Analysis

On the surface, the conclusion of The Turn of the Screw seems to resolve the question of the governess’s reliability in her favor. When Miles blurts out “Peter Quint, you devil!” he seems to acknowledge his awareness of the ghost, and he also seems anxious, or perhaps terrified, to see Quint himself. When Miles dies, there seems to be little explanation for this occurrence other than the governess’s—he has been dispossessed, and this has killed him. However, if we reread the concluding chapters skeptically, as James has taught us to do, this certainty may melt away. Miles’s outburst proves only that he knows that the governess thinks she sees Quint and that she thinks Miles sees him too. His words don’t really prove that he has ever seen Quint himself. Readers who view the governess as mad tend to speculate that perhaps the governess killed him by hugging him too hard and smothering him. This theory resonates with what the governess has told us about her tendency to hug the children too much and with our impression that her affection is “suffocating,” but apart from that, the idea that she literally smothers him is something of a stretch. Miles’s death is the last unsolvable enigma of the story.

The governess’s final interview with Miles also tells us a little more about the mystery of Miles’s expulsion. Miles says now that all he did was to say things to a few people whom he liked and that they repeated these things to people they liked. He also admits that the things he said were probably bad enough to warrant expulsion. If Miles’s words are to be believed, the range of possibilities to explain his expulsion narrows considerably. He didn’t lie, cheat, or steal, and he wasn’t violent, abusive, or defiant of authority. His crime didn’t directly involve either authorities or enemies, so it doesn’t seem to be anything malicious. Among his friends, he talked about something that absolutely should not be talked about, at least not by a boy Miles’s age. The things Miles said to the boys he liked may well have concerned homosexuality or something else of a sexual nature. Because The Turn of the Screw scrupulously observes the taboo against mentioning sex or homosexuality explicitly, the story insists that we supply the answer and take responsibility for seeing lurid and prurient meanings ourselves.

Peter Quint—you devil!

See Important Quotations Explained