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The Turn of the Screw | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Miles's expulsion from school affect The Turn of the Screw's plot and outcome?

Miles's expulsion is the governess's first hint in Chapter 2 of what it will mean to be "at the helm" of Bly. No one else will handle things but she. She's exhilarated and frightened by the new responsibility of figuring things out for herself, and by her secret goal of pleasing the uncle. Miles's school situation will initiate—and come to represent—the governess's relentless digging for the truth. The circumstances behind his leaving school aren't revealed until the very last chapter, leaving the reader wondering too. All the tension in the novella, driving the question of whether Miles is innocent or evil, centers on the mysterious reason behind his expulsion from school. The expulsion convinces the governess the seemingly angelic children are under threat while simultaneously leaving her wondering if their goodness is too good to be real. The governess believes it's possible the headmaster of the school is antagonizing a child who is innocent, and she's influenced to dismiss her suspicions by Mrs. Grose's "flood of good faith," so she aligns with the children against what she feels is a cruel attack from the outside world. The news of the expulsion ramps up her sympathy for the children, but it also ramps up her curiosity about their past. Her own curiosity threatens to overwhelm her throughout the novella, and the agony of the mystery triumphs over the governess by the end of the story; she loses faith in the children's goodness and sees them as evil. After the ghosts begin to appear and the children seem to deny their appearance, the governess attempts for several chapters to use Miles's expulsion as leverage against him. Miles uses her denial of a formal education for him as leverage against her. In the final scene the governess attempts to exorcise an evil spirit from Miles by getting him to admit the truth about his school. When he does tell her what happened, the revelation of his secret only renews Quint's force, and possibly costs Miles his life. Had Miles not been expelled, perhaps there would have been no story to tell.

Why does Miles threaten to bring his uncle to Bly in Chapters 14 and 17 of The Turn of the Screw?

Miles may or may not be consorting with ghosts, but he clearly wants his independence and freedom. He feels trapped, as the governess does. He chooses knowledge over innocence by dropping his pretense of cooperating by playing childish games in the schoolroom with his sister and the governess. The governess's efforts to be a "screen" for the children include not sending the uncle the letters the children write to him. She wants to control the communication. Miles says, "It strikes me you never tell me," referring to what his uncle thinks about his expulsion. The uncle doesn't know Miles was expelled from school, since the school's letter was sealed in Chapter 2 when the governess received it in the mail; the uncle hadn't opened it. Miles indicates he doesn't mind if the uncle knows about his troubles at school, as long as the uncle knows how the governess is neglecting his education—and possibly interrupting his communication with Peter Quint. From the governess's point of view Miles is aligning with the side of evil and trying to recruit his uncle to help him. However, when Miles tells the governess, in Chapter 17, "You'll have to tell him—about the way you've let it all drop: you'll have to tell him a tremendous lot," the implication is Miles knows the governess is harming him on a deeper level than by just keeping him from school, and he senses if his uncle were aware of what is really happening at Bly he would help Miles and Flora.

How does Mrs. Grose in The Turn of the Screw compare and contrast with the governess?

Both women are from lower-class backgrounds, working with (and for) aristocratic children. Their status as employees creates a complicated power dynamic with the children, but bonds the two women. Both women are portrayed as fundamentally good, decent, and caring. Both fear the corruption circling Bly, though they don't agree about its causes. The governess is more educated and more assertive than Mrs. Grose. While Mrs. Grose watched scandal erupt at Bly and didn't take action—she denies the children were her responsibility when Peter Quint and Miss Jessel were around; the governess can't see wrongs without working to right them. Both women have an imperfect, flawed approach, but both believe they act in the children's best interest. Mrs. Grose respects the governess but is skeptical about her ghost sightings. Mrs. Grose has a "want of imagination" which keeps her from seeing the ghosts, while the governess has imagination to spare. As a result Mrs. Grose is more inclined to bring in human authorities, such as the uncle, while the governess prefers to take dangerous situations into her own hands and believe in her own power.

What role does the physical setting of Bly play in The Turn of the Screw?

Bly's isolation in the country affects the characters, since there are few people around to confirm or deny the ghost sightings. In Chapter 6 the governess is at the lake near Bly when she senses the presence of a ghost. She reassures herself by thinking of the "natural" appearance of messengers from the nearby village. The house shows signs of mystery and secrecy, like the events of the story itself. The opulent dining room is a "cold clean temple of mahogany and brass"—off-putting and alienating. The terrace and the house itself seem "empty" to the governess. The architectural oddities, like "crooked staircases that made me pause" and "empty chambers and dull corridors," increase the sense of unseen rooms and unknown residents. The large staff of servants is mostly invisible in the narrative, only referred to as silent spectators, like the servants who surround the governess and Miles when they dine alone. The house itself is personified in Chapter 8 as a "sleeping house," unaware of the troubles within. The size of the house and the estate offers plenty of room for intruders. The governess describes the ghosts' multiple points of entry in Chapter 12. They appear from "the top of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools."

When Miles tells the governess he is "getting on," what does this suggest about his character in Chapter 14 of The Turn of the Screw?

Miles wants to know more than staying at Bly with the governess can teach him. He implies his education is less challenging than the learning a formal setting has to offer. Miles and Flora have been proven in earlier chapters to be exceptionally intelligent, dedicated students. But Miles isn't simply talking about academic work. He wants a life the governess can't understand. Miles may be precocious due to Quint's abuse. He's grown up faster than he otherwise would have, despite his initial aura of sweetness and innocence. The ghosts may be a metaphor for the evil already introduced into Miles's life. "Getting on" also implies his desire for the knowledge of adulthood. Miles doesn't need the governess protecting him anymore. He wants to know the truth, no matter what the consequences are. The governess will struggle in Chapters 23 and 24 with the thought of corrupting Miles's innocence herself by forcing the truth from him—a truth she imagines will be too terrible for him to handle. As he looks out the window in Chapter 23 he goes through "a kind of failure" in the window frame as he fails to see Quint, representing, possibly, a failure to transition into the adulthood and complete freedom he wants.

In The Turn of the Screw, what role does the weather play?

Throughout the novella the weather parallels the mood of the governess's story, and it suggests the intrusion of outside forces, but always—just as with the ghosts—with plausible deniability. For instance, "a gust of frozen air and a shake of the room" occurs just as the governess is ready to confront Miles in Chapter 17. The cold seems like a freak incident; it's a sudden chill in late summer, but it's an event the governess cannot explain. Seasonal weather changes match the external atmosphere to the governess's mood. As the governess arrives in Chapter 1, the beautiful June weather affects her first impressions of the house. The "summer sweetness ... served as a friendly welcome," and the children's personalities match it. The first sighting of Peter Quint is in "the intense hush in which the sounds of evening dropped." When the governess feels trouble gathering at Bly, the dead autumn leaves are "like a theatre after the performance" portraying the hushed chill of the residents in the house and indicating the performances of the children and the governess within, who are keeping secrets from one another.

How does the governess's love for the children's uncle in The Turn of the Screw affect the plot and outcome of the story, as well as the story's other characters?

Douglas presents the story to his audience as a story about unrequited love. The governess loves both the uncle and the children (or professes to) and she wants the love to be returned. Whenever she's faced with an important decision the governess worries about what the uncle will think. Her desire for the uncle's good favor conflicts with her desire to preserve the children's well-being. In Chapter 12, although she's sure Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are trying to get to the children, she worries about the uncle's "derision, his amusement, his contempt" if she tells him. After Flora becomes ill the governess fears Flora will "make me out to be the lowest creature" with her uncle. The governess is not the impartial observer and defender she wants to be; affection blinds her. She's also keeping her love a secret. No one knew, she says, "how proud I had been to serve him." The only one she tells is Douglas, who reveals her secret to the audience for the first time. At Bly she's afraid contacting the uncle will disturb "the fine machinery I had set in motion." The metaphor of machinery, like the "turn of the screw" in the title, evokes planned action and plotting. The governess has her own machinations. Both she and the children have to hide the truth from the master of the house. Without the threat or promise of the uncle, the governess and the children would have "deprived each other of some of our finest exhibitions" and been, presumably, more honest.

Why does James use words associated with decay and depravity to describe the characters and setting in The Turn of the Screw?

James wants to portray a house decaying from both the outside in and the inside out. He repeats words and phrases to give the reader unsettling sensations. Age and appearances: Flora is described as an "old, old woman" in Chapter 19—"hideously hard" and "vulgarly pert" in Chapter 20. The little girl has decayed and lost her status as an admired, aristocratic child. She may be possessed by an older woman. Age is associated with depravity and youth with purity. In Chapter 14 the governess fears she too is being corrupted by evil when she imagines how "ugly and queer" she, an adult, must look to Miles. Poison: By the midpoint of the story (Chapter 12) the governess believes "the house is poisoned." In the last chapter Peter Quint's presence "filled the room like the taste of poison," a sensory comparison, which foreshadows Miles's death. Depravity: Quint is described as "depraved" and an emblem of decay, with "secret disorders, vices more than suspected." Whiteness: The whiteness of Quint's face during his last appearance, and of the governess's face when she sees Quint for the second time, is associated with the whiteness of corpses.

What role do books, stories, and fiction play in The Turn of the Screw?

The first line, "The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless," sets the reader up to anticipate an unfolding drama with, likewise, "breathless" tension. The governess pictures herself as a heroine in a story. Douglas describes the uncle, from her perspective, as a man perfect enough to be from "an old novel." When she sees Quint for the first time she thinks her imagination has turned real. She's imagined meeting a stranger at Bly would be "as charming as a charming story." She hopes for a handsome man who would "smile and approve" of her (probably inspired by her thoughts of the children's uncle). But she's not in a story with a happy ending; she's in a horror story, and the man who appears is a manifestation of evil. Fairy tales are a repeated motif. The children read fairy tales and appear to the governess like a sprite and a fairy prince—characters in fairy tales themselves. The governess describes her daily work, which she initially finds easy and delightful, as the "poetry of the schoolroom" in Chapter 4. Once the dread creeps in the governess thinks the children are pretending to read fairy tales while they're "steeped in their vision of the dead restored to them." The night she begins confronting the children about the appearances of the ghosts, which are coming closer to the children's bedrooms, she's in a "roomful of old books at Bly." This night, she says, is when her suffering really begins—when the story starts to have plot twists and turns she can't comprehend.

How does James use metonymy—the representation of a concept by an object physically associated with the concept—in The Turn of the Screw?

Hands are used to represent writing and narrating. The governess's story is written "in the most beautiful hand" and Douglas's audience defers to "the beauty of his author's hand." The "hand" is the skill of her narration and description, rather than the physical beauty of her handwriting. In Chapter 2 the governess receives a letter "in the hand of my employer." His hand, and his writing, give him authority. The "free hand" of Miles's uncle's tailor represents action and liberties taken with authority. The "helm" of a ship represents a moral leadership position. The governess is "strangely at the helm" of Bly in Chapter 1 and has to steer the "ship" in the right direction. By the time Flora has left Bly and Miles is completely independent, the governess has to "[clutch] the helm" to avoid "total wreck"—she needs to take back a leadership role and assert control.

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