“‘They haven't been good—they've only been absent. It has been easy to live with them, because they're simply leading a life of their own. They're not mine—they're not ours. They're his and they're hers!’
‘Quint's and that woman’s?'
‘Quint's and that woman's. They want to get to them.’”

This exchange between the governess and Mrs. Grose in Chapter 12 marks a distinct departure from the governess’s original theory—that the children are innocent, and need to be protected. Here, she reveals to Mrs. Grose that she has come to the conclusion the children are not in control, but are being influenced and have thus been corrupted by Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Now, she fervently believes the children need to be not protected, but rescued, having had their innocence and purity tainted by the spirits.

“I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his perhaps being innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I? Paralyzed, while it lasted, by the mere brush of the question, I let him go a little, so that, with a deep-drawn sigh, he turned away from me again; which, as he faced toward the clear window, I suffered, feeling that I had nothing now there to keep him from.”

In the final chapter of the novel, the governess experiences a sudden crisis of conscience—if it’s possible that Miles has been innocent all along, does that make her the evil one? Is it she who has been corrupting the children, not the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, by imposing on them ideas of corruption? That the governess despairs at this thought is telling—she is not relieved by the possibility that Miles is not in danger, but distressed because now she has no reason to play the hero, nothing from which to rescue him.

“We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

The governess rarely mentions fearing that the ghosts will kill or otherwise physically harm Miles and Flora. Until now, she has focused almost solely on the potential “corruption” of the children, so Miles’s death comes as something of a surprise. His death is also puzzling; is he killed by the spirit of Peter Quint leaving his body, as the governess clearly believes, or, if the ghosts are all in the governess’s mind, is Miles instead smothered by the governess? Was Miles’s death the only way to free him from the corruption of Quint’s influence, or was his death entirely preventable, caused by the governess’s obsessive and destructive quest to purify him? James leaves the ending open-ended, inviting the reader to draw their own conclusions.