The Turn of the Screw
Chapters XXII, XXIII, and XXIV
I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him.
Summary: Chapter XXII
With Mrs. Grose and Flora gone, the governess focuses on her impending confrontation with Miles. She senses that the maids and men at Bly are staring at her and reacts by parading around to appear “remarkably firm.” Her marching around the house doesn’t seem to affect Miles. From a maid, the governess learns that Miles had breakfasted with Flora before Flora’s departure. The governess braces herself for a fight “against nature,” which will require “only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”
The governess dines with Miles, who asks about his sister’s illness. The governess reassures him that Flora will soon get well. He prods further, asking if Flora’s aversion to Bly occurred all at once. The conversation continues, with the governess proclaiming that Flora was not too ill to travel. Their meal is brief. When it is done and the waiter gone, Miles exclaims that they are alone.
Summary: Chapter XXIII
The governess demurs that they are not totally alone, and Miles agrees that there are “the others.” Miles turns to the window. Turning back around, Miles expresses his happiness that Bly agrees with him. The governess asks if he has enjoyed his day of freedom. Miles turns the question on her, asking if she has enjoyed it. He says that, if they stay on at Bly together, she will be more alone than he. The governess says she misses his company—it is the only reason she has stayed on.
Miles’s expression turns grave. The two skirt around the issue of what the governess wants to know. She says now is the time and place, and she asks if he wants to go out again. He assents, saying he will tell her everything, but not now. First he needs to see Luke. The governess consents and requests that before he goes, Miles tell her whether he took her letter.
Summary: Chapter XXIV
In the middle of this conversation, the governess is suddenly distracted by Peter Quint looking in through the window. She springs up and draws Miles close, his back to the window. Miles confesses that he took the letter. Moaning with joy, the governess embraces him and notes the quickness of his pulse. Miles says he wanted to know what the letter said about him but found it said nothing and burned it. The governess asks if he had stolen letters at school.
Surprised, Miles asks if she had known that he couldn’t go back to school. The governess claims to know everything. Denying the charge, Miles says he “said things” to boys he liked. The governess presses the issue. Miles shifts, and she springs forward upon him, pressing him against her. Miles asks if “she” is here. The governess says the “coward horror” is here. Miles searches in the direction of the governess’s gaze and names Peter Quint, crying out “[Y]ou devil!” and asking where. The governess yells at the ghost and points him out. Miles’s heart stops.
On the surface, the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw seems to resolve the question of the governess’s reliability in her favor. When Miles blurts out “Peter Quint, you devil!” he seems to acknowledge his awareness of the ghost, and he also seems anxious, or perhaps terrified, to see Quint himself. When Miles dies, there seems to be little explanation for this occurrence other than the governess’s—he has been dispossessed, and this has killed him. However, if we reread the concluding chapters skeptically, as James has taught us to do, this certainty may melt away. Miles’s outburst proves only that he knows that the governess thinks she sees Quint and that she thinks Miles sees him too. His words don’t really prove that he has ever seen Quint himself. Readers who view the governess as mad tend to speculate that perhaps the governess killed him by hugging him too hard and smothering him. This theory resonates with what the governess has told us about her tendency to hug the children too much and with our impression that her affection is “suffocating,” but apart from that, the idea that she literally smothers him is something of a stretch. Miles’s death is the last unsolvable enigma of the story.
The governess’s final interview with Miles also tells us a little more about the mystery of Miles’s expulsion. Miles says now that all he did was to say things to a few people whom he liked and that they repeated these things to people they liked. He also admits that the things he said were probably bad enough to warrant expulsion. If Miles’s words are to be believed, the range of possibilities to explain his expulsion narrows considerably. He didn’t lie, cheat, or steal, and he wasn’t violent, abusive, or defiant of authority. His crime didn’t directly involve either authorities or enemies, so it doesn’t seem to be anything malicious. Among his friends, he talked about something that absolutely should not be talked about, at least not by a boy Miles’s age. The things Miles said to the boys he liked may well have concerned homosexuality or something else of a sexual nature. Because The Turn of the Screw scrupulously observes the taboo against mentioning sex or homosexuality explicitly, the story insists that we supply the answer and take responsibility for seeing lurid and prurient meanings ourselves.
Peter Quint—you devil!
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