Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Corruption of the Innocent
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 Destructiveness of Heroism
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.