The next day Mrs. Grose asks the governess if she has written the letter. The governess affirms this but does not mention that the letter has not yet been sent. That morning her pupils perform brilliantly at their tasks. After dinner, Miles approaches the governess to ask if she would like him to play the piano for her. She is delighted, and he plays remarkably for some time, until the governess realizes the length of time that has passed and realizes that Flora is nowhere to be seen. She asks Miles where his sister is. He asks how he should know and laughs.
To no avail, the governess searches for Flora in her bedroom upstairs and in other rooms downstairs. She then looks for Mrs. Grose, but Flora is not with her, nor is she with the maids. The governess has a feeling that Flora is “at a distance” and insinuates the she must be with Miss Jessel. Horrified, Mrs. Grose asks where Miles is. The governess deduces he is with Quint in the schoolroom. She then declares that “the trick’s played” and informs Mrs. Grose that Miles had distracted her. Mrs. Grose asks about the letter, and the governess draws it from her pocket and leaves it on the table for a servant named Luke to take. Although Mrs. Grose is loathe to leave Miles, the governess persuades her to accompany her outside to search for Flora.
The governess and Mrs. Grose head to the lake, the governess convinced that Flora has fled to where she had seen the image of Miss Jessel. Flora is neither there nor seen on the opposite bank. The governess determines that Flora must have taken the boat, which is missing from its usual resting place. She leads Mrs. Grose to the other side of the lake. Soon they find the boat and shortly thereafter come upon Flora, who is smiling.
Flora plucks a spray of fern and waits for the governess and Mrs. Grose to approach. As Mrs. Grose embraces Flora passionately, Flora glances at the governess from over Mrs. Grose’s shoulder with a grave expression. Mrs. Grose lets the child go. Flora speaks first, asking where their “things” are, as they are all without hats. She then asks where Miles is. The governess says she will tell her if Flora will tell the governess where Miss Jessel is.
Flora glares at the governess, and Mrs. Grose cries out. The governess grasps Mrs. Grose’s arm and points out Miss Jessel on the opposite bank, delighted at having “brought on a proof.” The governess is surprised by Flora’s reaction, for she looks not in the direction of Miss Jessel but at the governess, glaring accusingly. Mrs. Grose protests, asking what the governess sees. Astonished, the governess points out Miss Jessel again, and Mrs. Grose, seeing nothing, pleads with the governess to return to the house.
Flora, who has turned “almost ugly,” exclaims she has never seen anything and demands that Mrs. Grose take her away from the governess. Convinced that Miss Jessel is speaking through Flora, the governess declares Flora “lost” and tells Mrs. Grose to go. The governess gives in to long moments of grief before returning home, noting that the boat is in its usual position. At the house, she finds Flora her usual self and is joined by Miles in silence.
Mrs. Grose wakes the governess with news that Flora is sick and terrified of the governess. According to Mrs. Grose, Flora has said nothing about Miss Jessel. The governess, surmising that Flora wants to get rid of her, constructs a plan calling for Mrs. Grose to take Flora straight to her uncle and for the governess to stay at Bly with Miles. She demands that Flora and Miles have no contact prior to Flora’s departure.
Mrs. Grose expresses skepticism but decides Flora must leave the place immediately. She states that Flora has been saying “really shocking” things about the governess, who laughs, saying she knows where Flora picked up such language. Mrs. Grose tells the governess she believes what the governess has been saying. Remembering her letter, the governess says it will arrive before Mrs. Grose does, but Mrs. Grose informs her that the letter was not sent—Miles took it. Mrs. Grose then declares that Miles must have been expelled for stealing letters. The governess reveals that the letter contained only a demand for an interview.
The scene in which the governess confronts Flora at the lake is a climactic moment, because it brings the conflict between Flora and the governess out into the open, with the governess’s explicit accusation. Up to this time, the governess has skirted the issue, with neither the children nor the governess mentioning the names Quint or Jessel to each other. Once the governess makes her suspicions explicit, she passes the point of no return. The governess fails to elicit the confession she is hoping for, instead incurring Flora’s permanent enmity and rejection. Remarkably, despite this confrontation, we still don’t really know whether Flora and Miles are in league with the ghosts. Flora’s reaction could be seen as a vivid and terrifying manifestation of Miss Jessel’s control over her, but it could also plausibly be read as Flora’s final rejection of an insane governess who has tyrannized and terrorized her with vague hints and questions. If the governess’s credibility was at a high point after describing Quint in Chapter V, this episode is the high point for doubting the governess, since neither Mrs. Grose nor Flora corroborate the governess’s vision of Miss Jessel.
In Chapter XXI, Mrs. Grose reports that Flora has been making accusations against the governess that are truly shocking and horrible, so much so that she wonders where Flora could have heard about such things or picked up such shocking language—though she then changes her mind and admits she has heard similar things before, presumably regarding Quint and Jessel. As with the mystery of Miles’s expulsion, once again we are presented with a mystery, something horrible that is only hinted at. As with Miles’s expulsion, Flora’s comments to Mrs. Grose could be as trivial as obscenities, or they could be as serious as accusations of sexual abuse. As with so many elements of this story, we are left to imagine just how bad things really are. If we see sexual overtones and double meanings, we can’t be entirely sure whether we are projecting them onto the story or whether they are really there.
However, a number of facts support the reading that Flora’s accusations involve more than merely bad language. Miss Jessel is a fallen woman, someone who lost her reputation by having an affair, but unlike Quint, she is not a servant—she is a lady. Thus, it seems unlikely that the nature of her bad influence on Flora would consist of vulgarity. Another factor is Mrs. Grose’s level of shock as she tries to describe what Flora has been saying—Mrs. Grose actually casts herself down on a sofa as she is talking.
The governess interprets the shocking nature of Flora’s aspersions as a vindication, because it seems to prove what a bad influence Miss Jessel was, as the governess has claimed all along. However, another possibility is that Flora’s accusations against the governess, whatever they are, are true. In a story where the narrator’s reliability is in doubt, any competing view of things coming from the other characters, however cryptic or incomplete, deserves close attention. We have seen that the governess identifies with Miss Jessel despite her horror of her, so it is possible that she has been reenacting Miss Jessel’s sexual crimes against the children—crimes that may never really have existed but that might have instead been fantasized by the governess in the first place. This possibility is suggestive but difficult to prove.