Confused, the governess wonders what sort of mystery Bly might hold. Meeting Mrs. Grose at the house, she points to the evening’s beauty as her reason for staying out so late. For days, the governess reflects on her encounter with the intruder. Meanwhile, her time spent with Miles and Flora goes smoothly. Still wondering about the cause of the boy’s expulsion, she decides finally that he was too refined for the “horrid, unclean school-world” and had been punished for it. As much as the governess enjoys her charges, she is concerned that both children are impersonal, seemingly without history.
One Sunday, the governess comes down the stairs to meet Mrs. Grose for church, only to meet a disturbing visage at the window. It is the intruder from the tower, staring intensely at her from outside the dining-room window. The governess runs outside to confront the man, but he has vanished. She turns to the window to stand where he had stood. At that moment, Mrs. Grose enters the dining room and is startled by the image of the governess staring in from outside.
Mrs. Grose, breathless, asks the governess why she looks so frightened. The governess responds by saying she cannot go to church and claims that what Mrs. Grose saw was not half as bad as what she herself saw just a few moments ago. She then bewilders and frightens her colleague by detailing her experience with the intruder at the window and, earlier, at the tower. Calling the man “a horror,” the governess tells Mrs. Grose that she feels compelled to stay and watch their home instead of going to church. Mrs. Grose asks what the man looked like, and the governess describes him as without a hat, with very red hair and a pale face. Mrs. Grose suddenly makes an expression of recognition and names the intruder as Peter Quint, her employer’s former valet. At the governess’s questioning, Mrs. Grose reveals that Quint was in charge of Bly last year until his death.
The governess’s first thoughts after seeing Peter Quint are to compare her situation to the plots of two popular gothic novels with romantic heroines, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre—the latter about a governess who marries her employer, which we know to be this governess’s fantasy. However, the effect of these references is not to make the governess’s story seem more like those novels, but just the opposite. The fact that she is inclined to see herself in terms of these gothic romances reminds us that this is not a romance; that those are fantasies rather than reality; and that even though we know that what we are reading is a work of fiction, it’s a work of realistic fiction.
The governess’s second sighting of Peter Quint, as he stares in through the window, differs from the first in that it is slightly more subjective. Her description of the first sighting focuses exclusively on what Quint looks like and what she sees him do, but this time she reports being seized by a flash of insight and certain knowledge that Quint is looking for someone other than her. This difference is important because the governess’s claims about the ghosts become increasingly more subjective as the story goes on. By Chapter VI, she claims to know that Quint was looking for Miles. We believe the governess because her first vision seems to be very factual—she observes a man, she doesn’t know he is a ghost, and she doesn’t know he looks like Quint; therefore, her vision must be trustworthy. As we read further, however, the governess claims to know or intuit many things that cannot be proven simply by the evidence of her senses. The less factual her impressions, the less certain we are that she is trustworthy. When Mrs. Grose sees the governess peering in from the spot where Quint was, she describes the governess as a terrifying and dreadful sight, hinting that the governess herself may be a source of terror to others rather than a hero or savior, as the governess would like to think.
The governess’s description for Mrs. Grose of Peter Quint’s appearance displays a strange mixture of attraction and repulsion. Even if we feel sure that Quint is a real ghost and not a product of the governess’s mind, we may still get the sense that the governess’s perceptions about Quint are not purely insightful and that, to a certain extent, the governess projects her own desires and fears onto him. Quint is clearly a foil for the absent master—similarly attractive, and at one time the master’s proxy at Bly, but emphatically not a gentleman like the master. We know that the governess fell in love with the master during their interviews, so we can assume that the master awakened sexual desires in the governess. However, the governess has no outlet for those feelings, because the precondition for winning the master’s approval is to endure his absence and not seek to communicate with him. She describes Quint as “tall, active, erect” and “remarkably” handsome, making it clear that she finds him attractive, but she also perceives him as aggressive and terrifying. We might infer that her frustrated desire for the master is what prompts her to see Quint as a sexual substitute, as someone who is attractive but, unlike the master, available. However, Quint’s sexual availability is also terrifying, because the social consequences of sex with a man like him would be so destructive. The governess’s fear of Quint’s sexuality (or her fear of her own desire for him) seems to manifest itself as a contempt for his status as a servant, and throughout the story she dwells on the dangers and evils of his lower-class, servile, ungentlemanly condition.
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