Support the Monkey! Tell All your Friends and Teachers
On Christmas Eve in an old house a group of guests is trading ghost stories. A guest named Douglas recalls a story in which ghosts appear to two children- a story unsurpassed, he says, for ugliness, horror, and pain. The others press him to continue, but Douglas explains that he doesn't know the story by heart. It is a personal account written by his family's governess and given to him before her death twenty years ago. At the insistence of the other guests, Douglas sends to London for the manuscript. As the group awaits its arrival, Douglas furnishes background material for the tale.
In making the houseguests wait to hear the story, James introduces the element of suspense early in his tale.
NOTE: James refers to several locations in England that may be unfamiliar to you. Harley Street, where the young bachelor lives, is a residential area in London that was fashionable at the time this story was written. It was often called Physician's Row, because many doctors had offices there. The governess is from Hampshire, a county southwest of London in southern England. Essex, where the bachelor's country estate is located, is a county northeast of London, also in southern England.
The young woman was twenty when she left the house of her father, a poor country vicar (parson), and went to London to look for work. She answered an ad for a governess, placed by a handsome, charming, young bachelor who had suddenly found himself the guardian of his niece and nephew. Unwilling to keep the children with him, the bachelor had sent them to live at his country estate, called Bly, to be cared for by a household staff and a governess. This governess had recently passed away, and it was this position he hoped the young woman would fill. She would be in complete charge, he promised. He would ask nothing but that she handle everything herself. She was never, under any circumstances, to bother him about the children. Do you find this an unusual request? Why wouldn't the governess question her prospective employer's demand?
The young woman had many reservations about a life that promised little but responsibility. But the uncle's charm won out and the young woman accepted the position. When he held her hand in gratitude, she felt rewarded. But she never saw him again.
Some of the listeners question Douglas about his relationship with the woman and wonder if there was something between them. Douglas explains that his sister's governess was ten years older than he, and that he simply spent time with her while home from college for the summer. Still, the question of Douglas's judgment has been raised. Is he an unbiased judge of the governess' character? She must have liked him, because she told her story to him alone.
NOTE: As the guests retire for the evening, James uses two unusual words to describe their actions: "...we handshook and 'candlestuck,' as somebody said, and went to bed." Handshook means to shake hands. Candlestuck means to set a candle on a candlestick. In the days before electricity, it was necessary to carry candles in order to see in the hallways of a darkened house.
The manuscript arrives. The next night, Douglas begins to read aloud.
The tale from now on is Douglas's reading of the manuscript the governess wrote years ago. It is told in the first person from her point of view. Douglas and the other houseguests no longer figure in the tale.
The first few days bring a series of emotional ups and downs for the young woman. Has she made a mistake in accepting the position? The nagging doubts travel with her on the bumpy road toward Bly. She had imagined the estate to be a dreary place, but beyond an expanse of lawn, trees, and flowers is a large house with open windows and fresh curtains, with two maids peering out. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, is a "stout simple plain clean wholesome" woman who treats her as a distinguished visitor and seems very happy for the company. Flora- the younger of the two pupils- is the most beautiful child the governess has ever seen.
During her first night at Bly, the governess gets up several times to look around her new room and to listen to the unfamiliar sounds of the house. At one point, she thinks she hears a child crying in the distance. At another, she has the feeling that someone has just passed her bedroom door. Is insomnia beginning to influence her perceptions? This is the only night that she will spend alone. In undertaking the "whole care" of little Flora, the governess has arranged for the girl's bed to be set up near hers.
Her admiration for the little girl does not escape the notice of Mrs. Grose. The little boy, Mrs. Grose promises, is also very remarkable. If the governess likes Flora, then she will be "carried away" by her brother, Miles, who will return from school in a few days. The governess admits to being easily carried away, and confides she was carried away in London. Mrs. Grose guesses that it was their attractive employer who caught her fancy. Keep the young woman's attraction for her employer in mind, for it provides important motivation for her actions throughout the story.
In just a few days, her life has changed considerably, and the change is overwhelming. Her new responsibilities both scare her and make her feel proud. Her first duty, she reasons, is to get to know Flora and to win her over. As they tour the house together, Flora is courageous and confident on staircases and towers that make the governess dizzy. The little girl seems like a "rosy sprite" inhabiting a romantic castle, and her governess is enchanted. But as Flora shows her governess the house "secret by secret," does she perhaps mention something about the valet or the governess who were at Bly before this new governess? Readers who feel that the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel do not exist believe that Flora may have provided details that may have helped in their fabrication.
Is Bly a storybook over which the governess has fallen asleep and is dreaming? No, she thinks, it is only a big, ugly old house, and its inhabitants are almost as lost as passengers on a drifting ship. It occurs to the young woman that she is, strangely, at the helm- that she has been given the great responsibility of steering the ship safely.
Mail from the governess's employer the next day contains an unopened letter from the headmaster of Miles's school and the instructions: "Read him please, deal with him; but mind you don't report. Not a word. I'm off!" Before going to bed, the governess opens the letter to find the shocking news that Miles has been expelled from school. Wishing she had not opened the letter until she could share it with Mrs. Grose, the governess spends yet another sleepless night.
This is a traumatic episode for the governess. Already exhausted from several sleepless nights, she receives one letter from her employer reiterating his wish never to hear from her, and another complicating her job considerably. Her hopes of romance with the handsome bachelor are dashed. At the same time, the character of the young boy she has never met is now shrouded in mystery.
Conversations with Mrs. Grose shed little light on the matter. The housekeeper is evasive in answering questions about Miles, and her evasiveness introduces an element of ambiguity into the tale. She admits that Miles has been naughty at times, but never bad. And she mocks the idea that Miles might be a corrupting influence on the governess, or on anyone.
Even though the governess laughs with Mrs. Grose at the idea that Miles could be a corrupting force, notice that she has introduced the subject of corruption, of the evil influence one person can exercise over another. Is this a foreshadowing of actual events to come, or is it more an indication of the governess's unhealthy obsession with evil?
Mrs. Grose describes the former governess, Miss Jessel, as young and pretty, and the young woman remarks, "He seems to like us young and pretty!" Mrs. Grose answers, "Oh he did, it was the way he liked every one!" adding quickly in explanation, "I mean that's his way- the master's." The change of tense and immediate attempt at clarification do not escape the young woman's notice. She has the distinct impression that Mrs. Grose referred to someone other than their employer in her first remark, and tried to cover this up in her second. But when Mrs. Grose wonders innocently who else she could mean, the answer is "so obviously no one else" that the governess forgets her suspicion that Mrs. Grose has said more than she meant to. Still, you're probably wondering if Mrs. Grose is trying to hide something or if the governess is so high-strung and suspicious that she searches for evil where none exists.
Mrs. Grose explains that around the time Miss Jessel was expected to return to Bly after a short vacation, word came that she was dead. Claiming not to know the cause of Miss Jessel's death, the housekeeper asks to be excused so she can return to her work. Here again her seemingly evasive attitude makes you wonder.
When the governess meets Miles, she is more bewildered than ever about his dismissal from school. The boy is "incredibly beautiful" and seems as pure and innocent as his little sister. The governess decides not to answer the headmaster's letter, and to say nothing to the school, to her employer, or even to the boy himself. Do you find that a reasonable reaction? Or is it the reaction of a woman overly anxious to prove her authority to herself and others? In her ignorance and confusion, she thinks she can deal with Miles's entire education when- in many ways- this unsophisticated young woman has as much to learn as the children. In her speculations about what the future might hold for the children, James foreshadows the trouble to come.
NOTE: Both children are described in language that stresses their unearthly beauty. Earlier, Flora was compared in her serenity to "one of Raphael's holy infants." Raphael (1483-1520) was an Italian Renaissance painter of religious works. Flora has also been described as "beatific," an adjective that is closely related to the religious term beatify, which means "to declare blessed." (Beatification is the first step to sainthood.) Here Miles, too, is characterized as possessing a "divine" quality. Does James mean to establish the children as genuine innocents and use their beauty simply as a contrast to the horror that will soon surround them? Or is he aiming at something larger- the duality of the children's natures? Physical beauty is often contrasted with inner corruption in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a writer James admired.
During her first few weeks at Bly, the governess often finds herself with a free hour in the evening and spends that hour walking on the grounds in the lingering light. Her enjoyment of the estate could not be greater if she owned Bly herself. Her walks afford her a chance to think about her new position and about how- by doing her job so well- she is pleasing her employer. She sometimes fantasizes that she will suddenly meet him, smiling at her in approval, at a turn in the path. While walking one evening with his handsome face in mind, she is startled by the figure of a man on the tower Flora had shown her on her first day at Bly. At first glance she thinks the man is her employer. A second later, she realizes he is not. The sounds of evening are stilled as she confronts the stranger. Neither says a word.
During an experience like this, it is impossible to tell how much time is passing. The encounter lasts long enough for the young woman to consider a dozen possible identities for the figure and to wonder if there could be someone she doesn't know living at Bly. It lasts long enough, too, for the figure to study her in the same way she studies him. Without taking his eyes off her, the man changes his position on the platform, turns, and is gone.
Because this is the first time the governess sees one of the figures who represent the evil at the heart of The Turn of the Screw, you'll want to pay particular attention to this scene. As you read and reread it, try to decide whether you can trust what the governess is telling you.
Is it significant that the governess first sees the apparition while fantasizing about her employer and wishing she could see him? Could the young woman's infatuation with her employer evoke an apparition of a man who looks a great deal like him? Is the figure real, or the product of the governess's imaginings?
As the governess ponders what she saw, she wonders if there is "a 'secret' at Bly- a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement."
NOTE: In this sentence, James refers to two books whose central situations are not unlike the one now confronting the governess. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe is a ghost story published in 1794 in which the heroine is abducted and confined in an isolated castle in the Apennine mountains of Italy. The remark about a relative kept in confinement refers to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, a novel published in 1847 in which a governess is the heroine, and her employer's insane wife is secretly confined in another wing of the house.
In her agitation, the governess circles the house again and again until she has walked several miles. When she enters the house and encounters Mrs. Grose, her instinct is to spare the housekeeper. Using her wet feet as an excuse, she goes to her room. There is simply no accounting for the man she has seen. After questioning the household staff, she feels confident that the apparition was not a practical joke played by them. This leaves only one other possibility: an intruder- possibly a harmless lover of old houses- has been among them at Bly.
Letters from her family bring only troubling news of problems at home, and offer little relief from the anxiety she feels. The best distraction is her work with Miles and Flora, who are a source of constant joy and discovery. But there is one area in which she makes no discovery whatsoever; the matter of Miles's dismissal from school. He never mentions the place nor any of his teachers or friends, and he seems too innocent to have committed any wrong.
NOTE: This passage contains a few expressions that are probably unfamiliar to you. In qualifying Miles's gentleness, the governess uses the word "muff," British slang for "sissy." In her remark about cherubs who had "nothing to whack," she compares the children to angels who are too physically insubstantial to be spanked. It's a flattering comparison- or is it? Do you think it makes the children sound too good to be real?
While dressing for church one afternoon, the governess retrieves a pair of gloves from the dining room. In the waning afternoon light, she is just able to see the gloves on a chair. As she bends to pick them up, she is confronted by an unexpected sight- the face of a man in the dining room window. It is the same man she saw on the tower. His stare is as deep and hard as at their first meeting, but this time it wanders and fixes on other things around the room. The governess is gripped by horror. She senses that the man has come not for her, but for someone else.
She reacts with a selflessness often cited as reason enough to trust and accept her version of the story. Compelled by courage and a sense of duty, she runs out the door and around to where she saw the intruder. The man has vanished. As the governess stands where he stood, she sees the entire scene as he had. Coincidentally, Mrs. Grose enters the dining room at that moment. When she spots the face in the window, her reaction is the same as the younger woman's had been. The governess wonders why Mrs. Grose looks so frightened.
The governess now needs the housekeeper's support. She reports to Mrs. Grose her sighting of an "extraordinary man" at the old tower and again at the dining room window. He is no one from the house or the village. He is a horror, she says. As she describes his long pale face, sharp eyes, thin lips, red, close-curling hair, arched eyebrows, and little red whiskers, Mrs. Grose's eyes widen in recognition.
The man is Peter Quint, their employer's personal servant who lived at Bly when their employer did. When their employer returned to London, Quint remained, in charge of the estate. Then, "He went too," explains Mrs. Grose. When the governess wonders aloud where Mr. Quint went, Mrs. Grose answers, "God knows where! He died." The governess almost shrieks in terror. "Yes," Mrs. Grose reports, "Mr. Quint's dead."
NOTE: This section is often referred to as the "identification scene," for it is here that the man's identity is established as Peter Quint. It is almost always to this scene that readers turn when trying to determine whether or not the ghosts really exist in the story. Those who say the governess really sees ghosts point out that Mrs. Grose recognizes the figure as Peter Quint and ask how the governess could furnish such a recognizable description of Quint if she were just imagining the man. Those who think the governess imagined the ghosts note her possible sources of information about Quint. Did Flora mention the valet as she showed the house to her governess "secret by secret"? Mrs. Grose certainly hinted at the existence of another man at Bly when talking about Miss Jessel. And after the sighting at the tower, the governess questioned the household staff and the villagers. She may have learned about Quint in those conversations. What do you think?
Mrs. Grose has not seen "the shadow of a shadow," but she accepts the young woman's story as the truth. The two vow to bear the burden of the knowledge together.
Readers who believe the ghosts to be products of the governess's troubled imagination point out that she seems to be leaping to conclusions here. She immediately assumes that the figure she saw is evil, and that it is after the children. Is her intuition correct, or is it more an indication of her overactive and unhealthy imagination? When she vows that if necessary she will shield the children by becoming a victim herself, is she showing true bravery? Or is she trying to make herself into a heroine, unconsciously hoping that she can make her absent employer fall in love with her?
How strange, the governess thinks, that the children haven't mentioned Quint! Flora may be too young to remember him, but Miles would. Mrs. Grose pleads with the governess not to mention Quint to Miles. The two spent a great deal of time together at Quint's insistence, and "Quint was much too free," she adds. "Too free with everyone!" What does this mean? James never spells it out, leaving you to imagine the worst. But some kind of sexual misconduct seems hinted. Mrs. Grose never informed their employer that Quint was "definitely and admittedly bad." After all, he had instructed his employees not to bother him. And she was afraid of what Quint might do. The children were in his charge, not hers. Besides, Quint's stay at Bly ended soon enough. He was found dead one morning on the road from the village. It seems he had taken the wrong path on his way home from the tavern, and he had slipped on an icy hill and hit his head.
The governess is haunted by the sense that Mrs. Grose is keeping something back. Is she right, or is this just more evidence of her high-strung and suspicious nature? In any event, she takes a certain amount of joy in the heroism the circumstances demand of her. The children have only her to protect them. She imagines how impressed her employer will be that she has succeeded where another young woman might fail.
One afternoon, while Miles is reading, the governess takes Flora onto the grounds. Flora, quite happy to amuse herself, plays at the edge of the pond while her governess sews.
NOTE: The children's imaginations are fueled by recent lessons in the schoolroom. In Flora's game on the grounds this afternoon, the pond represents the Sea of Azof (Azov), an arm of the Black Sea about which she is learning in geography.
Suddenly, the governess senses someone watching them, and from the corner of her eye can make out a figure across the pond. It could be one of the caretakers or the mailman, but the governess feels that she knows the identity of the spectator without ever looking up to see who it is. Who do you think it is? And do you trust the governess's positive identification?
The governess turns her eyes to Flora, and her heart stands still as she wonders if she, too, will see the figure. The child shows no sign of fear or interest. In fact, she almost seems to be purposely turning her back to the figure as she intently makes a boat and mast out of two pieces of wood.
NOTE: The Freudian reading of this story emphasizes the sexual imagery in this section. Peter Quint, the male ghost, appeared first on a tower- a phallic symbol. Miss Jessel now appears over a feminine symbol- a body of water. And what could be more sexual than Flora's toys: a flat piece of wood with a hole in it, and another that she sticks into the hole? Those who believe in a Freudian interpretation of the story feel that James uses sexual imagery to show that the specters the governess sees are not real but come instead from her repressed sexuality.
The governess confides to Mrs. Grose her suspicion that Flora saw the figure across the pond, then tried to conceal that fact from her. Mrs. Grose wonders how she can know since Flora hasn't said a word about it. Notice that- except for the word of the governess- there is no evidence that Flora has seen the ghost. Do you believe the governess? Do you think Mrs. Grose believes her? The governess tell you that the housekeeper is horrified to learn that the apparition was a woman- a pale, beautiful woman dressed in black. The governess feels sure that Flora knows the woman, and that Mrs. Grose must, too. She is certain that the woman is Miss Jessel, the governess at Bly before her.
You'll want to take a close look at this second identification scene. It is considerably different from the first. There, the governess's description of the man was quite detailed, and it was Mrs. Grose who first linked the ghostly figure with Peter Quint. This time, the description is vague. Pallor and a black dress are hardly traits peculiar to any one person. Nor does Mrs. Grose recognize Miss Jessel from the young woman's description. It is the governess who names the figure. It is she, not Mrs. Grose, who claims it is Miss Jessel returned from the dead.
Mrs. Grose wonders how the governess- who never knew Miss Jessel- can be sure. And why was Flora not upset by seeing the woman? Could this be proof of her innocence? The governess concurs that it must be, for the woman, shabbily dressed in mourning clothes, is a horror who stared at Flora with fury and determination- as if she wanted to get hold of the little girl.
Though beautiful, the figure looked infamous (like a person of bad reputation). Mrs. Grose confirms this, saying, "They were both infamous." When Mrs. Grose seems reluctant to tell the story, the governess guesses that there was something between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. She is overwhelmed by a sense of defeat in her effort to protect the children. What she imagines is too terrible. As she bursts into tears, she says, "It's far worse than I dreamed. They're lost."
What could have prompted Miss Jessel to leave Bly if not simply the vacation she had coming? What could have caused the death of so young a woman? Why would her ghost appear to the governess in mourning clothes? James never furnishes the answer, but leaves the question to be answered by each individual reader. What does the withholding of such information do to the story?
The governess's suspicions now take a new turn. It seems impossible to her that Flora didn't notice the figure of Miss Jessel. Indeed, it almost seems to her that Flora and the figure were in league with each other, with Flora so intently making her little toy boat that the governess was distracted from Miss Jessel. How long have the ghost and the child been communicating, the governess wonders. Are you wondering whether the governess's suspicions are well-founded, or whether they're a sign of her growing hysteria?
Still, the children continue to soothe her anxiety. When the governess is with Miles and Flora, everything ceases to exist but their beauty and their helplessness.
Miles has been a model child since he returned from school, and his governess asks if he was ever bad. Mrs. Grose can report nothing worse than his spending time with Quint. At the time, she mentioned the impropriety of their close relationship to Miss Jessel, but Miss Jessel told her to mind her own business. Then, when she mentioned it to Miles himself, he denied being with Quint on several occasions when she knew they had been together. He also denied that Quint was involved with Miss Jessel. The two women wonder to what degree the couple made Miles their accomplice in their evil relationship. When Miles was with Quint, they speculate, Flora was with Miss Jessel.
NOTE: In this scene, Mrs. Grose seems to confirm the governess's suspicions by admitting that something was not right in the relationship between Miles and Quint and Flora and Miss Jessel. As you read the dialogue between the two women, however, notice that like so much in The Turn of the Screw, it can be read in more than one way.
While Mrs. Grose still seems to believe in the innocence of the children, the governess sees everything in the worst possible light. Mrs. Grose says that Miles "prevaricated." The governess uses a much stronger word- she calls the boy a liar. Mrs. Grose may admit that something was wrong in the relationship between the boy and the servant. But the governess calls Quint not just a servant but a "base menial" and believes that the relationship was not merely wrong, but unspeakably awful. Mrs. Grose reminds the governess that Miles is usually an angelic little boy. But the governess says that Miles was a "fiend" at school. (Though as far as you know, she still doesn't have any information on the reasons for his being expelled.)
Is the governess heroically trying to persuade Mrs. Grose of the danger that surrounds them, or is she trying to spread her own hysterical fantasies? Readers who believe the latter say that James gives clues that the governess is not a good judge of the situation by having her speak of her own "dreadful boldness of mind," and by having her say that Mrs. Grose's suggestion that Miss Jessel corrupted Flora "Suited me too, I felt, only too well.
James deliberately leaves it to your imagination to guess what went on between the depraved couple and the children. He could say quite plainly what it was. But what would that do to the story? Instead, he suggests an unspeakable horror. By not supplying you with the information, he forces you to imagine the horrible scene for yourself. The images you conjure up are probably more terrible than any he could have supplied.
The governess tries not to betray her anxiety to the children, who go out of their way to please her. They read to her, tell her stories, act out scenes, and recite passages from memory. They seem so clever and charming that she completely forgets about arranging for Miles to attend a real school. They're also remarkably close, and they seem to work together. Sometimes, for example, when their governess herself becomes tiresome, one keeps her occupied so the other can slip away for a little while.
NOTE: Here is an example of foreshadowing. In describing the seemingly innocent spirit of cooperation between Miles and Flora, James prepares you for a less innocent scene in which Miles plays the piano for his governess while Flora slips away alone, purportedly to meet Miss Jessel.
While reading one night, the young woman has the impression that someone or something is moving through the house. She puts down her book and leaves her room. By the first light of morning, she sees a figure on the staircase landing, staring as he did from the tower and from the garden. The young woman faces him with equal intensity, and for an extraordinary moment she feels no fear. She is confident that if she can just stand her ground, he will disappear.
For that moment, the figure seems human. The only unnatural element is the dead silence of the long gaze that passes between the two. They stand frozen in this position for so long that the governess begins to wonder if she is still alive. As the figure turns on the stairs and disappears, the governess thinks that a hunchback could not look more deformed.
NOTE: The book the governess was reading before she was startled in this scene is Amelia by Henry Fielding (1707-1754), a novel published in 1751. The good and patient heroine of this novel has been suggested as an inspiration for the governess.
The governess returns to her room and finds Flora's bed empty. The terror she was able to resist in the ghost's presence now courses through her until Flora pops out from behind the window shade, asking where her governess has been. What has happened? The governess is convinced that Flora was trying to deceive her and that she too, saw the ghostly figure. But Flora claims she saw no one, and her calm, pleasant tone makes the governess's fears sound foolish. The girl behaves as if she has nothing to hide. Do you think she does?
NOTE: When the governess says that her questions disturb Flora no more than "Mrs. Marcet or nine-times-nine," she refers to questions she might pose to Flora about her schoolwork. Mrs. Marcet was Jane Marcet (1769-1858), a popular author of elementary school texts. "Nine- times-nine" refers to the multiplication tables Flora was expected to memorize.
Now the governess begins a nightly vigil, staying up in hopes she will again encounter Peter Quint. Indeed one night she spies a woman on the stairs with her head in her hands. The woman vanishes without ever looking up, but the governess is certain it was Miss Jessel. Another night, exhausted after two weeks of little sleep, the governess dozes off at a normal hour, but soon awakens. By the light of a match, she makes out Flora's figure behind the window shade. The child notices neither the light nor the sound of her governess dressing and leaving the room. The governess suspects that Flora is face-to-face with the ghost of Miss Jessel.
In a tower room with a view of the garden, the governess presses her face to the window. In the moonlight, she sees a figure on the lawn. But it is not the person she expected to see. The figure is Miles himself!
Does the governess see a woman on the stairs, or is it the hallucination of an exhausted mind? Is there any reason to believe that Flora is communicating with ghosts from her window and that Miles is communicating with them on the lawn? Or is this paranoia born of insomnia? You must decide this question for yourself.
The next day the governess goes to Mrs. Grose with her story. The housekeeper, she thinks, is a "magnificent monument to the blessing of a want of imagination." Mrs. Grose is full of common sense if not formal education (she can neither read nor write). For that reason, the governess is especially pleased that this stolid woman believes her story, even if Mrs. Grose has trouble imagining that the lovely, innocent-looking children could be in danger.
Mrs. Grose listens patiently as the governess relates her story of the previous night: Miles was silent as his governess led him inside, and she wondered if he were trying to formulate a plausible story. She felt a thrill of triumph at his embarrassment. But could she pretend to be ignorant any longer? Miles really "had" her. She had no choice but to ask him what he was doing outside. The boy answered simply that he wanted her to think him bad for a change. It was arranged ahead of time, he claimed. Flora was to get up and serve as his lookout. The governess fell into their trap.
Once again, you're faced with a choice. Was this as Miles claims, the childish prank of two usually well-behaved children? Or is it, as the governess believes, damning evidence that the children's very souls are in danger?
The governess is now sure that Miss Jessel, Flora, Peter Quint, and Miles meet regularly. It's a conspiracy. The children pretend to be reading when, in fact, they are talking of Quint and Miss Jessel. It's all a fraud- their "unearthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness." The children are not "good," they are simply "absent." They are possessed by Quint and Miss Jessel.
Mrs. Grose can't imagine what the infamous pair would want with the children. The dead return, the governess says, for the love of the evil they put into the children. Still, Mrs. Grose can't understand what the ghosts can do now. The ghosts can destroy the children, cries the young woman, and the children will perish unless the two of them can prevent it.
NOTE: Mrs. Grose serves as the kind of character often called the confidant in discussions of James's fiction- a character who serves as a sounding board for the ideas expressed by the central intelligence. You see her in that role here. Because Mrs. Grose has trouble following the younger woman's hints, the governess must spell out her theory. This gives you a chance to hear the governess's thoughts as well.
Mrs. Grose believes the uncle must be notified. The governess questions the wisdom of bothering a man who has asked only that he not be disturbed. Should she write and say his little niece and nephew are mad? What if she is the one who's mad? Her mind reels at the thought of asking the handsome bachelor to visit. She imagines his contempt for her failure, his scorn for her attempt to attract his attention to her "slighted charms." She makes her feelings very plain: Should Mrs. Grose appeal to their employer on her behalf, she will leave Bly at once.
NOTE: Readers who doubt the existence of the ghosts in the story often cite this passage in support of their argument. The governess's description of her own expression ("a queerer face than ever yet"), her fears of her employer's reaction, and her mention of her "slighted charms," are, these readers argue, evidence that the governess is suffering from delusions, perhaps caused by her repressed sexual desires for her employer.
The governess is unable to confront the children with what she knows, but she is sure that they are aware of her predicament. What remains unspoken and unnamed among them creates a kind of maze. Every conversation is a passageway that brings them face-to-face with what they are trying to avoid. Miles and Flora are always eager to hear about her life before Bly. Her past is the only subject with which the governess feels at ease, but talking about it makes the children's own silence more pronounced by comparison.
NOTE: Among the stories the governess repeats is "Goody Gosling's celebrated mot." Mot is French for word; in this context it can also mean remark. No one knows for sure what Goody Gosling's celebrated remark refers to. It may be a Mother Goose rhyme that Henry James recalled from his childhood.
Summer ends, and in the scattering of dead leaves Bly looks like "a theatre after the performance- all strewn with crumpled playbills." The governess expects to meet Quint around many corners, and often the time seems right for the appearance of Miss Jessel. But since sighting a woman on the stairs, the governess has seen nothing. There are times, even when she is with them, when she is sure the children have visitors. But she never sees the "outsiders."
In describing her feelings, the governess asks, "How can I retrace to-day the strange steps of my obsession?" Does hearing her refer to herself as "obsessed" tip the scales in favor of the interpretation that she is mad? Or is it a natural-enough response to the fear inspired by Quint and Miss Jessel?
Relief comes soon, the kind of relief "that a snap brings to a strain, or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation."
One Sunday morning, Miles and the governess are walking to church. By this time, she's so filled with tension and fear that she feels it necessary to keep the boy at her side at all times. Then Miles asks a question: when will he be returning to school? The governess stops short. In her mind, the matter of a new school for him is connected with his mysterious dismissal from the old school. And his dismissal, in turn, is somehow connected with the evil visited on him by Peter Quint. All at once, doubts that the governess had been trying to suppress come out in the open.
Miles says it isn't proper for a boy always to be with a lady, and he reminds her of how good he has been- except for that one night when he left the house. The governess tries to make him say more- something about Miss Jessel or about why he was out in the moonlight. Neither of them mentions a word about the ghosts, but the governess is convinced that "the whole thing" is "virtually out" between them anyway.
NOTE: Once again, you have a conversation that can be interpreted in two entirely different ways. If you believe in the story's ghosts, you'll probably agree with the governess that the "whole thing" of the ghosts is "virtually out" between them, and that Miles seems to be testing her. If you believe that the ghosts exist only in the governess's mind, it is she who seems to be reading something sinister into even the most innocent remarks. When Miles cries, "I want my own sort!" is he simply expressing a boy's natural desire to be with boys his own age? Or is he expressing a desire to be with other children- like his sister Flora, the governess suggests- who conspire with ghosts?
Miles wonders if his uncle knows the way he is "going on." (Notice the ambiguity of this phrase. Does it refer to his desire to return to school, or to his meetings with the devilish Quint?) When the governess says that his uncle probably doesn't much care, Miles wonders if he can somehow make his uncle visit Bly.
The young woman sits in the churchyard, reading into what Miles has said. She is embarrassed to go in to church late. Besides, it would be a sign to Miles that he had gotten something out of her. He now knows how afraid she is of dealing with his dismissal from school, and she worries that he may use this fear against her. She should clear up this mess about his schooling. She should welcome having the uncle come to Bly and handle the matter, but she cannot face "the ugliness and pain of it." All she wants is to get away, and here is her chance- now, while the entire staff of Bly is at church.
Retracing her steps, she meets no one. Back in the house, she sinks down on the foot of the stairs to decide the matter of transportation, but straightens up as she remembers that this is the exact position in which she last saw Miss Jessel.
As she rushes into the schoolroom to collect her things, the governess encounters a woman seated at the desk with her head in her hands. Unaware of her presence, the woman rises- "dishonoured and tragic"- before her. It is Miss Jessel, in all her "haggard beauty" and "unutterable woe." The governess feels for a moment that it is she who is the intruder, and is surprised to hear her own voice ringing through the empty house, crying, "You terrible miserable woman!"
A moment later, there is nothing in the schoolroom with her but the sunshine and the sense that she must stay.
Driven by her fear that Miles will expose her incompetence to his uncle, the young woman is preparing to leave Bly. In so doing, she would abandon the children and Mrs. Grose to the horror she suspects there. By deciding to stay, is the governess heroically conquering her fears in order to do battle with evil? Or has she, in a time of emotional crisis, suffered another hallucination?
When Mrs. Grose returns from church, the governess explains her absence, saying she came back to the house for a talk with Miss Jessel. Miss Jessel, the governess reports, spoke to her, saying that she suffers "the torments-!" The two women try to make sense of the remark. The governess believes that Miss Jessel's remark means she wants Flora so the child can share the torments of the lost.
In the previous chapter you witnessed the scene between the governess and the ghost, and you know that the governess reported no such remark. You know also that the governess didn't go back to the house to meet Miss Jessel, but rather to pack her bags and leave. Why then is she lying to Mrs. Grose now? Is she engaging in a harmless exaggeration in order to convince Mrs. Grose of the danger of their situation? Or are the lies evidence that the ghosts exist only in her mind?
The young woman has decided to send for the children's uncle. She will show Miles that she isn't afraid. She will show his uncle the letter from the school, and say she can do nothing on behalf of a child expelled for wickedness. She believes that Miles is wicked, and she blames his uncle for leaving the boy in Peter Quint's charge. Mrs. Grose wrestles with her own guilt for not having mentioned the trouble with Quint to the uncle earlier. The two women wonder how to present their story. They decide that the governess should write.
That evening, when the governess pauses at the door to Miles's room, he calls to her to come in. The boy is a model of grace and sociability, and there is no evidence of any trouble between them. The matter of school is still troubling him. It isn't that he dislikes Bly- he just wants to get away. His governess starts to explain that he can't return to his old school, but Miles claims he doesn't want to go back there. She asks if there is anything he wants to tell her. All he wants, he says, is for her to leave him alone.
She tells him she is writing to his uncle, and Miles urges her to finish the letter. He begs her to get his uncle to Bly and tell him everything. Boldly, she asks what happened at his school. In his echo, "What happened?" the governess thinks she hears a "small faint quaver of consenting consciousness." But does Miles say anything to indicate his guilt? Or have her months of worry about his dismissal led the governess to invent something like an admission here? She drops to her knees and begs him to help her in her effort to save him.
In answer, a gust of cold air shakes the room. Miles shrieks, but is it a shriek of terror or one of jubilation? In spite of the darkness, the governess can see that the curtains are still drawn, that the window is still closed. She cries that her candle is out. Miles answers that it was he who blew it out.
NOTE: One of the first critics to suggest that the ghosts exist only in the governess's mind has suggested that a good way to understand The Turn of the Screw is to imagine its scenes as they would be experienced by normal children. Here, he says, is a ten-year-old boy whose governess barges into his room, asking him questions in a strange tone of voice, throwing herself upon him, then begging him to let her save him. Is it any wonder, he asks, that the boy might shriek in fright?
Do you agree with this approach, or do you think the boy's shriek indicates the evil that surrounds him? When Miles blows out the candle, is it the normal act of a boy about to go to bed, or the evil act of a boy in love with darkness?
The governess has written her letter to the children's uncle, but she hasn't mailed it. Meanwhile, Miles and Flora seem to be trying to calm her. They perform their lessons brilliantly. Miles in particular seems so bright and handsome that she has to fight against doubting her previous judgment of him: she "aches" for proof that evil in Miles "could ever have flowered into an act."
One afternoon, Miles plays the piano for the governess, and plays as he never has before.
NOTE: The young woman says, "David playing to Saul could not have shown a finer sense of the occasion." This refers to I Samuel, xvi 14-23 in the Old Testament. In the biblical story, King Saul- possessed by an evil spirit- sends for the young David. As the youth plays on his harp, the evil spirit leaves the king. Here the governess is likened to Saul, and Miles to David. While Miles plays the piano, the governess forgets the matters that have been troubling her. In a sense, the "evil spirit" leaves her while he is playing.
The governess starts up. Did she doze off under the influence of the music? No, she has done something much worse: she has forgotten about Flora. Miles claims not to know where she is. Mrs. Grose and the governess vow not to panic, but when there is no sign of her, they cannot suppress their alarm. The governess suspects that Flora has gone to meet Miss Jessel while Miles, she says, must be in the schoolroom with Quint. His piano playing was a distraction so "they" could work their plan. Telling Mrs. Grose not to worry, she takes her letter to their employer from her pocket and leaves it on the hall table for a servant to carry to the village.
The governess and Mrs. Grose head for the lake, where Miss Jessel first appeared. The governess is sure that Miles managed for Flora to return there alone. When Mrs. Grose asks if the children actually talk about Miss Jessel and Quint, the governess replies with assurance that "They say things that, if we heard them, would simply appal us." She promises that Miss Jessel will be with Flora.
The governess does not give up, even when they come within sight of the lake and find no trace of Flora. She believes that Flora has taken the boat, then hidden it in a clump of trees on the opposite shore. Mrs. Grose wonders how a small child could accomplish this alone, and the young woman reminds her that Flora is not alone. "At such times," she adds, "she's not a child: she's an old, old woman."
NOTE: This image of Flora, transfigured by the spirit of the dead, stands in marked contrast to descriptions of her as a beautiful child, and graphically illustrates the other side of the child's dual nature, as seen by the governess. The image is reminiscent of the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and illustrates his influence on the work of Henry James.
Both women spot Flora at the same moment. She smiles as they approach her with solemnity, and asks gaily where Miles is. The question strikes the governess like the "glitter of a drawn blade, the jostle of the cup" that the governess had "held high and full to the brim and that now, even before speaking," she "felt overflow in a deluge."
"Where, my pet," the governess asks in turn, "is Miss Jessel?"
NOTE: Once again, readers who believe that the governess is mad find it useful to imagine this scene from a normal child's point of view. A little girl has gone off happily to play by herself. Suddenly she's confronted by her governess, greatly upset, who asks her if she has seen a woman that everyone knows to be dead. What would your reaction be in such a situation?
As the governess utters the dead woman's name, she sees Miss Jessel appear on the opposite shore. Here at last is proof of her sanity. In an extraordinary moment she throws out to the ghost "an inarticulate message of gratitude." Once again, it is interesting to note that a ghost appears to the governess at a moment of crisis: when she loses Flora and then finally mentions the dead governess's name to the little girl. What might this suggest about the ghosts?
The governess screams that Miss Jessel is there, but Flora only stares at her. Mrs. Grose blinks at where the young woman is pointing, and wonders, "where on earth do you see anything?" The governess is devastated. Mrs. Grose would back her up if at all possible. Flora protests against the cruelty of her governess, and begs to be taken away. The governess feels stunned and bitter. Of course she has lost Flora- she has interfered with Miss Jessel's plans.
Weeping, the young woman falls to the ground. The next quarter hour is a blur. Back at the house, she sees neither Flora nor Mrs. Grose, and discovers that Flora's things have been moved into Mrs. Grose's room. Miles comes and sits with her in absolute silence, and she has the feeling that he wants to be with her.
Notice how carefully James has balanced the scales in this scene, so that you continue to be unsure of what the governess did or did not see. At first, the governess's description of Miss Jessel is so vivid that it provides to her (and to you) final confirmation that the ghost is real. But when Mrs. Grose cannot see the phantom, you and the governess both begin to suffer doubts.
Later, the governess is awakened by Mrs. Grose. Flora is running a fever. She is raving against her governess, and still claims not to have seen Miss Jessel. But her language is so shocking that Mrs. Grose can't imagine where Flora could have picked it up- unless from the evil ghost. In spite of her inability to see Miss Jessel the day before, the housekeeper now believes in the ghosts and their doings. The governess feels a surge of joy. She urges Mrs. Grose to take Flora to her uncle, away from the influence of Quint and Miss Jessel. She thinks Miles wants to say something to her, and she needs time to win him over before she faces her employer.
Mrs. Grose resolves to leave that morning, and the governess warns that her letter will have arrived ahead of Mrs. Grose, alerting Flora's uncle to the problems at Bly. The servants never saw the letter, replies Mrs. Grose, and the only explanation is that Miles must have taken it. Could it be that Miles stole letters at school? The governess is determined to make Miles confess.
The letter, she assures Mrs. Grose, contained nothing more than a request for an interview. This may seem strange to you. After all, didn't the governess promise that this letter would save them all? Even at this late date, is she still so afraid of her employer's disapproval that she can only write to request an interview- not explain a terrible emergency? Is this another example of the young woman's unreliability? Does it influence your impression of her in any way?
Once Flora and Mrs. Grose leave, the relationship between Miles and his governess changes. She no longer pretends she has anything to teach him, and he is free to do what he pleases. The governess tries shutting her eyes to the fact that what she has to deal with is, "revoltingly, against nature," and tries to pretend that her ordeal requires "only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue."
At dinner, Miles asks if Flora is very ill, and wonders if Bly did not agree with her suddenly. His governess explains that it had been building for a while. While the maid clears the table, neither of them speaks. The governess thinks their silence is like that of a young couple at an inn on their wedding night, who feel shy in the presence of a waiter. When the maid leaves them, Miles turns to his governess and says, "Well- so we're alone!" The image of the bashful bride and groom on their wedding night can be seen as evidence of an unhealthy attraction on the part of the governess for her young charge, whom she often calls "my boy."
"Of course we've the others," Miles adds. Is he simply referring to members of the household staff at Bly? His governess concurs, but which "others" do you suppose she means? Even a slight misperception such as this can result in a great misunderstanding. If the governess thinks Miles is referring to the ghosts, then she not only has a confirmation of her own suspicions, but an admission from Miles that he is involved as well.
Miles stands with his forehead against the window, seeming shut in or out, uncomfortable and anxious. In his free time today he has seen more of Bly than ever before. His governess asks if he likes his freedom, and he wonders in turn if she likes hers. Miles is surprised to hear it is his company that she enjoys and that now keeps her on at Bly. His governess reminds him of her pledge to help him. He remembers that she wanted him to tell her something. Is that what she is still waiting for? It is, she answers. Why doesn't he- here and now- make a clean breast of it?
Miles seems afraid. Is it significant that he is now fearful of her? He promises to tell her everything, but not now. He turns to the window as if there were someone outside to be reckoned with. He must see one of the servants. But his governess wants just a fraction of the story before he goes. Did he take her letter from the hall table?
When she sees the face of Peter Quint appear at the window, the governess struggles to keep Miles unaware. As she shields the boy from the apparition, her heroism takes on missionary zeal. It is, thinks this vicar's daughter, "like fighting for a human soul."
Miles's face is as white as the face in the window. His voice sounds far away as he admits to having taken the letter. Quint wheels at the window like "a baffled beast." Miles took the letter, opened it, and read it. He wanted to see what she had said about him. At the window there is now nothing at all. Miles found nothing in the letter.
The governess asks if this is what he did at school, and Miles is amazed that she knows about his dismissal. He answers with difficulty that he did not steal, but he "said things." Use of bad language may hardly seem like grounds for dismissal, but Miles assures her that it was enough. Both Flora and Miles have picked up language that Mrs. Grose and the schoolmasters find shocking. Is this what they learned from Quint and Miss Jessel? The whole matter becomes less and less clear. The young woman is gripped with alarm as she wonders if Miles might be innocent. For, if he is innocent, what does that make her? When she asks bluntly what he said, Miles starts moving away, but the governess springs straight at him. For there, at the window, the white face has reappeared. "No more, no more, no more!" she screams at the ghost as she presses Miles against her.
Miles grows wild with fear. In a panting voice he asks if "she" is there. He has clearly spoken with Flora since the incident at the lake and has heard of the sighting of Miss Jessel's ghost. His governess answers that the horror is not Miss Jessel. In a bewildered rage, Miles searches the room. "It's he?" he asks. Certain that he means Peter Quint, the governess is determined to have her proof. "Whom do you mean by 'he'?" she asks. Convulsing, Miles screams, "Peter Quint- you devil! Where?" At the window Miles sees nothing but the quiet day. He utters a cry like "the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss," and his governess catches him, and holds him. The ghost of Peter Quint is gone. And Miles's heart has stopped.
NOTE: When Miles says, "Peter Quint- you devil," was he addressing the ghost or his governess? Did the ghost's departure stop Miles's heart? Or did his governess scare him to death?
Whichever interpretation you choose, the important themes remain the same. One is ambiguity: what is real? Another is evil: whether evil exists externally (in the shape of actual ghosts) or internally (in the obsessions of a deranged mind), it is always with us. That sense of evil remains at the end of The Turn of the Screw, one of the greatest tales of the supernatural in all literature.
[Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1986 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.