Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw shows complex interactions between the living and the dead. The plot revolves around the encounter of the ghosts with the central character of the story, the governess. She apparently sees ghosts when she is alone or preoccupied by fantasies. James wrote The Turn of the Screw at a time when there was a prevalent fondness for ghost stories.
As a story The Turn of the Screw is highly suspenseful and tragic. The thing that introduces tension, builds the suspense, climax and the catastrophe of the story is ghost.
The beginning of the story is set up very neatly for us. In the story Miss Giddens, a governess agrees to take a position at the estates of Bly. The position requires taking care of two young children, the advertisement having been posted by the uncle, who asks not to be disturbed, even under the most serious of circumstances. She takes the coach to the estate and is welcomed there by the children and their housekeeper. All seems idyllic to start with.
Henry James heightens the element of suspense in the novel, through the vision of the mysterious man. At the evening she often strolls through the grounds and mediates on the beauty of her surroundings. Sometimes she wishes her employer could know how much she enjoys the place and how well she is executing her duties. One evening using her stroll, she does perceive the figure of a strange man on top of the old towers of the house. He appears rather distinct, but she is aware that he keeps his eyes on her. She feels rather disturbed without knowing why.
The suspense builds up with the reappearance of the strange man. Who is the mysterious man and what does he want? Where did he come from and how did he disappear? One Sunday as the group is preparing to go to church, the governess returns to the dining room to retrieve her gloves from the table. Inside the room she notices the strange weird face of a man staring in at her in a hard and deep manner, suddenly, she realizes that the man has “come for someone else.” Through her description Mrs Grose, the house keeper identifies him as Peter Quint, the ex-valet who has been dead for about a year.
Always after a happy session with the children, she experiences shock. Once again after days of fun and fulfillment with the children, she spots the face in the window of the dining room. One day, while playing with Flora near the lake, she probably observes a figure on the other side of the lake. She surmises that Flora has seen the vision, but is pretending to be ignorant about it. Without being sure, she casts aspersions in the innocent child.
James arranges the sequence of events in such a way that scene of excitement appear after the scenes of quietness. One night she hears some movement outside her door and becomes alert. She opens the door and walks towards the staircase. She notices the figure of Peter Quint in the landing. From such a short distance he looks frightening. When she returns to her room, she is shocked to find Flora missing from her bed; Flora appears from behind one of the curtains. One night she finds Flora looking through the window and Miles standing outside. Their behavior completely puzzles her.
At the stage the governess feels the heed to escape from the whole situation and run away from Bly. But she fears that the spirit might take complete possession of the children if she leaves. She decides to stay back Bly. With this intention, she returns back to the house to pack her things, she is shocked to see Miss Jessel sitting on a desk and looking at her with melancholic eyes. The appearance of a male and then a female ghost complicates the plot.
Now suspicion of the governess about the involvement of the children with the ghost takes its climax. She starts looking at the children with a biased eye and exhibits negative attitudes towards them. She imagines that the children are fooling her. One day, the governess and Mrs Gross walk around the lake and finds that Flora is not around. Miles feigns innocence over Flora's whereabouts, so the governess seeks the aid of Mrs. Grose. Before the two women leave to search, the governess places the letter to her employer on the table for one of the servants to mail. The governess and Mrs. Grose go to the lake, where they find the boat missing. After walking around the lake, the governess finds Flora and, asks her bluntly where Miss Jessel is. The governess points to the image of Miss Jessel as proof that the specter exists, but Mrs. Grose and Flora claim to see nothing. The ghost appears to the governess; however, Mrs. Grose sees nothing and sides with Flora, who also says that she sees nothing and never has.
The next morning, the governess finds out from Mrs. Grose that Flora was struck with a fever during the night and that she is terrified of seeing the governess. However, Mrs. Grose does say that the governess was justified in her suspicions of Flora, because the child has started to use evil language. The governess encourages Mrs. Grose to take Flora to her uncle's house for safety and also so that she can try to gain Miles's allegiance in his sister's absence.
In the falling action of the story, the governess and Miles stay in the house alone. They sit to have a meal which is dominated by silence, the maid cleaning the dishes being the only sound heard. When the governess and Miles discuss the matter of whether he took a letter she had written the day before from the hall table it was Quint who appeared in "his white face of damnation", looking intently at her like "a sentential before a prison". Her main concern at this moment is to protect the boy; it was like "fighting with a demon for a human soul". The apparition still has his eyes fixed on the governess and the boy, lurking like "a baffled beast." But the governess gathers her strength and is determined to face it. He suddenly disappears. She then asks Miles about what he did to result in his being expelled from school, and they have a very long conversation. Eventually she is able to get the truth out of him. He also admits to stealing a letter that the governess had finally decided to send to his uncle. During their talk, Quint's ghost appears to the governess. Miles ask if it is Miss Jessel, but she forces him to admit that it is Peter Quint. He turns suddenly around to look and falls in her arms. The governess clutches him, but instead of a triumph she discovers that she is holding Miles’ dead body.
During her first day at Bly, the governess thinks she hears a child's cry in the distance. The governess imagines herself at the helm of a ship lost at sea. Ghosts of Quint, Miss Jessel are not anymore demonic creatures. Ghosts may just be dreams, the dream of a mind that needed to protect the children, an illusion created by fears and frustrated hopes in a way that makes impossible to separate dreams from hard facts. But ghosts are the central idea of the novel or that idea around which the novel functions. So, from this point of view we can say that it is a ghost story.