The narrator introduces the audience to the Governess’s story. The handsome guardian uncle of young Flora and Miles has hired the young Governess to take care of the children at Bly, the country house where they live with the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Always involved with his own affairs, the guardian has asked the Governess not to contact him about the children, not even in writing. Eager to please the guardian, the Governess accepts his strange condition.
Scene 1: The Journey
The Governess, traveling to Bly, wonders about the children. What will they be like? How will she manage on her own? How will she make decisions? She chooses to be brave, remembering her promise to their guardian.
Scene 2: The Welcome
Mrs. Grose tries to calm the excited Flora and Miles as they wait to meet their new governess. When the Governess arrives, she is surprised by the splendor of the house and park. The housekeeper tells her how lovely and good the children are. Miles and Flora want to show her all around Bly.
Scene 3: The Letter
A letter arrives from Miles’s school saying he has been dismissed. The Governess and Mrs. Grose are shocked; they can’t believe Miles could be bad. They decide it is a wicked lie and will not even discuss it with Miles.
Scene 4: The Tower
The Governess realizes that the doubts caused by the letter have passed. She wishes she could see the young guardian again to show him how well she is doing. She sees a man on the tower and mistakes him for her employer. He disappears.
Scene 5: The Window
In the hall where the children have been playing, the Governess sees the same man at the window. She describes him to Mrs. Grose, who recognizes the description as that of Peter Quint, who used to be the valet of the master of the house. When she adds that Quint died some time ago, the Governess is horrified. She resolves to protect the children.
Scene 6: The Lesson
In the schoolroom, Miles recites his Latin lesson for the Governess, while Flora competes for her attention. Miles recites an odd poem, and the Governess wonders who taught it to him.
Scene 7: The Lake
By the lake on the estate grounds, the Governess and Flora talk about seas and oceans. Flora sings a haunting lullaby to her little doll. A woman appears beside the lake, watching them. The Governess realizes this must be Miss Jessel, the children’s former governess, also dead. She hurries Flora away.
Scene 8: At Night
Peter Quint calls to Miles, urging the child to join him. Miles, transfixed, listens intently. Miss Jessel calls to Flora, who also responds. The Governess senses something is wrong, and enters abruptly with Mrs. Grose, shattering the communion of ghosts and children. She confronts Miles.
Scene 1: Colloquy and Soliloquy
As the Governess dozes fitfully, she senses the presence of Quint and Miss Jessel. Jessel cries out to Quint, who rebuffs her. He is interested in another kind of companion. Jessel also seeks a living being with whom she can be linked. Together they proclaim, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The Governess despairs.
Scene 2: The Bells
In the churchyard, the children begin to sing a hymn of praise. Mrs. Grose finds their play sweet; the Governess finds it horrifying. She tells the housekeeper that the children are not with them but are under the power of Quint and Jessel. Mrs. Grose urges her to write to their uncle, but the Governess says that she was ordered not to write. Mrs. Grose takes Flora into the church and Miles challenges the Governess, asking if his uncle shares her suspicions. Stunned by Miles’s challenge, the Governess resolves to leave Bly.
Scene 3: Miss Jessel
In the schoolroom, the Governess finds Miss Jessel. The Governess, enraged, now determines to fight for the children. She will stay and write to their uncle.
Scene 4: The Bedroom
The Governess tells Miles that she has written the letter and begins questioning him gently about what happened in the past. Miles does not answer. Quint calls to him. The child shrieks.
Scene 5: Quint
Urged by Quint, Miles takes the letter the Governess has written.
Scene 6: The Piano
Watched by the Governess, Miles plays the piano. Mrs. Grose falls asleep, and Flora slips away. The Governess takes Mrs. Grose to find the child, leaving Miles behind. She thinks that Miles has distracted her on purpose and is already with Quint, beyond their saving.
Scene 7: Flora
The Governess and Mrs. Grose find Flora by the lake. Even though the Governess sees Miss Jessel, Mrs. Grose claims she herself cannot. Flora cries that she also sees nothing and that she hates the Governess. When Flora leaves with the housekeeper, Miss Jessel disappears. The Governess despairs that Flora is lost.
Scene 8: Miles
After a night spent listening to Flora raving in her sleep, Mrs. Grose decides that she must take the child away from Bly. The Governess is left alone with Miles, who eventually admits that he took the letter. When the Governess asks who made him take it, Peter Quint warns Miles not to betray them. The Governess demands a response from Miles. The boy, distraught, eventually gives her the answer for which she has been waiting.