The ‘Turn of the Screw’, which was written in the late nineteenth century, is acclaimed by critics for the build up of tension and the suspenseful atmosphere that its author, Henry James, creates throughout the novella. James achieves this by exploiting several characters and features of the book. James manipulates the prologue of the novella by creating a group of listeners who are in anticipation for the story; furthermore the character who narrates the story is not immediately able to retrieve the manuscript, this deliberate slow down of tempo, builds suspense preceding the tale and it prepares the reader for a thrilling story.
The setting of the novella is also used to build atmosphere, a technique that James regularly employs is contrasting a moment of tranquil with one of danger. This produces a sharp difference and thus makes the scene of peril seem even more suspenseful. The ghosts of Quint and Jessel are perhaps the largest contributors to the atmosphere and tension within the novel; James uses both ghosts to create a threat to the children which causes tremendous tension and it is the central plot in the book.
The children themselves are also manipulated by James to create atmosphere, their behaviour is continually reiterated as perfect and virtuous to such an extent that the reader is almost persuaded to think that their is something not quite natural about them. James uses the prologue to introduce the story and also to create a suspenseful atmosphere about what is to follow. During the prologue there are a group of guests who James uses to create tension. These listeners evidently enjoy listening to stories, especially if they involve ghosts and horror.
“… sufficiently breathless”, “no comment was uttered” are phrases which are used to describe their attitude towards the stories, clearly conveying the interest and avidness that the guests and frame narrator have for the stories being told. The listeners create an atmosphere of eagerness for the story which is very effective since James’ readers might also imitate this feeling. The character of Douglas plays a pivotal to the build up of tension in the prologue.
Upon the first mention of his story, he plays on the emotions of the listeners by continually reiterating how horrifying and terrible the story that he has all of them waiting in anticipation for is. “It is quite too horrible”, “nothing at all that I know touches it”; Douglas is gradually building up the suspense before his story by mentioning how ‘horrible’ it is, this feeling of impending disaster that the other guests wait in buoyant expectancy for, before knowing the full details of the story adds to an atmosphere of suspense.
The combined facts that the manuscript has to be sent for and further compounded by the knowledge that is locked away also contributes to the same effect, the prolonged wait for the manuscript adds to a feeling of avidness for the story and also the fact that it is locked away has cryptive connotations which suggest that its contents are so terrible that it must be kept away from the world. By now it seems that Douglas appears to have his listeners transfixed upon him and have necessity to listen to his story.
The interjection, “oh how delicious” which was cried by one of the women present; the term ‘delicious’ possibly infers a feeling which is almost desperation for the story. Likewise the way, in which the audience gives a “unanimous groan”, when the telling of the tale is delayed suggests that they long to hear the story. This deliberate slow down, builds up the tension to what the audience and reader are prepared for a gruelling tale. The gradual build up of suspense through the prologue preludes the main story, in order to exemplify an atmosphere of anticipation and dread of what is to follow.
James now uses the setting of the novella to create tension. He allows us to see into the Governess’ mind and we, like her anticipate Bly to be a place of dread since she “had expected something so melancholy”. It is usual for one to expect that a large country estate which is the setting of a ghost story will be isolated, old and gothic. James cleverly manipulates our assumptions to create an atmosphere of tension. Instead of the gothic building that we expect, we are introduced to something much more pleasant; the Governess upon her arrival is surprised and delighted at what she sees “what greeted me was a good surprise…
I remember as a most pleasant impression”. This peaceful setting lulls the reader into a false sense of security, however at the back of our minds is the idea from the prologue that the story will be horrifying which makes the reader suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the following events; thus creating an atmosphere of tension. This same technique is used before the introduction of Peter Quint. In the pages preceding his apparition there is a vivid description of an idyllic setting such as “the beauty and dignity of the place… golden sky”.
James does this in order to produce a sharp contrast when the ghost appears, making the emergence of the ghost more of a shock and therefore more terrifying for his audience. With the ghost of Peter Quint now firmly entrenched within the story, James uses him as a key contributor for creating an atmosphere of tension. James uses Miss Grose’s detestable presentation of Quint while he was alive in order to create tension. She describes him as “Impudent and depraved”, “spoiled”, these quotations give a negative impression of Quint and portray him as an antagonist.
However perhaps worst of all he is also related by Grose as “clever and deep”, exemplifying him as calculating and sinister. Because of his negative introduction the reader is therefore continually persuaded to think of Quint as a dangerous to the children. Upon each appearance Quint is seen closer to the Governess and hence successively more threatening and horrifying. Additionally each time Quint appears he is closer to the children, leading us to suspect that his apparitions are with some sort of intention rather than random.
As a result of our perception of him as somebody dangerous and also because he is getting closer and closer to the governess, the reader feels the suspense gradually building since we see him as a threat to both the Governess and the children. The first time she sees him he is distanced at the top of a tower although still narrating the scene as “stricken with death” suggesting dread, horror and fear. The second time there is only a window separating them and the governess by saying “A nearness that…
Made me catch my breath and turn cold”, makes the point clear that it was the closeness that made it more fearsome. However on the third appearance which is described as the most formidable, they are adjacent to one another, it is this that made the experience so terrifying according to the governess, “At such close quarters that gave the whole horror”. By making Quint continually more frightful James creates tension because the reader is constantly anticipating more horrifying encounters.