Summary and Analysis
After seeing the person (or apparition), the governess wonders if there was a "secret at Bly". (Bly is the name of the country house.) She spends a good portion of the succeeding days thinking about this encounter. The shock has "sharpened all" her senses, and she fears that she might become too nervous to keep her wits about her.
The children occupy most of her day, and she continues to discover new and exciting things about them. The only obscurity that persists is the boy's conduct at school, which had brought about his dismissal. The governess finds him to be an angel and decides that he was too good for the public school. Even though things are not well at the governess' own home, she has no complaints about her work.
One Sunday as the group is preparing to go to church, the governess returns to the dining room to retrieve her gloves from the table. Inside the room she notices the strange weird face of a man staring in at her in a hard and deep manner. Suddenly she realizes that the man has "come for someone else." This thought gives her courage, and she goes immediately to the outside. Once there, she finds nothing, but looking through the window, she sees Mrs. Grose, who upon seeing the governess outside the glass turns pale from fright.
In a moment, Mrs. Grose appears outside the house and tells the governess how white she is. The governess explains that just a moment before she saw the figure of a man standing on the outside looking in. She reports having seen him one time before. It is settled that the man is no gentleman; in fact the governess calls him "a horror." She refuses to go to church with the others because she is afraid — not for herself but for the children.
When Mrs. Grose asks for a description of the stranger, the governess is able to give a rather minute and detailed account of him. His red hair, his thin but good features, and his clothes remind her of some actor who is imitating some other person. Even though he was dressed in clothes a gentleman would wear, he was indeed no gentleman. Mrs. Grose immediately seems to recognize the person described and explains that the man was dressed in the master's clothes. He is Peter Quint, who was once the master's personal valet and who wore the master's clothes. When the governess wonders what happened to the ex-valet, she is told that he died.
Section 4 opens with the mystery of some secret at Bly. This secret is built up in the governess' mind and she thinks about it until later she sees the figure at the window. Again, the climate combines to help add mystery to the appearance. The figure appears on a cold, gray day. There are several ways of approaching the appearance of Peter Quint. Some critics maintain that the ghost is a product of the governess' imagination, and she sees him only because she has been brooding on the subject for so long that her mind actually creates a figure. This point is supported by the fact that the governess knows the type of clothes that her employer wears and has constantly desired another view of him; thus in her imagination, she has created a person looking handsome but, as in dreams, appearing rather horrible also. This person then is in some ways the dream fulfillment and exists only in the governess' imagination.
The other point of view is that the governess could not give such an exact description if she had not actually seen the ghost. In this view, the governess is seen as a pure and innocent person who is the guardian of the pure and innocent children. In these two sections, great pains have been taken to emphasize once again the natural purity and sweetness of the two children. Therefore, the ghost could be symbolic of evil approaching upon innocence and the struggle such an encounter must involve.
Thus, through the use of ambiguity, James has left room for more than one view of the situation. There are even a few critics who maintain that this story is nothing more than a pure, chilling ghost story and has no meaning beyond this reading.