The Turn of the Screw
Chapters XIV, XV, XVI, and XVII
Summary: Chapter XIV
The governess walks to church accompanied by Miles. Mrs. Grose and Flora are ahead of them, on their way to church as well. On the way, Miles brings up school, asking when he will be going back. He quickly adds that he has grown tired of always being around women and points out that he has been very well behaved, except for that one night. The governess interviews Miles carefully, trying to coax out of him the reason for his expulsion from school. She is unsuccessful. Miles maintains that he wants to go back to school to be around his “own sort,” to which the governess laughs and refers to Flora as the only example of his “sort” she knows. Nearing the gate for church, Miles asks whether his uncle agrees with the governess on the matter, and the governess tells Miles she doesn’t think his uncle cares about his situation. Triumphantly declaring that he will make his uncle come to Bly and care, Miles marches off into church alone.
Summary: Chapter XV
The governess turns away from church, feeling defeated by Miles and taken aback by the sudden revelation that he possesses “consciousness and a plan.” With the sudden intention of leaving Bly, she returns to the house and impulsively sits at the bottom of the staircase. She jumps up quickly, repulsed by the memory that the spot is the same place where Miss Jessel had sat during their last encounter. The governess heads for the schoolroom, where she finds Miss Jessel at the table, in the same position as before, with her head in her hands. The ghost rises with an air of indifference to the governess’s entrance. Standing not far from the governess, Miss Jessel stares intently at her. The governess is disturbed by the feeling that she is the one who is intruding and cries out to the ghost, calling her a “terrible, miserable woman.” Miss Jessel looks at the governess as though she understands, then vanishes. The room is now empty and bright with sunshine, and the governess has a strong feeling that she must stay on at Bly.
Summary: Chapter XVI
Mrs. Grose and the two children return home from church and act as though the governess’s absence is nothing unusual. The governess, hurt and upset, manages to get Mrs. Grose alone so that she can inquire as to whether the children “bribed her to silence.” Mrs. Grose confirms the governess’s suspicion, saying the children had asked her not to say anything. She says the children told her that the governess would be happier if they made no mention of it and that they must do all they can to please her. The governess tells Mrs. Grose that everything is “all out” between Miles and her, and she goes on to say that she has had “a talk” with Miss Jessel. When Mrs. Grose inquires further, the governess claims that Miss Jessel spoke of the torments of the dead and that the ghost wants Flora.
To Mrs. Grose’s relief, the governess says she will send for the children’s uncle. The two discuss the problem of Miles’s expulsion, with the governess deciding that the reason was “wickedness.” Mrs. Grose defends Miles, saying his relationship with Quint was not his fault and that she will take the blame. Mrs. Grose then offers to write to the uncle instead. The governess responds with sarcasm, asking her colleague if she wants to write out their fantastical story. Breaking down with tears in her eyes, Mrs. Grose entreats the governess to write the letter. The governess says she will write that evening, and the two separate.
Summary: Chapter XVII
The governess begins writing to the children’s uncle that windy evening. Restless, she gets up to listen at Miles’s door. Miles calls out for her to come in, saying he heard her walk across the passage. When the governess enters his room, Miles brings up the “queer business” of how the governess is bringing him up. Holding her breath, the governess asks what he means, to which he replies that she knows. She tells him he will go back to school and points out that she hadn’t known his desire to return because he had never spoken of it. Miles ponders and asks, “[H]aven’t I?” His expression triggers a pang in the governess. She confirms that no, he has never mentioned any detail about school, and she had always assumed that he was happy at Bly.
Miles shakes his head and says he wants to “get away.” When the governess asks him to clarify, he replies “[Y]ou know what a boy wants!” He rejects the idea of going to his uncle’s but declares that his uncle must come to Bly and settle things. At this, the governess begins to question Miles about things he hasn’t told her. Miles asserts that he wants a different environment with such serenity that the governess throws herself onto him with embraces. Miles lets her kiss him, then tells her to “let [him] alone.” The governess again tries to pry from him the reason for his expulsion. At his “quaver of consenting consciousness,” she embraces him again, when with a chilly gust, the room turns dark and Miles shrieks. The governess exclaims that the candle has gone out, and Miles says that it was he who blew it out.
These chapters represent a struggle between Miles and the governess, as he challenges her to send him back to school or justify why she has not. Miles clearly wants freedom from the governess’s scrutiny and control, but we do not know exactly why he wants this freedom. We read page after page of the governess’s fears and conjectures, but the actual lines of dialogue from the other three characters are very few and almost absurdly cryptic and ambiguous. What Miles says he wants seems on the surface to be utterly ordinary, but in the context of the governess’s fears and suspicions, his words seem ominous and fraught with double meanings. For example, he says that he wants to be “with his own sort” and that the governess knows what boys want, words that could be innocent and banal or salacious. He may mean he wants to be around other boys, or he may be making a coded reference to his homosexuality. James seems to tease us by suggesting that whatever we see in this story reveals more about us and our preoccupations than it does about the story itself. Possibly, the characters’ cryptic statements and vague suggestions of double entendres may be intended to satirize Victorian reticence about sexual matters.
Miles gains a psychological advantage over the governess when he tells her he will convince his uncle to come down and discuss his schooling, and the governess is too overcome with agitation at hearing this to go to church. The governess explains to the reader that she is worried about having to deal with the painful subject of Miles’s expulsion with the uncle, but it is possible that her agitation has more to do with her attraction to the uncle. Thus far, she has sublimated her feelings for her employer, pouring them into her effort to rescue the children and to shield the employer from any trouble. At the end of Chapter XIII, she even asserts that his complete silence is intended to flatter and pay tribute to her. The idea of confronting the employer face to face has become quite alarming for her, and her experiences after she leaves the children at the church door suggest that she feels guilty about her desires. The best evidence for her feelings of guilt is when she begins to identify herself with Miss Jessel, whom she now sees as the most odious woman possible because Miss Jessel had had a sexual affair. First, she is upset when she realizes she has collapsed on the bottom step of the staircase exactly as Miss Jessel had sat earlier. Then, she sees Miss Jessel at her own writing desk and assumes her to be a servant writing a love letter—Miss Jessel is apparently using the governess’s own pens to do something that the governess herself would like to do but cannot. Finally, she decides that Miss Jessel is asserting that she has just as much right to be there as the governess. Miss Jessel apparently represents something that the governess simultaneously identifies with, desires, and loathes.
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