Published in 1902, The Wings of the Dove is part of Henry James’s later body of work and reveals a more intensely psychological aspect than his earlier novels do. James once again focuses on the relationships between Americans and Europeans. He shows the Americans—Milly Theale and Susan Shepherd Stringham—to be honest and open, though not as sophisticated as their British counterparts: Merton Densher, Kate Croy, and Maud Lowder, who are portrayed as manipulative and deceitful. The central conflict is thus one of moral character rather than of cultural background.
In the novel, Merton and Kate become secretly engaged while Kate is living with her middle-class father. Her Aunt Maud, finding Kate's father to be unacceptable for a young woman, takes Kate into her home, expecting her to marry well. Milly Theale, a wealthy American heiress, enters Kate's life and the two become friends. When Kate discovers that Milly has a fatal disease, she devises a nefarious plan. She, Milly, Aunt Maud, and Susan Stringham go to Venice. By Kate's suggestion, Merton comes later. It is Kate's plan that Merton will make Milly fall in love with him, marry him, and leave all her substantial wealth to him. Merton, a newspaper journalist, is not seen as a suitable husband for Kate by Milly's Aunt Maud. Milly’s money would provide Merton with the financial (and thus social) standing to be accepted as a member of the elite of Britain. Despite Merton’s unwillingness to stoop to the level of deception, his desire for Kate allows him to be manipulated by her. It is this deception and the ensuing moral battle that play out through the rest of the novel.
Despite James’s overly critical analysis of his own work, The Wings of the Dove is considered one of his strongest novels, an effective transition between the Romantic literature of the nineteenth century and the psychologically oriented literature of the twentieth century. On a personal level, James intended the novel to be an homage to his beloved cousin, Minny Temple, who died of tuberculosis in 1870. He wanted to preserve Minny's memory in a work of art and based the character of Milly Theale on her.