The Turn of the Screw

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Miss Jessel Character Analysis

The children’s deceased governess, Miss Jessel is the second ghost the governess encounters at Bly. Mrs. Grose says that Miss Jessel had been a lady (she had a good upbringing, and dressed well) and she had a controversial affair with Peter Quint. The governess eventually comes to believe that Flora meets secretly with Miss Jessel.

Miss Jessel Quotes in The Turn of the Screw

The The Turn of the Screw quotes below are all either spoken by Miss Jessel or refer to Miss Jessel. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Supernatural Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Signet Classics edition of The Turn of the Screw published in 2007.
Chapter 6 Quotes

Suddenly, in these circumstances, I became aware that, on the other side of the Sea of Azof, we had an interested spectator…My heart had stood still for an instant with the wonder and terror of the question whether she too would see; and I held my breath while I waited for what a cry from her, what some sudden innocent sign either of interest or of alarm, would tell me. I waited, but nothing came…

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Flora, Miss Jessel
Page Number: 320
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess is outside by the lake with Flora, and she suddenly sees another person in the distance. This person is different from the ghost of Peter Quint, though it has appeared at a distance and is watching the governess and Flora in the exact same manner as Quint. Although the governess is terrified, it seems that Flora hasn't noticed the person; the governess waits for Flora's reaction, but Flora continues to act as if nothing is there. 

This passage represents another example of the difficulty of assessing whether the ghosts are products of the governess' imagination or not. On the on hand, the fact that only the governess can see the ghosts seems to clearly indicate that they are all inside her head. At the same time, if the ghosts are real and have indeed "corrupted" Miles and Flora, it makes sense that Miles and Flora act as if they are not there. Once again, James ensures that evidence for one interpretation can just as easily be taken as evidence in favor of the other. 

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Chapter 12 Quotes

"Why, of the very things that have delighted, fascinated, and yet, at bottom, as I now so strangely see, mystified and troubled me. Their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness. It's a game," I went on; "it's a policy and a fraud!"
"On the part of little darlings—?"
"As yet mere lovely babies? Yes, mad as that seems!" The very act of bringing it out really helped me to trace it—follow it all up and piece it all together. "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."

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles, Flora, Peter Quint, Miss Jessel
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the governess confesses a major change of opinion to Mrs. Grose: she now believes that the children have been deliberately trying to seem innocent when in fact they have been corrupted by Quint and Miss Jessel. She says that this explains their extraordinary, "unnatural" sweetness and obedience, and she concludes that the children do not belong to the governess and Mrs. Grose, but to the two ghosts. This is a pivotal moment in the novel, the point when the governess's own innocence––manifested through her naïve insistence on the innocence of the children––suddenly falls away and she fully accepts her suspicion and paranoia. 

This passage also makes clear that it is impossible for the governess to imagine that the children are independent, autonomous beings. She says that she thought they were good because they were obedient, but in fact they have just been "absent.. leading a life of their own." She then goes on to tell Mrs. Grose that the children are "not ours. They're his and they're hers!" This shows not only that, when it comes to the children, the governess imagines goodness as being the same as obedience, but also that she believes the children must either belong to her or to someone else––they cannot simply exist as their own people.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard beauty and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers. While these instants lasted, indeed, I had the extraordinary chill of feeling that it was I who was the intruder. It was as a wild protest against it that, actually addressing her—"You terrible, miserable woman!"—I heard myself break into a sound that, by the open door, rang through the long passage and the empty house. She looked at me as if she heard me, but I had recovered myself and cleared the air. There was nothing in the room the next minute but the sunshine and a sense that I must stay.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Miss Jessel
Page Number: 358
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess, shaken by her conversation with Miles, has returned to Bly while Mrs. Grose and the children remain at church. There she finds Miss Jessel sat at the governess's own writing table and screams at her, at which point Miss Jessel looks at her and then disappears. This passage is a perfect example of the ambiguity over whether the ghosts are real or not. If we read The Turn of the Screw as a ghost story, then the governess's description conjures a typical gothic ghost figure: "dark as midnight," hauntingly beautiful, evoking a "chill" in those around her. 

On the other hand, it is also very possible to interpret this passage as an exploration of the governess's psyche, and read her description of Miss Jessel as representing her inner turmoil. After all, the governess sees Miss Jessel sitting at her table, and then gets the sudden feeling that "it was I who was the intruder." We might therefore interpret the vision of Miss Jessel as a manifestation of the governess's insecurities about her position and authority. Finally, the fact that after the governess has "recovered herself... there was nothing in the room" does perhaps indicate that Miss Jessel was a projection of the governess's mind, and when she "recovers," even she is able to recognize this.

Chapter 18 Quotes

“She's with her?"
"She's with her!" I declared. "We must find them."
My hand was on my friend's arm, but she failed for the moment, confronted with such an account of the matter, to respond to my pressure. She communed, on the contrary, on the spot, with her uneasiness. "And where's Master Miles?"
"Oh, he’s with Quint. They're in the schoolroom."
"Lord, miss!" My view, I was myself aware—and therefore I suppose my tone—had never yet reached so calm an assurance.
"The trick's played," I went on; "they’ve successfully worked their plan. He found the most divine little way to keep me quiet while she went off."
"'Divine'?" Mrs. Grose bewilderedly echoed.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles, Flora, Peter Quint, Miss Jessel
Page Number: 368
Explanation and Analysis:

Miles has been playing the piano for the governess, during which time Flora disappeared. The governess, having realized this, goes to Mrs. Grose and insists that they find Flora, who the governess is convinced is with Miss Jessel. When Mrs. Grose asks where Miles is, the governess tells her he must be with Quint and that the piano playing was a "trick" to distract her while Flora ran off with Miss Jessel. It is clear at this point that, like the children, Mrs. Grose is alarmed at the governess's behavior. Whether we interpret the ghosts as real or not, it is clear that the governess's belief in their influence over the children is leading her into a frenzy, which in turn isolates her from those around her.

Even at this crazed and climactic moment, the governess still seems fixated on the binary between innocence and corruption. She calls Miles's piano playing a "divine little way to keep me quiet." The use of the word "divine"––emphasized by Mrs. Grose's bewildered repetition––shows that the governess retains her obsession with the children's unearthly purity, even while she is accusing them of conspiring against her. 

Chapter 20 Quotes

Miss Jessel stood before us on the opposite bank exactly as she had stood the other time, and I remember, strangely, as the first feeling now produced in me, my thrill of joy at having brought on a proof. She was there, and I was justified; she was there, and I was neither cruel nor mad. She was there for poor scared Mrs. Grose, but she was there most for Flora…

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose, Flora, Miss Jessel
Page Number: 373
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Grose and the governess have found Flora outside by the lake, and as they stand there the governess spots Miss Jessel again, in the same position as when the governess saw her for the first time. Note that this is the first occasion that one of the ghosts has appeared in the presence of another adult, and the governess feels overjoyed at the "proof" that they are real. While this might seem like a perverse emotional reaction, it reveals that the governess' feelings of isolation and self-doubt have begun to scare her even more than the existence of the ghosts in the first place. Regardless of whether the reader believes that the ghosts are real, in this part of the novel James suggests that psychological torment and the possibility of madness can be far more frightening than supernatural horror.

Of course, the governess's immediate feeling of relief is ironic, as after this passage Mrs. Grose reveals that she did not see the ghost of Miss Jessel. Once again, this can be interpreted in a number of ways; either as proof that the ghosts are the governess's hallucinations, or that they deliberately conceal themselves from Mrs. Grose in order to make the governess seem mad, or that they appear to particular people at particular times for some other reason. Indeed, the governess herself emphasizes the idea that the ghosts do not simply appear but reveal themselves to individuals with her statement that, "She was there for poor scared Mrs. Grose, but she was there most for Flora." 

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Miss Jessel Character Timeline in The Turn of the Screw

The timeline below shows where the character Miss Jessel appears in The Turn of the Screw. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 7
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
...was an “infamous” looking woman dressed in black, and Mrs. Grose concludes that she was Miss Jessel , the children’s former governess. Mrs. Grose calls Miss Jessel a dubious character, and she... (full context)
Chapter 10
The Supernatural Theme Icon
...seen Quint. She does not see Quint again in the home, but she does encounter Miss Jessel again, seated on the steps of the home with her head in her hands. Miss... (full context)
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
...the girl blew out the light. The governess says she now knows Flora can see Miss Jessel down below. To confirm this, she leaves to look out from a different window, but... (full context)
Chapter 12
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
...Grose she believes the two children were meeting secretly with the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel . She tells Mrs. Grose that the children only seemed to be well-behaved and obedient—their... (full context)
Chapter 13
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
...were conspiring against her. She believes the children know that she had seen Quint and Miss Jessel , and she believes further that the children know that she’s aware of their visits... (full context)
Chapter 16
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
The governess then tells Mrs. Grose about her meeting with Miss Jessel . The governess tells Mrs. Grose it is clear that Miss Jessel is tormented, and... (full context)
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
...can hold it against Miles, and they blame his expulsion alternatively on his uncle, Quint, Miss Jessel , and Mrs. Grose herself (for allowing the children to go on meeting with Quint... (full context)
Chapter 19
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
...decides to head to the lake, because it was there that she had last seen Miss Jessel . While walking to the spot where they had seen Miss Jessel, the governess talks... (full context)
Chapter 20
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Still standing by the lake after having found Flora, the governess sees Miss Jessel staring at them from the opposite bank. The governess grasps Mrs. Grose’s arm and directs... (full context)
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
The governess accosts Mrs. Grose, saying that she must be able to see Miss Jessel . Mrs. Grose tells the governess that nothing is there, and that she thinks the... (full context)
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
The governess finds Flora’s behavior appalling. She accuses Flora of being under Miss Jessel ’s influence, and she says that she feels like she has lost Flora to Miss... (full context)
Chapter 21
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
...Grose returns to the subject of Flora. She says that even though she hasn’t seen Miss Jessel herself, she nonetheless senses Miss Jessel’s influence in the way Flora talks about the governess.... (full context)