Study Guide

The Turn of the Screw Wisdom and Knowledge

By Henry James

Wisdom and Knowledge

I hesitated; then I judged best simply to hand her my letter – which, however, had the effect of making her, without taking it, simply put her hands behind her. She shook her head sadly. "Such things are not for me, miss."

My counselor couldn't read! I winced at my mistake, which I attenuated as I could, and opened my letter again to repeat it to her. (2.5)

Mrs. Grose's illiteracy introduces the idea that some types of learning or knowledge are not for everyone.

I was lifted aloft on a great wave of infatuation and pity. I found it simple, in my ignorance, my confusion, and perhaps my conceit, to assume that I could deal with a boy whose education for the world was all on the point of beginning. I am unable even to remember at this day what proposal I framed for the end of his holidays and the resumption of his studies. Lessons with me, indeed, that charming summer, we all had a theory that he was to have; but I now feel that, for weeks, the lessons must have been rather my own. I learned something – at first, certainly – that had not been one of the teachings of my small, smothered life; learned to be amused, and even amusing, and not to think for the morrow. It was the first time, in a manner, that I had known space and air and freedom, all the music of summer and all the mystery of nature. And then there was consideration – and consideration was sweet. Oh, it was a trap – not designed, but deep – to my imagination, to my delicacy, perhaps to my vanity; to whatever, in me, was most excitable. The best way to picture it all is to say that I was off my guard. (3.8)

Here, we see the teacher become the student – the Governess ends up learning from her pupils how to enjoy day-to-day life…but is it simply a diversion? Can this new "knowledge" really be a distraction?

The flash of this knowledge – for it was knowledge in the midst of dread – produced in me the most extraordinary effect, started, as I stood there, a sudden vibration of duty and courage. I say courage because I was beyond all doubt already far gone. I bounded straight out of the door again, reached that of the house, got in an instant, upon the drive, and, passing along the terrace as fast as I could rush, turned a corner and came full in sight. But it was in sight of nothing now – my visitor had vanished. (4.6)

The Governess is constantly having these "flashes" of insight, particularly with regards to the ghosts – how? Why? We never get a satisfactory explanation for how she "knows" things.

"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!" (6.3)

Again, the Governess's mysterious certainty rears its puzzling head. She demonstrates a certain triumph, or, as she calls it, "exaltation," which could perhaps be explained as the thrill of certainty, even without proof.

She felt my discrimination. "I daresay I was wrong. But, really, I was afraid."

"Afraid of what?"

"Of things that man could do. Quint was so clever – he was so deep." (6.10)

Hmm… you have to wonder what exactly James means when he uses the word "deep." Clearly it's not a good thing – but it's also not entirely a bad thing. Does it simply mean "intelligent" or "cunning," or is there another implication at work here?

I was there to protect and defend the little creatures in the world the most bereaved and the most lovable, the appeal of whose helplessness had suddenly become only too explicit, a deep, constant ache of one's own committed heart. We were cut off, really, together; we were united in our danger. They had nothing but me, and I – well, I had them. It was in short a magnificent chance. This chance presented itself to me in an image richly material. I was a screen – I was to stand before them. The more I saw, the less they would. (6.13)

This is a majorly important quote in the story – it's basically the Governess's mission statement. Her assertion that she'll absorb all the bad things aimed at the children is both a self-sacrificing gesture and an oddly pleasurable, anticipatory one…the Governess relishes new knowledge so much that we wonder if she might actually enjoy this duty.

I got hold of Mrs. Grose as soon after this as I could; and I can give no intelligible account of how I fought out the interval. Yet I still hear myself cry as I fairly threw myself into her arms: "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!" (7.1)

The worst possible threat, apparently, is not just that the children might know as much as the adults – but that they might know more. Gasp!

"No, no – there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don't know what I don't see – what I don't fear!" (7.7)

Again with the depths, huh? Everything in this story has depths – they perhaps represent sinkholes of knowledge, things that one can never really understand or know everything about.

"[…] Oh, yes, we may sit here and look at them, and they may show off to us there to their fill; but even while they pretend to be lost in their fairytale they're steeped in their vision of the dead restored. He's not reading to her," I declared; "they're talking of them – they're talking horrors! I go on, I know, as if I were crazy; and it's a wonder I'm not. What I've seen would have made you so; but it has only made me more lucid, made me get hold of still other things." (12.1)

Here, the Governess presents the odd and rather condescending idea that the knowledge that she has gained and the things that she's experienced have only made her stronger and helped her see clearer, but could have destroyed somebody else (like, for example, Mrs. Grose).

"She's there, you little unhappy thing – there, there, there, and you see her as well as you see me!" I had said shortly before to Mrs. Grose that she was not at these times a child, but an old, old woman, and that description of her could not have been more strikingly confirmed than in the way in which, for all answer to this, she simply showed me, without an expressional concession or admission, a countenance of deeper and deeper, of indeed suddenly quite fixed, reprobation. (20.2)

In this moment, we're not sure who knows what – does the Governess really know that Flora can see Miss Jessel? Can Flora really see her? Or does Flora know that the Governess is totally insane?

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