The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

The governess and Mrs. Grose, both shaken, discuss how they'll protect the children. The governess is certain Peter Quint is looking for Miles (and a threat to Flora as well). She finds it strange the children never mentioned Peter Quint, since he lived at Bly. Mrs. Grose says Flora is too young to remember but discourages the governess from bringing Quint up to Miles. Quint, she says, was too "free" with everyone in the house. Quint was allowed to remain at Bly, despite his behavior, because the uncle hated any complaints from his staff and saw nothing wrong with Quint himself. Mrs. Grose feared Quint's intelligence and possible retaliation. The governess, however, feels certain she would have spoken up if she'd been there.

The governess learns how Peter Quint died. In the previous winter he was walking back to Bly from a public house, or bar, in the nearby village. He slipped on an icy slope and fell to his death.

Resolving to conquer the threat of Quint, the governess is secretly thrilled to prove her worth. She wants to be a "screen" to stand in front of the children. The vigilance makes her feel tense, almost as if she's going mad.

Then one afternoon she sees what she considers proof of the ghosts. The governess takes Flora to a lake on a beautiful spring afternoon. As Flora plays the governess feels the presence of a third person. She considers the possibility someone from the village is nearby, but she's too afraid to turn around and confirm her suspicions of another ghost. The governess looks at Flora, who has just turned her back to the lake and begun to play with two pieces of wood. It is strange to the governess how Flora grows so quiet there is "a sense that within a minute all spontaneous sounds from her had dropped." Now the governess feels Flora is both aware of a third person's presence and unafraid—Flora has seen a ghost too. The governess turns to look herself.

Analysis

The governess wants to offer herself as "the sole subject of such experience," the only one who can bravely see and interact with the ghosts. But does she want to protect the children, or retain control of her own story, or both? And why is she so sure Peter Quint is looking for Miles? She says, "A portentous clearness now possessed me." (The word possessed is used frequently in the novella. Here it means the governess is convinced her view of reality is accurate. Later it will mean possession in the sense of demonic possession of a soul.) She has an advantage. No one else in the house has seen anything; they have to rely on her accounts. By the end of the chapter this won't be true anymore.

The reader and the governess have a clearer idea of Quint's evil. Mrs. Grose thinks even the subject of Quint would upset Miles. Her allegation that Quint was "much too free" with Miles may refer to sexual abuse or other abuse of authority. The circumstances of Quint's death imply he was a heavy drinker, a symptom of moral corruption. After Quint dies Mrs. Grose is still so intimidated by him the governess needs a week to pry details out of her.

The uncle's dislike of complaints takes on a new menace—his refusal to receive information puts the household in danger. The uncle never appears in the novella, but his authority and power become more obvious as the story goes on. He figures especially heavily in the governess's decision-making process.

The governess interprets Mrs. Grose's failure to challenge Quint as cowardice. Clearly, she thinks, the children suffered. But now the governess is in charge and willing to be braver than other woman in her position might be. She's openly self-congratulatory. Her emphasis on the children's helplessness keeps her from seeing the real danger might be the children themselves.

This tendency to underestimate the children makes Flora's self-possession at the lake a complete surprise to the governess. When she's at the lake with Flora, she mentions, "I walked in a world of their invention." She's referring to the imaginary worlds the children concoct during their play, but she's also stepping into an imaginary world that Flora controls and the governess doesn't. For instance, the governess does not actually see the ghost in this chapter; she merely senses the ghost. Flora senses being under "direct personal notice" and informs the governess silently. The governess is more intimidated by Flora's silence and the withheld information it implies, than she would have been by a scream or a direct, visible threat. Any attempts the governess makes to protect the children have already fallen flat.

Flora is making a boat out of driftwood, foreshadowing the real boat her guardians will look for at the lake when Flora goes missing in Chapter 19.

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