The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 2 | Summary



Two nights before Miles arrives at Bly, the governess receives an unexpected letter from the children's uncle. The uncle encloses a letter from the headmaster at Miles's boarding school and attaches a note to the governess, telling her to handle the situation. The sealed letter says Miles has been expelled from school.

The governess asks Mrs. Grose what Miles might have been expelled for. But Mrs. Grose can't think of anything Miles might have done wrong. She's stunned by the thought of his misbehaving at all. The governess asks if Mrs. Grose has ever known Miles to be "bad." Of course, says Mrs. Grose, all little boys misbehave. But the governess wants to know if he's done anything worse than typical childhood naughtiness; can he "contaminate" or "corrupt" others? Mrs. Grose laughs off the thought.

The next day the governess tries to find out about the woman who previously held her job. Mrs. Grose won't tell her much. The housekeeper finally says the former governess left Bly for a short vacation, and died just before she was expected to return.


The inexperienced governess is already in over her head. She knows, however, the importance of asserting her authority. She's Mrs. Grose's boss as well as the children's surrogate parent. The governess realizes the power her education will give her over Mrs. Grose, since she can read correspondence and Mrs. Grose cannot. (Understanding written words is power.) But Mrs. Grose is her main source of information about the house and its residents, since she herself can't speak to the children's uncle. Soon the governess will discern how much information is being withheld from Mrs. Grose. Both women need each other, but they're both powerless.

She wants to trust Mrs. Grose's impression of the children, and her first instinct is to defend Miles, despite knowing nothing about the circumstances of his expulsion or even knowing Miles himself. But the governess can't shake the feeling that something isn't right. The word "bad" comes up repeatedly, and here it means not childish misbehavior but deliberate, calculated wrongdoing. The children will become "bad" as they take on the capacities of adults—planning, foresight, and a desire for independence.

Deceptive appearances are substituted for the truth. Mrs. Grose satisfies the question of the children's innocence by telling the governess to simply look at Flora's angelic appearance.

The governess may sense she is in danger when she presses Mrs. Grose for information about Miss Jessel, or she may simply want to be informed about the requirements of her job. Naturally, if Miss Jessel died on the job, by contracting an illness, for instance, the governess wants to know if she too is at risk. Mrs. Grose's vague answers imply the uncle is not giving her necessary information, or perhaps that she's afraid to speak.

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