The Turn of the Screw
Chapters II and III
Summary: Chapter II
Together with Flora, the governess drives out to meet Miles. The governess is unsettled by a letter from her employer that came in the mail on her first day. Enclosed was another letter, from Miles’s headmaster, saying that Miles is no longer welcome at school. Distressed by the thought that Miles might be a troublemaker and the knowledge that she has agreed to tend to matters herself, she questions Mrs. Grose. Her companion, as distressed as she, seems not to understand why Miles had been turned out from school.
The governess later that day approaches her colleague again, asking Mrs. Grose if she has ever known Miles to cause trouble. Mrs. Grose implies that Miles had on occasion been bad, but that was to be expected from a boy. A few hours before leaving to meet Miles, the governess approaches Mrs. Grose once more, questioning her about the previous governess. Mrs. Grose describes her as young and pretty but is evasive about her death, claiming she does not know why the young woman died.
Summary: Chapter III
The governess is late picking up Miles, whom she finds standing outside the inn exuding the same beauty and purity as Flora. Joining Mrs. Grose back at Bly, the governess rejects, on the basis of Miles’s attractive appearance, any charges she or the headmaster may have made against Miles. She determines to do nothing in regard to Miles’s expulsion. Mrs. Grose says she will stand by that decision, and the two kiss and embrace. The governess soon becomes absorbed in her responsibilities, and her two pupils give her little, if any, trouble.
During her private hour one evening, the governess takes a walk around the grounds, fantasizing unrealistically about meeting her master, and when she comes back in view of the house she sees a strange man standing atop one of the house’s towers, looking at her. The governess experiences a stillness and sudden hush. Her confrontation with the man lasts a long, intense moment before he passes from one of the tower’s corners to the other. In retrospect, the governess remembers that the man turned away from her without ever breaking his stare.
Chapter II introduces the tantalizing mystery of what Miles did to get himself expelled from school. Although Miles looks like an angel and was one of the youngest boys there, he apparently did something so bad that the school didn’t think disciplining him would be sufficient, possibly because he poses some kind of danger to the other students. Strangely, the headmaster refuses to even mention in the letter what Miles did. Since James never lets us know what happened, we might conclude that guessing the answer is impossible—that James never had something specific in mind and instead leaves Miles’s crime to our imaginations to create a sinister impression. If, on the other hand, we decide that an answer to this riddle exists and that we are supposed to read between the lines to figure it out, then the crime would have to be both something that was condemned by Victorian society and something that there was a taboo against speaking about. To many of us, these facts suggest strongly that Miles’s infraction was sexual in nature. As we see in subsequent chapters, he may have been exposed to sex by unscrupulous former servants, and thus he may be imparting knowledge about sex to his peers at school or perhaps engaging in sexual behaviors. (In Chapter XXIV, he finally admits that he “said things” to people he “liked” and that those people repeated the things he said to those they liked.) His infraction might involve knowledge of heterosexual acts, masturbation, or homosexuality—it is impossible to know for certain.
The governess’s reaction to the headmaster’s letter is both odd and revealing. A more practical governess might follow up with the school, make persistent inquiries, obtain actual facts, and try to resolve the situation. Instead, this governess lets her imagination run wild, conjuring up the darkest possibilities, hinting at the sexual nature of his misdeed when she refers to the possibility of his corrupting the other students. Despite her curiosity and ability to imagine horrible scenarios, she avoids pursuing the facts. She seems to want the situation to be complicated and difficult rather than simple, apparently because she wants a heroic challenge that gives her the opportunity to win the gratitude of the absent employer with whom she’s in love.
Chapter III features the first supernatural event, the governess’s first sighting of the ghost of Peter Quint—though neither we nor the governess realize he’s a ghost until the end of Chapter V. To put this scene in perspective, it is important to know that one of the most debated questions of The Turn of the Screw is whether the ghosts are real or whether the governess hallucinates them—and if she hallucinates them, why she does so. The reasons for suspecting the governess of hallucinating come later in the story, when the governess behaves more erratically and her understanding of the situation seems more questionable. At this point in the story, we don’t have much reason to question what the governess sees. In fact, we are likely to continue thinking that the ghosts are real and resist the idea that the governess is insane precisely because it seems impossible that the governess could have imagined the ghost, since she sees Peter Quint before she has even heard of him.
However, Peter Quint’s appearance is not quite as random as it seems. In Chapter II, Mrs. Grose inadvertently alludes to Peter Quint without mentioning his name, saying that he liked his girls young and pretty, and the governess picks up on this slip, asking whom Mrs. Grose means, since it is obviously not the master. This exchange could be seen as simple foreshadowing, but perhaps also as the planting of the idea in the governess’s mind that a strange and sexually predatory man is somehow associated with Bly. Another fact worth noting about Quint is that before the governess sees him, she is fantasizing about running into someone—perhaps her employer—during her walk. If we decide to look for evidence that Quint is a hallucination rather than a ghost, the fact that Quint’s appearance is so closely tied to the governess’s desire for the master might serve as the basis for a psychological interpretation. The governess’s mind may have produced Quint both as a substitute object of sexual desire and as a further pretext for heroism that will please her employer.
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