The Turn of the Screw By Henry James
In an old house on a Christmas Eve, the subject of ghosts is brought up. A man named Douglas tells of his sister’s governess, who had reported seeing apparitions some years ago; in fact, she had recorded her experience in a manuscript that he promises to send for. Upon further questioning, it is learned that the governess was hired to take care of two young pupils who had been left under the care of an uncle. When this man hired the governess, he gave her implicit instructions that she was to cope with any problem and never bother him.
The governess’ story opens on the day she arrives at her new position. Her charges — Miles and Flora — are perfect little children who would apparently never cause anyone any trouble. She grows very fond of them in spite of the fact that little Miles has been discharged from his school. In discussing this occurrence, the governess and Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, decide that little Miles was just too good for a regular school.
The governess loves her position and her children, and she secretly wishes that her handsome employer could see how well she is doing. Shortly after this, she notices the form of a strange man at some distance. She wonders if the large country house harbors some secret. But some time later, she sees the same face outside the dining room window. When she describes this face to Mrs. Grose, she hears that it was that of Peter Quint, an ex-servant who has been dead for about a year.
Next the governess encounters another apparition in the form of a lady. Upon further consultation with Mrs. Grose, it is determined that this was the children’s former governess, Miss Jessel, who died mysteriously about a year ago. When the present governess presses Mrs. Grose for additional information, she learns that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel had been intimate with each other and, furthermore, that both had been too familiar with the children.
After more appearances, the governess decides that the figures are returning to see the children. She then begins to wonder if the children know of the presence of the apparitions. Upon observing the children’s behavior, she decides that they must be aware of the presence of these figures. She notes that once in the middle of the night little Miles is out walking on the lawn. Also, little Flora often gets up in the night and looks out the window.
Coming back early one day from church, the governess finds Miss Jessel in the schoolroom. During the confrontation, the governess feels that the former teacher wants to get Flora and make the little girl suffer with her. She is now determined to break her arrangement with her employer and write to him to come down.
Walking by the lake that day, she sees the figure of Miss Jessel again and directs little Flora’s attention to it. But the little girl can see nothing. Furthermore, the housekeeper, who is along, can see nothing. Mrs. Grose takes little Flora and goes back to the house. The next day the housekeeper comes to the governess and tells of the awful language young Flora used and reasons that the girl must be in contact with some evil person in order to use such language.
The governess has little Flora taken away and that night as she is talking with little Miles, the figure of Peter Quint appears at the window. When the governess confronts little Miles with this apparition, the boy collapses and the governess notes that he is dead.
The Governess Narrator of the story, who is appointed as governess of Miles and Flora with the instructions that she never bother her employer, the children’s uncle.
Flora and Miles The two children who, as orphans, are placed in the governess’ charge by their uncle.
Mrs. Grose The housekeeper and confidante to the governess.
Peter Quint Former personal servant to the employer of the governess and familiar companion to Miles. He has been dead a year.
Miss Jessel The children’s former governess, who died the year before.
Summary and Analysis Prologue””
A group of visitors are gathered around a fireplace discussing the possible horror of a ghost appearing to a young, innocent child. A man named Douglas wonders if one child “gives the effect another turn of the screw,” what would a story involving a ghostly visitation to two children do? Everyone wants to hear his story, but Douglas explains that he must send for a manuscript. The story he wants to relate was narrated by a governess who has been dead twenty years. She was once his sister’s governess and Douglas has heard the story firsthand.
When the group has heard more about the governess, everyone wonders if she was in love. Douglas admits that she was and that the beauty of her love was that she saw the man she loved only twice. He was her employer and had hired her on the condition that she never trouble him, “never appeal nor complain nor write about anything,” and that she was to handle all problems herself. In other words, she was to take complete charge of the two children to be placed under her authority.
In this introductory section — note that James does not call it a prologue — we are given just the bare essentials of the story. It will be left for the manuscript, that is, the governess, to tell the main story. The only outside or objective facts we have in the entire narrative come from this section. But at the same time, we must be aware that these come from Douglas, who is accused of having been in love with the governess, and thus his view may be colored.
Summary and Analysis Section 1
After having come to an agreement with the uncle of the two children and fully understanding that he does not wish to be bothered in any way with the upbringing of his wards, the governess takes a carriage to the great country house. Here she meets the first of her two pupils. Young Flora, a child of eight, is “so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her.” She is the most beautiful child the governess has ever seen.
On the way to the great country house, the governess had brooded over her future relationship with the housekeeper, but upon meeting Mrs. Grose, it is obvious that they would have an excellent understanding.
The governess is so charmed by young Flora that she takes the first possible opportunity to question Mrs. Grose about young Miles, her second pupil. She learns that the little boy, who is two years older that his sister, is as charming and delightful as Flora. He is to arrive in two days from his boarding school.
The reader should remember constantly that the governess is now narrating the story and that all impressions and descriptions come from her viewpoint. Thus, to the governess, young Flora appears as the most charming young girl she has ever seen. We should now go back and speculate about the possible relationship between the governess and her employer. As the governess tells Mrs. Grose: “I was carried away in London!” As the simple daughter of a country parson, the young girl has been impressed by the elegance and free manner of her employer. Thus, some critics would suggest that the governess’ view of the young girl is simply a subconscious desire to see everything connected with her employer as beautiful and wonderful. Other critics suggest that James is here establishing the beauty and innocence of the young girl, which will later be used in various ways.
It is likewise important to note that the governess and Mrs. Grose become immediate friends and agree basically on most things. This rapport will allow the governess to convince Mrs. Grose later of the possibility of ghosts.
Summary and Analysis Section 2
Shortly before young Miles is to arrive home from school, the governess receives a letter from her employer. It contains an unopened letter from the headmaster of Miles’ school and a cursory note from her employer requesting her to open the letter and attend to all details. Above all, she is not to trouble him.
After reading the letter, the governess searches out Mrs. Grose and reports that Miles has been dismissed from his school. She inquires if young Miles is “really bad,” and is assured by Mrs. Grose that young Miles is incapable of injuring anyone, even though he is a lively young boy.
At her next meeting with Mrs. Grose, the governess inquires about her predecessor. She hears that the earlier governess was not careful in all things, and after leaving the last time on her vacation, was suddenly taken ill and died. Mrs. Grose knows no more particulars, and the governess must be content with this incomplete report.
The first strange element is now introduced into the story. Miles, we find out, has been suspended from his school and will not be allowed to return. This dismissal immediately brings to the forefront the possibility of his being a bad boy. “Is he really bad?” the governess asks, and the idea is given further significance by the later use of words “contaminate” and “corrupt.”
The idea of death is also introduced here as the governess discovers that her predecessor left with the intentions of returning and then was taken ill and died. The cause of her death is left unexplained, thereby adding a note of mystery to it.
Summary and Analysis Section 3
As soon as the governess sees young Miles, she thinks him to possess the same exceptional qualities, with the “same positive fragrance of purity” that characterizes young Flora. She soon lets Mrs. Grose know that Miles’ dismissal must have been a cruel charge. Furthermore, she has decided to ignore the letter and will not even write to the boy’s uncle about the incident.
In the first weeks of her duties, the children are wonderful; “they were of a gentleness so extraordinary.” But in spite of the pleasure the governess has in the presence of the two children, she still treasures her free time, which falls late in the afternoon, between daylight and darkness. She often strolls through the grounds and meditates on the beauty of her surroundings. Sometimes, she thinks that it would be charming to suddenly meet someone on the path who would stand before her “and smile and approve.” In fact, she wishes her employer could know how much she enjoys the place and how well she is executing her duties.
One evening during her stroll, she does perceive the figure of a strange man on top of one of the old towers of the house. He appears rather indistinct, but she is aware that he keeps his eyes on her. She feels rather disturbed without knowing why.
The innocence of both children is further emphasized in this section. The governess perhaps makes her first mistake in refusing to investigate the causes of Miles’ dismissal. The mystery connected with this suspension will later allow the governess to attribute a duplicity to Miles’ actions. The governess’ refusal to investigate stems from her overzealous desire to exercise complete control over her wards and to view them in her own way.
Note how carefully James sets up the machinery for the governess’ first sight of the “ghosts.” Her free time falls at dusk, and at this time she usually likes to wander around alone. Furthermore, on her walks, she wishes that her employer could see her in this environment and would commend her upon her excellent performance with the children. In other words, it seems obvious that the governess is attracted or infatuated by her employer. Whether or not this infatuation is strong enough or psychotic enough to allow the governess to “create” the ghosts must be determined by each individual reader. Many critics have suggested that the ghosts are only creations of the governess’ imagination, evoked to compel her employer to come to the country house. Whatever the circumstances, the governess’ wish to meet someone on her walks is soon fulfilled, since she sees in the distance some strange figure standing and observing her.
Summary and Analysis Sections 4-5
After seeing the person (or apparition), the governess wonders if there was a “secret at Bly”. (Bly is the name of the country house.) She spends a good portion of the succeeding days thinking about this encounter. The shock has “sharpened all” her senses, and she fears that she might become too nervous to keep her wits about her.
The children occupy most of her day, and she continues to discover new and exciting things about them. The only obscurity that persists is the boy’s conduct at school, which had brought about his dismissal. The governess finds him to be an angel and decides that he was too good for the public school. Even though things are not well at the governess’ own home, she has no complaints about her work.
One Sunday as the group is preparing to go to church, the governess returns to the dining room to retrieve her gloves from the table. Inside the room she notices the strange weird face of a man staring in at her in a hard and deep manner. Suddenly she realizes that the man has “come for someone else.” This thought gives her courage, and she goes immediately to the outside. Once there, she finds nothing, but looking through the window, she sees Mrs. Grose, who upon seeing the governess outside the glass turns pale from fright.
In a moment, Mrs. Grose appears outside the house and tells the governess how white she is. The governess explains that just a moment before she saw the figure of a man standing on the outside looking in. She reports having seen him one time before. It is settled that the man is no gentleman; in fact the governess calls him “a horror.” She refuses to go to church with the others because she is afraid — not for herself but for the children.
When Mrs. Grose asks for a description of the stranger, the governess is able to give a rather minute and detailed account of him. His red hair, his thin but good features, and his clothes remind her of some actor who is imitating some other person. Even though he was dressed in clothes a gentleman would wear, he was indeed no gentleman. Mrs. Grose immediately seems to recognize the person described and explains that the man was dressed in the master’s clothes. He is Peter Quint, who was once the master’s personal valet and who wore the master’s clothes. When the governess wonders what happened to the ex-valet, she is told that he died.
Section 4 opens with the mystery of some secret at Bly. This secret is built up in the governess’ mind and she thinks about it until later she sees the figure at the window. Again, the climate combines to help add mystery to the appearance. The figure appears on a cold, gray day. There are several ways of approaching the appearance of Peter Quint. Some critics maintain that the ghost is a product of the governess’ imagination, and she sees him only because she has been brooding on the subject for so long that her mind actually creates a figure. This point is supported by the fact that the governess knows the type of clothes that her employer wears and has constantly desired another view of him; thus in her imagination, she has created a person looking handsome but, as in dreams, appearing rather horrible also. This person then is in some ways the dream fulfillment and exists only in the governess’ imagination.
The other point of view is that the governess could not give such an exact description if she had not actually seen the ghost. In this view, the governess is seen as a pure and innocent person who is the guardian of the pure and innocent children. In these two sections, great pains have been taken to emphasize once again the natural purity and sweetness of the two children. Therefore, the ghost could be symbolic of evil approaching upon innocence and the struggle such an encounter must involve.
Thus, through the use of ambiguity, James has left room for more than one view of the situation. There are even a few critics who maintain that this story is nothing more than a pure, chilling ghost story and has no meaning beyond this reading.
Summary and Analysis Sections 6-7
Mrs. Grose accepted what the governess had to say about the appearance of the stranger without questioning anything. The governess knows what she herself is capable of to shelter her pupils, and she tells the housekeeper that the apparition was looking for little Miles. She cannot explain how she knows this, but she is sure of it. She suddenly remembers that neither of the pupils has even mentioned Peter Quint’s name to her. Mrs. Grose states that Quint often took great liberties with the child. In fact, she adds, he was too free with everyone. The governess then wants to know if everyone knew that Quint was admittedly bad. Mrs. Grose knew about him, but the master suspected nothing; and she never presumed to inform, since the master didn’t take well to people who bore tales and bothered him. And actually, she was afraid of what Peter Quint could do. The governess is shocked because she thinks that one would be more afraid of what effect this evil person might have on the innocent life of the young boy than of what the master or Quint would do.
During the next week, Mrs. Grose and the governess talk incessantly of the appearance of this sinister figure. The governess learns that he had fallen on ice while coming home drunk from a tavern and was later found dead. Through it all, the governess discovers that she has more strength than ever and is more determined to protect her pupils from any danger.
Soon after, the governess and little Flora are out by the lake when a figure appears standing on the opposite side, observing them. The governess watches to see if little Flora will take notice of the figure. She is certain that the girl sees it and only pretends to be oblivious to it.
As soon as possible, the governess finds Mrs. Grose and explains that the children know of the presence of these other beings. Mrs. Grose is horrified and wants to know why the governess has come to such a conclusion. The governess explains that she was with Flora on the bank when Miss Jessel, Flora’s previous governess, who died last year, appeared on the other side. Mrs. Grose is horrified and can’t believe it. She wants to know how the governess was able to determine that it was Miss Jessel. The governess explains that by the way Miss Jessel looked so intently at little Flora and by the grand beauty and lady-like presence but at the same time an infamous quality that exuded from her. Then Mrs. Grose admits that Miss Jessel, in spite of her position, was familiar with Peter Quint. It is suggested that when she left her position, she couldn’t return, but Mrs. Grose doesn’t know exactly what Miss Jessel died of.
Suddenly, the governess realizes that she can’t shield or protect the young children because she fears that they are already lost.
In the discussion with Mrs. Grose, the governess discovers that the housekeeper knew Peter Quint was evil, but she was afraid to tell the master because he did not like to be bothered by details and complaints and he was impatient with people who bore tales against their fellow workers. Consequently, the governess is again reminded that she is in complete charge of her pupils and will not be able to go to the master with any complaint.
With the appearance of Miss Jessel, James is rounding out his story. The male ghost appears for the boy, and the female apparently returns for the young girl. The governess finds herself trapped in the middle.
We should be aware in this section that not as much credence is given to the appearance of Miss Jessel. There is even a bit of doubt in the mind of good Mrs. Grose. It is almost as though the governess’ mind has brooded on the subject until she creates the appearance of Miss Jessel. There is not the direct description that will allow Mrs. Grose to positively identify the former governess, and the details given could apply to almost any governess.
Another level of meaning is added here. The governess thinks that the apparitions are returning to capture or corrupt the children. As long as she thinks this, then she is ready to fight diligently in order to protect the children. Her fears are made more real when she learns that both Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were immoral people. She is already afraid that the mere presence of these people in real life might have had a corrupting influence on the children. Thus, in their spectral appearance, they want to continue the corruption began in life.
The most horrifying thing for the governess is the conviction that the children know of the presence of the ghosts and pretend not to know it. Here we must begin to wonder if the governess is not letting her imagination carry her away. Even if the ghosts do appear, it is quite plausible that little Flora did not notice the figure, which was, indeed, at some distance. But if the ghosts are real, then we must admire the governess, who is determined to protect her wards against the evil influence.
Summary and Analysis Sections 8-10
At a later time, the governess has a talk with the housekeeper, when they agree that the governess couldn’t make up the story because she had given such a perfect description, even to the last detail, of the two characters. In the meantime, the governess has devoted herself to her pupils, who have been more than charming — they have been perfect.
The governess cannot forget that Miles was discharged from his school. Therefore, one day she decides to question Mrs. Grose about him. She wonders if he has ever been bad. Mrs. Grose responds that she could not like a boy that did not sometimes show signs of typical badness. Upon being pressed further, she does admit that once Miles was very bad to her. Mrs. Grose had suggested that the young boy was stepping beyond his position by having so much to do with Quint, and the young child reminded her that she was also a servant and no better than Quint. Furthermore, he lied to her about how much time he actually did spend with Peter Quint.
It is brought out that the previous year, young Miles spent an exceptionally large amount of time with Quint, and during this time Flora was alone with Miss Jessel. Thus, the governess thinks it is quite possible that the young children knew what was taking place between Quint and Jessel.
The governess decides to do nothing but wait and see what should happen. She waits a long time before another incident occurs. One night, she wakes up at about one o’clock, and taking her candle, goes to the stairs. Halfway down the staircase, she sees the figure of Peter Quint standing at one of the landings. She faces him directly until he retreats into the darkness. She feels that he knew her just as well as she knew him. After he has disappeared, she returns to her room. She knows that she left the candle burning and now it is out. Immediately she notices that little Flora is at the window. When she questions the child suspiciously, little Flora says that she awakened and felt that the governess had gone and she was watching to see if the governess was outside walking. The young woman wonders if she saw anyone, but little Flora innocently answers that she saw no one. When the governess tries to trap the girl by asking why she pulled the curtain over the bed to conceal her absence, little Flora simply says that she didn’t want to frighten the governess. Everything seemed perfectly natural to her. For many days after this, the governess again goes to the staircase, but never again sees Quint. Once on one of her walks, she sees the back of a woman’s figure bent over as though in heavy mourning.
One night the governess awakens to find that little Flora is again missing from her bed. This time she notices that the young girl is seemingly talking to someone outside the window. Rather than confront the girl directly, the governess decides to go to Miles’ room and then changes her mind because this act could be awkward. Instead, she goes to a room above, where she can view all the actions. As she peers out the window, the thing that most strikes her is the figure of poor little Miles out on the lawn by himself.
In this story dealing with the ghostly element, we are obliged to examine the governess’ fortitude. If the ghosts are real, how does she have the courage and perseverance to meet them time and time again. After all, she is a rather helpless female, and even the love that she had earlier felt for the children is not modified by her belief that they are in the confidence of the ghosts. Only a nobler urge to rescue them from the evil influence could justify the governess’ actions.
Thus, can we view the entire tale as the conflict between good and evil with the governess representing the forces of good while the so-called ghosts represent something of the evil nature of the world from which the governess wishes to protect the children, while finding it impossible to do so. In this section, the innocence of the children is again emphasized. But then, if the children are actually innocent, what the governess is committing is perhaps the most neurotic and horrible of all perversions. That is, she is compromising the innocence of the children by insisting upon the actual appearance of the ghosts.
Again, the subject of Miles’ dismissal from the school comes up. The mistake that the governess made was not in learning the exact nature of his dismissal. Thus she is able to conjecture about the possible reasons. She goes to Mrs. Grose and elicits information about Miles’ past behavior. The housekeeper reveals that Miles had once been bad in protecting Peter Quint. But then the realistic reader would expect any boy to prefer the rough companionship of a man to that of acting the role of the gentleman at so young an age.
In these chapters, the reader should note how the governess suggests certain meanings to Mrs. Grose, who then accepts the suggestion as fact. This aspect lends credence to the view that the governess imagines much of what happens and then convinces the simpler Mrs. Grose.
A large portion of these chapters is devoted to relating additional meetings with apparitions. By now, the reader should be aware that the governess meets these figures at a time or place where it would be impossible for anyone else to confirm the phenomena. Thus, there is an ambiguity about each appearance.
The last appearance of Miss Jessel was made for the benefit of little Flora, which is according to the governess. She is convinced that Flora is talking with a strange presence and goes to investigate. During her investigation, she notices young Miles walking out on the lawn. From this observation, she will draw many conclusions, but the reader should be aware that she did not see either Miles or Flora in direct communication with the apparitions.
Summary and Analysis Sections 11-12
After the recent incidents, the governess keeps close watch on her charges. She feels as though she could not withstand the pressure of these days if it were not for the comfort of Mrs. Grose, who apparently believes the governess’ story without reservation. Even though Mrs. Grose is a good woman, she is lacking in imagination and thus could not comprehend fully the extent of the implications involved in the present danger. Thus, the governess has to explain the meaning of last night’s escapades.
As soon as she saw Miles in the yard, the governess went to the terrace, where Miles was able to see her. He came directly to her. Using the direct approach, she asked the reason for his being out on the lawn so late at night. Little Miles told her he did it so she would think him bad. His simple and sweet explanation was followed immediately by a genuine kiss.
Miles explained how he had arranged the matter with Flora. His sister was to get up and look out the window. In this way the governess would be aroused and would then see him.
After completing her narration of the preceding night to Mrs. Grose, the governess suggests that the children talk to Quint and Miss Vessel all the time. She realizes that neither pupil has even made an allusion to their old friends. She concludes that her pupils belong to them and not to her.
Mrs. Grose is shocked and wonders why “Quint and that woman” continue to return. “What can they now do?” she asks. The governess explains that they return simply “for the love of all the evil that, in those dreadful days, the pair put into them.” And unless something is done, the children will be destroyed. Mrs. Grose wants the governess to write immediately to the children’s uncle and have him come down to solve the situation. The governess is horrified at this suggestion and reminds Mrs. Grose that the master does not like to be bothered and that he might think the story to be some “fine machinery [she] had set in motion to attract his attention to her slighted charms.” So she tells Mrs. Grose that the master is not to be disturbed. In fact, she would leave immediately if he were informed of the present difficulties.
These chapters are devoted partially to exploring the relationship between the governess and Mrs. Grose. We find out that Mrs. Grose is a good-natured woman who is lacking in imagination, insight, and intuition. Accordingly, she accepts the governess’ interpretation of any event. She is too amiable and simple to question the governess’ view. Every conclusion that is made about the predicament comes from the governess. Mrs. Grose merely acquiesces.
The most significant revelation found in this section is the governess’ attitude toward her employer and her apprehension that he might regard the entire story as a contrivance on her part to attract him. When we step back from the immediate events, we must realize that if the ghostly appearance were in actuality true, then the governess should definitely inform her master. Her refusal to do so indicates that even she partially recognizes that the ghosts could be emanations of her warped imagination. Certainly if they were real, she should acknowledge that she alone does not possess the power to contend with them. In this situation, Mrs. Grose is definitely correct in thinking the master must be informed. The governess’ refusal to agree must arouse suspicion as to her motivations.
Summary and Analysis Sections 13-15
In the ensuing days, the governess often thinks that her pupils are conspiring against her, and she wonders when they would openly admit that they know about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. Sometimes she wants to cry out: “They’re here, they’re here, you little wretches . . . and you can’t deny it now.” But her charges do deny it with all of their sweetness and obedience.
For many days, the governess spends as much time as possible in the presence of the children. As she tells Mrs. Grose, she feels safe as long as she also has the gift of seeing the ghosts. She believes that she must constantly observe, since it has not yet been definitely proved that the children have really seen the ghosts. But at the same time, she is unable to reject the idea that whatever she saw, “Miles and Flora saw more.”
Often in the classroom, Flora and Miles write letters to their uncle requesting him to come for a visit, but the governess never allows these to be sent. She explains that the letters are “charming literary exercises.”
While walking to church one Sunday, Miles surprises the governess by asking when he will be allowed to go back to school. He does not consider it good for a little boy to be always in the company of a lady, even though that lady is ideal. He wants to know what his uncle has done about his return to school and thinks that he should write to his uncle soon if something is not done.
The manner in which little Miles insists upon returning to school shocks the governess so much that she is not able to attend the church services. Instead, she returns to Bly. Upon entering the schoolroom, she finds herself in the presence of Miss Jessel, who is seated at the governess’ desk as though she has more right to be there than did the present governess. Drawing upon all of her strength, the governess addresses the intruder directly, saying: “You terrible, miserable woman.” In an instant, she has “cleared the air” and she is alone in the room with the sense that she must stay at Bly and fight against this evil influence.
In Section 13, the governess strikes a note of contradiction. She first admits that it’s not yet definitely proved that the children are aware of the ghosts, and then a moment later, expresses the fear that Miles and Flora see more (that is, more of the ghosts and more of the hidden meaning) than she does.
The subject of the uncle’s appearance is further developed in these sections. First, there are the letters the children write but which are never sent. Then comes Miles’ demand that his uncle be consulted about his schooling. As much as the governess wants her employer to be pleased with her and to come to Bly, she is still frightened of the possibility that he actually will appear.
It is, therefore, while under the pressure of Miles’ demand and the subconscious desire to see her employer that the governess once again sees the ghost of Miss Jessel. This time, the ghost appropriately appears in the schoolroom, which suggests there is a connection between Miles’ demand for more schooling and the appearance of Miss Jessel in the schoolroom.
Again the reader should note that the apparition appears to the governess when the house is completely deserted. Thus, she is again the only one who sees the ghost. Furthermore, she sees it when her mind is most troubled by difficult problems that she must solve or else break her agreement with her employer.
The conversation between Miles and the governess about his schooling rings with enough ambiguity to allow the governess to think that little boy is being extremely astute and that he is implying deeper and more threatening meaning. Yet a careful reading of the conversation shows that there is nothing more ambiguous than the actual desire of a young boy to return to normal schooling.
Summary and Analysis Sections 16-17
When the others return from church, they make no mention of the governess’ absence. At teatime, the governess questions Mrs. Grose and discovers it was little Miles’ idea that nothing be said. The governess tells how she returned to meet “a friend” (Miss Jessel) and to talk with her. She informs Mrs. Grose that Miss Jessel “suffers the torments . . . of the lost. Of the damned.” The governess claims that her predecessor confessed this and also stated that she wants little Flora to share the torments with her.
After this discovery, the governess decides that she must write to the uncle and insist he come down and assume responsibility for the entire predicament. In addition, she now concludes that little Miles must have been expelled from his school for wickedness.
That night, the governess begins the letter to her employer. Leaving her room for a moment, she walks to little Miles’ door. Even though it is late in the night, he calls for her to come in. She discovers that he is lying awake worrying about “this queer business” of theirs. The governess thinks he means the business about the ghosts, but little Miles quickly adds that he means this business about how he is being brought up. He emphasizes again his desire to return to a normal school, and the governess tells him that she has already written his uncle. She then implores him to let her help him. In answer to her plea, there comes a big gush of wind through the window. Little Miles shrieks and when the governess recovers her composure, she notices that the candle is out. Little Miles confesses that he blew it out.
By teatime, the governess is able to approach Mrs. Grose and tell her that “it’s now all out” between her and Miles. She then describes her meeting with Miss Jessel. It is important here to note the discrepancies between the presentation of the meeting in the last chapter and governess’ narration of it to Mrs. Grose. In the actual meeting, the apparition disappeared immediately after the governess spoke to it. But in her explanation to Mrs. Grose, the governess maintains Miss Jessel said she suffers torments and that she has come back to get little Flora to share in her suffering.
This divergence could be a clue to the interpretation of the novel. The governess could be seen as the exceptionally intuitive and perceptive person who can fathom the meaning of any situation by her sensitive awareness. Or else, she is deliberately creating a situation that will allow her to write her employer. It could be argued that she has slowly been developing her case and slowly convincing Mrs. Grose so that when the employer arrives, Mrs. Grose will be able to confirm the fantastic story.
Furthermore, the governess finally convinces Mrs. Grose that Miles must have been expelled for wickedness, since he has no other flaw or fault that could warrant expulsion. Thus, we can see now the governess’ motivation in not investigating the real reasons for Miles’ dismissal. She is now able to use it for her own machinations.
If the governess is absorbed with her bizarre plot, it becomes even more natural and remarkable that little Miles should want to leave. He must feel — as he does emphasize — the strangeness of his position with the governess. After the interview in his room, he becomes even more sensitive and taut over their peculiar relationship. We should be aware that James is now building for little Miles’ death at the end of the story, a death that will result from the governess’ weird behavior.
Summary and Analysis Sections 18-20
The next day, the governess tells Mrs. Grose that the letter to the master is written, but she fails to mention that she has not yet mailed it. That day, Miles is exceptionally kind to the governess. He even volunteers to play the piano for her. Suddenly the governess asks where Flora is. Little Miles does not know, so she assumes that Flora is with Mrs. Grose. To her consternation, she discovers that the good housekeeper has not seen Flora.
Then, the governess understands that Flora is with that woman. Also, little Miles is probably with Quint; and all the time he was being nice to the governess, he was simply covering up so that Flora could escape. Together with Mrs. Grose, the young woman goes straight to the lake in search of little Flora. The governess is convinced that the children are in communication with that awful pair and, moreover, “they say things, that, if we heard them, would simply appall us.”
On arriving at the lake, they discover that Flora has apparently taken the boat and gone to the other side. Mrs. Grose is dumbfounded that such a small girl could manage a boat alone, but the governess reminds her that Flora is not alone — that woman is with her.
They walk around the lake and find Flora, who meets them with her sweet gaiety. When the child asks where Miles is, the governess in turn asks little Flora, “Where is Miss Jessel?” Immediately upon hearing this question, Mrs. Grose utters a loud sound, which causes the governess to look up and see the figure of Miss Jessel standing on the other side of the lake. She points out this figure for both Mrs. Grose and little Flora, but the young pupil keeps her eyes glued on the governess. Mrs. Grose is unable to see anything in spite of the governess’ explicit directions. After a few moments, Mrs. Grose addresses little Flora and tells her then there is no one there. “It’s all a mere mistake and a worry and a joke.” She wants to take little Flora home as fast as possible.
Suddenly, the young girl cries out that she did not see anyone and never has. She wants to be taken away from the governess, who has been so cruel and frightening. Mrs. Grose takes the child and returns to the house. The governess is left alone to realize that the apparition appears only to the children and to herself. This will make it more difficult for her now. When she returns to the house, she finds that little Flora’s things have been removed from the room.
Here we have the revealing chapters concerning the appearance of the ghosts. Previously, the ghosts have appeared only when the governess is alone, but now Miss Jessel appears while Mrs. Grose is present. But the good housekeeper is unable to see the apparition. Consequently, the reader may now doubt seriously that the visitation has any existence except in the mind of the governess. The question arises as to whether she actually sees them. We know that the mind can convince itself that such things happen.
Another approach is to accept the governess’ view that one must possess a certain amount of perception before one can discover the presence of the evil ghosts. But if we accept this view, we must also see the children as possessed of superhuman cunning and ingenuity. And note that little Flora seems distraught by the accusations made by the governess.
Summary and Analysis Sections 21-22
Early the next morning, Mrs. Grose comes to the governess’ room and tells her that little Flora was “so markedly feverish that an illness was perhaps at hand.” All of Flora’s fears are directed against the governess. She is afraid of seeing her again, and pleads to be spared the sight of the governess.
The governess asks if Flora still persists in saying that she has seen nothing. She believes that those creatures have made the child so clever that now little Flora can go to her uncle and make the governess “out to him the lowest creature — !” The governess believes that it is best for Mrs. Grose to take the child away from the region, and in that way, she might be saved. Then the young woman will devote herself to saving little Miles.
The governess suddenly wonders if Mrs. Grose has seen something that makes her believe. The housekeeper tells her that she has seen nothing but has heard a great deal. Little Flora has used terrible language and awful words that could only be learned from some very evil source. Thereupon the governess considers herself justified in the belief that little Flora learned such words from the corrupt Miss Jessel. In answer to the governess’ direct question as to whether Mrs. Grose now believes in the ghosts, the housekeeper concedes that she does.
It is then agreed that Mrs. Grose will take little Flora to London. She is warned that the master will know something because of the governess’ letter. Mrs. Grose then tells the governess that the letter has disappeared. Both assume that Miles has stolen it and perhaps this was the offense he committed which brought about his expulsion. The governess hopes that in being alone with her, the boy will confess and then be saved.
The next day, Miles cannot understand how his sister was taken ill so suddenly. But he seems to accept the fact that she was sent away to keep from becoming worse because of the bad influence around Bly.
The fact that little Flora is seriously ill suggests again the very innocence of the girl. However much she might be able to pretend on some subjects, it would be quite difficult to feign a feverish sickness. In other words, she must be deeply repulsed by the behavior of the governess. The reader should note how concerned the governess is with the possibility that the employer will hear everything from Flora, who will make the governess out to be “the lowest creature.” Most of her actions are designed to influence or impress her employer. In the ensuing days, she hopes to bring Miles to her side and then she will be able to convince the master of the rightness of her actions.
Mrs. Grose is convinced of Flora’s evilness simply because the little girl has used some bad words. The child’s behavior is easily explainable when we consider that Miles, while away at the school, must have picked up some bad words and could have passed them on to Flora. But for the genteel Mrs. Grose who is, in fact, rather old, these words sound horrible and wicked when spoken by the child, and on this proof, she is willing to accept the premises that the girl could only learn them from an evil influence.
Little Flora’s illness acts as a method of foreshadowing and preparing for Miles’ reaction in the final sections. If the suggestion of the appearance of a ghost makes Flora ill, then in the next sections, the governess’ actions could be too much for the nerves of the young boy.
Summary and Analysis Sections 23-24
After Flora is gone, Miles joins the governess, and they talk about how they are alone. The governess explains that she stayed to be with and help Miles. She reminds him that she is willing to do anything for him, and he promises that he will tell her anything she wants to know. First, she asks him if he took the letter she had written to his uncle. The boy readily admits that he took it and opened it in order to see what she had written about him. He further admits that he found out nothing and burned the letter.
The governess asks him if he stole letters at his school or did he take other things. Miles explains that he said certain bad things to his friends, who must have said the same things to other friends until it all got back to the masters. Just as the governess is about to insist on knowing what he said, she sees the apparition of Peter Quint at the window. She hears Miles ask if it is Miss Jessel, but she forces him to admit that it is Peter Quint who is at the window. He turns suddenly around to look and falls in her arms. The governess clutches him, but instead of a triumph, she discovers that she is holding Miles’ dead body.
Somewhere little Miles had learned some naughty or evil words. It is quite possible that he had earlier learned them from his association with Peter Quint. He repeated these words at school and when others in turn repeated them, little Miles was expelled from school. Furthermore, this accounts for little Flora’s learning the awful words she used to describe the governess. During this interview with Miles, the governess thinks that she sees Peter Quint at the window. Miles’ first question is to ask if she sees Miss Jessel. This question seems to attest to his innocence. In other words, he must have learned from Flora (even though it is thought by Mrs. Grose that the brother and sister had not seen each other) that the governess thinks she had seen Miss Jessel. Otherwise, the young boy would not have immediately thought that the apparition seen by the governess was Miss Jessel. It is upon the mention that the apparition is a male that the young Miles associates it with Peter Quint. But whereas the fright of a ghost had caused little Flora to become ill, it is the instrument of little Miles’ death.
The last section lends great support to regarding the story as a psychological study of the governess’ mind. If the ghost were real or if little Miles were in communication with the ghost, the only way to account for his death is to admit that the ghosts and their evil ways have conquered the young boy. But it seems more reasonable to assume that the ghost was visible only to the governess, and through her psychotic imagination, she simply frightened the young boy to death.
Critical Essays Central Intelligence and Point-of-View in The Turn of the Screw
One of James’ contributions to the art of fiction is in his use of point-of-view. Point-of-view means the angle from which the story is told. For example, previous to James’ novels, much of the fiction of the day was being written from the author’s viewpoint — that is, the author was telling the story and he was directing the reader’s response to the story. Much of the fiction of the nineteenth century had the author as the storyteller, and the author would create scenes in which certain characters would be involved, but all of the scenes would not necessarily have the same characters in them.
James’ fiction differs in his treatment of point-of-view. He was interested in establishing a central person about whom the story revolved, or else a central person who could observe and report the action. Usually, the reader would have to see all the action of the story through this character’s eyes. Thus, while the central character in Daisy Miller is Daisy herself, we see her through the eyes of the “central intelligence,” that is, through the eyes of Winterborne. Sometimes the central character will also be the central intelligence, as happens in The Turn of the Screw. In James’ fiction we respond to events as the “central intelligence” would respond to them.
Furthermore, every scene in a James work has the central character present or else is a scene in which some aspect of the central character is being discussed by the central intelligence. So if Daisy is not present, the discussion is about some aspect of Daisy’s character.
Critical Essays Confidant
James wrote fiction in an era before the modern technique of the “stream-of-consciousness” was established. In the modern technique, the author feels free to go inside the mind of the character. But in James’ time, this was not yet an established technique. Since James as a novelist wanted to remain outside the novel — that is, wanted to present his characters with as much objectivity and realism as possible — he created the use of a confidant.
The confidant is a person of great sensibility or sensitivity to whom the main character reveals his or her innermost thoughts (as long as they are within the bounds of propriety). The confidant is essentially a listener and in some cases an adviser. This technique of having a confidant to whom the main character can talk serves a double function. First of all, it allows the reader to see what the main character is thinking, and second, it gives a more rounded view of the action. For example, after something has happened to the main character, the confidant hears about it and in the discussion of the event, we, the readers, see and understand the various subtle implications of this situation more clearly.
The confidant is also a person who is usually somewhat removed from the central action. For example, Mrs. Costello never meets Daisy Miller but she serves as a listener to Winterborne and offers her own view about Daisy. Likewise, Mrs. Grose in The Turn of the Screw has never seen any of the apparitions, but she serves as the person to whom the governess expresses her doubts and fears. Thus, essentially the confidant observes the action from a distance, comments on this action, and is usually a person of some exceptional qualities who allows the main character to respond more deeply and subtly to certain situations.
The Turn of the Screw Summary
How It All Goes Down
The story opens with a framing device – we find ourselves at a holiday party, where ghost stories are being told. One of the members of the party, Douglas, promises rather woefully to provide a chilling, real-life tale once a manuscript containing it arrives. The houseguests are all intrigued and excited – as are we, the readers.
Chapter One begins the proper “story.” A nameless, young governess (our narrator) is hired by a dashing, rich, and rather odd man to be a governess for his niece and nephew who live at a country estate called Bly. The Governess sets out for Bly, with only the instruction that she is never to contact the uncle. At the house, she finds Mrs. Grose, a kindly housekeeper, and Flora, the younger of the children. Flora is an exceptionally beautiful and all-around wonderful child – too wonderful, perhaps.
Things are complicated when the Governess receives word that Miles, the older child, has been expelled from his school. We’re not told why – but the school’s headmaster sternly states that Miles will never be allowed back. The Governess wonders what the boy could possibly have done to receive such a verdict. Mrs. Grose denies that anything is wrong with Miles; when the boy himself arrives, his incredible beauty and charm convince the Governess that she was crazy to think that he could do any wrong.
Everything seems great for a little while, until the Governess sees a strange and menacing male figure on one of the castle’s towers one evening. A few days later, the same stranger reappears just outside the dining room window, eerily looking in. The Governess is shocked by his return, and even more alarmed by the idea that he’s not there for her – he’s there for someone else. But who?… The Governess and Mrs. Grose figure out that the mysterious figure is Peter Quint, a former servant of the children’s uncle. The strangest thing is – Quint is dead. The Governess and the housekeeper make a pact to save the children from the ghost’s evil influence. This isn’t the end of their troubles, though. Another ghost appears one day as the Governess watches over Flora. She’s sure that the child also sees the ghost but pretends not to. The Governess is certain that this evil presence is that of Miss Jessel, her predecessor. What disturbs her the most is the possibility that Flora saw the ghost – but actively deceived her new teacher. Alarmingly, the next sighting is inside the house; the Governess sees Quint on a staircase, then a few days later, sees Jessel in the same place. Things are getting majorly scary.
The question of the children’s innocence is still pressing. One night, the Governess discovers a weird little scene – Flora has snuck out of bed and is gazing out the window at someone on the lawn, who, in turn, is looking up at someone else on top of the tower. The mysterious person on the lawn is not in fact Miss Jessel, who the Governess expects, but is instead Miles. The boy excuses himself, but the Governess is even more convinced that something fishy is going on with the children and the ghosts.
From here on out, events escalate fast – the Governess’s relationship with Miles grows more and more uncomfortable and strangely intimate, while he tries to use his power over her to get her to send him away to school again. Then, Flora goes missing one day, only to be found at the lake where Miss Jessel was first sighted. Once the girl is found, the Governess loses it and demands to know where Miss Jessel is. Upon saying this, the ghost appears – but only to the Governess. Flora denies having ever seen any ghost, and poor Mrs. Grose certainly can’t see the spirit. Flora turns against the Governess for good.
It’s decided that Flora and Mrs. Grose will leave Bly for London, where they will go to the children’s uncle (to whom the Governess has already written). Unfortunately, the Governess’s letter never got sent – it turns out that Miles stole it and burned it. Furthermore, we finally learn why Miles was asked to leave school, though we don’t get any details beyond the fact that he said “things” to the other boys; we’re not sure what the deal is with that.
In the midst of this confession, the ghost of Peter Quint appears one last time outside the window. The Governess cries out at him, and Miles attempts to see the ghost – but he’s disappeared. This seems like a triumph for the Governess…until she realizes that Miles has died in her arms.
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