Even in her first glimpse of Miles, the governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw feels instant adoration and affection for the boy who she describes as innocent, at least by outward appearance. As she grows to know Miles, she develops not only an attachment towards him, but an obsession as well. The governess longs to protect Miles from “evil,” to protect him from Peter Quint – a man whom she has not only never met, but who is also dead. The closing chapter of Turn of the Screw demonstrates clearly the governess’ unordinary obsession to rescue Miles from what she has determined as evil.
But, while the governess’ supposed objective is protection, the novel ends with Miles dead in her hands. Furthermore, as she holds the child’s lifeless body in her arms, the governess feels no signs of sadness or mourning but instead, mysterious content and satisfaction. The final episode of Turn of the Screw reveals that the governess’ exterior and persistent desires to protect Miles conceals a more unspeakable sensual longing for the boy. Prior to her move to Bly, sexual exploration for the governess, “the youngest of seven daughters of a poor country parson,” is nonexistent (295). Upon taking the new job, however, the governess – an unmarried and “anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage who, except in her fantasies, has never experienced intimate relationships with men – is free to immerse herself in all the opportunities for sexual experimentation available to her at Bly. The governess’ desire to explore the masculine race is seen in the beginning of the novella in her eager decision to accept a job from the wealthy master, a man whose figure she becomes infatuated with and who “impressed her as vast and imposing – this prospective patron proved a gentlemen, a bachelor in the prime of life, such a figure as had never risen, save in a dream or an old novel, before a fluttered, anxious girl out of a Hampshire vicarage” (295).
The development of her fixation to experience and engage in relationships with men is seen furthermore in the closing paragraphs of Chapter III when she daydreams of meeting a man while she takes a stroll, fantasizing that “it would be charming as a charming story suddenly to meet someone. I only asked that he should know; and the only way to be sure he knew would be to see it, and the kind light of it, in his handsome face” (310). The governess’ departure from the “Hampshire vicarage” brings her vast opportunities for sexual exploration. She experiences a sexual awakening, overwhelmed by opportunities for relations with member of the opposite sex.
Miles becomes the governess’ choice as her outlet for sexual experimentation. Since her move to Bly, she has encountered at least three potential men – the master, Quint and Miles. But, because Quint, who is dead, and the master, who resides in town, are both intangible, Miles, provides for her the best means to satisfy her sexual cravings. Since the beginning of the novella, visions of Quint have consistently emerged during times when the governess worries about her relationship with Miles. Quint appears initially in Chapter III just after the governess meets Miles for the first time, as she is contemplating the potential ramifications his dismissal from boarding school could have on their relationship.
Later, in Chapter IV, the governess becomes troubled again while pondering Miles’ alleged wrongs and sees Quint a second time. Quint’s appearance serves as an instrument to measure the governess’ confidence in her relationship with Miles. Visions of Quint emerge during times when the governess feels distant from Miles, at times when she fears she could be losing Miles in some way. Quint’s appearance gives the governess a false sense of comfort that Miles’ unwillingness to open up in their relationship is simply a result of the threat that Quint poses on it, not any fault of her own. Conversely, Quint’s appearance is not evident during times when the governess is satisfied with her relationship with Miles. In the final episode of the novella, the governess, who is preoccupied by the anticipation of Miles’ possible reaction to her abrupt and blunt questioning, sees Quint’s clear and distinct face in the window.
As she grasps Miles’ hand, desperate to protect him from Quint, Miles confesses for the first time to stealing the letter to his uncle. The dialogue between the governess and Miles overwhelms the governess with pleasure because she believes she has moved one step further to developing a closer relationship with Miles. The governess fancies that increasing her physical intimacy with Miles can open him up to her and “with a moan of joy, (she) enfolded, (she) drew him close; and while (she) held him to (her) breast, (she) could feel in the sudden fever of his little body the tremendous pulse of his little heart” (398-399). The more intimate relationship she feels she now has with Miles as a result of the conclusion dispels the governess’ prior anxiety and, subsequently, the vision of Quint begins to waver, indicating the wavering of the threat she feels against her relationship with Miles. As she “kept (her) eyes on the thing the window, (she) saw it move and shift in posture” (399).
The closer her relationship with Miles, the less the governess thinks about Quint. Miles’ telling of the truth is what the governess has desired through the entire novella. It is to her a victory for her cause – her cause to tear Miles away from his insinuated relationship with Quint, her conquest in the battle of “fighting with a demon for a human soul” (398). When the governess later draws Miles over to a closer and tighter hug, she is not only shielding Miles from Quint, but also advances a rung on the ladder of physical intimacy with the boy.
The series of determined actions to bring herself closer to Miles bolsters the notion of her hunger for a masculine counterpart. Miles’ response to the governess’ touches and physical moves in the final episode give the governess more confidence to press Miles for more confessions and more reason to move even closer. In this scene, the governess realizes that she garners more response when she holds a tighter hold of Miles. Miles’ subsequent willingness to confess gives her false indications that she can press further and leads her to believe that it is the physical intimacy that is bringing them together, causing her to overlook the possibility that her strangle on Miles and the dread he feels toward her actions may be the real driving force for his confessions. As their communication develops in the final scene, the governess’ suppressed infatuations emerge as she confesses, “I was blind with victory, though even then the very effect that was to have brought him so much nearer was already that of added separation” (400).
As she continues to climb this ladder of physical proximity to Miles, Quint’s face in the window is not once mentioned. She is, temporarily, content with the status of her relationship with Miles. The governess is temporarily satisfied and, for a short moment, she even lets go of Miles. But, as she loses her grasp of Miles, the governess’ true desires for Miles emerge. Ever since the governess hears from Mrs. Grose earlier in the novella that Quint had been “much too free” with Miles, the governess uses her disgust at the threat of the possible homosexual relationship between Quint and Miles as a reason to protect Miles and to become closer to him (323).
Her closeness has been, to her, a method of tearing away the mysterious and insinuated relationship between Miles and Quint. But, in the scene, where Quint is absent, the governess continues to experience discomfort and anguish that she cannot hold Miles. Quint is no longer at the window, but the governess still feels an aching to take a hold of Miles and “suffered, feeling that (she) had nothing now there to keep (Miles) from” (401). The governess wants Miles out of her own longings, but has been accustomed to using Quint as an easy, but false justification for her sexual desires.
As she suffers from wanting Miles again, Quint’s presence suddenly reemerges at the window, “for there again, against the glass, as if to blight his confession and stay his answer, was the hideous author of our woe – the white face of damnation” and gives her yet another false justification to take hold of Miles (402). Again, she uses Quint as an outward excuse to engage in intimate and physical contact with Miles. Hidden under her quest to protect Miles is the governess’ ulterior motive to have the boy for herself. Her feelings of desperate and profound protective desires to keep Miles from the dangers of Quint are only the surface to a suppressed sexual longing that lies unseen in her conscience. It is these inner cravings that ultimately lead her to kill the boy she so longs to protect in the closing scene of the novella.
Throughout the novella, the governess has struggled, but failed to develop a close relationship with Miles, who has shown no interest in an intimate relationship. The governess is truly in love, “Yes, she was in love. That is, she had been in love” with the young boy (293). Rather than accepting rejection, however, the governess concocts visions of Quint, whose implicated relationship with Miles poses a threat to hers, to justify Miles’ aloofness. Ultimately, killing Miles is, to the governess, a double victory.
With the death of Miles, Quint can no longer have visit and engage in a relationship with Miles. In addition, Miles’ death leaves the governess with full control over the boy she has so long desired to have in her arms. By killing Miles, the apparition of Quint disappears, the threat of a relationship between Miles and Quint becomes nonexistent, and the governess, with Miles limp in her arms, has the boy completely for herself. Her fantasies of having a man of her own come true as she sits, holding Miles, “alone with the quite day” (403).