The Turn of the Screw

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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.
Secrecy Theme Icon

Each character in The Turn of the Screw withholds some crucial bit of personal information from each of the other characters. This tendency to repress, lie, and conceal personal information—to create and enforce an atmosphere of secrecy—is presented in this book as something capable of thwarting the development of meaningful and healthy relationships with others and with ourselves.

The governess, for example, cannot openly discuss with the children her concerns about their wellbeing because of the unbridgeable gap that seems to exist between her and the children about their times spent with Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. This secrecy between the governess, Miles, and Flora eventually leads to serious trouble. When it has built up to unbearable intensity, that is, in the two scenes when the governess sees the ghosts while the children are there with her, and the governess implores them to be honest with her, Flora has an emotional breakdown and is forced to leave Bly, and Miles dies. It is not clear whether or not the children do see the ghosts here, but the violence in these scenes—especially between the governess and the children—shows how powerfully secrecy can break down personal relationships.

The secrecy between the governess and Mrs. Grose is also important. Here secrecy is not the perhaps understandable silence that emerges between adults and children. Instead, this is a different kind of secrecy, one consisting of confused allegiances, the occasional leakage of half-truths, and the refusal to confront reality head-on. Mrs. Grose divulges some important information about the children, about their uncle, about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. But she only confides through the filter of secrecy, and these half-revelations are almost as destructive as the total reticence the children show. Mrs. Grose’s secrecy is a bit more adult, a pretended openness that allows lies and truths to be confused. Mrs Grose’s refusal to be open with the governess suggests that this secrecy has affected her own ability to see what’s truly going on at Bly.

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Secrecy 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 Secrecy.
Chapter 2 Quotes

"I take what you said to me at noon as a declaration that you’ve never known him to be bad."
She threw back her head; she had clearly, by this time, and very honestly, adopted an attitude. "Oh, never known him—I don't pretend that!"
I was upset again. "Then you have known him—?"
"Yes indeed, miss, thank God!"
On reflection I accepted this. "You mean that a boy who never is—?"
"Is no boy for me!"
I held her tighter. "You like them with the spirit to be naughty?" Then, keeping pace with her answer, "So do I!" I eagerly brought out. "But not to the degree to contaminate—"
"To contaminate?"—my big word left her at a loss. I explained it. "To corrupt."
She stared, taking my meaning in; but it produced in her an odd laugh. "Are you afraid he'll corrupt you?"

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles
Page Number: 297
Explanation and Analysis:

Having read the news that Miles is being expelled from school, the governess asked Mrs. Grose if Miles was badly behaved, and Mrs. Grose replied that he wasn't. Here, however, Mrs. Grose slightly contradicts herself, saying it's not the case that Miles was never bad, but that she wouldn't like a boy who was perfectly behaved all the time anyway. The governess agrees, but nervously adds that a child shouldn't be so bad that he "corrupts" others, to which Mrs. Grose laughs and asks her if she is worried that Miles will corrupt her. 

This passage is significant as it establishes a key tension between innocence and corruption, and specifically foreshadows the governess's anxiety about whether Miles is truly innocent or whether, beneath his veneer of purity, he has been "corrupted" by Quint. Although the governess claims to like it when children have "the spirit to be naughty," her obsession with innocence suggests otherwise. Mrs. Grose's question of whether the governess is worried that Miles will corrupt her hints at an interpretation of the novel wherein the governess is the innocent one, and Miles and Flora are the corrupting forces. This would represent an eerie challenge to the presumed association between children and innocence.

Finally, the fact that Mrs. Grose at first said that Miles was perfectly behaved and then contradicts herself hints that she is perhaps not as trustworthy she might initially seem. This, combined with the many unfinished sentences and murky pauses of the dialogue, creates suspense and adds to the ambiguity of which characters in the novel are telling the truth or misunderstanding one another.


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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 6 Quotes

"He was looking for someone else, you say—someone who was not you?"
"He was looking for little Miles." A portentous clearness now possessed me. "That’s whom he was looking for."
"But how do you know?"
"I know, I know, I know!" My exaltation grew. "And you know, my dear!"

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles, Peter Quint
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess has vowed to Mrs. Grose that she will approach her task of protecting the children with renewed vigour, and goes on to say that this is because she knows that the ghost of Peter Quint was "looking for" Miles. This moment certainly adds a disturbing element to the story, though––as this passage shows––it is not quite clear how the governess knows Quint is targeting Miles. As in many parts of the novel, she seems to be relying on a strong yet inexplicable sense of intuition.

This is significant, as it would have been unusual at the time for two women to be effectively running a household with no male supervision. Much of the governess and Mrs. Grose's distress can be read as anxiety over whether to trust their own instincts; this is reflected in the fact that the governess is constantly longing for the authoritative intervention of Miles and Flora's uncle. At the same time, this exchange reveals that the governess does strongly believe that both she and Mrs. Grose know that the "innocent" Miles is in danger, emphasized by her exclamations "I know, I know, I know! ... And you know, my dear!" 

"Oh, it wasn't him!" Mrs. Grose with emphasis declared. "It was Quint's own fancy. To play with him, I mean—to spoil him." She paused a moment; then she added: "Quint was much too free."
This gave me, straight from my vision of his face—such a face!—a sudden sickness of disgust. "Too free with my boy?"
"Too free with everyone!"

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles, Peter Quint
Page Number: 315
Explanation and Analysis:

In response to the governess' suspicions that Quint's ghost is "looking for" Miles, Mrs. Grose confesses that, when he was alive, Quint was especially fond of Miles and liked "to spoil him." She then goes on to say that he was "much too free," a comment that horrifies the governess.

It is important to note that the use of euphemistic expression here leaves the true meaning of Mrs. Grose's words ambiguous. During the Victorian era, sexuality was often referred to with this kind of indirect language; at the same time, due to the strict social codes of the era, "much too free" could mean any number of transgressions. The governess's horror at the thought that Quint was "too free" with Miles suggests that she interprets Mrs. Grose as saying that Quint sexually molested Miles. However, Mrs. Grose's reply that Quint was too free with everyone again throws this interpretation into doubt, all while also hinting at the later revelation that Quint and Miss Jessel had a sexual relationship of their own. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

"They know—it's too monstrous: they know, they know!"
"And what on earth—?" I felt her incredulity as she held me.
"Why, all that we know—and heaven knows what else besides!" Then, as she released me, I made it out to her, made it out perhaps only now with full coherency even to myself. "Two hours ago, in the garden"—I could scarce articulate—"Flora saw!"
Mrs. Grose took it as she might have taken a blow in the stomach. "She has told you?" she panted.
"Not a word—that's the horror. She kept it to herself!”

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Mrs. Grose (speaker), Miles, Flora
Page Number: 320-321
Explanation and Analysis:

Having waited in vain for Flora to acknowledge the appearance of the ghost by the lake, the governess later tells Mrs. Grose what happened, emphasizing that she now believes that Miles and Flora do see the ghosts but pretend that nothing is there. Indeed, the governess suggests that Miles and Flora perhaps understand the situation far better than Mrs. Grose and she herself do (as indicated by the phrase "and heaven knows what else besides!"). The governess is horrified that Flora pretends not to see them, as this suggests that the ghosts have some kind of influence over the children. 

Once again, it is very difficult to know whether or not to trust the governess here. She insists that she knows Flora saw the ghost, but again, this knowledge seems to be purely intuitive and not based on any evidence (it actually contradicts the evidence, as Flora didn't seem to see the ghost). This passage also significantly disrupts assumptions about the binaries between innocence and corruption and between truth and secrecy. The governess's revelation shifts the presumption that the children are innocent, honest, and ignorant, while she and Mrs. Grose––as the adults and authority figures––possess disturbing knowledge that they must keep secret from the children. According to the governess's new beliefs, it is in fact the children who are keeping horrifying secrets from the adults, who remain innocently clueless about what is really going on. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

You were looking for me out of the window?" I said. "You thought I might be walking in the grounds?"
"Well, you know, I thought someone was"—she never blanched as she smiled out that at me.
Oh, how I looked at her now! "And did you see anyone?"
"Ah, NO!" she returned, almost with the full privilege of childish inconsequence, resentfully, though with a long sweetness in her little drawl of the negative.
At that moment, in the state of my nerves, I absolutely believed she lied…

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Flora (speaker)
Related Symbols: Windows
Page Number: 336
Explanation and Analysis:

During the night the governess has caught Flora hiding behind the window blind, and when asked what she was doing there, Flora responded that she was looking for the governess through the window. The governess, suspicious, asks if Flora saw anyone, and Flora responds in a sweet yet resentful "drawl," "Ah, NO!", leading the governess to believe she is lying. This is the first moment when the governess truly suspects either of the children of being anything less than purely innocent and honest (although at this point she still maintains a favorable view of Miles, eerily echoing Peter Quint's favoritism of the boy over Flora).

Note the difficulty in determining the tone of what Flora is saying here. The words she uses––"Ah, NO!"––are simple, and could be said in any number of ways. The governess at once describes her expression as privileged, "negative," and resentful––all suggesting that she is speaking with a kind of sneer, and is perhaps lying––while at the same time using the words "childish inconsequence," "sweetness," and a "little drawl," which suggest innocence. The ambiguity here makes it impossible to know for sure if Flora is lying, and also indicates that the binary between innocence and dishonesty is perhaps not as simple as we might presume. 

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 17 Quotes

"Dear little Miles, dear little Miles, if you KNEW how I want to help you! It's only that, it's nothing but that, and I'd rather die than give you a pain or do you a wrong—I'd rather die than hurt a hair of you. Dear little Miles"—oh, I brought it out now even if I should go too far—"I just want you to help me to save you!"

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Miles
Page Number: 365
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess and Miles have been talking in his bedroom. During the course of their conversation, Miles has shown resistance to the way the governess has been taking care of him, saying that he wants to go back to school or at least to speak with his uncle. The governess grows increasingly hysterical, eventually falling to her knees and exclaiming that she just wants Miles to let her save him. She announces that she'd "rather die than hurt a hair of you," ironically foreshadowing the ending of the novel when she (arguably) squeezes him to death.

Indeed, this entire passage can be read as prefiguring the final scene of the novel, an ominous indication that the governess's relationship with Miles has become inappropriately intense and volatile. At the same time, if we interpret the ghosts as being real, then Miles's conflict with the governess symbolizes Quint's attempt to sever their relationship so that Quint can have Miles all to himself. Either way, the fact that neither Miles nor the governess discuss Quint openly clearly creates an unbearable level of tension between them, suggesting that repression and secrecy lead to chaotic and terrible consequences. 

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 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.