The Turn of the Screw

by Henry James

Start Free Trial

At the end of The Turn of the Screw, who is Miles referring to as a devil?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There has been considerable scholarly argument over this issue. The answer really depends upon whether you trust the rather unreliable narration of the governess and whether you believe that the supernatural elements in the story are really present or if you think that they exist only in her mind. Some critics have argued that Miles is addressing the ghost of Peter Quint, but in the context of the conversation being held here, that doesn't really make sense. Miles is asking the governess whether "he" is here, and when the governess demands to know who "he" is, Miles answers, "Peter Quint—you devil!" However, he doesn't appear to be seeing Peter Quint anywhere, as the next moment, he glances around anxiously and says, "where?" If he were addressing Peter Quint, presumably he would not have asked where he was. The governess seems sure that "the beast" is there somewhere, but this is her interpretation of what is going on around them, not Miles's.

It seems far more logical that, at this stage, Miles has become as frightened of the governess as he could ever have been of anyone else; the governess's behavior is rather unhinged by this stage, and moments later, she has in fact (we can infer) smothered the boy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There is no definitive answer to this question. What any reader thinks on the matter depends upon whether they view the story as having true supernatural occurrences or if they think it is about a governess going mad.

Miles could be speaking to the governess. She has been acting strangely and tormenting him with her insistence that he "confess" something unsavory. He seems to resent her at this point and views her as having a filthy mind.

However, if one does believe The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story, it could be argued that Miles sees the ghost of Peter Quint and is crying "you devil!" out of horror. His sudden death afterward could be seen as having been caused by excessive fright or supernatural harm.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a question to which the answer is illusive. An analysis of grammatical construction and for contextual logic may reveal an answer. Grammatically, Miles is addressing the governess who had sprung upon him to shield his sight from the apparition at the window. He doesn't know, when he utters the words "Peter Flint -- you devil!" that the governess sees Flint at that very moment at the window; as far as Miles knows, it is he and the governess alone together.  Despite James' propensity for clouding a sentence with interjected prepositional and other phrases ("was all for his judge, his executioner; yet it made him avert himself again, and that movement made me, with a single bound ...), there is no way to understand the grammatical construction comprising a noun followed by an em dash followed by an address of non-endearment as anything other than an address to the individual with whom the speaker is conversing, in this case, the governess. The em dash has a number of uses, one of which is to interrupt the sentence for the interjection of closely related but explanatory or emphatic information, such as "-- you devil!"

An examination of the logic of the story produces few clues to back up the grammar analysis though, which is why Miles' outburst confuses readers. Yet there are two clues to go by that do confirm the above analysis. First, though, it's helpful to examine why the logic of the story is misleading. The main reason is that Miles isn't one to get flustered, let alone utter demonstrative exclamations. His conversations with the governess are always conducted in a cool, little gentleman-like manner. Therefore his abrupt change of tone and address in shouting "-- you devil!" at the governess seems contradictory and inexplicable, especially when Flint is witnessed (by the governess) right at the window.

Now, back to the clues that lead away from the contradiction. Bear in mind that the governess has just lunged at Miles and pressed his face to her body to shield his eyes from the horrible specter now visible at the window. This is alarming for Miles, to say the least. The first clue follows after this and occurs when Miles deduces what is happening and asks if it is "she?" Miles' composure is broken through and he emphatically screams, "Miss Jessel, Miss Jessel!" teaching us the depth of his emotion and the heightened state of his terror. This clue leads to the surprise ending, which depends on intensely heightened emotion.

The second clue, ironically, is that after exclaiming "-- you devil!" to the governess, Miles falls in her arms and dies. This is delayed confirmation of the fact that he was indeed in such a state of horror and fear as to incongruously yell "-- you devil!" at the governess. James shows after-the-fact that either this was Miles pent up feeling for the governess all along or that in his terror he spoke wrongly from a heightened sense of fear.  This is also James' way of demonstrating that the reader, though dubious, should take his story as truth for the characters in the story, not as their delusion, and that under the composed exterior of good breeding there may beat the heart of terror and intense passion.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial