The Turn of the Screw

Henry James

Chapters II and III

Summary Chapters II and III

Summary: Chapter II

Together with Flora, the governess drives out to meet Miles. The governess is unsettled by a letter from her employer that came in the mail on her first day. Enclosed was another letter, from Miles’s headmaster, saying that Miles is no longer welcome at school. Distressed by the thought that Miles might be a troublemaker and the knowledge that she has agreed to tend to matters herself, she questions Mrs. Grose. Her companion, as distressed as she, seems not to understand why Miles had been turned out from school.

The governess later that day approaches her colleague again, asking Mrs. Grose if she has ever known Miles to cause trouble. Mrs. Grose implies that Miles had on occasion been bad, but that was to be expected from a boy. A few hours before leaving to meet Miles, the governess approaches Mrs. Grose once more, questioning her about the previous governess. Mrs. Grose describes her as young and pretty but is evasive about her death, claiming she does not know why the young woman died.

Summary: Chapter III

The governess is late picking up Miles, whom she finds standing outside the inn exuding the same beauty and purity as Flora. Joining Mrs. Grose back at Bly, the governess rejects, on the basis of Miles’s attractive appearance, any charges she or the headmaster may have made against Miles. She determines to do nothing in regard to Miles’s expulsion. Mrs. Grose says she will stand by that decision, and the two kiss and embrace. The governess soon becomes absorbed in her responsibilities, and her two pupils give her little, if any, trouble.

During her private hour one evening, the governess takes a walk around the grounds, fantasizing unrealistically about meeting her master, and when she comes back in view of the house she sees a strange man standing atop one of the house’s towers, looking at her. The governess experiences a stillness and sudden hush. Her confrontation with the man lasts a long, intense moment before he passes from one of the tower’s corners to the other. In retrospect, the governess remembers that the man turned away from her without ever breaking his stare.


Chapter II introduces the tantalizing mystery of what Miles did to get himself expelled from school. Although Miles looks like an angel and was one of the youngest boys there, he apparently did something so bad that the school didn’t think disciplining him would be sufficient, possibly because he poses some kind of danger to the other students. Strangely, the headmaster refuses to even mention in the letter what Miles did. Since James never lets us know what happened, we might conclude that guessing the answer is impossible—that James never had something specific in mind and instead leaves Miles’s crime to our imaginations to create a sinister impression. If, on the other hand, we decide that an answer to this riddle exists and that we are supposed to read between the lines to figure it out, then the crime would have to be both something that was condemned by Victorian society and something that there was a taboo against speaking about. To many of us, these facts suggest strongly that Miles’s infraction was sexual in nature. As we see in subsequent chapters, he may have been exposed to sex by unscrupulous former servants, and thus he may be imparting knowledge about sex to his peers at school or perhaps engaging in sexual behaviors. (In Chapter XXIV, he finally admits that he “said things” to people he “liked” and that those people repeated the things he said to those they liked.) His infraction might involve knowledge of heterosexual acts, masturbation, or homosexuality—it is impossible to know for certain.

The governess’s reaction to the headmaster’s letter is both odd and revealing. A more practical governess might follow up with the school, make persistent inquiries, obtain actual facts, and try to resolve the situation. Instead, this governess lets her imagination run wild, conjuring up the darkest possibilities, hinting at the sexual nature of his misdeed when she refers to the possibility of his corrupting the other students. Despite her curiosity and ability to imagine horrible scenarios, she avoids pursuing the facts. She seems to want the situation to be complicated and difficult rather than simple, apparently because she wants a heroic challenge that gives her the opportunity to win the gratitude of the absent employer with whom she’s in love.