Text: James, Henry, The Turn of the Screw, edited by Robert Kimbrough, Norton Critical Edition, 1966.
Summary of Frame Narrative
The main story is embedded in a frame narrative, explaining the circumstance behind the story and its telling. A first-person narrator mentions that a group of people is gathered in an old house at Christmas time, telling ghost stories around the fire. Someone tells a case of a ghost visiting a child and how unusual that is. A man called Douglas says that if adding a child to a ghost story is a “turn of the screw,” what about two children? It is obvious he can best the story of one child, but he withholds his story until days later. The story of the haunting of the two children is written down and locked in a drawer at home. Douglas has to send his man to town to get the manuscript. While they wait for the manuscript Douglas excites the group by saying how horrifying the story is. It was written by a woman, now dead for twenty years. She sent him the manuscript before she died. The woman was charming, and ten years older than Douglas. She was the governess of his younger sister, whom he met on a visit home from college. They became friends, and she shared this story that she had told no one else. Someone asks if the governess was in love. Douglas says yes, but he won't say with whom. When he leaves the room, the guests speculate she was in love with Douglas. He has waited forty years to tell the story. The narrator further explains that Douglas gave the manuscript to him before he died, and from his transcription of the original, the text is now given to the public, some fifty years after the events.
Douglas explains as a prologue to the Christmas guests before reading the governess's story that she was the youngest daughter of a poor country parson. At the age of twenty she interviewed in London with a man for her first job as a governess. The man was a bachelor gentleman, handsome and in his prime. He charmed the young woman into taking the position at his country house in Essex called Bly, taking care of his orphaned niece and nephew, Flora, aged eight, and Miles, aged ten. There was a housekeeper at Bly called Mrs. Grose, but the governess would be the main authority there. He asks that she never under any circumstance contact him, but instead, handle everything herself. The children had been cared for by a previous governess who had died. Mrs. Grose has been taking care of the girl, and the boy has been sent to school. The governess only saw the employer in London twice but took the job because she fell in love with him, even though she knew she could never see him again.
Commentary on the Frame Narrative
A narrative frame gives us a story within a story. This frame introduces the tale and creates suspense, giving us a few details about the main characters. Douglas shares this introduction because he says the manuscript begins after the story starts when the governess is at Bly. It is necessary for him to tell the audience what he knows of the governess and the conditions of her employment. The narrative frame story happens about fifty years after the incidents at Bly. The tale comes up during a Christmas house party as the guests entertain themselves with ghost stories. It may seem an odd Christmas pastime but actually, telling such tales in the winter around the fire is an old tradition. Dickens had set his “Christmas Carol” ghost story in the same time of year.
The introduction of a frame occurring fifty years later creates distance and mystery. The story is not told directly by someone present but third-hand (governess to Douglas, Douglas to the guests, the frame narrator who could be James himself, to the reader). Already in the frame, we see that it will be hard to pin down exact details because of these embedded and multiple narrators. This has caused readers a lot of frustration, but James knows what he is doing as a teller of ghost stories. The guests begin to ask Douglas questions ahead of time about the story they are about to hear from him; for instance, what did the first governess die from? He says that the story will make it clear; he does not want to anticipate. A woman says, but that is exactly what you are doing—anticipating! This is the job of the mystery storyteller, to raise questions but not to answer them, in order to get the audience curious. The irony is that we never learn what the first governess died from, though there are hints.
Douglas also mentions the story is so horrible that he has never shared it, just as the governess only shared it with him. When the audience asks who the governess was in love with, Douglas again says that the story will make it clear, but the story is riddled with ambiguities. The listeners assume Douglas was in love with the governess himself, but he never says. The governess falls into a sort of adolescent love with her employer, because she has a romantic temperament. Even more importantly, she falls in love with the children, but whether that is a good thing or not, is left to the reader's imagination. Many frame stories surround the main story at the beginning and the end, but this frame is only at the beginning. Once the governess begins her story, there are no other comments upon it.