Character Analysis: The Governess

            The Governess in Henry James’ The Turn of The Screw is very hard to read. On one side she seems like she’s taking care of the children and just trying to do her job well, and on the other side, she seems like she is insane. Knowing that she has these two contrasting personalities to her, we are not completely able to rely on her as the narrator of the story. Again, because we only get her side of the story, we are not able to fully trust everything she says.

            As the protagonist of the story, we don’t seem to know very much about the Governess. We never find out her name, she’s just known as the “Governess”. In the Prologue of the novel, Douglas reveals that the Governess is his sisters Governess. Later on, the reader finds out that the Governess is just twenty years old. She is “the youngest of several daughters of a poor country parson” (26) who has just finished up her own education. The Governess responds to an advertisement for a position as a Governess in London, where she answers the advertisement in person. When she meets the employer, she is impressed and immediately is in love with him. He was said to be “a bachelor in his prime of life” and was “handsome and bold and pleasant”, which “struck her” (26). Throughout the novel, we can see how her love and infatuation with her employer affects her and her role as the Governess of his niece and nephew.  The Governess is always so concerned with what the children are doing because she agreed to specific terms her employer gave her. She wants to make sure that everything with the children is perfect so she can impress him. The Governess also affects the children in a negative way in that she freaks them out with her strange behaviors. Flora becomes so frightened with the Governess that she leaves Bly and Miles ends up dying. 

            The Governess, on one side of looking at her character, can be seen as a totally sane person who is just doing the job that she signed up and agreed to do. When the Governess gets the position she applied for, her employer gives her strict condition that she is to follow. The conditions include that “she should never trouble him- but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone” (28). The Governess agrees to all of these conditions that the employer gives her.      

           Once she begins her position, she adores the children. We can regard the Governess as a sane person and believe her when we find out that she see’s ghost while she is at Bly. If this information is in fact true, we can see why the Governess acts the way she does. As the narrator of the story, we are almost inclined to see things the way she sees them and believe them. If we view the Governess as a sane person, it is easy for the reader to see her as a heroine. We can believe that she has good intentions to protect the children because she is trying to do her job well so that she doesn’t need to go to the employer since she was specifically told not to. If we also view the Governess as good and sane, we can believe that perhaps Miles and Flora are somehow involved with the two ghosts, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. With viewing the Governess this way, we can see her as a strong individual who takes her job seriously and wants to do everything in her power to keep the children safe.

            We can also, however, view the Governess as an insane woman. Right from the beginning of the story we get a glimpse of how the Governess can be seen as crazy. In the beginning, the Governess swears she heard a child’s scream, but it ends up being nothing. Another account where we find that she could be going crazy is when she is thinking about the employer while she was walking around; she first sees a man on top of the tower. She says, “What arrested me on the spot- and with a shock much greater than any vision had allowed for- was the sense that my imagination had, in a flash, turned real” (39).  The Governess may really start to seem insane when Mrs. Grose becomes suspicious about the visions that the Governess sees and tells her about.

             It could very well be that the Governess’ infatuation and repressed thoughts about her employer is what is making her go crazy and see these ghosts she claims to see. The Governess thinks that the children may know things and might be involved with the two ghosts that she is not sure what to believe. She goes back and forth to thinking that they are innocent and that they are deceitful. If we view the Governess as sane, we can tell that she is trying to give the children her all because her desire for the employer is so immense. If the Governess is insane, we cannot rely anything she says. Because Henry James’ story is told in the point of view of the Governess, the reader is left without an answer as to what the truth really is.


—Victoria Nigro

Works Cited James, Henry, and Peter G. Beidler. The Turn of the Screw. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1995. Print.