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One of three masterpieces from Henry James’s final, “major” phase, The Wings of the Dove dramatizes the conflict between nineteenth-century values and twentieth-century passions. Born to wealth and privilege, Kate Croy’s mother threw it all away to marry a penniless opium addict. After her mother’s death, Kate is offered an opportunity to return to the opulent lifestyle her mother gave up—on one condition. Kate must renounce the man she loves: the witty, good-looking, but poor, Merton Densher. Reluctantly agreeing, Kate finds herself becoming friends with “the world’s richest orphan,” Millie Theale. When Kate learns that Millie is dying, she devises a plan of dizzying possibility for herself and Merton that should solve all their problems, but instead leads them down a path strewn with tragic, unexpected consequences.
First published in 1902, this rich and intriguing novel has lost none of its fascination and relevance a century later.
Bruce L. R. Smith is a Fellow of the Heyman Center for the Humanities of Columbia University. He has served as Professor of Public Law and Government at Columbia, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and as an official in the U. S. State Department. He is the author or editor of sixteen scholarly books, and lectures widely on public affairs and literary topics.
About the Author
Date of Birth:April 15, 1843
Date of Death:February 28, 1916
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Place of Death:London, England
Education:Attended school in France and Switzerland; Harvard Law School, 1862-63
Read an Excerpt
From Bruce R. L. Smith’s Introduction to The Wings of the Dove
There are in Wings few of the “big scenes” that one finds in many nineteenth-century novels. James’s method of indirection means that we as readers, as well as the characters, learn of critical developments as they are refracted through another character’s consciousness, or in what somebody says offhandedly, or by means of a poetic image or symbol that brings a sudden burst of understanding. In James’s late fiction, meanings are conveyed, as John Auchard has shown, through the “silences.” Effects are communicated via a glance; a mood is captured in a momentary intrusion of a shaft of light. The emotional aftereffects of a chance encounter linger and the characters ponder the meaning of gestures fraught with wider significance. As in life, great moral issues seem to dissolve into myriad small choices, and the continuous flow of little encounters sweeps the characters along toward ends that they cannot foresee.
Yet in Wings circumstances do not control events to the exclusion of human will. The Jamesian world is not like the naturalist order of a Zola or Dreiser novel, where the individual is subject to the iron determinism of circumstance. Individual moral choices do matter. Important corners are turned in Wings, and decisions are made at every turn that carry a string of consequences. For Kate, deciding to live with her aunt brings her under the sway of her aunt’s values. In choosing money, and in postponing marriage to Densher, she turns her life onto the path of the London “scene.” This scene is marked by crassness and grasping ambition. Densher’s decision that he will be kind to Milly as the gentlemanly thing to do is a pious rationalization. Once he takes the first steps, he is implicated deeply in Kate’s venture. He places himself on a slippery moral slope. Once in the action, he cannot get out. Milly encounters critical turning points, too, and in those moments she makes decisions that will shape her life. How long she can fight off her fate is in some measure a reflection of her own will and of whether she is fully engaged in life. She chooses to ignore Kate’s warning to “drop us while you can.” The scene in which Milly stands with Lord Mark in front of the Bronzino portrait that resembles her sticks in our minds as a decisive moment. She has the first symptoms of her illness on that occasion, and perhaps she surrenders to her fate and loses some of her will to live. Milly thereupon makes a series of important decisions. She decides to consult with Sir Luke Strett. She invites Kate to accompany her on the first visit to the doctor but not on the second visit, and she does not confide in Kate what the doctor tells her. Milly’s pride thus assures that she will face her fate essentially alone.
Why does James—one of the most secular of authors, whose only religious inclination seems to have been a nodding interest in his brother William’s ideas about consciousness and the afterlife—choose the religious symbol of the dove for his heroine? At one level the answer seems obvious enough. Kate calls Milly a “dove” early in the novel when the two of them are alone in a drawing room, and just after Milly has had the thought that Kate is “like a panther” pacing before her. Milly’s dove-like qualities and Kate’s fierceness are nicely juxtaposed here for the reader. The dove image next appears in book seven at Milly’s grand party in Venice. Kate and Densher are watching Milly from across the room as Kate lays out her instructions to him concerning how he should maneuver to be assured of getting Milly’s money. Milly is dressed in white at the party and wears white pearls, and the image of the dove pops into Kate’s mind. But when Kate refers to Milly as a dove the word does not seem apt to Densher; he does not think of Milly as a passive, demure creature. However, a dove has large wings, and it strikes him that at the very moment they all are nestled under Milly’s wings. Indeed, they have all lived for some time under Milly’s patronage and protection. Psalm 55, it may be recalled, is actually a prayer for the release from suffering and persecution:
My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yea, I would wander afar, I would lodge in the wilderness, I would haste to find me a shelter from the raging wind and tempest” (verses 4–8).
Is it a final irony of The Wings of the Dove that Milly escapes from—not to say, triumphs over—her tormentors? In giving away her fortune to Densher despite his deception, she has shown both the softness and the strength of her wings. She has demonstrated her generosity and forgiving spirit, and at the same time has exacted a certain vengeance. Kate and Densher apparently have become permanently estranged as a result of the bequest. Kate has learned that she cannot have everything. For Densher’s part, his grand gesture of renunciation would leave him with nothing. Like all of Henry James’s endings, the end of Wings is more of a beginning than a resolution: Will Densher be redeemed and will he find a new life without Kate? Will Kate free herself from her aunt and from the London “scene,” or will she, after all, fall into a marriage with Lord Mark? Like Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, who realizes that money has poisoned his relationship with his patroness Mrs. Newsome, and like Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl, who must at last confront her husband without the presence and emotional support of her father, Kate and Densher must build their lives anew with only a heightened moral awareness to guide them. For Henry James, there is a darkness and a sense of doom hovering over the scene. His characters, and the civilization they represent, may be incapable of redemption, and may instead spiral toward moral decay and social disintegration.