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.
Secrecy Quotes in The Turn of the Screw
"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?"
"I can't leave them now."
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.
"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!"
"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!"
"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!”
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…
"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."
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…
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.
"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!"
“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.
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.
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?
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.