Summary of Section XXIV
While she waits for his answer, the governess stands and grabs Miles, keeping his back to the window, for looking in is Peter Quint “with his white face of damnation” (p. 85). She decides that unlike the incident with Flora, she must keep Miles unaware of Quint. She is fighting a demon for a human soul, she says. The boy's face is also white and perspiring. He confesses he took the letter. He is so nervous, she knows he is telling her the truth. He read the letter to see what she said about him. The apparition at the window temporarily disappears, and she thinks she has won.
She continues her cross-examination, asking Miles if he was expelled for stealing. He did not know she knew about his expulsion. He says he did not steal. He merely said things to other students, and they repeated it to others. The governess is elated that she is winning and keeps pressuring Miles for more details.
For one second, the governess gets a clear perception that perhaps Miles is innocent; that this is all there is to his behavior. And if so, then what is she? she wonders, knowing it would make her in the wrong. Nevertheless, she keeps pressing Miles about what he said to the other children to get him thrown out of school. Just then, she sees the ghost at the window again and feels justified that she must continue the battle. She cries out “no more!” to the window, and Miles asks, “Is she here?” (p. 88). She says it is not Miss Jessel, but points to the ghost out the window. Miles looks around and can see nothing, but is worked into a rage. Then he says, “It's he?” She asks whom he means and he names “Peter Quint—you devil! Where?” (p. 88). She points to the window but grabs Miles and says the ghost has lost; she has won. He jerks his face to the window and sees nothing but dies of shock in her arms.
Commentary on Section XXIV
For a modern reader, this final scene seems to implicate the governess more than any other, for though the ghost is visible, it is only to her. James, however, has carefully constructed the scene like others to be ambiguous, making interpretation of the story uncertain to the last. Miles knows that she had scared Flora with the ghost of Miss Jessel, and now he knows, whether he sees it or not, that she is threatening him with the ghost of Quint. She has pushed him to the extreme to get him to “confess” his doings with the ghost, but Miles does not see the ghosts. He confesses he stole the letter and used bad language at school to get expelled. No doubt he learned the language from Quint. Flora was also swearing at Mrs. Grose, making that lady believe the children might indeed have been corrupted. Miles seems to believe in the ghosts, however, even if he can't see them, and dies either of fright, or as the governess would like to think, of the exorcism. To the end, the governess believes that she saved Miles's soul, for she says that though his heart stopped, it was “dispossessed” (p. 88). From her point of view, the child can go to heaven at least and has been wrested from Quint.
The story stops here, though the reader would love to know what happened to the governess afterward. Was there an inquest into the death of little Miles? Was the uncle outraged? Did he believe the governess? There seems to be no blame attached to her, for later she is the governess of Douglas's sister, and he is impressed by her. The housekeeper may have corroborated her story as the governess says she does after seeing Flora's fits. A child swearing and speaking bad language as both Flora and Miles did would mean more to a Victorian audience than to a modern one, for a Victorian child speaking in this way might well be thought unnatural, either depraved or possessed by something speaking through it. When Miles is looking for Quint out the window where the governess is pointing, the text could be construed that he was wanting to find the ghost, and when he utters, “you devil!” it could be the ghost speaking through Miles to the governess. James is happy if the reader is kept thinking about it long after the story is over.