Study Guide

The Turn of the Screw Innocence

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I held [Mrs. Grose] 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?" (2.16-18)

There's a fine line to walk between just plain naughty and actually bad – we're not sure which side of the line little Miles falls on.

I was a little late on the scene, and I felt, as he stood wistfully looking out for me before the door of the inn at which the coach had put him down, that I had seen him, on the instant, without and within, in the great glow of freshness, the same positive fragrance of purity, in which I had, from the first moment, seen his little sister. He was incredibly beautiful, and Mrs. Grose had put her finger on it: everything but a sort of passion of tenderness for him was swept away by his presence. What I then and there took him to my heart for was something divine that I have never found to the same degree in any child – his indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love. It would have been impossible to carry a bad name with a greater sweetness of innocence, and by the time I had got back to Bly with him I remained merely bewildered – so far, that is, as I was not outraged – by the sense of the horrible letter locked up in my room, in a drawer. (3.1)

Miles's innocence apparently announces itself in his physical presence; there's something almost magical about the way in which his appearance convinces the Governess that he's a good kid.

[Miles] made the whole charge absurd. My conclusion bloomed there with the real rose-flush of his innocence: he was only too fine and fair for the little horrid unclean school-world, and he had paid a price for it. (4.3)

Miles's angelic appearance wins over the Governess right away – so much so that she is swayed into thinking that the school must have been wrong in sending him away. There's something eerie about how fully she's entranced by Miles's beauty and his aura of purity; it's almost as though he has brainwashed her into thinking that he's better than the rest of the world.

Both the children had a gentleness – it was their only fault, and it never made Miles a muff – that kept them (how shall I express it?) almost impersonal and certainly quite unpunishable. They were like those cherubs of the anecdote who had – morally at any rate – nothing to whack! (4.4)

This rather bizarre-sounding quote serves to emphasize just how oddly (creepily, one might even say) innocent and angelic these children are. The whole thing about the cherubs with nothing to whack refers to a famous story related by author Charles Lamb, who lamented the fact that a former teacher, who was fond of corporal punishment, would have no students' bottoms to whip in heaven, since angels were frequently pictured as winged baby heads with no bodies. Weird, we know.

He had never for a second suffered. I took this as a direct disproof of his having really been chastised. If he had been wicked he would have "caught" it, and I should have caught it by the rebound – I should have found the trace. I found nothing at all, and he was therefore an angel. (4.4)

The Governess's faith in Miles's innocence again seems to rest simply on his outward aspect; we actually have no idea what he's like on the inside. The Governess's certainty that she'd be able to tell if he'd ever been bad is truly, truly naïve.

Then I saw something more. The moon made the night extraordinarily penetrable and showed me on the lawn a person, diminished by distance, who stood there motionless and as if fascinated, looking up to where I had appeared – looking, that is, not so much straight at me as at something that was apparently above me. There was clearly another person above me – there was a person on the tower; but the presence on the lawn was not in the least what I had conceived and had confidently hurried to meet. The presence on the lawn – I felt sick as I made it out – was poor little Miles himself. (10.8)

Despite the fact that Miles is clearly being "bad" here, he's still depicted as "poor little Miles," as though his air of innocence still protects him somehow.

Not a sound, on the way, had passed between us, and I had wondered – oh, how I had wondered! – if he were groping about in his little mind for something plausible and not too grotesque. It would tax his invention, certainly, and I felt, this time, over his real embarrassment, a curious thrill of triumph. It was a sharp trap for the inscrutable! He couldn't play any longer at innocence; so how the deuce would he get out of it? (11.3)

Here, the Governess begins to wonder if the whole innocent and pure aura that surrounds Miles is just an act; her perceptions not only of the children but of the world around her begin to change from here on out.

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. (13.4)

The Governess's fear that the children have been corrupted by their communication with the ghosts makes us wonder what her state of innocence is – having seen some of what they've seen, has she also been corrupted somehow?

Those he liked? I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I? Paralyzed, while it lasted, by the mere brush of the question, I let him go a little, so that, with a deep-drawn sigh, he turned away from me again; which, as he faced toward the clear window, I suffered, feeling that I had nothing now there to keep him from. (24.16)

The confusion surrounding what exactly Miles did at school (it's often thought that his mysterious offense and the things he said might have been homosexual in nature) makes the Governess throw into question who is guilty and who is innocent – can it be that she's the corrupt one for putting a child into such a miserable position?

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