Douglas is the man who tells the governesss tale at the Christmas Eve gathering. Douglas knew the governess, who had been his sisters governess after she left Bly. He describes her as “a most charming person.”
Flora is a beautiful little girl who the governess loves at first. But as time goes by, she comes to believe Flora is evil because she associates with ghosts. As the book closes, the governess confronts Flora, and the shock of being accused of speaking to ghosts makes the little girl ill.
The governess is the daughter of a parson. She has been educated, but her family has little money or status, so she does not fit into the upper class, but she is too educated for a job as a servant or in a shop. Young women who found themselves in this predicament often became governesses, caretakers and tutors for upper-class children.
The governess is rather sexually frustrated. She easily falls in love with the master and exhibits a sordid interest in the affair between Quint and Miss Jessel. It is unclear whether she is just a romantic whose sexual repression makes her crazy or if she did have an affair with the master and that sexual experience haunts her.
She becomes obsessed with the idea of the children seeing ghosts and begins to fabricate more and more details about the ghosts as the story continues. Eventually, her obsession deeply affects the children, and Miles dies. However, since she goes on to remain a governess, it is clear that she is not blamed for the death.
Mrs. Grose is the housekeeper at Bly. She is uneducated and not particularly sharp, but she is a faithful servant and friend. She loves the children, but she is easily led to believe the worst of them because she trusts the governesss superior education.
Miss Jessel is the childrens former governess. She had a sexual relationship with the caretaker, Quint, and then had to leave Bly, probably because she was pregnant. The wages for sin were steep for her; she died after she left. The current governess believes Miss Jessels ghost is haunting Flora to get the child to share eternal damnation with her.
The master is an upper-class bachelor who does not wish to be troubled by the orphans he has inherited. He uses his charm and money to get other people to take on those burdens for him.
Miles is a beautiful, intelligent boy. He was kicked out of school for unnamed reasons, although near the end it seems the reason might have been saying inappropriate homosexual things to other boys. He realizes the governess is not doing her job and might be losing her sanity, so he tries to confront her. Ultimately, the strain of facing her and imagining the ghosts kills him.
Quint was the masters valet. He was lower class but he did not behave appropriately humbly. Instead, he wore the masters clothes and had an affair with the governess. He also spent much more time than was appropriate with Miles. He died before the story begins, but the governess believes his ghost is haunting Miles.