The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-20

Chapter XVII


Sitting in her room as a storm rages outside that night, the governess sits in her room trying to a begin a letter to employer. With nothing yet written, she goes and listens outside Miles's door to see if he is awake. He calls for her to come in, saying he could hear her out in the hallway.

Inside the room, Miles tells the governess that he lies awake and thinks - about her, he says, when she asks, about the way she is raising him "and all the rest." The governess tells him that if he wishes, he can go back to school, but that it will be another school. She mentions that he has not once spoken about his school or anyone there since coming home, and when Miles expresses surprise that he has not mentioned it, she believes that the hand of Peter Quint is involved.

The governess says that she thought he was happy, living only in the present at Bly, but he says he wants to get away. He likes Bly but he wants his uncle to come down and settle everything with the governess. The governess asks what he will have to tell his uncle that he has kept from her, since the uncle cannot send him back to his old school. Miles insists he wants a new school.

The governess is struck by Miles's "unnatural childish tragedy" and hugs and kisses him, asking if there is anything he wants to tell her. He repeats that he wants her to let him alone, and she is afraid that means abandoning him. She tells him she has begun a letter to his uncle and asks the boy what happened "before." He asks in reply "what happened?" and she is brought to her knees, proclaiming that she wants to help save him. Suddenly, a chill hits the room, though the window remains closed, the candle goes out, and Miles shrieks. He then says that he blew the candle out.


Again, the governess's unnatural desire to possess and control the children herself becomes evident. Despite Miles's pleas to be "let alone," the governess cannot control her need to hug and kiss him. Her proclamation that she would die for him and wants to save him is described as "seiz[ing] once more the chance of possessing him." Her actions, listening outside his door at night, have a decidedly obsessive bent, and indeed, she even calls her need to do so part of her "endless obsession."

The governess believes that the children's actions are controlled by the ghosts, but throughout this chapter, she describes her own actions as if they were not under her control. She is "impelled" to listen at Miles's door. She is "overwhelmed" and "let[s] [her]self go" when she embraces him. And even though she knows "even now [she] should go to far" by saying she wants to save him, she speaks the words anyway. The blast of cold air comes into the room not in response to any of Miles's words or actions but instead after the governess knowingly crosses a line and speaks the unspeakable.

This conversation, like many others, is couched in ambiguous terms. If the governess is mistaken about just what Miles knows, her error may be the result of one particular assumption she states here. "It was extraordinary how my absolute conviction of his secret precocityŠmade him, in spite of the faint breath of his inward trouble, appear as accessible as an older person, forced me to treat him as an intelligent equal." Bereft of adult companionship - for she has already expressed her disdain for Mrs. Groses's intellect and her servant status - and particularly male adult companionship, the governess has made Miles into a substitute for his uncle. If the governess is simply projecting her need for adult contact onto Miles, then his confusion when asked about what happened "before" and his failure to speak of school may not be deliberate obfuscation but simply may be the inability of a ten-year-old boy to understand the governess's questions.

In this case, Miles desire to be "let alone" and to leave Bly, even though he likes it, has a logical, earthly explanation. He is afraid of the governess and her unpredictable behavior. He certainly appears sincere in his desire to bring his uncle to Bly, as he emphasizes by urging the governess to finish her letter, and any actions the governess sees as "wicked" on his part may simply be the only way a little boy knows how to attract the attention of a neglectful guardian. Some critics suggest that James wrote this novel in order to criticize Victorian modes of parenting - in which rich parents often left the entire upbringing of their children to servants. Through the uncle's neglect of his charges, the governess's irresponsible behavior, and the inevitable outcome, James offers a worst-case scenario which demands greater parental involvement.

Chapter XVIII


The next day, the governess tells Mrs. Grose that she has written, even though she has not yet actually mailed the letter. She has spent the morning teaching the children, who performed brilliantly at their lessons. She finds Miles to be extraordinary, and she wishes for proof of his wrongdoing at school.

After the noontime meal, he the governess if he can play the piano for her, and she takes this request to mean that he does not really want to leave her and go away to school but just argued to prove the point. The governess is so distracted by his piano playing that she loses all track of time. When he finishes, she suddenly wonders where Flora has been.

Looking for Flora, the governess first goes to Mrs. Grose's room, but the child is not there with the housekeeper. This is the first time the governess has let Flora out of her sight in a long time, and the two women question the maids as to Flora's whereabouts.

Mrs. Grose wants next to search other rooms in the house, but the governess expresses her certainty that Flora is outside. Mrs. Grose points out that she didn't take a hat, and the governess says that Miss Jessel never wore one. She believes Flora is with Miss Jessel and that Miles is with Quint in the schoolroom. Miles's piano-playing was part of a plan to distract the governess while Flora goes to Miss Jessel and giving Miles a chance to see Quint while the governess searches for Flora.

The governess decides that she will go look for Flora, saying she doesn't mind anymore leaving Miles with Flint. She leaves the letter on the table for the servant Luke to take to be mailed. When Mrs. Grose wants to get a coat and hat before going out into the damp weather, the governess tells her to stay and check the schoolroom instead. Afraid of being left with Miles and Quint, the housekeeper agrees to go with the governess after Flora.


The governess's ambivalence towards Miles is in full force in this chapter. She switches instantaneously from seeing him as good to seeing him as evil. His excellence in the schoolroom and his talent at the piano lead her to imagine a reconciliation, while her discovery that he is tricked her make her conclude not that he is simply naughty or mischievous but that he is evil. Indeed, the governess's changing intentions toward Miles - in the last chapter to possess and save him, and in this chapter, to abandon him to Quint when she believes he has betrayed her - suggest that she is indeed a neurotic.

Some critics suggest that the governess's torment stems from her need to view the children as all good or all evil. This is why she cannot imagine a lesser "naughty" act that might have gotten Miles expelled from school but instead assumes he must have done something "wicked." This mindset is explained, in part, by our knowledge that she is the sheltered daughter of a country parson and was therefore raised in a home of extreme Victorian religious morality in which all sin, no matter how small, might have been considered dangerous or evil.

Much of the governess's fear stems, of course, from her belief that the ghosts seek to make the children emulate them and their wicked behavior. It is interesting to note, then, that the act of emulation that leads her to believe Flora is with Miss Jessel is not an act of evil at all - at most it is an act of foolishness. Flora has left the house without a hat and from that, the governess has "made up [her] mind" that she is with the ghost. We must note, also, that the governess continues her unintentional habit of emulating Miss Jessel - as she did by sitting on the stairs - by leaving the house, herself, without wearing a hat.

The attitude of extreme calm the governess describes taking in this chapter suggests the extreme mental effects her situation has taken upon her psyche. Similarly, her strange cheerfulness in suggesting that Miles in the schoolroom with Quint shows she is nearing her breaking point.

The governess's actions concerning the letter must make the reader wonder if she ever planned to send it. She makes Mrs. Grose believe the letter has already been sent when it has not, and she then nearly convinces herself that Miles's piano playing means their situation has been resolved. Only when Mrs. Grose finally mentions the letter again does the governess leaves this important letter on the table for a servant to mail, rather than take care of it herself.

Chapter XIX


The governess and housekeeper go straight to the lake, and the governess tells Mrs. Grose that she believes the child is in the place where she pretended not to see Miss Jessel. She believes that the children talk of the ghosts when they are alone and say terrible things.

When they reach the lake, Flora is nowhere to be seen, and the boat is gone. Mrs. Grose wonders how the child could have taken it alone, but the governess reminds her that she has Miss Jessel with her and that at such times she's as clever as an "old, old woman." They spot the boat across the lake and walk around the banks to the spot.

The women spot Flora, who picks a withered fern and holds it out to them. Mrs. Grose breaks the silence by rushing over and embracing the child. Flora continues to stare at the governess and finally drops the fern. The governess takes this to mean that "pretexts were useless now."

Mrs. Grose finally stands, holding Flora's hand, and Flora looks at the bare-headed governess and asks where her things are. The governess asks the same of her and Flora responds by asking where Miles is. Finally, the governess can control herself no longer and asks, "Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?"


There is rising evidence of the governess's madness in this chapter. Once again, she invents communications that are never spoken. In the last chapter, she (mis)interpreted Miles's piano playing, saying it was "quite tantamount to his saying outright" several sentences culminating in his desire not to leave her. In this chapter, just from watching Flora drop her fern, "she and I had virtually said to each other...that pretexts were useless now." Making these assumptions about looks and intentions is dangerous - especially if Flora is unaware, as she must be, of the governess's thoughts.

Likewise, the governess's obsession finally comes into dangerous contact with the children when she can no longer control herself and asks the child about Miss Jessel. Previously, she has always considered the possibility that the children are not haunted and has refrained from mentioning the ghosts. Her mention of Miss Jessel shows her certainty, but her description of her mind before making the statement sounds as if she is describing a mental breakdown. "These three words from her" - asking where Miles was - "were in a flash like the glitter of a drawn blade the jostle of the cup that my hand for weeks and weeks had held high and full to the brim and that now, even before speaking, I felt overflow in a deluge."

It is important to recognize the governess's mental state here, as she is about to see Miss Jessel yet again. In every instance in which she has seen the dead governess before, she has been suffering extreme emotional turmoil. Her confrontation, here, of Flora and her expectation, from the moment she left the house, of finding her with Miss Jessel have paved the way for such a moment.

Chapter XX


Flora looks shocked at the governess's words. Mrs. Grose suddenly gives a cry, and the governess turns to see Miss Jessel standing on the opposite bank of the lake. She feels a thrill to know that she finally has proof. She points across the lake, and Mrs. Grose looks there, but Flora's eyes remain fixed on the governess in an expression of accusation. The governess is certain Flora can also see Miss Jessel, and she sees this cold calm with which the child looks at her as proof of her evilness. She shouts at the child that Miss Jessel is there and she knows it.

Mrs. Grose, though, shocks her when she asks where she sees anything. The governess tries to point Miss Jessel out, describing her and yelling at the woman to look, but Mrs. Grose cannot see her. The governess is shocked and terrified. Mrs. Grose turns to Flora, reassuring the child that there is no one there and that Miss Jessel is dead and buried, and turns to take Flora home. Flora now appears ugly to the governess, and she screams that she doesn't see anyone there and that she never has - saying also that she doesn't like the governess and crying to Mrs. Grose to take her away from the governess. The governess is certain that these words are controlled by someone else, and she finally says she's lost Flora, telling Mrs. Grose to take the child and go.

The governess has no memory of what happened next but finds herself fifteen minutes later lying on the ground, where she must have thrown herself crying. She gets up and goes to the house, where she does not see Flora or Mrs. Grose that night. Flora's things have all been taken out of her room. She sits in the schoolroom, taking her tea, and does not even bother to ask the servants where Miles is. When he finally comes in and sits down at eight o'clock, they say nothing to each other.


Here is what many find irrefutable proof that the governess is indeed mad. Mrs. Grose does not see the ghost of Miss Jessel, and Flora herself professes not to see her. The governess therefore has condemned herself with her own words. Believing Mrs. Grose at first able to see Miss Jessel, she says, "She was there, so I was justified. She was there, So I was neither cruel nor mad." She is not, in fact, there, and the governess is both cruel and mad.

The governess's actions towards Flora reach a dangerous point here. She describes the child she once considered an angel and beautiful as hard and ugly. She calls the child "you little unhappy thing." If Miss Jessel is simply a hallucination, there is little wonder that Flora asks as she does. The accusatory look she levies at the governess is not cold if there is nothing else there for her to see; it is expected that she would stare at the governess, looking for an explanation of her outburst. Similarly, her harsh words at the end, asking Mrs. Grose to take her away, are an appropriate response for a child whose governess has just called her mean names, accused her of things she has not done, and demanded she see something that is not there.

The sexual hysteria at the root of the governess's madness is revealed in her descriptions of Flora at the lake. Unable to accept Flora's approach to puberty and eventually to adult sexuality, she can only equate goodness with childhood innocence and badness with adult depravity. Thus, Flora becomes, in the governess's eyes, "an old, old woman." Her "incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failedŠshe was literally, she was hideously hard; she had turned common and almost ugly." The class component of this description is likewise unmistakable. The governess perceives the child to be choosing Miss Jessel - a woman who sunk below her station in her affair with a servant - and thus denigrates the child in terms such as "a vulgarly pert little girl in the street." These are the words of a scorned woman.

Some critics argue that James portrays Flora, in her outburst against the governess, as possessed. The author would have been aware of spirit possession, a popular belief in the nineteenth century. The governess says that Flora had gotten her words "from an outside source," but we must remember that these particular words condemn the governess. If she believes they are Flora's words, she would have also to accept that she has been hurtful to Flora and the child is knowingly rejecting her. The governess's rejection of the child - saying "I've done my best, but I've lost you. Good-bye." - as Mrs. Grose carries her away likewise protect her from the inevitable realization that she has failed as Flora's governess and protector.

In fact, if we compare the governess's actions and Mrs. Grose's actions - ghosts or not - in this chapter, it is clear that Mrs. Grose's behavior towards Flora is much more healthy than that of the very governess who has sworn she would die protecting the child. Mrs. Grose comforts the child, reassures her, and takes her home to bed. The governess screams at her, makes her cry, and disavows her. The governess has clearly failed to save Flora - whether from Miss Jessel or herself.