Please wait while we process your payment
If you don't see it, please check your spam folder. Sometimes it can end up there.
Don’t have an account?
Create Your Account
Sign up for your FREE 7-day trial
Already have an account? Log in
Choose Your Plan
$4.99/month + tax
$24.99/year + tax
Save over 50% with a SparkNotes PLUS Annual Plan!
for a group?
Get Annual Plans at a discount when you buy 2 or more!
$18.74 /subscription + tax
Subtotal $37.48 + tax
on 2-49 accounts
on 50-99 accounts
Want 100 or more?
for a customized plan.
You'll be billed after your free trial ends.
7-Day Free Trial
Renews October 9, 2023
October 2, 2023
Discounts (applied to next billing)
This is not a valid promo code.
(one code per order)
Annual Plan - Group Discount
SparkNotes Plus subscription is $4.99/month or $24.99/year as selected above. The free trial period is the first 7 days of your subscription. TO CANCEL YOUR SUBSCRIPTION AND AVOID BEING CHARGED, YOU MUST CANCEL BEFORE THE END OF THE FREE TRIAL PERIOD. You may cancel your subscription on your Subscription and Billing page or contact Customer Support at email@example.com. Your subscription will continue automatically once the free trial period is over. Free trial is available to new customers only.
For the next 7 days, you'll have access to awesome PLUS stuff like AP English test prep, No Fear Shakespeare translations and audio, a note-taking tool, personalized dashboard, & much more!
You’ve successfully purchased a group discount. Your group members can use the joining link below to redeem their group membership. You'll also receive an email with the link.
Members will be prompted to log in or create an account to redeem their group membership.
Thanks for creating a SparkNotes account! Continue to start your free trial.
Your PLUS subscription has expired
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
The governess only rarely indicates that she is afraid
the ghosts will physically harm or kill the children. In fact, Miles’s
death comes as a shock to us as readers, because we are unprepared
to think of the ghosts as a physical threat. Until she sends Flora
away, the governess never seems to consider removing the children from
the ghosts or trying to expel the ghosts from the house. Instead,
the governess’s fears focus almost entirely on the potential “corruption”
of the children—whether they were corrupted by Quint and Jessel when
the latter were alive and whether they contiue to be similarly corrupted
by the ghosts. Before she even knows about Quint, the governess
guesses that Miles has been accused of corrupting other children. Although
the word corruption is a euphemism that permits
the governess to remain vague about what she means, the clear implication
is that corruption means exposure to knowledge of sex. For the governess,
the children’s exposure to knowledge of sex is a far more terrifying
prospect than confronting the living dead or being killed. Consequently,
her attempt to save the children takes the form of a relentless
quest to find out what they know, to make them confess rather than
to predict what might happen to them in the future. Her fear of
innocence being corrupted seems to be a big part of the reason she
approaches the problem so indirectly—it’s not just that the ghosts
are unmentionable but that what the ghosts have said to them or
introduced them to is unspeakable.
Because the corruption of the children is a matter of
fearful speculation rather than an acknowledged fact, the story
doesn’t make any clear and definitive statement about corruption.
Certainly, the governess’s fears are destructive and do not result
in her saving the children. Notably, while the governess is the
character most fearful of and vigilant for corruption, she is also
the least experienced and most curious character regarding sex.
Mrs. Grose is married, and the uncle, though a bachelor, seems to
be a ladies’ man. The governess is singularly horrified by Miss
Jessel’s sexual infraction and apparently fascinated by it as well.
We might conclude that the governess’s fear of the children’s corruption
represents her projection of her own fears and desires regarding
sex onto her charges.
The governess’s youth and inexperience suggest that the
responsibility of caring for the two children and being in charge
of the entire estate is more than she could possibly bear, yet she
does not look for help. Her isolation is largely her employer’s
fault, because he chooses to remain absent and specifically tells
her to deal with all problems by herself. However, the governess
responds to her experiences at Bly by taking on even more responsibility—to
bury the headmaster’s letter and keep Miles at home; to be the one
who sees the ghosts rather than the children and who attempts to
screen them from any exposure to the ghosts; and to save the children
from the ghosts’ corrupting influence. These decisions are all self-conscious—she
is not forced to make them because she can’t think of another way
to respond. Instead, she deliberately chooses to view these challenges
as “magnificent” opportunities to please the master and deludes
herself into thinking that the master recognizes her sacrifices.
Clearly, she is misguided on both counts. The master never comes
down or sends any letter, and her crusade to save the children is
an even worse disaster. Flora leaves the estate sick and in hysterics,
vowing never to speak to the governess again, and Miles dies. Whether
or not the governess was correct in thinking that the children were
being haunted, she was definitely wrong in thinking she could be
the hero who saves them.
The fact that the governess was misguided in adopting
a heroic stance suggests several interpretations. One possibility
is that the forces of corruption are too powerful for one person
to oppose. Perhaps the governess could have succeeded only with
the concerted efforts of the school and the uncle, and perhaps the
children could not have been saved. Another possible reason why
her heroism might have been inappropriate is that childhood and
innocence may be too fragile to be protected in such an aggressive
fashion. The governess’s attempt to police and guard the children
may have proven to be more damaging than the knowledge
from which she wanted to protect them.
One of the most challenging features of The Turn
of the Screw is how frequently characters make indirect hints
or use vague language rather than communicate directly and clearly.
The headmaster expels Miles from school and refuses to specify why.
The governess has several guesses about what he might have done,
but she just says he might be “corrupting” the others, which is
almost as uninformative as the original letter. The governess fears
that the children understand the nature of Quint and Jessel’s relationship,
but the nature of that relationship is never stated explicitly.
The governess suspects that the ghosts are influencing the children
in ways having to do with their relationship in the past, but she
isn’t explicit about how exactly they are being influenced. This
excessive reticence on the part of the characters could reflect
James’s own reticence (which was marked), or it could be interpreted
as a satiric reflection on Victorian reticence about sex. More straightforwardly,
it could be a technique for engaging the imagination to produce
a more terrifying effect.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Turn of the Screw!