On Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove”

James, Henry (2003), The Wings of the Dove, Norton
ISBN 0-393-97881-8

It is with trepidation that one attempts to jot down remarks on a rich novel such as Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove”, which has long since seized a place on the canon of world literature, a place which, unless axiomatic values change thoroughly, is pretty much unassailable. This novel has been originally published in 1902, although the edition I have used is the revised New York Edition, published in 1909. The late period in Henry James’ writing has been written about ad nauseam, the books on this novel would not fit on all my shelves. I have not read any of this, so please excuse any and all redundancy. This is not very original, I am just gathering my impressions. That said, what caught my attention most was the interlinking system of travel and reading. As with many novels by The Master, travel is a central element of “The Wings of the Dove”, which is set in London and Venice and includes Englishmen, Americans, Italians and others.

The novel is divided into two volumes, but the structures are more complicated, and dominated by changes of place as well as by changes of perspective. We start in London where we meet a family of distrustful Englishmen. There is Kate Croy, poor half-orphan, who is financially dependent on her aunt Maude Lowder. Kate is in love with Merton Densher, a journalist and writer, who is perennially broke, thus, every inch as poor as Kate. These two want to marry, but then as now, a penniless marriage is not something to built one’s future upon, and aunt Maud makes sure the two youngsters know that; she is also trying to marry Kate to Lord Mark. So between the aunt on the one hand, and Kate and Merton on the other, we find that there is quite a bit of subterfuge in this family. Clandestine meetings, propositions and plans as quickly abandoned as they were embraced earlier. This is the environment we find ourselves in from page one. Learning to know these characters also means learning to know their habit of intrigue. We quickly get used to their way of thinking. Henry James’ long, ornate, yet precise sentences are astonishingly helpful in achieving that goal.

Henry James’ language has changed a lot during the course of his career. Always a creator of novels of manner, his subject has started to affect his language. Instead of using the language that is usually associated with the genre he started to use a language that reflected the objects in his novels. It’s not mannered, but purposeful. James Merrill once said that, when wondering how to proceed in writing a poem, he started to focus upon the furniture (very rough paraphrase). “The Wings of the Dove” doesn’t contain very much furniture, at least not an abundance of furniture descriptions, but, if that makes any sense, James has internalized the interiors and his smooth but bulky phrases provide quite a threshold for any reader not familiar with his late work. Thus, the reader attunes to his style at the same time that he habituates himself to the tangled relationships among our London family. Thus, when we suddenly meet Milly Theale, one of the most endearing (if boring) characters in literature, who comes from a completely different background and whose manners are subjected to a different logic, the reader, most likely experiences a pleasant shock.

At the end of the first section, Kate and Merton have found themselves unable to resolve their financial troubles and Merton leaves for New York because of a job. The next section sets in with Milly Theale, a naïve, but insanely rich American heiress, who is on vacation in Switzerland. Milly Theale is a very sweet, warm person, who is trustful and easily hurt. She is also, possibly, dying. That’s why she comes to London, to visit the famous Dr. Luke Strett. There is a different, possibly just as important reason for her travel to the old city on the Thames: in New York she met a nice young good-looking journalist, someone called Merton Densher. Now, Merton Densher told his secretly affianced Kate about it, but when Kate and Milly finally meet, she feigns complete surprise. Milly meets the whole gang, and we the readers recognize them. The narrative focus, however, has shifted from the lascivious Londoners to the amenable American. Milly’s way of thinking is completely different. She appears to expect the best of people and believes what people tell her.

When she starts to talk to the different parties involved, and tries to make sense of the persons and relationships involved, we feel as if the whole Atlantic ocean was between her and the people she talks to. We as readers have taken quite some time to acclimate to the London environment; so we see Milly walk abound the city, and we instantly recognize how incapable she is of understanding what’s happening around her. She is, up to the end, constantly trying to read Densher, Kate and the others, but we watch her try and fail, except for one crucial instance, later on. I think an apt way of describing the distance between her thinking and the social realities in London, is the image of a thick, semi-transparent curtain. Any traveler will regard a foreign culture through the lens of his home culture, this we all know. Among Henry James’ many achievements in “The Wings of the Dove” is the way that he manages to convey to us what this exactly means, how this enables the creation of misunderstandings; between Kate’s and Milly’s voice, two completely different worlds have been presented to us, and we watch one savaging the other, but nicely, friendly, and in an underhanded manner.

It is also in London that one of the book’s pivotal scenes is set. In Lord Aldershaw’s house, Milly comes upon a Renaissance picture that looks exactly like her. This shocks her:

Perhaps it was her tears that made it just then so strange and fair – as wonderful as he had said: the face of a young woman, all splendidly drawn, down to the hands, and splendidly dressed; a face almost livid in hue, yet handsome in sadness and crowned with a mass of hair, rolled back and high, that must, before fading with time, have had a family resemblance to her own. The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michael-angel-esque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded jewels, her brocaded and wasted reds, was a very great personage – only unaccompanied by a joy. And she was dead, dead, dead. Milly recognized her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her. “I shall never be better than this.”

This scene demonstrates a few essential qualities of the book. Everything here is constructed at a remove, through a mannered mirror like the picture in this scene: the Londoners do not interact directly, they never speak their minds except mirrored, re-directed. And although Milly is wonderfully plainspoken, she is, from the first, thrown into a mirror cabinet of a family, so all her thrusts sorely miss their targets as well. Throughout the rest of the novel the Londoners will be at her heels, spinning her to and fro, lying about things and revealing parts of the truth at the same time.

Additionally, we are made aware of the artful way that our narratives, pictorial and otherwise, reflect ourselves, but with crucial differences. I found it interesting that a writer such as Henry James, whose fame rests, at least in part, upon the verisimitude of his psychological portraits, would go to such lengths to undercut a realistic reading of his novel. In James’ view of realism, however, the distortion of reality’s reflection in the picture corresponds to the general distortion that all of our points of view effect on our representation of reality. ’tis here that we have an opportunity to mention the structures of the novel that touch the topics of places and travel. We find that changes of place are accompanied by changes of points of view, so that the two lenses of personal and cultural distortion are both shown to be at work, that their effects can be both cumulative and contradictory.

It is with dread that one sees Milly Theale become enmeshed in their petty intrigue and see her become hurt, she’s a person to be cherished and adored, surely, but from the moment we see her completely misreading her London environment we see her headed towards doom and although Milly is afraid of being diagnosed with that dreadful illness, her death is not the tragedy her life is heading towards; in the end, when death, mercifully, arrives, one would almost see/read it as relief. The poor American girl is doubly doomed and she tries to escape both by not thinking about it. When she tells Densher to leave, she doesn’t even look at him, her friend describes the fact that her illness has returned, with the sentence: “she has turned towards the wall”, looking away from the center of the room, concentrating upon interiors; in a way, I would think, her behavior when under stress, starts mirroring James’ language. Does this reflect back upon James’ prose? In a way James, by moving towards the intricacies and rhythms of poetry, has hit upon the means to deal with grave tragedy. His is no Grecian beating of drums, it’s not a speech to be declaimed by a chorus of masked singers, his is a different source; the artificiality, the structure, the remove created with these means is, however, kin to that. I am woefully aware of how inadequate this brief brainstorming was, but if anything it should have conveyed my awe, admiration and passion for this wondrous book.

In his landmark study, Richard Chase talks about the American novel and its “profound poetry of disorder”. “Wings of the Dove” is a typical American novel inasmuch as this well-composed, supremely well-written novel appears to be deeply flawed: the first chapter, one of the novel’s best, introduce Kate Croy and her circle only to subsequently ensure through multiple changes of focus, that she, as a character, becomes shrouded in shadows; the longer we spend time with Milly, the more we start to see thing from her perspective, perceive the world as she does and thus Kate, whose way of worldmaking is so starkly different from Milly’s, becomes but a ghost haunting Merton Densher. When Densher finally returns to England, after having spent a long time with Milly in Venice, his relations with the Londoners are flawed. His attempts to communicate with Kate resemble awkward fumbling in the dark more than the meaningful web of intrigue and double entendres that we had come to know in the first section. There is a gap between where the English end and the Americans begin and communication in the novel as the main method of bridging said gap, is shown to be inadequate. This is, I would argue, one of the reasons why the novel does not end with Milly’s tragedy: it must make us understand the failure in Kate Croy’s terms as well, because we as readers cannot be expected to make that leap that the characters cannot make themselves.


4 thoughts on “On Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove”

  1. I mean thanks for encouraging me to read this one. (Something that I am planning to do soon.)

    Your English is *much* better than mine is.

  2. According to my professor, my English is terrible and embarrassing.

    Thank you for your kind words.

    and yes, by all means, read this one. it completely bowled me over.

  3. Actually, the kind of literary write-up I like to read is one in which the reviewer is writing down his or her impressions of a book,
    an author, or a work of literature.
    So, no need to apologize. This is quite well-done. James’ work from this period is intricate, and I admire the way you skillfully explore the different themes of his novel, focusing specifically upon travel and reading. You make use of the phrase “tangled relationships” quite aptly, for that is precisely what this book is centered around. As is the case in much of James’ other writing, deception plays a key role in the plot. Milly Theale is indeed a lovable yet boring character. At the same time, I daresay the book wouldn’t have worked half as well if James had turned her into a languishing vixen ;). James strikes me as a meticulous craftsman who thought out the moves and actions of his characters rather like a skilled chess player. And in this book I think he’s at the top of his game. Reading your review, I have no choice: I must read it again soon. Personally, I think your professor is preposterously finicky. As I have told you before, there’s nothing wrong with your English. It’s superb.

    Come to think of it, you’re
    superb, too.


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