The protagonist of the novella, a twenty-year-old woman who has been put in charge of educating and supervising Flora and Miles at the country estate of Bly. The governess has had a very sheltered upbringing and little life experience, and her new job puts an immense responsibility on her, since she has no one to supervise or help her. She is intelligent as well as sensitive and emotionally volatile. Over the course of two short interviews with her employer, she fell in love with him, but she has no opportunity to see him or communicate with him. She is extremely protective of her charges and hopes to win her employer’s approval. She views herself as a zealous guardian, a heroine facing dark forces. However, we never know for certain whether the ghosts and visions the governess sees are real or only figments of her imagination. No one else ever admits to seeing what she sees, and her fears, at times, seem to border on insanity.
A servant who acts as the governess’s companion and confidante. Mrs. Grose, who is illiterate, is very aware of her low standing in comparison with the governess and treats the governess with great respect. Mrs. Grose listens patiently to the governess’s constantly changing theories and insights, most often claiming to believe her but sometimes questioning whether the ghosts may not be imaginary. The governess, however, tends to overwhelm Mrs. Grose, often finishing Mrs. Grose’s sentences or leaping to conclusions about what Mrs. Grose is saying. Thus, it can sometimes be difficult for us to judge whether Mrs. Grose is as strongly on the governess’s side as the governess thinks. Mrs. Grose cares deeply about Flora and Miles and consistently defends them against the governess’s accusations.
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A ten-year-old boy, the elder of the governess’s two charges. Miles is charming and very attractive. He seems unnaturally well behaved and agreeable for a child, never fights with his sister, and tries constantly to please his governess. He is expelled from school for an unspecified but seemingly sinister reason, and although he seems to be a good child, he often hints that he is capable of being bad. The governess is alarmed by the fact that Miles never refers to his own past and suspects that wicked secrets belie his perfect exterior.
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An eight-year-old girl, the younger of the governess’s two charges. Flora is beautiful and well mannered, a pleasure to be around. Although the governess loves Flora, she is disturbed that Flora, like Miles, seems strangely impersonal and reticent about herself. Flora is affectionate and always ready with an embrace or a smile. She is so unusually well behaved that her first instance of misconduct is disquieting. The governess eventually becomes convinced that Flora sees the ghost of Miss Jessel but keeps these sightings secret.
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The governess’s employer, a bachelor who lives in London. The uncle’s attractiveness is one of the main reasons the governess agrees to take on her role at Bly. The uncle is friendly and pleasant, likely rich, and successful in charming women. He hires the governess on the condition that she handle his niece, nephew, and all problems at Bly herself. He asks not to be bothered about them.
A former valet at Bly. Red-haired, handsome, and exceedingly clever, Quint was “infamous” throughout the area of Bly. According to Mrs. Grose, he was a hound and “too free” with everyone, Miles and Flora included. The governess describes his specter as an unnaturally white, silent “horror.” She believes Quint’s ghost is haunting Bly with the intention of corrupting Miles.
The governess’s predecessor. Mrs. Grose describes Miss Jessel as a lady, young and beautiful but “infamous.” Miss Jessel apparently had an inappropriate relationship with Quint, who was well below her class standing. The governess describes Miss Jessel’s black-clad ghost as miserable, pale, and dreadful. The governess believes Miss Jessel’s ghost is haunting Bly with the intention of corrupting Flora.
A servant at Bly. Luke is expected to deliver the governess’s letter to the children’s uncle, but he cannot find it. Miles uses Luke as an attempted escape route and asks to see Luke before telling the governess what she wants to know.
The narrator of the prologue. The anonymous narrator is an educated guest at the Christmas Eve gathering. The narrator is most likely a man, since he speaks disdainfully of the sensation-hungry women at the gathering. The narrator may be a stand-in for Henry James, as he mentions he has a title for the tale at the end of the prologue. As Douglas repeatedly hints, the narrator will find a deeper meaning in the story.
The teller of the governess’s tale at the Christmas Eve gathering. Douglas knew the governess, who had been his sister’s governess after her time at Bly, and may have been in love with her. He is the only one who has heard the tale, since the governess left him in charge of her manuscript after she died. Douglas was fond of the governess and introduces her as a “most agreeable” person, giving her credibility regarding the tale to come.
A storyteller at the gathering. Griffin tells a ghost story involving a child and his mother.
Guests at the house. The women are characterized as sensation hungry and eager to hear the most “dreadful” and “delicious” ghost stories.