The Turn of the Screw

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The Supernatural Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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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.
The Supernatural Theme Icon

To call this a theme may seem a little ridiculous, given that this is a ghost story—of course there are supernatural events. But the theme of the supernatural, in Henry James’s hands, is worth thinking about. The supernatural is important because it brings into the story an essential, richly complex element of ambiguity: given the evidence, it is possible that the ghosts are there and equally possible that they are not there at all. The governess claims she sees them, but no other characters ever admit to seeing them. If we believe the governess’s account, then the other characters seem to be withholding from her important truths about Bly and its history. But if we believe the other characters in the story, then there are no ghosts, and the governess seems unaware of being obsessive and unhinged.

The story is best appreciated when readers acknowledge the possibility that each of these two ways of reading the book are equally true, given the evidence. The logic that guides this theme is crucial to understanding what’s great about The Turn of the Screw. The reader can choose to sympathize with the governess, who sees the ghosts and tells us they’re real, or the reader may sympathize with the other characters in the story, none of whom ever seem to see what the governess claims she sees. But the reader would be best off to try not to conclude either way, and to work to explore the viewpoints of each character, and what those divergent viewpoints may imply about the characters wrapped up in all this confusion.

The supernatural is thereby the key to some of the book’s deepest insights about the difficult relationships we have with other people’s minds and experiences. It can sometimes be impossible to figure out whether what we see in other people is something we’ve invented with our own imaginations, or if we’re seeing other people as they really are. We can be convinced that we’re seeing the truth—say, that someone is sad—but if they deny what we claim to see, either we’ve invented what we see, or some secret is being kept. Occasionally we’re correct, and the ghosts we see haunting other people are really there. On the other hand, we could be misreading the ghosts we see, and they may be our own thoughts, feelings, or histories. (Psychologists call this phenomenon “projection.”) In The Turn of the Screw it is impossible to tell whether the ghosts are only haunting the governess, or if they are some key to the true histories, feelings, and thoughts of the children she’s taking care of. It is this impossible division that makes the supernatural an important theme.

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The Supernatural ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Supernatural 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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The Supernatural 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 The Supernatural.
Preface Quotes

"I quite agree—in regard to Griffin's ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it's not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have involved a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to TWO children—?"

Related Characters: Douglas (speaker)
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

At a Christmas Eve party in London, the partygoers have been sharing ghost stories, one of which has featured a ghost haunting a child. Douglas, one of the partygoers, attempts to trump this story, bragging that he knows of a ghost story that features not just one but two children. The fact that the novel's main narrative is embedded within this scene highlights the importance of the theme of storytelling. James explores the idea that we tell stories to impress others, and Douglas' dramatic phrase "what do you say to TWO children––?" indicates that he is competing to tell the most disturbing tale. 

This passage is important as it is one of two places where the novel's title is mentioned, and thus provides insight into the function of the phrase "The Turn of the Screw" within the narrative. Douglas says that the appearance of a ghost to an innocent child "adds a particular touch," meaning that the juxtaposition between the horror of the ghost and the child's innocence makes for a good story. Douglas uses the phrase "the turn of the screw" to imply a level of creepiness within the story; however, this phrase also gives a sense of something being closed or sealed. This may foreshadow the governess' feeling that she is trapped at Bly. 


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Chapter 3 Quotes

That was exactly present to me—by which I mean the face was—when, on the first of these occasions, at the end of a long June day, I stopped short on emerging from one of the plantations and coming into view of the house. What arrested me on the spot—and with a shock much greater than any vision had allowed for—was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real. He did stand there!

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Peter Quint
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

A few weeks have passed since the governess's arrival, weeks she has described as joyful and carefree. The only thing she wishes during this period is that "someone" would look on at her life at Bly and that "he" would approve. In the midst of having this thought she sees a strange man in the distance, looking at her. The governess is shocked, and feels that her imagination has "turned real." The man she sees turns out to be the ghost of Peter Quint, though she does not realize this yet.

It is important to note the context in which this first appearance of Peter Quint takes place. Note that the governess had just been longing for "someone" to witness her life with the children; the fact that she uses male pronouns to describe this person both connects him to the male ghost who does appear and suggests that the person she is hoping would watch her might be Miles and Flora's mysterious uncle (whom, it's suggested, she might feel a romantic attraction for). This is significant as one interpretation of the novel holds that the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are indeed figments of the governess's imagination. One possible motivation for her experiencing visions of ghosts is a sense of loneliness at Bly and unrequited love for Miles and Flora's uncle. On the other hand, of course, it's entirely possible that there really are ghosts in this ghost story, and the figure of Quint appears just when the governess is feeling most alone.

Chapter 4 Quotes

There were shrubberies and big trees, but I remember the clear assurance I felt that none of them concealed him. He was there or was not there: not there if I didn't see him.

Related Characters: The Governess (speaker), Peter Quint
Related Symbols: Windows
Page Number: 309
Explanation and Analysis:

The governess has seen the ghost of Peter Quint again, this time through a window. She goes outside to find him and cannot see him, though insists that this is not because he is hidden by the trees but because he has actually vanished. This passage shows that the governess is quick to dismiss a plausible explanation (that the man she saw is now simply hidden by other objects in her sightline), and instead jumps to the conclusion that, because she can't see him, he has disappeared. 

Depending on the reader's interpretation of the story, the governess may seem suspiciously quick to trust her own perceptions, perhaps suggesting that she has a loose grip on reality. The statement "He was there or was not there: not there if I didn't see him" indicates the governess' certainty that the man is appearing to her in particular, thereby centering her own role in the narrative as more than a mere witness. 

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. 

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. 

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 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 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 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 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." 

"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.