The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 18 | Summary

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Summary

The next morning the governess has her letter to the children's uncle in her pocket. She plans to mail it later that day. In the classroom the children are better and more eager students than ever. Miles offers to play on the piano for the governess. She takes this offer as a "charming exhibition of tact," meant to show her he still enjoys her company, although he knows he'll have more freedom now.

While the governess listens to Miles play, she loses track of time. She slowly realizes Flora's gone missing. Miles has no idea where his sister is.

The governess looks through the house for Flora and rounds up Mrs. Grose. The young girl didn't take a hat despite the autumn chill; the governess knows Miss Jessel never wears a hat, and determines the two must be together. Miles, she says, is with Peter Quint in the schoolroom. He was playing the piano to keep her occupied. Despite Mrs. Grose's misgivings, the governess has no problem leaving Miles with Quint. Mrs. Grose mentions the letter to the children's uncle. The governess leaves the letter on the hall table for Luke, the messenger. As the governess prepares to search outside for Flora, Mrs. Grose, afraid of being left alone with Miles and Quint, joins her.

Analysis

Why does the governess wait all morning to send the letter? Perhaps she's still hoping she won't have to. Even if she can see through the children's plots, she appreciates their good behavior. Though the governess has a hint of the conflicting "beauty and misery" in Miles's character, she still enjoys his company. Even if "the imagination of all evil had been opened up to him," she thinks, what has he actually done? What proof does she have of him doing a specific evil act? All the evil so far is hinted at and unseen.

As a narrator, once the events of the novella have happened, she recognizes the "tact" and "magnanimity" of Miles's offering to play the piano. It's a gesture meant to please her and make her feel she's still appreciated, though Miles wants his freedom. It's also a distraction so Flora can disappear. As in previous chapters when Miles plays the piano, the music seems otherworldly and bizarre. He bursts into "incoherent extravagant song" and his playing puts the governess in a charmed state, under a spell, so she feels she's been asleep despite having been awake. The governess later describes his methods as divine, and then, when Mrs. Grose is confused, infernal: associated with hell. James adeptly leads the reader to believe Miles is innocent and the governess insane. Then he twists the plot, as he does here with Mile's piano playing, leaving the reader to believe Miles is truly possessed by Quint—or at least it is possible—and the governess is able to intuitively trace what is happening under the surface. This places the reader in the governess's maddening perspective, sensing evil yet having no proof of it.

The governess and Mrs. Grose assume Flora is with Miss Jessel because neither of them are wearing hats. Here hats represent civility and humanity—a connection to the real, earthly world, where people prepare for the cold. After Flora's disappearance the governess determines she must send her letter. She may have lost Miles, but maybe she can save Flora.

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