The Turn of the Screw

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Exterior vs. Interior Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Supernatural Theme Icon
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
Secrecy Theme Icon
Youth and Innocence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Turn of the Screw, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Exterior vs. Interior Theme Icon

This theme is closely related to the supernatural, since the basic question here is: do external impressions obscure internal realities? But this theme does not necessarily have anything to do with the supernatural. This is about discrepancies more rooted in everyday happenings, and the important question that these discrepancies implies: can external appearances (the clothes a person wears, or the smile they have) ever provide us with enough evidence for us to make conclusions about internal truths (the quality of a well-dressed person’s life, whether or not that person smiling is in fact happy)? The Turn of the Screw suggests that the external world can easily deceive us and that upon closer inspection the internal, true story that lurks beneath the surface may be revealed.

Consider, for example, the governess’s confused initial impressions of Bly. When she firsts arrives she thinks it is a beautiful place, with its expansive countryside setting, the bright flowers surrounding the home, the open windows and fresh curtains. It is a place that is much nicer than what the governess is used to after her more humble upbringing. But it does not take her long to begin experiencing the place as a “big ugly antique.” The house eventually becomes for her a place of horror instead of a place of beauty. Bly is an estate with a dark history, at least as far as the governess can tell.

Similarly, both Miles and Flora strike her initially as almost overwhelmingly beautiful. Miles is a little gentleman, impeccably put together. Flora is an equally impressive, beautiful, and apparently innocent young girl. Eventually, though, the governess perceives in these children something more sinister, less innocent, less beautiful. Her immediate perception of these children as graceful and beautiful young innocent children is undermined by her experience of them.

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Exterior vs. Interior ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Exterior vs. Interior appears in each chapter of The Turn of the Screw. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Exterior vs. Interior Quotes in The Turn of the Screw

Below you will find the important quotes in The Turn of the Screw related to the theme of Exterior vs. Interior.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The little girl who accompanied Mrs. Grose appeared to me on the spot a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with her. She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen…

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose, Flora
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

On the way to Bly the governess had been feeling nervous about her new position, but as soon as she arrives her anxieties are soothed by the beauty of the house and of Flora. In this passage she describes Flora as "the most beautiful child" she has ever seen, adding that anyone who knows her is lucky. This observation reveals the governess' initial belief that outward beauty corresponds to internal innocence; however, the coming events will come to challenge this view. The fact that she describes Flora not just as beautiful but as the most beautiful child she has ever seen adds to the sense that there might be something unnatural (or indeed supernatural!) about Flora's charm. 


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Chapter 3 Quotes

It would have been impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence, and by the time I had got back to Bly with him I remained merely bewildered—so far, that is, as I was not outraged—by the sense of the horrible letter locked up in my room, in a drawer. As soon as I could compass a private word with Mrs. Grose I declared to her that it was grotesque.
She promptly understood me. "You mean the cruel charge—?"
"It doesn't live an instant. My dear woman, LOOK at him!"

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

Having met Miles for the first time, the governess is as smitten with his beauty and seeming innocence as she was with Flora, and is "bewildered" as to why he has been expelled from school. She confides this to Mrs. Grose, justifying her disbelief by saying "LOOK at him!". Once again, the governess reveals her complete faith in the idea that an outward appearance of beauty can be taken as proof that a person is innocent.

The fact that the governess received the letter before meeting Miles also means that the contents of the letter are a constant influence on how she views him—either making her wary and distrustful of Miles, or else indignant on his behalf.

Chapter 5 Quotes

"The children?"
"I can't leave them now."
"You're afraid—?"
I spoke boldly. "I'm afraid of HIM."
Mrs. Grose's large face showed me, at this, for the first time, the faraway faint glimmer of a consciousness more acute: I somehow made out in it the delayed dawn of an idea I myself had not given her and that was as yet quite obscure to me.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles, Flora, Peter Quint
Page Number: 311
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess has described the man she has seen to Mrs. Grose, who is rather dismissive and says they should head to church. The governess protests, saying that she can't leave the children because she is afraid of the man. Mrs. Grose then seems to display a hint of recognition, indicating to that Mrs. Grose may know more than she has so far revealed (and indeed more than the governess knows). This mysterious sense of recognition advances the governess's coming suspicion that, despite the fact that the governess trusts and confides in Mrs. Grose, Mrs. Grose may be keeping secrets from her. Meanwhile, the governess's unwillingness to leave the children confirms her feeling of duty to protect them and her paranoia that the man she has seen intends to harm them. 

Chapter 8 Quotes

To gaze into the depths of blue of the child's eyes and pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning was to be guilty of a cynicism in preference to which I naturally preferred to abjure my judgment and, so far as might be, my agitation. I couldn't abjure for merely wanting to, but I could repeat to Mrs. Grose—as I did there, over and over, in the small hours—that with their voices in the air, their pressure on one's heart, and their fragrant faces against one's cheek, everything fell to the ground but their incapacity and their beauty.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose, Miles, Flora
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess has been questioning Mrs. Grose about Miles' relationship with Quint, trying to figure out if Miles is really as innocent and honest as he appears; Mrs. Grose has responded by admitting that Miles has been secretive about his time with Quint. The governess, disturbed, resolves not to assume Miles is lying, and once again contemplates the children's beauty and charm as evidence that they must be innocent. 

This passage is typically ambiguous. On one level, it seems to suggest that the governess' obsession with the children's apparent innocence is naïve. She seems almost to fetishize their adorable looks, losing the ability to think rationally in the rapturous, sensual description of "their pressure on one's heart, and their fragrant faces against one's cheek." At the same time, it could be just as likely that Mrs. Grose is keeping secrets as opposed to Miles, and the governess's enduring commitment to protecting the children perhaps reveals her noble, loyal character. 

Finally, the phrase "their pressure on one's heart" disturbingly foreshadows the final scene in the story, when the governess describes Miles's death by saying that "his little heart... had stopped."

Chapter 11 Quotes

He was gentleness itself, and while I wagged my head at him he stood there more than ever a little fairy prince. It was his brightness indeed that gave me a respite. Would it be so great if he were really going to tell me? "Well," he said at last, "just exactly in order that you should do this."
"Do what?"
"Think me—for a change—bad!" I shall never forget the sweetness and gaiety with which he brought out the word, nor how, on top of it, he bent forward and kissed me. It was practically the end of everything.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Miles (speaker)
Page Number: 342
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess has questioned Miles about why he was outside, and he sweetly admits it was because he wanted her to think he was bad. He then kisses her, and she feels overwhelmed with emotion. This exchange is another example of the highly complex and ambiguous psychological interplay between the governess and the children. On one level, Miles behaves adorably, and it is fairly plausible that he would view making the governess think he was bad as some kind of trick or game. The governess herself certainly seems inclined toward this interpretation, again revealing her infatuation with Miles's resemblance to "a little fairy prince." 

At the same time, if the reader believes that Miles and Flora are actually under the influence of the ghosts, then this passage can be read as an example of highly effective (and disturbing!) manipulation. Miles certainly seems to know exactly how to make the governess sympathize with him, and the governess's dramatic claim following his kiss ("It was practically the end of everything") may indicate the extent to which Miles is able to influence her emotional reactions. 

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 13 Quotes

What it was most impossible to get rid of was the cruel idea that, whatever I had seen, Miles and Flora saw more—things terrible and unguessable and that sprang from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past. Such things naturally left on the surface, for the time, a chill which we vociferously denied that we felt…

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Miles, Flora
Page Number: 350
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess has been tormented by her conviction that Miles and Flora know she has also seen the ghosts, and almost raises the issue with them several times before deciding against it. In this passage she reflects on how disturbing it is to know that Miles and Flora have been corrupted and have seen "terrible and unguessable" things that even she does not know about. However, she also admits that the three of them still continue to act as if everything is fine.

Her words reflect the theme of deception and of the tension between exterior innocence and the dark, disturbing secrets that lie beneath. The governess's statement that "whatever I have seen, Miles and Flora saw more" represents a reversal in the natural position of adults and children, a narrative device typically used in gothic ghost stories that leads to ominous consequences. 

Chapter 14 Quotes

I call it a revolution because I now see how, with the word he spoke, the curtain rose on the last act of my dreadful drama, and the catastrophe was precipitated. "Look here, my dear, you know," he charmingly said, "when in the world, please, am I going back to school?"
Transcribed here the speech sounds harmless enough, particularly as uttered in the sweet, high, casual pipe with which, at all interlocutors, but above all at his eternal governess, he threw off intonations as if he were tossing roses.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Miles (speaker)
Page Number: 352
Explanation and Analysis:

While walking to church, Miles asks the governess when he will be going back to school. The governess confesses to the reader that his words might seem innocent when written down, but that she knows they indicate the imminent arrival of "the last act of my dreadful drama." Once again, the true meaning of Miles's words, as well as the tone with which he delivers them, remain ambiguous. The governess describes his voice as "sweet, high, casual," and yet she is utterly convinced that his question signals that something terrible will happen. Her use of theatrical language ("the curtain rose on the last act of my dreadful drama") also conveys the governess' self-conscious awareness of the reader and of her own role as the storyteller. 

Chapter 20 Quotes

"I don't know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you're cruel. I don't like you!" Then, after this deliverance, which might have been that of a vulgarly pert little girl in the street, she hugged Mrs. Grose more closely and buried in her skirts the dreadful little face. In this position she produced an almost furious wail. "Take me away, take me away—oh, take me away from her!"

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Flora (speaker), Mrs. Grose
Page Number: 375
Explanation and Analysis:

After Mrs. Grose has admitted that she does not see Miss Jessel, Flora agrees, saying she has "never" seen anyone or anything and accusing the governess of being cruel. She then demands that Mrs. Grose take her away. Flora's words alarm the governess, not only because they are so directly accusatory but because they also challenge the governess's presumptions about the binaries of innocence and evil.

Throughout the novel, the governess has been fixated on the idea that the children are innocent and pure, that Quint and Miss Jessel are evil, and that she––the governess––is the children's protector and is therefore good. However, this exchange majorly subverts these beliefs, suggesting that if Quint and Miss Jessel don't exist, then it is the governess herself who is having a cruel, corrupting effect on the children. Note that this subversion is also evident in the way the governess describes Flora here, no longer using words associated with magical innocence and beauty, but instead calling her "vulgarly pert" and "dreadful." The fact that the governess's opinion reverses so suddenly suggests that the appearance of innocence can be highly unstable and misleading. 

Chapter 22 Quotes

Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature. I could only get on at all by taking "nature" into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker)
Page Number: 385
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Grose and Flora have now left Bly, and the governess is aware that the rest of the staff know about her outburst and her belief in the ghosts. She clearly feels rattled, and resolves that the only way to maintain her composure is to pretend as though she is not dealing with anything supernatural and that her ordeal is nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, if the ghosts are real then this is a fairly admirable (and no doubt necessary) course of action, and can be seen as an example of the governess's maturity and common sense.

On the other hand, the tactic of repressing what is really happening below an exterior of normalcy has clearly led to terrible consequences thus far. The governess's determination to "shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth" sounds irresponsible and deluded, despite her belief that it is the rational course of action. It can also be taken as evidence that the ghosts really are all in her head, as she seems suspiciously convinced of her ability to impact reality using the power of her mind alone. 

Finally, note that the title of the novel is once again mentioned at the end of this passage. In this instance, "turn of the screw" refers to the need for the governess to "tighten up" her composure and behave sensibly.

Chapter 23 Quotes

This inference grew in a few minutes to sharp intensity and seemed bound up with the direct perception that it was positively he who was. The frames and squares of the great window were a kind of image, for him, of a kind of failure. I felt that I saw him, at any rate, shut in or shut out. He was admirable, but not comfortable: I took it in with a throb of hope. Wasn't he looking, through the haunted pane, for something he couldn't see?

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Miles
Related Symbols: Windows
Page Number: 387
Explanation and Analysis:

Miles and the governess are now alone at Bly, and the governess has watched Miles stare out the window as if looking for something. She has a sudden revelation that Miles has not actually seen the ghosts this whole time (though he has perhaps sensed their existence). This comes as a relief, as she realizes that Miles has not been corrupted by the ghosts as she had feared. Once again, she seems him as innocent, a perception that alleviates much of her distress. 

The language used in this passage is complex and contradictory, typical of James's enigmatic prose style. The governess sees Miles as "shut in or shut out," an observation that emphasizes the theme of exterior vs. interior and conveys the importance of the novel's idea of belonging. She imagines that Miles is "looking, through the haunted pane, for something he couldn't see," an assumption that, once again, she derives not from evidence but merely through intuition. It is thus typically difficult to assess the governess's reliability here. Is the window pane really haunted? Is Miles really searching for something, or is he simply looking out the window and daydreaming? It seems plausible that the governess is projecting her own thoughts and feelings onto Miles; regardless of whether the ghosts are real, her strong desire to see him as innocent is clearly inextricable from her own wish to feel responsible and noble as his protector.

Chapter 24 Quotes

"It's he?"
I was so determined to have all my proof that I flashed into ice to challenge him. "Whom do you mean by 'he'?"
"Peter Quint—you devil!" His face gave again, round the room, its convulsed supplication. "Where?"
…"What does he matter now, my own?—what will he EVER matter? I have you," I launched at the beast, "but he has lost you forever!" Then, for the demonstration of my work, "There, there!" I said to Miles.
But he had already jerked straight round, stared, glared again, and seen but the quiet day. With the stroke of the loss I was so proud of he uttered the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss…We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Miles (speaker), Peter Quint
Page Number: 395
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel's dramatic conclusion is a masterpiece of creepiness and ambiguity. Miles has confessed that he stole the letter the governess wrote to his uncle, and admits that he was expelled from school for "saying things." Meanwhile, the governess has seen Quint at the window. At first Miles seems confused by what she has seen, referring to it with female pronouns, but then he cries out "Peter Quint––you devil!" It is difficult to determine exactly what happens next, but the novel's conclusion is definite: Miles' heart has stopped, and he is dead.

One way to interpret the ending of the novel is as a final piece of evidence that the ghosts are real and that Quint did corrupt Miles. The fact that Miles shouts Quint's name and seems to expect to see him indicates that Miles believes he is there. It is possible that Miles' heart stops in fright, or because Quint kills him, or because he cannot survive the governess seizing him from Quint's possession (indeed, this is arguably conveyed by the use of the word "dispossessed"). 

Another interpretation reads Miles's fright as being directed at the governess and her frantic behavior. It is possible that Miles's cry "you devil!" is in fact directed at the governess. The governess's repetition of "the quiet day" perhaps suggests that there is indeed no one else there but the two of them. According to this interpretation, it is the governess herself who kills Miles––either by frightening him or by smothering him so tightly that he suffocates. Indeed, this would explain how she knows that his heart has stopped.