n unnamed narrator listens to a male friend reading a manuscript written by a former governess whom the latter claims to have known and who is now dead. The manuscript tells the story of how the young governess is hired by a man who has found himself responsible for his niece and nephew after the death of their parents. He lives in London and has no interest whatsoever in the children. The boy is attending a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country home in Essex where she is cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. He gives the governess full charge of the children and makes it clear he never wants to hear from her again. The governess travels to her new employer's country house and begins her duties. Shortly thereafter, the boy, Miles, having been expelled from his school, turns up at the house. The governess infers that the headmaster feels that Miles is a threat to the other boys.
The governess begins to see the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognize, and does not believe can really be present, around the property. She learns that her predecessor, a Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint (another former servant of the household), a clever but abusive man, died under curious circumstances. Gradually, she becomes convinced that the pair are somehow manipulating the children, perhaps using them to continue their relationship from beyond the grave. The governess takes action against the perceived threat, eventually culminating in the apparent death of Miles.