Like much gothic fiction, The Turn of the Screw is introduced through a framing narrative: a group of friends are exchanging ghost stories around a fire. When one of their number declares he possesses a manuscript telling a tale which cannot be equalled “for general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain” the others press him to read it aloud.
In the tale that follows, an unnamed young woman takes up a position as governess to two orphan children, Miles and Flora, in an isolated house in rural Essex. As a condition of her employment, she must never trouble the children’s uncle and guardian with any report of their progress. On arriving at Bly, she learns that Miles has just been expelled from school for undisclosed and possibly sinister reasons. But when she meets him the governess is so entranced by his sweet radiance that she cannot believe him capable of any wrongdoing. Indeed, she is instantly bewitched by both her young charges and “[walks] in a world of their invention”.
The joy she derives from the children, however, is soon soured. Two apparently supernatural figures begin to appear around the grounds. Taking the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, into her confidence, the governess learns of Peter Quint, a former valet who died in mysterious circumstances, and Miss Jessel, her deceased predecessor. Vague allusions establish both as thorough villains with an affinity for evil, and it is implied that they developed an unhealthy closeness to Miles and Flora.
The governess concludes that Quint and Jessel have returned from the grave to gain possession of the children. Casting herself as sacrificial protector, she determines to foil their plans by interposing herself between the apparitions and their prey. This line of thinking is derailed when Miss Jessel appears in the presence of Flora. Flora’s fixation on her game leads the governess to believe that not only does the girl see the ghost but she’s anxious that the governess should not perceive it. As the plot spirals, so too does the governess’s paranoia. She becomes convinced that the children have fallen under the evil influence of Quint and Jessel, and that they are playing a game with her in which they hold complete power.
At first, the governess confides her worries only to the apparently sympathetic ear of Mrs Grose. However, when Flora disappears into the far reaches of Bly’s extensive grounds to meet, it seems, with Miss Jessel, the governess confronts the girl with her suspicions. Flora’s reaction is horror. She denies ever seeing any ghosts and instead accuses the governess. In her distress, Flora works herself up into such an agitation that she becomes ill and Mrs Grose is obliged to take her away from Bly.
Left alone with Miles, the governess determines to have things out with the boy once and for all. Though his explanations for his expulsion disappoint her with their banality, she remains convinced of his demonic possession. During their confrontation, the figure of Peter Quint appears at the window: the governess triumphantly perceives that, though she can see the ghost, Miles cannot. This she interprets as a diminution of Quint’s power and an opportunity for her to take possession of the boy herself. In the flurry that ensues, Miles utters “the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss” and the governess catches him in her arms. In a moment, she realizes that the little body she holds is dead.