The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 17 | Summary



In the evening, before Miles goes to bed, the governess joins him in his room. She asks Miles what he's thinking about; he gives vague answers and implies she already knows. The governess says he can go back to school if he wants, but they'll have to find a better school for him. She wonders aloud why he's never told her anything about his old school. When Miles says, "Haven't I?" she realizes he's communicating, still, with Peter Quint.

She repeats Miles has told her nothing about school. Miles says his uncle will need to come down and settle the matter of his future; the governess, Miles adds, will have a lot to answer for when his uncle arrives. The governess replies Miles will have some explaining to do as well, since he's kept important truths from her. When Miles says serenely he doesn't want to go back to his old school, the governess is overcome by the tragedy of his mixed bravado and dishonor and embraces him.

When she gives him one last chance to tell the truth, Miles says he's already told her what he wants—to be left alone. Finally the governess says she's writing to his uncle. When Miles still pretends innocence, the governess breaks down and says she only wants to help him and save him.

A blast of cold air shakes the room and Miles screams. When the two recover the governess notices the candle has been blown out. Miles says he blew it out himself.


The exchange between Miles and the governess seems cordial and affectionate on the surface. The tension lies in what remains unspoken, or what can't be brought from the darkness into the light. By blowing out the candle, Miles shows he's content with the darkness.

The physical image the governess has of Miles is still pure. She describes his appearance as "some wistful patient in a children's hospital" and his voice as "gaiety in the gloom." The gaiety or cheerfulness takes on a different feeling now. Maybe Miles wants to remain outwardly happy and polite to distract the governess from asking deeper questions. She can't break past the deceptive appearances of goodness. Whenever she wants to tell Miles or Flora what she's really thinking, she can't bring herself to do so.

She has special sympathy for Miles when she hears him appealing to Peter Quint for help (when he says "Haven't I?"). Then the conversation begins to turn. Miles has a "sweet ironic face" when he begins to make demands of the governess. When Miles says "What happened?" as if he doesn't know, he's pushing the governess to show her hand first—to tell him what she thinks happened to get him expelled from school. The governess feels this adult-like manipulation of power, the possibility of "dishonor," is a sign of Quint possessing Miles.

She imagines herself fighting a battle between good and evil. Evil lies, conceals, and keeps people in the dark. Goodness tells the truth.

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