The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Miles returns to Bly, and the governess finds him as loving, pure, and angelic as his younger sister. She becomes outraged at the boarding school for expelling him. She decides not to respond to the expulsion letter, notify the children's uncle (who has not read the letter), or address the expulsion with Miles. Mrs. Grose agrees to support her decisions.

The governess reflects on the beginning of her summer with the children. She can't remember the lessons she prepared for them; instead, she thinks she's the one learning lessons. The children are so well-behaved the governess feels protective of them. And her daily life at Bly is so blissful and trouble-free she is "off [her] guard." She's confident in her ability to please the children's uncle with her work.

One early summer afternoon the governess is out on a walk by herself. She thinks about how "it would be as charming as a charming story suddenly" to meet someone on her walk. When she sees an unfamiliar male face from the tower at Bly, she's shocked and at first thinks she's imagined this stranger into existence. There are two towers at Bly, antique "architectural absurdities." She's taken aback by the presence of "an unknown man in a lonely place" as the atmosphere of the summer evening darkens. The stranger wears no hat, which shows an unacceptable "familiarity" or casualness. The governess knows she is in charge of the estate while the uncle is gone, and she needs to keep strangers out. The man keeps his eyes focused on her for an amount of time she can't measure. Then he turns away.

Analysis

The governess is seduced by Miles, too. She's swept away by his sweetness, innocence, and air of "knowing nothing in the world but love." Mrs. Grose is already under his spell. Are the children charming the adults intentionally, or do the adults simply choose to see them as perfect? The allure of Miles and Flora is another instance of deceptive appearances and subjective reality. Clearly, based on the expulsion letter, someone at Miles's old school felt differently about him.

At a distance the governess can recognize the "infatuation and pity" which made her accept an overwhelming responsibility. She describes the joy and freedom she first felt at Bly as a "trap" designed to take advantage of her vulnerabilities, like imagination and vanity. The language James uses implies small inconsistencies, details that are a little askew, rather than outright threats. The summer gives the sense of "that hush in which something gathers or crouches."

The strange man, when he first appears, is hushed as well—inactive and silent. When the governess refers to "the great question" she's attempting to answer one of the most common questions asked of people who had seen ghosts or apparitions: how long did the ghost stay there? The governess isn't sure, since Quint may have been there long before she saw him. (As she points out, allowing a strange man to be in the house would put her new job in jeopardy.)

She reminds readers again of the castle-like architecture of the house, the pair of towers she's admired and had "fancies about" even as she considers them relics of the past. The governess seems aware of the Gothic elements of her surroundings, and aware of her role in the Gothic narrative—the pure young woman fighting against an evil force. The two towers that seem so out of place have ominous symbolic significance. They could refer to the two spirits haunting the governess, to the two children planning to thwart her authority, to the two doomed governesses, to the two male figures of the uncle and Miles that are frustrating the governess, or the concept of doubling that is present throughout the novel.

The governess considers herself (or wants to consider herself) a "remarkable woman" taking on an impressive challenge. Equally remarkable events, such as fighting an evil spirit, allow her to rise to the occasion. When she sees Quint, she feels her imagination has finally turned real. By establishing the governess as a dreamer who thinks of her life as a story, James suggests she may (or may not) have imagined Quint into being.

For the moment, however, the grandeur of Bly has changed. The birds she heard in Chapter 1 stop "cawing in the golden sky." She feels wonder and surprise; Bly isn't welcoming anymore, but it seems more interesting. Peter Quint looks like "a picture in a frame." She sees him "as I see the letters I form on this page": another implication she is writing her reality into existence.

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