Summary of Section II
The narrator had been happy about the situation on the first day, but later a letter came by post from the employer. He had forwarded to her a letter from Miles's school, which he refused to open, passing it on to her to deal with. The governess cannot sleep that night because the letter is from Miles's headmaster saying he may never come back to school. They do not say what he has done. She asks if Miles is bad, but Mrs. Grose is indignant, saying he is only ten years old. Flora meanwhile has ignored her instructions from the governess to stay in the schoolroom and work, following her out while she speaks to Mrs. Grose. The narrator suddenly hugs Flora in her distress about Miles. Mrs. Grose implies there is nothing wrong with Miles being a little spirited and naughty, but the governess indicates there is a limit—if he is corrupting other children—
Later the governess asks Mrs. Grose about the previous governess. Mrs. Grose says she was young and pretty like the narrator is, and that's the way he liked them. There is a confusion about who “he” is, whether they are speaking of the employer, or someone else. Though Mrs. Grose does not want to gossip about the former governess, she admits she left Bly before she died. She was not ill but left at the end of a year. She died and did not come back. Mrs. Grose does not know what she died from.
Commentary on Section II
The governess narrator begins her investigation of the mystery of Bly. Miles's dismissal from school sets her off, and she questions Mrs. Grose if he is a bad boy. Mrs. Grose defends him, but it is significant that the governess is already using words like “contaminate” and “corrupt”(p. 12) to describe what he may have done at school to get dismissed. The letter contains no details of what Miles did. One might ordinarily assume that it could be something as common as some naughty prank or lack of discipline or poor grades. Presumably she assumes the worst because if it had been something ordinary, the letter would have said. The narrator says it can only mean he is “an injury to the others” (p. 11). This trait of the governess to jump to conclusions is what leads many readers to take her as the main villain of the story instead of the ghosts. On the other hand, if James is thinking of a governess like Jane Eyre, her jumping to conclusions could be taken as a sign of her sensitivity and intuition. She is shown to be uncommonly sensitive to nuances as we observe her thinking process. She picks up clues without having to be hit over the head with concrete data. For instance, though Flora seems to be a sweet angel, the governess begins to notice she does exactly as she likes: Flora has not followed her instructions to do her lessons, but instead is listening to her conversation with Mrs. Grose. It gives her a momentary doubt about Flora, just as she is wondering about her brother. The ambiguity about the narrator's character is the central issue for many readers and critics. Is she trustworthy or an unreliable narrator? Each reader has to decide. It is not a simple call, and James did not help his readers by giving his interpretation.