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Historical Context

The Turn of the Screw was written in 1897, in a period when James' other novels and plays had been selling poorly and were derided as too talky or too intellectual. After the mixed reaction by audience and critics to his most recent work, the play Guy Domville, James chose to "take up my own pen" rather than please others' expectations, and wrote this short story-now probably the most widely read of all his works.

The Turn of the Screw was transcribed by James' secretary William McAlpine on the (newly invented) typewriter, instead of being written out in long-hand by James himself, because James had recently suffered what would now be diagnosed as Repeated Stress Syndrome in his hands. It was published serially in Collier's weekly magazine between January and April 1898. A major reason for its continuing fame is the ambiguity in the text concerning whether the governess is actually seeing manifestations of ghosts, or whether she is an unreliable narrator describing her own hysteric delusions. At the time it was written, public attitudes considered ghosts as real, dangerous scientifically-observed phenomenon. In fact, James' own father, Henry James Sr., had been praised for his observations of spiritual phenomena by Boston's Society for Psychical Research and his brother William was a president of this society from 1894 to 1896. Of course, this doesn't mean we can conclude that James himself believed in ghosts or was portraying them-it's just an indicator of what was considered plausible at the time.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Framing Scene
Chapters 1, 2, and 3
Chapters 4, 5, and 6
Chapters 7, 8, and 9
Chapters 10, 11, and 12
Chapters 13, 14, and 15
Chapters 16, 17, and 18
Chapters 19, 20, and 21
Chapters 22, 23, and 24


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