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Course Hero, "The Turn of the Screw Study Guide," February 9, 2017, accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Turn-of-the-Screw/.

The Turn of the Screw | Themes

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Deceptive Appearances

Nothing at Bly is what it seems. The contrast between appearances and reality drives the mystery of the narrative. James slowly reveals the truth but leaves room for ambiguity, keeping the reader guessing until the very end.

The children are physically attractive, kind, and intelligent. But they end up being as threatening as they are threatened. Bly seems like a wealthy house out of a fairy tale and the governess's job a dream. But the cracks slowly begin to emerge in the facade, turning the governess's storybook fantasy into a nightmare straight out of Gothic literature.

The nature of reality itself can be deceptive, as James shows through the governess's struggle to get others to believe in the ghosts. Due to the transitory nature of the spirits, which only appear for moments at a time, the governess herself can never truly be sure what she's seeing.

Secrecy

When the governess first sees Peter Quint she wonders if there is a secret at Bly—if the house is holding onto stories and mysteries of the dead. Bly's many rooms, and the curtains in the rooms, suggest hidden dangers.

Every main character has secret information they don't want to reveal. The entire story is framed in the Prologue as a long-kept secret from a locked drawer. The governess and the children spend several chapters deliberately withholding information from one another. To compensate, they are as outwardly pleasant as possible, but find little comfort in a common routine. Peter Quint and Miss Jessel don't reveal their motives through speech, leaving the governess to assume the worst.

James keeps secrets from the reader as well, like the reliability of the governess, the reason behind the uncle's mysterious neglect, and the true nature of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel's living interactions with Miles and Flora.

Corruption

Many forces of corruption influence the story. The children, particularly Miles, may have been sexually abused or otherwise mistreated. Miles is expelled from his school for behavior too dreadful to be clarified. The ghosts suggest the supernatural corruption of evil spirits.

Corruption is also associated with adulthood and the loss of childhood purity and innocence. As Miles asserts his independence and desire to be treated like a young man, he appears to be more deeply affected by the spirit of Peter Quint. The governess, a young and idealistic woman, becomes morally compromised as she matures in her first job, first by her attraction to the uncle, and then by her perceived dishonesty in withholding Miles's expulsion from him. And she introduces ideas to the housekeeper that are abhorrent and morally repulsive.

James suggests moral corruption is at work, deeper than the scandal of two house servants having an affair. He references the corruption of madness or insanity—the governess thinks the children are going mad, and she herself may be hallucinating. The governess associates the ghosts with hell, temptation, and sin, and positions herself as the children's savior. But despite what she describes as her best efforts, Flora becomes sick and traumatized, and Miles dies. As the children's perfect characters begin to erode, and they begin to misbehave and lose respect for adults toward the book's end, the erosion is mirrored by the physical corruption in their bodies.

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