The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-8

Chapter V


Mrs. Grose rushes outside the house, where she meets the governess, who is now pale with shock, and demands to know what is wrong with her. No longer desiring to protect Mrs. Grose from her knowledge, the governess tells her that through that same window, she saw something much worse and more frightening - a man looking in. Prompted by Mrs. Grose's questions, she says she does not know who he is nor where he has gone but that she has seen him before in the tower.

The housekeeper demands to know if the man was a stranger and if so why she had not been told. The governess affirms her suspicions and suggests that now that Mrs. Grose has guessed - which Mrs. Grose interjects she has not - she'll tell her. She tells her she has seen the man in the tower and in the spot in which they stand.

Responding to Mrs. Grose's questions, she says that no, he was not a gentleman, nor was he from the town - rather, "he's a horror." At that Mrs. Grose suggests leaving for church, but the governess says that she cannot leave the children at this time because she is afraid of the man she saw. Mrs. Grose, upon learning that she saw the man in the tower at the same time of day, suggests that it was nearly dark, but the governess insists she saw him clearly. She tries to send the housekeeper off to church, but instead, Mrs. Grose asks if she fears for the children. Though she says she was afraid, she ran out after him because she has her "duty" to protect the children.

The governess then describes the man to Mrs. Grose. "He's like nobody" with curly red hair, a pale long face, red whiskers, arched eyebrows, small sharp eyes, a large mouth with thin lips - like an actor and not a gentleman. He is handsome but dressed in someone else's clothes, without a hat. At this, Mrs. Grose exclaims in recognition: It is Peter Quint, the master's valet, who was at Bly with the master the previous year. He never wore a hat, and while he was there the master's waistcoats were missing. He remained on, in charge, after the master left. And, Mrs. Grose concludes, Quint is dead.


This chapter is the most problematic for those who wish to argue that the governess is mad. Mrs. Grose's immediate recognition of Peter Quint from the governess's description seems to offer affirmative evidence that the governess has seen a ghost. The detailed description seems to preclude the possibility of misrecognition and explains the man's ability to appear suddenly, without barriers to entrance or exit. This is the first time the governess considers the possibility of a ghost, and it is clear that she has not consciously considered it previously. Mrs. Grose's revelation that Quint is dead comes as a great shock to both narrator and reader.

Critics who favor reading the governess as mad and the ghost as figments of her imagination offer various suggestions for circumnavigating this textual obstacle. On suggestion is that the governess had heard a description of or story about Quint while in town sometime and offered it up knowing that Mrs. Grose would confirm it. Others argue that Mrs. Grose, resenting the governess's intrusion into Bly and deliberately attempting to drive her mad, would have identified any man she described as the dead valet.

The specifics of the man's appearance, however, also have another possible origin - in the study of human physiognomy in the nineteenth century. In other words, the man the governess describes fits the stereotype of the sexually frightening man popularized by pseudo-science and literature of her day. In her sexual hysteria, she imagines precisely the image that would represent her greatest fears - an image that in its specificity seems to accord with Quint's appearance.

According to the pseudo-science of physiognomy, the man's "straight good features" and handsome appearance suggest he is a cad. More importantly, red hair, especially curly red hair, has existed as a sign of evil all the way back to the Bible, to depictions of a red-haired Satan in human form, and to the belief that Judas was a redhead. Red hair was also associated in the nineteenth century with lechery. The sharp, small eyes illustrate the man's sexuality and wickedness, and his arched eyebrows show him to be proud. The shape of his mouth shows him to be cruel.

James himself was aware of theories of physiognomy, and while the governess herself had most likely not read scientific treatises on the subject, she has already proved herself to be familiar with the literature of her day. One such character is Fagin, in Dicken's Oliver Twist, which had appeared serialized in the months before the governess accepted her position at Bly. Likewise, this sort of physiognomic cliché of a villain proliferates in the Gothic fiction with which she was familiar.

Thus, James simultaneously draws upon a rich tradition of villains defined by their appearance - a tradition which includes The Canterbury Tales ΠWife of Bath and Gulliver's Travels' Yahoos - but uses the existence of that tradition within the story. The governess, unable to acknowledge her sexual desire for her employer, projects the image of a stereotypical sexual threatening male - a man who just happens to wear clothing similar to employer. The governess's initial description, "He's like nobody," demonstrates his air of unreality and suggests that he is possibly a hallucination - or a ghost.

The governess has already mentioned her well-founded fear at seeing a strange man on the property. That he "only peeps," as Mrs. Grose observes, should come as a relief to her. However, his peeping represents a threat to her control and authority. The governess has assumed a subjective position as head of the household at Bly. By constructing her with his gaze, both from the tower and through the window, Quint threatens to undermine the governess's subjectivity.

James's familiarity with spirit phenomena also play a part. Mrs. Grose and the governess's exchange about how the man got in - or out - of the tower echoes the statement given to the Society for Psychical Research (of which James's father and brother were members) about a woman, alone in a house with two children, who reports seeing two ghosts, a man and a woman, and who, when discussing the incident with another woman, wonders how the man got in - or more importantly, how he got out.

Chapter VI


The governess is so shocked that she must lie down for an hour. After that, she and Mrs. Grose don't go to church but rather have their own "service" of tears, prayers and promises to each other in the schoolroom. Though Mrs. Grose has not seen anything, she does not question the governess's sanity but defers to her judgment. They decide to "bear things together," and the governess is certain she can protect Miles and Flora.

As they go over the sighting, the governess expresses her sudden certainty that Quint was looking for Miles and that Quint wants to appear to the children. She recalls being sure she would see the ghost again but is willing even to sacrifice herself to protect the children. She tells Mrs. Grose she finds it strange that the children have never at all mentioned Quint. Mrs. Grose says that Flora does not know that he is dead, but Miles, whom the governess promises not ask, was "great friends" with Quint. Quint liked to play with Miles and was, in the words of Mrs. Grose "much to free" with him and with "every one." The governess considers the household servants but cannot think of any stories she has heard. There are no frightening legends attached to Bly.

Just at midnight, as Mrs. Grose is about to leave, the governess demands to know if Quint was "definitely and admittedly bad." Mrs. Grose reveals that the master did not know that he was, and because he did not like complaints, she never told him. Quint, who was supposedly staying at the country house for his health, was given complete control over its inhabitants - including the children, which leads Mrs. Grose to break into tears.

In the following days, the governess worries that there is something Mrs. Grose has not told her and thinks about Quint's death. He had been found dead on the road to the village, and is believed, after an inquest, to have died by accident after slipping down an icy hill while drunk. There is also much gossip about his secrets and vices.

The governess is able to find happiness thinking about her heroism in protecting the children. Determined to keep them from seeing anything she has, she engages in a watchfulness over them "that might well, had it continued too long, have turned into something like madness." She is saved from that, she says, by encountering proof.

One afternoon, she leaves Miles reading in the house, and goes with Flora to the lake on the property. As she sews and Flora plays, she becomes aware, without looking, that there is another person present across the lake. She prepares her reaction - hoping the person is the postman or a messenger - while staring at her sewing and then looks over at Flora, worried that she will see. Suddenly turning her back to the water, Flora attempts to stick a piece of wood into a hole in another flat piece to make a boat with a mast. The governess stares at her intent efforts for several minutes before looking up across the lake.


With her need to lie down after Mrs. Grose's news, the governess illustrates the state of her mental deterioration. The hour she takes to do so also functions as a power play in the power struggle between her and Mrs. Grose. The housekeeper must wait until the governess feels better to discuss the revelation of the ghost with her.

The class dynamics at play in the relationship between these two women provide insight into Mrs. Grose's behavior. The governess speaks of Mrs. Grose's "deference," despite talk which might lead others to question her sanity. As a servant speaking to the person who has been put in charge of the household, Mrs. Grose is not able to politely confront or contradict the governess. Indeed, she could not even bring herself to act against Quint, who is lower in class than the governess, despite what she seems to feel was despicable behavior.

Quint's class, too, plays a part in the governess's aborrence of him. Quint was a valet - a servant. His usurpation of the master's power, though done with permission, offends her class-conscious Victorian sensibilities. That valet Quint spent time with Miles seems to upset her even more than the realization that Quint is now a ghost. In part, this reaction may proceed from a subconscious recognition of her commonality with Quint. In her imaginings about her master, she too has hoped to transcend the class into which she was born. Likewise, her exultation in her rich physical surroundings at Bly and her power in the household are eerily similar to that for which she condemns in Quint.

Much has been made of Mrs. Grose's statement that Quint was "much too free." We will see that, in part, she refers to Miss Jessel, the former governess, with whom he had an affair. But Mrs. Grose also speaks specifically of Quint being too free with Miles. She may simply mean that Miles association with this uncouth servant was detrimental to his development as a little gentleman. Or, some might argue, she means free in the same - sexual - sense.

The contrast between the inclinations of Mrs. Grose and the governess becomes readily apparent in this chapter. Mrs. Grose protests that she could not act against Quint's influence because the children had been placed in his charge, rather than hers, and that she preferred not to complain to the master because he was "terribly short with anything of that kind." In other words, she is ineffective because of the inconvenience action would have caused her. The governess, in contrast, seeks a more active role than is traditionally available to her as a woman. Her desire to protect the children on her own is born of a self-congratulatory impulse and the belief that by keeping worries from her employer, she will gain his love.

The sexual preoccupations of the governess become noticeable in a psychoanalytic reading of the scene on the beach. She has no true evidence that anyone else is present and before she looks to see if her "knowledge" that third person is present is correct, she looks at Flora. The little girl is attempting to jam a long thin "mast" into a hole in another piece of wood to make a boat. Some critics read this as evidence of Flora's sexual confusion as she approaches puberty. She attempts to take an active masculine role with the phallic mast but her attempts are unsuccessful as a result of Victorian gender roles and her imperfect role model in the governess - a woman who seeks power but in doing so must deny her sexuality. Even if one does not accept that Freudian reading, it is significant that the governess observes the child engage in this play - which may be innocent and unknowing but which the governess may, consciously or subconsciously, interpret as sexual and threatening to the innocence of her charge - before looking up to see just who (if anyone) watches from across the lake.

Chapter VII


The incident over, the governess rushes to find Mrs. Grose, telling her that the children "know." She says that Flora saw the specter at the lake and said nothing. Across the lake, a woman appeared and simply stood there. She was no one the governess has ever seen, but she says, someone Flora and Mrs. Grose have seen - Miss Jessel.

Mrs. Grose remains bewildered throughout the exchange, not understanding the source of the governess's certainty. Nevertheless, the governess remains adamant in insisting that Flora knows about Miss Jessel and that if asked about seeing her she will lie. Now, the governess's greatest fear is not seeing the ghost but rather "of not seeing her" because that will mean Flora is interacting with the ghost without her knowledge.

The housekeeper, who has already suggested that Flora has kept her sighting of Miss Jessel a secret to spare the governess the fright, now wonders if the child likes the ghost - that her lack of fear is simply proof of her innocence. The governess agrees but says that Flora's innocence is "proof of - God knows what! For the woman's a horror of horrors."

At that, Mrs. Grose wonders how the governess knows this about Miss Jessel. The governess explains it is from the gaze of intention which the ghost fixed on Flora and from her wicked appearance. She was dressed in a shabby black dress but was very beautiful, though infamous. Mrs. Grose confirms that Miss Jessel was "infamous" - together with Quint. At the governess's insistence, the housekeeper implies that despite the difference in their rank, Miss Jessel and Quint had a sexual relationship and subtly implies that Miss Jessel left because she was pregnant. Unaware of the details of the former governess's death, the housekeeper has imagined dreadful possibilities.

Hearing this news, the governess feels defeated. She bursts into tears and Mrs. Grose attempts to comfort her. She has not protected the children, she realizes. They are already "lost."


Interestingly, we do not get a direct description of Miss Jessel's appearance at the lake but only hear about it - unclearly - in the governess's spoken account to Mrs. Grose. Equally important, we are not give a direct description of Flora seeing the ghost. When the last chapter concluded, Flora had turned her back to the lake and the governess had not yet lifted her eyes to see the figure she "knew" was across the lake. Because of this, the governess's certainty that Flora knows is suspect - and not surprisingly, this is the cause of much confusion for Mrs. Grose.

This incident represents a significant turning point in the governess's perception of the children. Until now, they have been described as "angels," but by the end of this chapter, she is certain that they are damned. This change demonstrates the instability of perception in The Turn of the Screw. The children, in fact, have not acted at all differently in the previous chapter than earlier in the book. Miles was in the house and not even present during the appearance of Miss Jessel, and Flora did not definitively react to her presence. The governess's certainty that the two children know of the ghosts is, oddly, based on their inaction, their lack of reaction. She sees no possibility of getting affirmative evidence - Flora would only deny seeing the ghost if asked.

The governess's certainty in this chapter is especially troubling if we see the ghosts as her hallucinations. The children have no defense to her assumptions here. Anything they might say will be assumed to be a lie. Even if the ghosts are real, the governess here gives no consideration to the possibility - though she has previously spoken of her receptivity to seeing the ghosts and Mrs. Grose's inability to see them - that Flora truly could not see Miss Jessel or to Mrs. Grose's suggestion that the ghost was benevolent.

Likewise, the governess's certainty that the woman she saw was Miss Jessel is based on assumption. Here, she does not even bother to physically describe the figure, as she did Quint, before identifying her. She is certain that the woman was Miss Jessel, a woman she never met, largely because of her "infamous" appearance. The governess's ability to describe Miss Jessel is much more easily explained than her description of Quint. What physical description she does give is vague and cannot be confirmed or denied by Mrs. Grose. Furthermore, the governess knows that the master prefers to hire pretty women, so it is only logical that Miss Jessel be "handsome." Since Miss Jessel is dead, it is somewhat fitting that she is clothed in mourning attire. The governess's suspicion that Miss Jessel was infamous may easily be a conclusion drawn from knowledge of the former governess's quick departure and unexplained death.

Here, Miss Jessel's evil has an unmistakable sexual element. Mrs. Grose's statements imply that she left because she was pregnant. The cause of her death is uncertain but seen as deserving - "she paid for it." She may have died in childbirth or during a botched abortion. Her appearance by the lake might also suggest she drowned herself. It is most likely these possibilities that Mrs. Grose refers to when she speaks of the dreadful possibilities she imagines. The governess's assertion that she imagines still more dreadful things is significant for its use of the word imagine. The governess's imagination, more than any knowledge, is responsible for the beliefs she holds at the end of this chapter.

Victorian culture only provided three possible roles for women - mother, whore, and lunatic. The governess has previously sought to inhabit the role of mother, but her sublimated sexual desires are magnified by her counterpart, Miss Jessel's actions consign her to the role of whore. Though Mrs. Grose seems to feel sympathy for Miss Jessel's punishment, calling her "poor woman," the governess does not. The dreadful things that Mrs. Grose imagines are the agonies Miss Jessel must have experienced unwed, pregnant, and finally dying. In contrast, the governess offers no sympathy for Miss Jessel. Her "dreadful" imaginings are not what Miss Jessel has suffered but what she has done.

To admit sympathy for Miss Jessel would be to admit their similarity and to therefore risk the label of whore. The many commonalities between the governess and her predecessor extend beyond their profession. Notably, both exhibit desire for men outside their station. Rather than feel sympathy for Miss Jessel, however, the governess is disgusted by Miss Jessel's affair with a man of the servant class. The transgression which occurred during their lives more so than their appearance as ghosts makes them evil in the eyes of the governess.

Miss Jessel, in a psychoanalytic reading of the text, may then exist as a symbolic representation of the desires the governess cannot herself admit or express. This hallucination has been borne of the governess's dangerous indulgence in sexual fantasies about her employer. Miss Jessel must therefore be abhorred as evil by a governess seeking to repress her own similar sexual urges. Significantly, she appears after the governess has been brooding on the sexually predatory Quint and at the very moment she intently watches Flora play with the mast and driftwood. Also important in a Freudian reading is the male ghost's appearance in a tower and the female's on a lake.

Even if the ghosts are real, the governess's conclusion at the end of the chapter, that the ghosts are evil and the souls of the children are lost, is unwarranted. James himself called the ghosts "fairies of the legendary order," and some critics suggest - as Mrs. Grose does here - that the ghosts are actually benevolent entities. Beyond her assumptions based on their earthly sexual activities, the governess has no reason to believe that the ghosts are evil.

Chapter VIII


Determined to remain rational about her suspicions, the governess talks with Mrs. Grose in her room late at night. She wonders how, if she made it up, she could have given such detailed descriptions of the two ghosts such that Mrs. Grose was able to identify them. Though Mrs. Grose wants to forget the subject entirely, the governess professes her belief that she will get used to the danger.

Upon seeing her pupils the next day, however, she finds it hard to believe that they could be at all evil. Their beautiful, innocent appearance and manner forces her to replay the moment at the lake over in her mind and the reasons for her certainty that Flora saw the ghosts and tried to conceal it from her. Thus suspicious of the children, she sees their increased babbling and playing as means of quelling her worries.

Saying that she does not really believe her previous horrible assumptions, the governess subtly elicits more details from Mrs. Grose. She wonders why Mrs. Grose spoke of Miles being bad when he has been a little angel while she has known him. Mrs. Grose explains that while Quint was there, he and Miles were "perpetually together." Worried, she finally spoke out of her station to Miss Jessel to protest and was told to mind her own business.

The governess then begins to badger the housekeeper for clarification. Her many questions bring Mrs. Grose to reveal that she reminded Miles himself that he was a little gentleman and Quint a "base menial." She also recalls Miles lying about times he had spent with Quint and his denial of knowing anything about Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship. The governess is certain that Miles knew the truth.

Launching into the subject of the headmaster's letter, the governess wonders if Miles seems to be an angel now how he was "a fiend at school" - and suggests Mrs. Grose should have suspected when she told her of the letter. She deduces that Miles called Mrs. Grose a "base menial" but that she forgave him. Trying to allay Mrs. Grose's suspicions that she is returning to her worries about the children, the governess tells her that Miles's bad acts are less than she had worried and that until further evidence arises, she does not accuse the children of anything.


The governess's contradictory thoughts and actions in this chapter reveal her discomfort with ambiguity. She must know if the children are all good or all bad. Looking at Flora's beautiful blue eyes, she is unable to imagine that the children might know about the ghosts and be good. For her, it is all or nothing. Her approach to questioning Mrs. Grose - telling her that she does not believe her previous suspicions were true while at the same time obsessing over and asking for evidence to support them - demonstrates her knowledge that to reveal her true thoughts would alienate the other woman.

The conversations between the governess and Mrs. Grose in this chapter may support a view of an antagonistic relationship between the two of them. James's very punctuation - such as dashes at the end of sentence, when the governess interrupts the housekeeper and finishes her sentences - prevent any definitive interpretation of any one speaker's intended meaning. Again, it is the very lack of evidence - the fact that Miles never mentioned Quint's relationship with Miss Jessel - that leads the governess to believe that he did know about it. Once again, she finds affirmation of the children's evilness in their denials.

The conflict between the governess and what she perceives as Miles's badness is at heart an issue of class. When asked what Miles did that warranted being called bad, Mrs. Grose describes how he spent many hours with Quint, though "she liked to see young gentleman not forget their station." Miles refusal to obey her flouts the distinctions of class and reminds the housekeeper of her own position as a "base menial" - the words of the governess, who is also consorting with a servant below her station. Some critics suggest that Miles refusal to adhere to Victorian notions of class may have been what got him thrown out of school.

Clearly, class transgression is the most obvious element that makes the hours Miles spent "quite as if Quint were his tutor" abhorrent to the governess. Additionally, this chapter is one others have used to suggest Miles's corruption was actually an inappropriate homosexual relationship with Quint in the hours they were together. Just what Miles learned from Quint in their hours together is unclear but is nonetheless the source of what, the governess suspects, led to his dismissal from school.

The reminder that Mrs. Grose is a "base menial" also reminds the reader of the class divide which separates her from the governess. The governess, who herself refrains from speaking about their class difference during the conversation does not explicitly recognize that Mrs. Grose, too, cannot speak completely freely to a woman of another rank. Here, especially, where Mrs. Grose seems unbelieving of the governess's previous assertions, her lack of strong objection - and her mention of the difficulty she had contradicting Miss Jessel - illustrates her reticence to speak against her superior. Though the housekeeper does not here object, it should be noted that the governess's assertion that she gave such detailed descriptions of Quint and Miss Jessel as to receive affirmative identification is not completely true. Though Mrs. Grose identified Quint from the description, the governess herself identified the second ghost as Miss Jessel - even in the face of Mrs. Groses's initial skepticism.