The Turn of the Screw | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Turn of the Screw | Chapter 9 | Summary



The governess wonders if the children suspect her private worries. She remains convinced of their innocence, though skeptical of Miles.

She notices the children are becoming more affectionate with her. They seem so bright and are applying their lessons so successfully the governess allows herself to put off placing Miles in another school.

The governess realizes she's getting to the worst parts of her story, and knows some readers may not believe her from here on out. She stays up late one night reading. She notices something "undefinably astir" in the house and walks with a candle down the hallway toward the staircase. Peter Quint is waiting at a spot near a window, but she's not afraid this time. The silence, though, unnerves her. The figure turns down the staircase and disappears.


Darkness and light, knowing and not knowing, are contrasted throughout the book. James contrasts knowledge with both innocence and ignorance. The governess is trying to keep the children "in the dark," but she feels she's in the dark herself. Miles and Flora certainly aren't ignorant; they show "unimposed little miracles of memory" in the classroom and perform beyond her expectations. The governess may be suspicious of their affection and attention to their studies, but she doesn't want to believe the children have malicious intent—she's hiding a secret herself. Her life at Bly, "a cloud of music and affection and success and private theatricals" is an illusion of perfection, bound to end, and she knows it. She's already noticed the children's silent agreement, for one to keep her occupied while the other leaves the room. All the lively details about how wonderful and bright the children are make even more horrifying the possibility the governess is the one to corrupt or harm the children and there are no ghosts. Yet James is able to make the reader doubt that same brightness and charm.

Miles's mastery of the schoolroom piano, for instance, will come up later in the novella as Miles plays the piano explicitly to distract the governess. Even now the piano music is compared to "gruesome fancies." Miles's musical talent for "catching and repeating," or call and response, foreshadows his talent for ambiguous dialogue which reveals nothing but still gives him the upper hand. Something in his statements, the governess says later, always makes a listener "catch."

Darkness—literal darkness—illuminates the ghosts. As soon as the governess's candle blows out she senses "a figure on the stair." She senses herself moving into the darkness too. What most alarms her is not the sight of Quint but her own lack of fear. She's grown accustomed to the ghosts and the evil they represent. At this point the reader may wonder if she's evil, or if the ghosts have corrupted her.

She describes Quint's ghost as "hideous just because it was human." A purely unnatural or artificial phenomenon is less recognizable and less dangerous—an event in a storybook. But Quint was real once. He is still familiar in his human appearance. He can look into her eyes. She is unnerved by her inability to speak to him and by the power of the "dead silence of our long gaze." Even a murderer, she thinks, would have spoken to her. Quint is just real enough to be recognizable and just unreal enough to be mysterious.

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