The novel begins with a gathering of people that are telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve and one of the men comes up with a manuscript written by a governess about an event that occurred 40-50 years before. In the manuscript the governess narrates the supernatural events that occurred at Bly and how she struggled to fight the ghosts as she was protecting the two children on her charge.
According to her these huntings of the past come back to threaten the children and corrupt their innocence but during the supernatural encounters we see that it is also a threat to her mind and her sanity.
The governess is the protaonist and narrator of the story but we don’t actually know her name so that is very unsettling to the reader. She seems to have good intentions but many times we see that she doesn’t narrate what she sees or she changes some facts, which makes her very unreliable.
She also believes that she is on a mission to protect the children but we often see that she exerts violence on the language so that she can prove that she was right.
Another thing that makes her ambiguous is that she falls in love with her own employer even though she never sees him again. We never know if this mission to protect the children is an effort to impress him or if she really believes in her cause.
Because we are entrapped in her perspective, the story becomes very claustrophobic. We depend on her to narrate what occurred but at several times the events don’t match; we know she changes what she says in order to gain something from others.
The language is highly descriptive and poetic and is also controlled; many times the reader struggles between concluding that the governess is insane and was imagining the ghosts or believing that the story is real.
Throughout the story there are clues to support each theory but they are not mutually exclussive so it’s not like you can find one clue that will give you the full knowledge of events: you will never know the truth and that is fascinating about the novel.
Another interesting thing is the desceription of the children because they are not entirely innocent and they are not entirely corrupted. Again, we don’t know whether to believe the governess or not.
The children are described as angels but they are Raffaelian angels, who depicted witty (and slightly wicked) angels, not completely innocent, since they possess a particular knowledge. These are provocative angels.
The boy’s name is Miles, which means “soldier” or “destroyer”. The girl’s name Flora alludes to the goddess of nature and fertility. Throughout the novel there are several incidents where it’s insinuated that the problem with the children is that they might have a sexual knowledge, which should be forbidden.
The ghosts are the spirits of two people that worked at Bly, one is the vallet and the other a governess. Both were in charge of the children. The governess believes that they have returned to continue corrupting the children and this is what she is trying to prevent. The problem is that the governess seems to be hysteric at times and there are moments where we see a doubling effect between herself and the ghosts (she scares people as well).
There are also many times where things are left unsaid because the dialogue is fragmented and she often speaks over someone else. We are prevented from knowing what the other character is thinking as the governess is imposing her own views on the dialogue. However, with the children’s reaction towards her and what the other servants occassionally say, we get the hint that she might be evil as well.
Ambiguity lies at the heart of the novel; when you’re reading, you must be conscious of the subtleties and implications in the dialogue and then decide which side you support, whether the governess is telling the truth or not, or whether both things can coexist in the narrative.