The Turn of the Screw

Henry James
Main Ideas

Symbols

Main Ideas Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Light

Candlelight suggests safety in the governess’s narrative, while twilight suggests danger. On a number of occasions, the governess’s lighted candle is extinguished, always with the implication that something is awry. At the top of the stairs, her candle goes out at the exact moment she sees Quint. She views him in “cold, faint twilight.” A week or two later, the governess wakes up to find her candle extinguished and Miles on the lawn in bright moonlight. Her view of him in that light suggests danger and, in a way, prefigures his imminent death. Later, Miles blows out the governess’s candle, plunging the two into darkness. The lack of moonlight implies an absence of the supernatural, and the blowing out of the candle indicates a loss of protection.

The Written Word

In The Turn of the Screw, events become fully real only when they have been written down. The governess at first refuses to record the circumstances at Bly in a letter to her employer. If she preserves the events in a material document, she will have reached a point of no return—she will be forever unable to deny what happened. She also has relied on threats and passionate speech to persuade Mrs. Grose of her visions and theories, and convincing someone through the written word will be much more difficult. Eventually, she does write the letter, and she also writes down the entire account in the manuscript that we are reading. The manuscript, unlike the letter, allows her to present events in a way that will persuade her readers she is both sane and telling the truth. In keeping with the ambiguity of the tale, the trajectories of both written records, the letter and the manuscript, are interrupted, which further impedes our ability to determine whether the events are or are not “real.” The letter is never sent, and the manuscript stops short of a definite conclusion. These interruptions suggest the story remains unresolved—and cast doubt on its reliability.