“It would have been impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence, and by the time I had got back to Bly with him I remained merely bewildered—so far, that is, as I was not outraged—by the sense of the horrible letter locked up in my room, in a drawer. As soon as I could compass a private word with Mrs. Grose I declared to her that it was grotesque.”

This observation from the governess after her first meeting with Miles establishes what the governess perceives to be the boy’s purity. Even faced with a letter regarding Miles’s expulsion from school for mysterious misbehavior, the governess cannot come to terms with the idea that a boy so sweet could be capable of endangering another student. This speaks to the governess’s propensity to value outward appearances, and link beauty with innocence. For the reader, who is far less likely than the governess to stubbornly believe the best of Miles, it generates a certain tension, raising the question of whether Miles is as innocent as he seems.

“‘Think me — for a change — bad!’ I shall never forget the sweetness and gaiety with which he brought out the word, nor how, on top of it, he bent forward and kissed me. It was practically the end of everything.”

On the surface, this quote from Chapter 11 supports the purity and sweetness which the governess has attributed to Miles—he has played a trick on her, making himself out to be a troublemaker for his own amusement, and expresses surprise and delight at the ease with which she felt for it. However, another interpretation challenges Miles’s authenticity. Is he truly as adorable as he seems, or is cleverly manipulating the governess with over-the-top “sweetness and gaiety”? This calls to mind the question posed at Miles’s introduction—whether his charming appearance is hiding something sinister.

“I call it a revolution because I now see how, with the word he spoke, the curtain rose on the last act of my dreadful drama, and the catastrophe was precipitated. ‘Look here, my dear, you know,’ he charmingly said, ‘when in the world, please, am I going back to school?’

Transcribed here the speech sounds harmless enough, particularly as uttered in the sweet, high, casual pipe with which, at all interlocutors, but above all at his eternal governess, he threw off intonations as if he were tossing roses.”

In Chapter 14, Miles asks when he will be allowed to go back to school, and the governess makes it clear she now believes he is putting on a facade. However, the actual intention behind Miles’s query remains unclear; whether Miles is merely asking a question, or has nefarious reasons for wanting to be away from the governess, possibly as a result of the influence of Peter Quint, the reader cannot know. What the reader does know is that the governess appears cognizant of her audience. She acknowledges that Miles’s words may sound innocent, suggesting a certain defensiveness on her part, but the governess assures the reader his tone reveals more than the words themselves. She sets herself above regular “interlocutors”; she alone is able to see through the ruse he is putting on for her in particular. She knows with certainty something terrible is coming, “the last act” of the tale she’s been weaving for the reader.