Although the governess adores Miles and Flora when she first meets them, she quickly becomes suspicious of their every word and action, convinced that they hope to deceive her. She is fickle, however, and frequently switches back to being absolutely sure of their pure innocence. At these times, her affection for the children can be intense. She embraces them often and with passion, going so far as to kiss Miles. The ambiguity of the text allows these displays of affection to appear both harmless and inappropriate. Her volatile relationship with the children renders her an unreliable narrator and a dubious source of information. According to Douglas, the governess’s confidant and admirer, she is “the most agreeable person” he has ever known “in her position.” However, he says also that she was “in love,” as though this is an excuse for her behavior, which he admits is questionable. Mrs. Grose’s increasing skepticism casts doubt on the governess’s visions and fears and suggests that the governess may indeed be losing her mind.
The governess, with her overabundant concern for the children and her violent suspicions of them, may be regarded as either a heroine or a villain. On one hand, she seems to be an ambitious young woman who unwittingly places herself in a position in which she is forced to struggle heroically to protect her charges from supernatural forces. On the other hand, she seems to be a sheltered, inexperienced young woman whose crush on her employer and nervous exhaustion at being in charge of two strange children result in an elaborate and ultimately dangerous fabrication or hallucination. James provides only the governess’s side of the story, which may be inaccurate in whole or in part. In any case, the governess’s account is by no means the full account, which we never learn.
An illiterate servant at Bly, Mrs. Grose provides the governess with open ears and loyal support. Although the governess thinks her simple minded and slow witted, Mrs. Grose knows more of the story than the governess fathoms and is as capable of piecing things together as is the governess, though slower to leap to dire conclusions. Although Mrs. Grose is the source for most of the governess’s information, the governess does not take her words at face value or ask Mrs. Grose for her opinions. Instead, the governess uses Mrs. Grose as a “receptacle of lurid things.” The governess frequently attempts to seize moments alone with Mrs. Grose so that she can try out her latest speculations. Mrs. Grose is usually skeptical of these speculations, but the governess takes Mrs. Grose’s incredulity for astonished belief. Like the reader, Mrs. Grose is willing to hear the governess out but doesn’t necessarily agree with her logic or conclusions.
Miles might be either a cunning and deceitful plaything of ghosts or merely an innocent, unusually well-mannered young boy. The governess repeatedly changes her mind on the matter, leaving Miles’s true character in question. When the governess first meets Miles, she is struck by his “positive fragrance of purity” and the sense that he has known nothing but love. She finds herself excusing him for any potential mishap because he is too beautiful to misbehave. Yet she also senses a disturbing emptiness in Miles, an impersonality and lack of history, as though he is less than real.
Once the governess begins having her supernatural encounters, she comes to believe that Miles is plotting evil deeds with his ghostly counterpart, Quint, and indeed Miles does exhibit strange behavior. For example, he plans an incident so that the governess will think him “bad,” and he steals the letter she wrote to his uncle. Mrs. Grose tells us that Peter Quint was a bad influence on him, but we have no way to measure the extent or precise nature of this influence, and Miles’s misdeeds may be nothing more than childish pranks. The fact that Miles is otherwise unusually pleasant and well behaved suggests that the sinister quality of his behavior exists only in the governess’s mind. The governess eventually decides that Miles must be full of wickedness, reasoning that he is too “exquisite” to be anything else, a conclusion she bases only on her own subjective impressions and conjectures.
Like Miles, Flora might be either angelic or diabolical. She appears to be a completely wonderful little girl, even preternaturally so, well behaved and a pleasure to be around. The governess thinks Flora possesses “extraordinary charm” and is the “most beautiful child” she has laid eyes on. Flora seems, however, to have a personality quite distinct from these glowing descriptions. When the governess questions Flora as to why she had been looking out the window, Flora’s explanation is evasive and unsatisfying. Flora’s next turn at the window turns out to be, according to Miles, part of a scheme to show the governess that Miles can be “bad.” At this point, the governess has already assumed Flora to be conniving and deceptive, but this is the first instance in which Flora seems to be exhibiting unambiguous deceit. The story remains inconclusive, however, and we never know for sure what Flora and Miles are up to. Flora may very well be the innocent child the governess thought her to be, her strange, diabolical turns existing only in the governess’s mind.