The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 24 | Summary

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Summary

Before the governess can process Miles's reaction to her question, she has a renewed sense of Peter Quint's presence. She can see the ghost outside through the window, looking with his "white face of damnation," and she holds Miles with his back to the window. She feels she's fighting a demon for Miles's soul.

Miles confesses he took the letter and opened it. She's thrilled he finally confesses, and confirms joyfully he found nothing about himself in the letter. Miles then says he burned the letter anyway. Sensing her chance to bring up Miles's expulsion, the governess asks if he was expelled from school for stealing. She admits she knew all along he could not go back to school. If Miles is innocent, as she first believes, she's been through "months of torment," all for nothing.

Miles slowly reveals he was expelled because he "said things." But when the governess asks who he said things to, Miles claims he doesn't know. "Those I liked," he finally says. The gossip spread through school from Miles's close friends to the teachers. The governess, believing she's finally going to learn the truth, asks what he said. Then she sees Peter Quint at the window.

She presses Miles to her and screams at Peter Quint to leave. Miles panics and asks, "Is she here?" He's afraid the spirit is Miss Jessel. The governess tells him the "coward horror" is at the window instead. Miles turns angrily on the governess and demands to know whether "he" is here. When the governess wants to know whom Miles is referring to he says, "Peter Quint, you devil!" The governess cries it doesn't matter; she has Miles, and Peter Quint has lost him forever.

Miles has already turned around to the window, where the sun is rising on the "quiet day" and the ghost is gone. He cries out and the governess catches him as he falls. She takes a minute to realize Miles's heart has stopped and she is alone.

Analysis

Critic Robert W. Hill describes Miles's death as a plot development "designed to be as uncooperative to a clear understanding as anything in literature can be." Did Peter Quint take Miles's soul and his physical life at once, as the governess fears? Did Miles's confession of the truth compel his death? Is Miles's soul so corrupted and evil he had to die, due to the role he plays in an allegory of good and evil? Did the governess's delusions frighten Miles to death, or did she become so unhinged she took physical action to kill him? There is no right answer. James leaves the cause of death open-ended. No matter what, the governess did play a role in the death.

Up until Miles's death the governess desperately tries to seize control of the story. Narrating after time has passed, she congratulates herself for recovering her "command of the act" (acting in response to the frightening situation) more quickly than any woman ever has. But the ghosts are becoming more active. Her last two ghost sightings are dramatic and associated with fire. Peter Quint is beginning to "glare" and watch like a "sentinel before a prison." She calls Peter Quint Miles's "judge" and "executioner," holding the ghost accountable for Miles's actions at school, which she now believes were forced. Quint is no longer just an intruder—he's their captor.

The confession the governess extracts from Miles is clearly painful for them both. He breathes with difficulty as if he's "standing at the bottom of the sea." The governess begins to feel she's gone too far. But, "blind with victory," she presses Miles for specifics. Despite her questioning, she doesn't get much information. Miles gossiped to a few of his friends, but what did he say? Like Mrs. Grose earlier, he's scared to reveal the truth. The governess is scared as well—now by the possibility Miles may be innocent after all, which would mean she's falsely accused him the entire time she's been at Bly. At this point she needs evil to reveal itself; she needs a foe to fight. Otherwise she's the evil one.

As the conversation progresses and becomes more intense, it's getting lighter outside. Miles looks up at the "dim day" while he becomes more anxious; he dies in the "quiet day" while the sun has risen. Darkness recedes and light reveals the truth—though it's not the truth the governess wanted. The color white, associated with both light and ghost sightings, recurs in Quint's face and Miles's "white rage."

The figures of speech become bestial, animalistic. Miles is compared to a "baffled dog" and "a creature hurled over an abyss." He's losing his humanity under the influence of Quint, who's called "the beast." While Flora lost her dignity and became "ugly" in the eyes of the governess, Miles's possession is more extreme. As the governess recalls and relives the story, she realizes her triumph wasn't worth it. Her attempts to shield Miles and fight Quint backfired. Even a human with the best of intentions can't successfully fight evil—whether the evil comes from outside forces or from the humans themselves.

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