Study Guide

The Turn of the Screw Appearances

By Henry James

Appearances

But it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connection with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, the vision of whose angelic beauty had probably more than anything else to do with me restlessness that, before morning, made me several times rise and wander about my room to take in the whole picture and prospect. (1.3)

From the very first day, the children's physical beauty is a distraction; here, Flora's "radiant image" is so wonderful that it keeps the Governess up all night thinking about her new life with the child.

"And the little boy – does he look like her? Is he too so very remarkable?"

One wouldn't flatter a child. "Oh, miss, most remarkable. If you think well of this one!" – and she stood there with a plate in her hand, beaming at our companion, who looked from one of us to the other with placid heavenly eyes that contained nothing to check us.

"Yes; if I do – ?"

"You will be carried away by the little gentleman!" (1.4-6)

The children's appearance does have the effect of "carrying away" viewers – though it seems benign at this point, we begin to wonder about the spell the cast on the women as the story goes on.

I have not seen Bly since the day I left it, and I daresay that to my older and more informed eyes it would now appear sufficiently contracted. But as my little conductress, with her hair of gold and her frock of blue, danced before me round corners and pattered down passages, I had the view of a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite, such a place as would somehow, for diversion of the young idea, take all color out of storybooks and fairytales. Wasn't it just a storybook over which I had fallen adoze and adream? No; it was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-replaced and half-utilized, in which I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Well, I was, strangely, at the helm! (1.9)

The whole house falls under the glamour of Flora's charm, and the Governess's view of her whole situation is colored by her infatuation with the child.

"See him, miss, first. Then believe it!" I felt forthwith a new impatience to see him; it was the beginning of a curiosity that, for all the next hours, was to deepen almost to pain. Mrs. Grose was aware, I could judge, of what she had produced in me, and she followed it up with assurance. "You might as well believe it of the little lady. Bless her," she added the next moment – "look at her!" (2.10)

The idea that Miles's innocence could be proven by simply looking at him is more than a little odd – Mrs. Grose's faith in her charges seems to be founded purely on their adorability, which, as far as we know, doesn't usually correlate directly to morality.

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!"

She smiled at my pretension to have discovered his charm. "I assure you, miss, I do nothing else! What will you say, then?" she immediately added.

"In answer to the letter?" I had made up my mind. "Nothing."

"And to his uncle?"

I was incisive. "Nothing."

"And to the boy himself?"

I was wonderful. "Nothing." (3.1-5)

This wording is really interesting…the women have only to look at Miles to know that he's innocent, but that's not all – Mrs. Grose's response ("I do nothing else!") hints at the oddly obsessive pleasure of looking at the kid.

My charming work was just my life with Miles and Flora, and through nothing could I so like it as through feeling that I could throw myself into it in trouble. The attraction of my small charges was a constant joy, leading me to wonder afresh at the vanity of my original fears, the distaste I had begun by entertaining for the probable gray prose of my office. There was to be no gray prose, it appeared, and no long grind; so how could work not be charming that presented itself as daily beauty? It was all the romance of the nursery and the poetry of the school room. I don't mean by this, of course, that we studied only fiction and verse; I mean I can express no otherwise the sort of interest my companions inspired. (4.3)

The Governess's infatuation with her young pupils influences everything about her new job; the whole thing takes on the appearance of flawless romance.

Of course I was under the spell, and the wonderful part is that, even at the time, I perfectly knew I was. But I gave myself up to it; it was an antidote to any pain, and I had more pains than one. I was in receipt in these days of disturbing letters from home, where things were not going well. But with my children, what things in the world mattered? That was the question I used to put to my scrappy retirements. I was dazzled by their loveliness. (4.4)

Again, we see the magical nature of the children's beauty…they actually take away the Governess's other cares. After all, how often do you seriously find yourself "dazzled" by anyone's loveliness?

He was the same – he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window, though the dining room was on the ground floor, not going down to the terrace on which he stood. His face was close to the glass, yet the effect of this better view was, strangely, only to show me how intense the former had been. He remained but a few seconds – along enough to convince me he also saw and recognized; but it was as if I had been looking at him for years and had known him always. Something, however, happened this tune that had not happened before; his stare into my face, through the glass and across the room, was as deep and hard as then, but it quitted me for a moment during which I could still watch it, see it fix successively several other things. On the spot there came to me the added shock of a certitude that it was not for me he had come there. He had come for someone else. (4.5)

Like with everyone else, the Governess makes a snap judgment on Peter Quint – she has total faith in her perception of his appearance.

"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!" (12.2)

For the first time, the Governess actually questions the policy of just taking people at face value and questions the system of believing everything one sees that dominates the first half of the book. However, if you're used to living in a world in which first impressions mean everything, as the Governess is, it's a big, traumatic shock to realize that things aren't always what they seem.

Flora continued to fix me with her small mask of reprobation, and even at that minute I prayed God to forgive me for seeming to see that, as she stood there holding tight to our friend's dress, her incomparable childish beauty had suddenly failed, had quite vanished. I've said it already – she was literally, she was hideously, hard; she had turned common and almost ugly. "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!"

"From me?" I panted.

"From you – from you!" she cried. (20.5)

In the Governess's eyes, this confirmation of Flora's deceitfulness takes away her physical beauty – here, we see the link between innocence and beauty clearly laid out.

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