The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 20 | Summary

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Summary

Flora's face changes like "the smash of a pane of glass" when the governess says Miss Jessel's name. The governess immediately sees Miss Jessel and cries out. But Flora's not looking at the ghost. She's staring right at the governess with an adultlike look of "reprobation," or scolding.

Mrs. Grose doesn't see anything, though the governess claims the ghost is "as big as a blazing fire." Mrs. Grose reassures Flora no one is there, Miss Jessel is dead and buried, and any sighting was "a mere mistake and a worry and a joke."

The governess now senses Mrs. Grose and Flora uniting against her. Flora's beauty disappears and she turns "hideously hard." Flora screams she sees nothing and she never has. She pleads with Mrs. Grose to take her away from the governess.

Blaming Flora's behavior on the spirit of Miss Jessel occupying her, the governess says she's done her best but she's lost Flora. She leaves the lake alone and weeps. When she returns to the gate she realizes the boat is gone. Flora and Mrs. Grose have left for the night and taken Flora's belongings. The governess is alone at Bly with Miles. She feels lonely and cold; when Miles joins her for dinner at eight o'clock, she's comforted by his presence.

Analysis

This chapter begins the disenchantment between the governess and the children and the revelation—not quite a conclusion—which will extend to the end of the novella.

Deceptive appearances may have at first kept the governess from seeing through Flora's outward sweetness. Now the governess is alarmed by Flora's words and tone because the girl is acting "common" and like a "vulgarly pert little girl in the street"—like a young woman of a lower social class. This new girl, she thinks, can't possibly be the real Flora who is wealthy, educated, polite, and loved. Anxieties about the corrupting influence of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, servants and significant figures in the children's lives, resurface for the governess.

Roles have changed, again. The governess is now looking to Miss Jessel to back up her version of events. Previously she tried to ally with Mrs. Grose as another responsible adult in the house. Now Mrs. Grose is actively denying the existence of the ghosts, either to comfort Flora or to assure the governess no one is really there. The governess thinks Mrs. Grose "immediately and violently entered," implying aggression on the part of the housekeeper for the first time.

But the evil spirits are still the real aggressors. The governess compares the ghost to a "blazing fire" and calls her an "infernal witness," again using imagery associated with hell, damnation, and destruction.

If the ghost of Miss Jessel is a "pale and ravenous demon" as the governess believes, why is Flora staring at the governess instead of at the ghost? Does Flora turn against the governess because the child is possessed by a spirit, or is Flora terrified by the governess's hysteria? Flora could be a victim of her dead guardian coming for her soul, or a victim of her new guardian who's trying to scare her. Either way the little girl's been traumatized. She can't trust the adults. And the reader doesn't know who to trust either. Whose perspective is the correct one? Does it matter, when the damage has clearly been done?

The weather changes to match the psychological mood at Bly. The governess feels "an odorous dampness and roughness" as she grieves. Still, one aspect of the situation has turned out in her favor— she has the opportunity to be alone with Miles. James, theatrically, slims down the onstage cast for the final acts, where the drama lies in the dialogue between two opposing characters.

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