The Turn of the Screw

Henry James
Characters

Miles

Characters Miles

Miles might be either a cunning and deceitful plaything of ghosts or merely an innocent, unusually well-mannered young boy. The governess repeatedly changes her mind on the matter, leaving Miles’s true character in question. When the governess first meets Miles, she is struck by his “positive fragrance of purity” and the sense that he has known nothing but love. She finds herself excusing him for any potential mishap because he is too beautiful to misbehave. Yet she also senses a disturbing emptiness in Miles, an impersonality and lack of history, as though he is less than real.

Once the governess begins having her supernatural encounters, she comes to believe that Miles is plotting evil deeds with his ghostly counterpart, Quint, and indeed Miles does exhibit strange behavior. For example, he plans an incident so that the governess will think him “bad,” and he steals the letter she wrote to his uncle. Mrs. Grose tells us that Peter Quint was a bad influence on him, but we have no way to measure the extent or precise nature of this influence, and Miles’s misdeeds may be nothing more than childish pranks. The fact that Miles is otherwise unusually pleasant and well behaved suggests that the sinister quality of his behavior exists only in the governess’s mind. The governess eventually decides that Miles must be full of wickedness, reasoning that he is too “exquisite” to be anything else, a conclusion she bases only on her own subjective impressions and conjectures.