The governess and Mrs. Grose discuss the governess’s encounter with what they assume to be the ghost of Peter Quint. With a feeling of sudden clarity, the governess exclaims that Quint had been looking for Miles. She wonders why neither child has ever mentioned the man. Mrs. Grose reveals that Quint had been “too free” with Miles. Still haunted by the image of Peter Quint, the governess sleeps fitfully, if at all, and remains convinced Mrs. Grose has left out some important detail.
The governess begins to view the situation as an occasion for heroism and zealously takes up the role as protector of Miles and Flora. Later, with Miles inside, the governess watches Flora play on the bank of the lake when she becomes aware of a third presence. The governess turns her eyes to Flora, who is attempting to build a small wooden boat and seems oblivious to any sort of irregularity. The governess then shifts her eyes in the direction of their visitor.
The narrative moves forward to later that afternoon, when the governess informs Mrs. Grose of the encounter. She claims that the children “know” and are keeping things to themselves, explaining that Flora saw a woman at the lake but said nothing. The governess describes the vision as dressed in black, with a dreadful face, and says the woman appeared out of nowhere. Responding to Mrs. Grose’s questions, the governess claims the woman is Miss Jessel, her predecessor, and that she is certain Flora will lie about it. Mrs. Grose defends Flora as innocent, then inquires further. The governess says Miss Jessel “fixed” Flora with determined eyes and remarks on Miss Jessel’s beauty. At this, Mrs. Grose speaks of Miss Jessel as “infamous” and reveals that Miss Jessel had an inappropriate relationship with Quint. Clinging to Mrs. Grose in distress, the governess laments that the children are lost beyond her control.
Meeting again later, the governess and Mrs. Grose determine to keep their wits about them. That night they talk in the governess’s room until the governess is convinced that Mrs. Grose believes her. The governess returns to her pupils and feels ashamed at having thought Flora capable of cunning. Later, she asks Mrs. Grose about the occasions on which Miles had been bad. It takes prying, but Mrs. Grose finally tells her that her previous reference had regarded the time Miles had spent with Quint. Mrs. Grose defends Miles, pointing out that Miss Jessel had not disapproved of his and Quint’s relationship. Getting fed up with the governess’s relentless questioning, Mrs. Grose fires back some retorts. The governess pieces together her colleague’s revelations and presumes that Mrs. Grose’s silence signifies her agreement. Mrs. Grose confirms that whenever Miles had been with Quint, Flora had been with Miss Jessel. As Mrs. Grose again defends Miles, the governess reassures her that without more evidence, she can accuse no one and will simply wait.
In these chapters, as the governess learns about Quint and Jessel and their relationship with the children, her views toward them evolve from the idea that the ghosts are trying to get at the children and that she can shield them to suspecting that the children are already under the ghosts’ influence and are corrupted, and thus need to be even more vigorously watched and more aggressively rescued. From this point on, everything the children say or do may be duplicitous and ironic. Even if we believe that the ghosts are real, we don’t know whether the governess is right about the children. Her assertions that the children are aware of the ghosts are based on subjective impressions and intuitions, not on clear visual evidence. Moreover, the governess’s interpretation of events at Bly is opportunistic, even self-serving. She sees the problem of the ghosts and the chance to save the children as a “magnificent opportunity,” a chance to fulfill her fantasy of winning the master’s approval through an act of heroism.
The nature of the children’s relationship with Quint and Jessel is only hinted at, and it can be interpreted in different ways. We know from Mrs. Grose that Miles spent a lot of time with Quint, despite Mrs. Grose’s disapproval of a servant and master being so friendly. We also gather that Quint was “too free” with Miles and everyone else, that Quint and Jessel had an affair, and that Quint did what he liked with people. All of these statements are vague and ambiguous. Seen in the most positive light, Mrs. Grose’s account can be interpreted to mean merely that Quint was a bad influence on Miles because of his lower-class manners. At worst, Mrs. Grose’s words might imply that Quint exposed Miles to sexual knowledge by telling him about sex, by letting Miles witness him having sex, or even by having sex with Miles. Similarly, Mrs. Grose’s assertion that Quint was “free” with everyone and did what he liked with people could mean merely that he was rude and spoke to people however he wanted, or it could mean that he seduced or sexually abused the other servants. The governess is quick to interpret the situation in a sexual way, insisting that Miles and Flora understood the true nature of Quint and Jessel’s relationship and that they helped to cover it up. She sees the situation as much worse than does Mrs. Grose, perceiving herself as bolder and more willing to face the truth than Mrs. Grose. We don’t know the truth for certain, and our sense that there are no limits to how bad the situation might be creates a feeling of vertigo and terror in us.
In Chapter VIII, Mrs. Grose raises the idea that the governess might have imagined the ghosts, and the governess silences her by pointing out that she described each ghost down to the last detail and that Mrs. Grose identified them by these descriptions. The validity of this argument is ambiguous, however. This might be a fair description of how they identify Peter Quint, but in the case of Miss Jessel, not only does the governess not provide a detailed description, she is the one who asserts that the woman in black was Miss Jessel. This discrepancy is definitely noteworthy, giving us some reason to mistrust the governess, but it doesn’t settle the question one way or the other, because the governess’s point still seems valid as applied to Quint.