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Haunted or Mad? That Is the Question… The Turn of the Screw

written by: Sarah Degnan Moje • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 7/22/2015

Were their ghosts doomed forever to wander the manor? Will Miles now join them? Or, was the governess just a madwoman, a victim of isolation and mental illness combined? Examine these and several other theories with your class after you finish reading The Turn of the Screw.

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    Interpreting the Novel with Your Class

    Discussing theories about The Turn of the Screw with your class Characters are drawn from life; that is to say, they are modeling the behavior of the times. They may seem dated to us, but they were modern characters. The Turn of the Screw grows out of social attitudes at the end of the 19th century. So, the first thing students need to examine is what the social views were at the time in regard to ghosts and hauntings, as well as what the views were in terms of mental illness in England.

    Some critics have tried to connect the story with other "ghost stories" in the gothic tradition. However, James’ novel does not really match up with other classic horror tales, such as Dracula or Frankenstein.

    Is there any connection with "ghost cases" reported to and by practitioners of "psychical research"? We may not know for sure who James talked with before he sat down to pen the novel. However, we do know that it was written during the rise of Spiritualism, so there is a chance that James drew on “true" stories of the time period.

    Now, your students have a second task; do they even know what Spiritualism is? Most likely they do not. So, have them break into groups and research it and then present their findings to the class. Then, as a class, have them discuss whether or not these spiritualist beliefs may have played a part in Henry James’ writing. Could he have been influenced by the thoughts of the time?

    Use the downloadable PowerPoint, complete with reviews of James’ novel in order to complete the following assignments with the class. Write a “pull quote" critique of the novel. Write a thesis statement that clearly states your theory about the events of the novel. And with those two writing tasks complete, you can then move on to the final assignment, which is discussed in the next article of this series.

    Download: Theories About The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw: Classroom Resources for Literature Teachers

If you're planning on covering Henry James' The Turn of the Screw in your high school English literature class, check out these teaching resources, including several free PowerPoint presentations you can download to use in classroom discussions.
  1. Meet and Greet: An Overview Of The Turn of the Screw
  2. Page by Page: Reading The Turn of the Screw
  3. Haunted or Mad? That Is the Question… The Turn of the Screw
  4. The Existence of Ghosts in The Turn of the Screw

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