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The Turn of the Screw | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does the governess's point of view change after the events of The Turn of the Screw have passed?

The governess's physical distance creates perspective. The images appear frozen and static in her mind, and often open to the reader's interpretation. In Chapter 1 she admits she has not returned to Bly since the narrative's traumatic events. She still remembers sensory impressions, such as physical images of Mrs. Grose and the children. But she sees Bly as a darker and more complex place, and her perception becomes colored by her experiences. Because the story is told in retrospect, exactly what the governess thought and did in the time the story takes place is lost forever to the governess and to the reader, making the governess automatically unreliable on one level, even if her retrospective narration is reliable. When the governess looks back and writes down what happened, she understands what she didn't know, what she didn't fear, in a way she could not at the time. When she looks back on her actions, such as her search through the house for Peter Quint in Chapter 9, she admits, "I can say now neither what determined nor what guided me." From a distance she can see details which seemed inconsequential at the time but loom large when she knows the whole story—for example, Mrs. Grose's being extremely glad to see her. Hindsight makes her think of what she should have said to the children but did not. Twice she wonders if her story would have ended differently if she'd confronted Miles and Flora earlier about the ghosts. The perspective of her narration implies her own agency in the story; she realizes the horrible events may or may not have been inevitable. The distance of her narration also challenges the reader's perspective, encouraging them to re-read for details they may have missed.

In The Turn of the Screw, what is the significance of Miss Jessel's appearance and actions in the schoolroom?

Miss Jessel appears in striking clarity, in the "clear noonday light." She's writing a letter with the governess's pens and paper. Power belongs to those who can communicate with written words, and Miss Jessel's action of writing is a way of taking back the power of telling the story. The reference to "a letter to her sweetheart" perhaps reflects the governess's own desire to write to the children's uncle. Miles has just threatened to find a way to make the uncle come to Bly, so he can return to school, and from this moment writing to the uncle becomes prominent in the plot. The ghost sits in the governess's chair and assumes ownership of the space, implying "her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers." This implies a psychological connection between Miss Jessel and the governess. It also signifies the governess is failing to be good for the children just as Miss Jessel failed as a governess. It also affects the governess's decision making: the governess realizes Bly is no longer her home and she cannot control events there. The ghosts can come in and out as they please, while the living humans are trapped. This sighting compels the governess to stay and try harder to save the children, even as she senses her mission is doomed.

How and why is the word free used in The Turn of the Screw to describe Peter Quint and his influence on Miles?

Mrs. Grose says Peter Quint was "too free with every one," implying he took physical and sexual liberties with staff members and may have sexually abused Miles. Quint wasn't bound by social class divisions or by adhering to ideas of respectability. He felt free to do whatever he liked—just as Miles takes his own freedom in the book's later chapters. Though Miles wants freedom in the sense of independence, he may also mean freedom from social constraints. For instance, his freedom means he may care less about his little sister. He asks the governess to consider what would happen if he didn't love Flora. Also, Quint and Miles both desiring freedom forces the reader to wonder if Quint has possessed Miles. James adeptly obscures interpretation since it could easily be normal for 10-year-old Miles to want to be free to roam outside and to go back to school. However, it is also uncanny for him have strong inclinations linking him explicitly to Quint. Miles's tailor is described as having a "free hand" in Chapter 14. This may be another reference to abuse, and the attention to male clothing recalls how Quint revealed himself as a "base menial." Quint wore no hat, and he wore clothing which was not his own.

How does the uncle's absence at Bly impact The Turn of the Screw's characters?

The governess and Mrs. Grose refer to the children's uncle as the "master." He is pictured as a savior who can rescue the children from corruption, in contrast to Peter Quint who is the corruption itself. The uncle is portrayed as all-knowing and all-seeing, despite his refusal to hear any complaints from Bly's residents. He presumably knew the dangers of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and ignored any signs of trouble. The governess resolves to handle trouble more aggressively. But the children hold the uncle's omniscience over her head, acting as if "he might at any moment be among us." Miles and the governess both use the uncle's power to threaten each other into revealing information, particularly in their dialogue in Chapter 17. The letter to the children's uncle is a way for either the governess or Miles to give their version of the truth to a reasonable outside authority. The uncle is positioned as the ultimate judge of their fate. But the letter is never sent, and the reader knows from the Prologue the governess never saw the uncle again. The reader already senses the governess's attempts to get the uncle on her side will probably be in vain. Quint, instead, becomes "judge" and "executioner."

How does the governess's attitude toward the ghosts affect her character in The Turn of the Screw?

In Chapter 13 the governess, reflecting on the events in The Turn of the Screw as she narrates, says, "How can I retrace to-day the strange steps of my obsession?" She thinks and worries constantly about the ghosts, even when she doesn't see them for weeks on end. When she says "All roads lead to Rome," she's using an old saying to explain how every topic in the classroom, even innocent-sounding academic topics, seems to reference the evil spirits at Bly. Her statement lays open her state of mind for the reader to see clearly how the governess cannot help but read into everything around her, using it as fodder to create links to Peter Quint and Miss Jessel and the idea something evil is trying to overcome her and the children. Whether the ghosts are real or not, the governess's state of mind and internal struggle is real—of this the reader can be certain. The governess focuses on "states of the air, conditions of sound and of stillness"—sensory impressions which remind her of the ghosts. Her obsession takes the power of language away from her. When she describes how her suffering escalates, she notices she feels "the cold touch of the impression that had breathed on me the night of my arrival." Her mental state is rendered in feelings she can't specifically name. The obsession bleeds into her job. She feels conflicted about expressing affection for the children because she might "betray too much." First she's worried about the "sad wild tangle" of how much information she can give away to the children. By autumn she's afraid of how many horrors the children are hiding from her.

How do the governess's sightings of Peter Quint change as The Turn of the Screw progresses?

The sightings of the ghost of Peter Quint become clearer, closer, and more dangerous as the novella progresses, indicating the ghost either becomes stronger and gains possession of Miles or the governess's hallucinations take over and she loses her mind. At first the governess sees Peter Quint as an intruder or someone out of a fantasy. She's struck by a "bewilderment of vision" and the sense her imagination has turned real. He doesn't seem like an unusual threat. He is physically far away, in a high tower. She imagines him as a human being, "some unscrupulous traveller, curious in old houses." In the second sighting, which takes place outside the dining room window, he is closer at hand. Now she's sure Quint exists outside her own imagination and "had come for someone else." He only stays for a few seconds, but long enough for him to feel familiar as if she's "known him always," while in her first sighting he stayed for a longer time with less clarity. He's near the house where the children live; he's made it clear he will reappear. The stakes are raised. In the third sighting Quint is inside the house. The governess is prepared to see him. She now knows his name and many details about his life and his job at Bly, and the information empowers her. She now feels "he knew me as well as I knew him," describing a bond with the ghost. In the fourth sighting Quint is no longer a man. Again, he is outside the house looking through a window, but this time he is described vaguely—no longer a handsome, disgraced house servant but a representation of evil itself. Even his silence has become authorial control. While during the first sighting the governess was writing the story herself, now Quint is the "author of our woe."

How do the governess's sightings of Miss Jessel change as The Turn of the Screw progresses?

Miss Jessel comes into clarity slowly. At her first sighting the governess senses her as an "alien object." The ghost is more of a sensory impression. She recognizes emotions associated with Miss Jessel—the mourning signified by the color black and the "fury of intention" to control Flora. She knows the old governess died under confusing and unpleasant circumstances but doesn't yet know the specifics. As with Peter Quint, Miss Jessel is first sighted in an open area when the governess is outdoors, while her next sightings are in more enclosed areas, escalating the governess's sense of being trapped. Her second sighting is more emotionally charged. Miss Jessel doesn't look at her and she vanishes quickly. The ghost seems clearly to be grieving. The governess notices her "attitude of woe." Miss Jessel, like Quint, gets physically closer to the children as the story goes on. Her third sighting provides a direct threat to the governess. Miss Jessel is in the schoolroom and has taken back her old job. She's writing at the governess's desk. She has the power to write and to command a space, making the governess feel as if she herself is the intruder. Miss Jessel has risen above her grief and is thinking of a plan. Her fourth sighting implies Miss Jessel succeeded in her plan. She may have turned Flora against the governess completely, and she hasn't revealed herself to Mrs. Grose (making the governess's story suspect).

What is Douglas's significance in The Turn of the Screw?

Douglas gives the narrative legitimacy and poignancy. Although The Turn of the Screw is fiction, the frame story presents a character with a personal relationship to the protagonist. He reminds readers from the outset of the ghost story's human stakes. He tells readers what to expect: "uncanny ugliness and horror and pain." Douglas's own clear pain and reluctance indicate the pathos in the tale to come. By telling the story he's "broken a thickness of ice." Douglas's final revealing of the letter from the locked drawer gives the reader an idea of the story's significance as a secret finally revealed to an audience. Douglas is the most earnest and sympathetic of the houseguests. When he introduces the story's horror with "quiet art," he takes control of the story's mood and tone. He is a narrator in command. His flattering description of the governess puts readers on her side and makes them care about the fate of the characters.

Why does the governess describe herself as a "screen" in Chapter 6 of The Turn of the Screw?

A screen is a barrier similar to a window; it can shut out threats. The governess wants to provide a screen so the ghosts can't get to the children, and the children can't see the ghosts. She imagines her screen will give an obscuring effect, not a clarifying one, for the children: "The more I saw the less they would." Early in the novella she still gives herself the moral authority and power of omniscient sight. Slowly this power slips away from her. By the novella's end she tries to screen Miles from the sight of Quint by holding him with his back to the window and obscuring his vision. She's now convinced Miles and Flora can see more horrors than she can, and they have been the ones shielding her. Instead of protecting Miles by trying to shield him, she has a hand in his death. The screen is two-sided and more complicated than she imagined.

What is the significance of games and imaginary characters in The Turn of the Screw?

The children frequently play games in which they pretend to be other people. The governess says she "walked in a world of their invention." While she's in an imaginary world Flora makes up in Chapter 6, pretending the lake is the Sea of Azof, the governess begins to sense Miss Jessel. The governess also senses Flora taking control of her own imaginary world, and the governess finds it threatening, suggesting a link between Miss Jessel appearing and times when the governess feels as though she is failing or disconnected from the children. Since the governess is typically frightened by what she does not know, the children's games arouse suspicion; she is unwilling to give them any freedom literally or mentally, and the more she stifles them, the more claustrophobic Bly becomes for her, and the more the ghosts close in on her. The children's games blur the line between fantasy and reality. In Chapter 9 they handle the governess—find ways to express themselves and create a sense of space and freedom from her—by "diverting, entertaining, surprising ... pouncing out ... in disguises, as animals and historical characters." She interprets the children's seemingly natural desire for imaginary play as a conundrum she'll never solve. By taking on imaginary disguises, the children play a game of their own: to distract the governess from the agenda of the ghosts.

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