The play tells the story of how the young governess is hired by a man who has found himself responsible for his niece and nephew after the death of their parents. He lives in London and has no interest whatsoever in the children.
The boy is at a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country home in Essex where she is cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. He gives the governess full charge of the children and makes it clear he never wants to hear from her again regarding them.
The governess travels to her new employer’s house and begins her duties. Shortly thereafter, the boy, Miles, turns up after being expelled from his school. The governess infers that the headmaster feels that Miles is a threat to the other boys.
The governess begins to see and hear strange things. She learns that her predecessor, a Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint (another former servant of the household), a clever but abusive man, died under curious circumstances.
Gradually, she becomes convinced that the pair are somehow using the children to continue their relationship from beyond the grave…