Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
The governess, from whose point of view the story is told. Employed to look after his orphaned niece and nephew by a man who makes it clear that he does not wish to be bothered about them, she finds herself engaged in a struggle against evil apparitions for the souls of the children. There has been a good deal of the “Is-Hamlet-mad?” sort of inconclusive speculation as to whether The Turn of the Screw is a real ghost story or a study of a neurotic and frustrated woman. Probably both interpretations are true: the apparitions are real, the children are indeed possessed by evil, and the governess is probably neurotic.
Miles, a little boy, one of the governess’ charges. At first, he seems to be a remarkably good child, but gradually she learns that he has been mysteriously corrupted by his former governess and his uncle’s former valet, whose ghosts maintain their evil control. Miles dies in the governess’ arms during her final struggle to save him from some mysterious evil.
Flora, Miles’s sister and feminine counterpart. The governess finally sends her away to her uncle.
Miss Jessel, the former governess, now dead. She appears frequently to the governess and to the children, who refuse to admit the appearances.
Peter Quint, the uncle’s former valet, now dead....
(The entire section is 314 words.)
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In his portrayal of the governess, James effectively uses the technique of leaving the reader in doubt by alternately suggesting interpretive directions and blurring their validity. For example, in the prologue Douglas vouches for her trustworthiness as a narrator, claiming that at the time he knew her she was the most charming and agreeable of women. However, since he admits to having been in love with her, he may be self-deceived about her character. In any case, to be charming at the age of forty is no guarantee that at the age of twenty she was rational and sensibly observant. Similarly, what the governess herself says at the opening of the story can be taken in opposing ways. She reveals that accepting the position at Bly meant that she abruptly moved from a sheltered life as the daughter of a poor country parson to a position of absolute power and responsibility in an unfamiliar setting where her only companions were the children and Mrs. Grose, whose very name suggests the limitations of her insights. In addition, she felt strongly attracted to the master and desperately wanted to succeed in her job. Her religious background, her inexperience and isolation, her romantic dreams and her ambitions are qualities which may simply characterize her as an impressionable but otherwise normal young woman or predispose her to some form of mental breakdown.
The other figures in the story are always seen through the filter of the thoughts and feelings of the...
(The entire section is 1132 words.)
Flora is the eight-year-old girl who the governess thinks is being tempted by the ghost of Miss Jessel, her former governess. When the governess arrives at Bly to take care of Flora and Miles, she is overwhelmed by Flora's charm; Flora is a model student in the classroom. When the governess sees Miss Jessel while alone with Flora in the garden, she believes that Flora saw the ghost, too. However, the girl sweetly denies that anything is amiss when the governess tries to question her in vague terms about what is happening. Even when the governess catches her peering out of the window in the room they share, Flora denies anything is wrong.
One afternoon, the governess realizes that she does not know Flora's whereabouts. She and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, go looking for the little girl by the lake, where they see she has taken the boat. They walk around the lake, and the governess confronts her, asking where Miss Jessel is. At this moment, the ghost of Miss Jessel appears to the governess, but the little girl, no longer charming, tells the governess that she does not see the ghost and never has. She tells Mrs. Grose that she wants to be taken away from Bly, away from the governess. That night, Flora gets ill with a fever. The next morning, Mrs. Grose tells the governess that Flora has been using evil language. The governess has Mrs. Grose take Flora away from Bly to her uncle's house.
(The entire section is 249 words.)
The governess tries to save Miles and Flora from Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, two ghosts she claims she has seen. In the introduction to the tale, Douglas, who says that he was friends with the governess before her death, gives her background. The governess is a young woman during the events of her tale, and she has been given the task of taking care of Miles and Flora. The children's uncle has hired her on the condition that she never bothers him with matters involving the children. When she arrives at Bly, the governess is nervous, having never had this much responsibility. She is instantly taken with Flora and dismisses sounds that she hears her first night there. After receiving a note from Miles's headmaster that says he is being expelled, she is nervous about meeting the boy but finds him to be charming. It is not long after she arrives that the governess starts to see ghosts—first a man, then a woman. With Mrs. Grose's help, the governess identifies these ghosts as Peter Quint, the former valet, and Miss Jessel, the governess's predecessor. Feeling that the children's souls are in grave danger, the governess sets herself the task of protecting them from the ghosts and stands up to the apparitions on several occasions.
Meanwhile, the governess keeps an eye on the children and attempts to get them to confess that they have seen the ghosts, too, approaching the subject in vague terms. When the children are unresponsive, she becomes more insistent,...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
Mrs. Grose is the housekeeper at Bly, who gives the governess information about the identities and lives of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. When the governess first arrives at Bly, Mrs. Grose seems to be overjoyed at her appearance, although she hides this emotion, which the governess finds odd. After the death of Miss Jessel, and prior to the arrival of the governess, Mrs. Grose—who is of a lower class than the governess—has been taking care of Flora, while Miles was sent away to school. Mrs. Grose cannot read, which the governess realizes when she hands Mrs. Grose a letter. When the governess sees the second appearance of Quint, she confesses the sighting to Mrs. Grose, who identifies the ghost.
From this point on, Mrs. Grose is the governess's confidant in the ghostly matter, although Mrs. Grose rarely gives information to the governess unless pressed to do so. Even then, she gives many vague responses, which sometimes cause the governess to come to her own conclusions. When Flora is found missing, Mrs. Grose and the governess go to look for her. When they find her by the lake, Mrs. Grose does not see the ghost of Miss Jessel, although the governess does. Because she cannot see the ghost and because the governess tries to browbeat Flora into saying that the child has seen Miss Jessel, Mrs. Grose starts to think that the governess is seeing things. However, that night after Flora has a fever and starts to use bad language, Mrs. Grose is inclined to...
(The entire section is 272 words.)
Douglas is the person who reads the governess's tale to the narrator and the assembled guests at the Christmas party. In the introduction to the governess's tale, Douglas offers to tell a terrible tale that heightens the terror effect by "two turns" of the screw, since it tells about ghostly interactions with two children. Douglas is very cryptic about his relationship to the governess, saying only that she was ten years older than he was and that she was his sister's governess, which is when she told him her tale. Once Douglas starts telling the tale, it is told entirely from the governess's point of view, from the account that she wrote down for Douglas.
Miss Jessel is one of two ghosts who the governess claims is trying to corrupt Miles and Flora. The governess is the only one who claims directly to have seen the ghost of Miss Jessel, which appears to her several times throughout the story. The first time Miss Jessel appears, the governess recognizes her, having already spoken about ghosts with Mrs. Grose after seeing the apparition of Peter Quint. Through Mrs. Grose, the governess also finds out that Miss Jessel, the former governess, was having an affair with Quint, who was much lower in class, and that Quint treated Miss Jessel horribly. When the governess and Mrs. Grose find Flora has stolen away to the lake, the governess sees the ghost of Miss Jessel once again. However, Mrs. Grose...
(The entire section is 848 words.)