The Turn of the Screw

The Sentinel Before a Prison: The Prison of Language in The Turn of the Screw College

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is a difficult text, one so littered with ambiguity that the lack of clarity between characters becomes a significant plot element. The governess works to dissolve this ambiguity and does everything she can to obtain answers to her questions throughout the text. Yet the governess herself speaks cryptically, holding back information from the characters with whom she interacts. The last chapter in the tale reveals her desperate attempt to find the answers she seeks, when she completely abandons her duties as caretaker in favor of her desire to explain the unknown. The epitome of the brashness of her desire begins when the governess asks Miles if he stole the letter she had written to his uncle, and she observes, “Peter Quint had come into view like a sentinel before a prison” (116). This simile is telling. As the governess is trapped inside a prison of ambiguous language and mysteries, the ghostly figures she sees represent all that is unknown, and embody the barriers of communication between the characters.

When Quint appears, the governess keeps her composure “to keep the boy himself unaware” of the presence of Quint (116). Even as the governess tries to answer the questions that have plagued...

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