer a brief physical and mental collapse. This moment also prompts Flora to develop a sudden repulsion for the governess, saying cruel things both to and about her caretaker. The governess believes this turn to represent a full possession of Flora by Miss Jessel. At the height of her unreliability, the governess encourages Mrs. Grose to take a suddenly ill Flora to her uncle for treatment. Left alone with Miles, the governess sees Peter Quint through a window, and believes that Miles sees him too. She’s sure that the reason Miles’s heart stops is because the spirit of Quint has left him, and the dispossession has proven deadly. Whether this restores the governess’s credibility remains to be seen, as it’s not clear whether Miles did in fact see Quint or was merely shouting Quint’s name. Assuming Quint wasn’t really there and the governess is mad, one possible explanation for Miles’s death is that the governess herself has killed him, perhaps via smothering, as foreshadowed by the aggressive smothering protection she has employed for the sake of the children throughout the story. The truth, however, remains elusive; Henry James ends the novella on an abrupt, ambiguous note, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions.