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.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Kate Croy is dependent on her aunt, Mrs. Lowder, because Kate’s own father is a ne’er-do-well. Mrs. Lowder has great plans for her niece and encourages Lord Mark as a suitor for Kate’s hand. Kate’s own mind is set on a young reporter, Merton Densher, who works for one of the London papers. Mrs. Lowder likes Densher and even invites him to her home, but she does not want him to marry her niece, for he has no apparent prospects of money or a place in society. Mrs. Lowder breathes more easily when she learns that the young man is being sent by his newspaper to the United States to write a series of articles on life there.
While he is in New York, Densher makes the acquaintance of a pretty young American, Milly Theale, who recently inherited a large fortune through the death of her parents. A few weeks later, Milly asks a Boston friend, Mrs. Susan Stringham, a widow and a writer, to go with her to Europe. They take passage on a liner and arrive in Italy, from where they traveled up the Italian peninsula and into Switzerland. Milly is restless, though, and soon decides that she would like to go to London.
Once they arrive in England, Mrs. Stringham sends word to Mrs. Lowder, the only acquaintance she has in that country from her school days many years before. Mrs. Stringham and Milly immediately become familiar callers at Mrs. Lowder’s home. Because of her beauty, money, and attractive personality, Milly is a great success in London society. Lord Mark becomes infatuated with her, and Milly and Kate become fast friends.
Aware that she is ill, Milly goes to see Sir Luke Strett, an eminent surgeon, who informs her that there is nothing surgery or medicine can do to save her; he advises her to make the best of the time she has left. Although Kate, Mrs. Lowder, and Mrs. Stringham know that she has only a few months to live, Milly requests them not to mention it to others. She intends to enjoy herself as much as possible.
Great friends as Kate and Milly are, they never discuss their mutual acquaintance, Densher. One day, while walking in the National Art Galleries, Milly sees him and Kate together. Kate and Densher enlist the aid of Mrs. Stringham and Milly to further their courtship. Milly, herself a little in love with Densher, is only too glad to help.
Eventually Kate devises a way to bring her affair with Densher to a happy conclusion. Noticing that Milly is falling in love with Densher, Kate suggests that Densher marry Milly and make her happy for the few remaining months of her life. After her death, Milly’s fortune will go to Densher, who will then be free to marry Kate and be in a financial position to allay any objections Mrs. Lowder might have to the match. Kate is...
(The entire section is 1118 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1 and 2 Summary and Analysis
Kate Croy goes to visit her father one last time. As she waits in his rooms for him to appear, she observes the shabbiness and, above all, the vulgarity of the furnishings. She is dressed in black and impatient for her father to come down from his bedroom to see her. When at last he does, he is vague and bitter. He claims to be unwell.
Kate informs him that her aunt, Mrs. Maud Lowder, has invited her to come to live with her in her mansion, provided she give up all contact with her father. She is able to provide an upper-class life for her lower-middle-class niece, especially in providing avenues in which she might find a suitable husband. Kate’s mother has died, but has left her an annual income of two hundred pounds a year, half of which she intends to give to her sister, Marian, who is widowed with four children. She has come to say good-bye to her father, who is irresponsible and undependable to say the least. She also hopes that he will ask her to stay with him, and that the two of them will find some means to go on together. However, Lionel Croy is in favor of Kate’s going to live with her aunt, but thinks that she owes him something, since it is his irresponsibility and lack of dependability that have led to her being offered this opportunity. He wants her to give half of her inheritance to him instead of to Marian. With the hint that Kate has a romantic prospect among the middle class, Mr. Croy warns her that she must get a man who can adequately care for her. If Mrs. Lowder does not approve of a gentleman, neither will Mr. Croy. Giving up the attempt to maintain their family, Kate leaves.
Kate goes to her sister, Marian, to discuss her next course of action. Kate has felt very much the younger sister, whose sole purpose is to support her older sister. After their mother’s death, Kate went to live with her Aunt Maud, and now she feels that she is the only avenue that her father and sister have for gaining access to money, and she resents it. As for Aunt Maud, she has provided some provision for the family. The money is enough to tie them to her, but not enough to make them independent.
Marian is horrified that Kate offered to leave Aunt Maud and live with their father. She is worried about losing Aunt Maud. She is also concerned that Kate will...
(The entire section is 952 words.)
Chapters 3 and 4 Summary and Analysis
Kate meets Merton Densher in Kensington Park, near her aunt’s home. The two had met the previous year at a party. There was immediate attraction. Their second meeting was on the Underground, at which time Merton asked if he could call on her. As an independent, modern woman of twenty-five, she agreed, yet she did ask her aunt’s permission. Mrs. Lowder told her she was free to see whomever she wished.
As the couple talk in the park, they discuss Kate’s situation. Like Marian, Merton is concerned that Kate would offer to go live with her father, especially since his situation would only drag her down. Kate had told him that, when she was fifteen, her mother told her that her father had done “something wicked.” Kate did not want to discover what exactly he had done and still does not know. As far as living with him now, Kate claims that it was for her own escape from Aunt Maud. Yet her sister and her father see her living with Aunt Maud as the only chance for them to survive. Therefore, because of her family feelings (unreciprocated though they may be), she stays with Aunt Maud.
Merton is to receive a letter from Mrs. Lowder, requesting that he come to see her. Kate warns him about the letter, but will not give him a hint of what it might be about. He assumes it will concern his seeing Kate and his not being good enough for her. Kate replies that it is because Merton is not good enough for her Aunt Maud. Merton offers to marry Kate the next morning, but Kate wants to wait until he has met with Mrs. Lowder, just in case she might give them some money after all. Kate is not sure that it is more vulgar to marry for money than to marry without it. Merton then agrees to see Mrs. Lowder and “grovel” if Kate wants him to. Kate replies impatiently that he can do what he likes.
Merton goes to Lancaster Gates (the home of Mrs. Lowder) and is kept waiting. As he waits, Merton looks around the room, noting its abundant decorations beyond good taste. At one point, Merton almost tells Kate that her aunt was vulgar, both in her home and in everything she does, because everything she does is over-the-top. He considers writing an article about Mrs. Lowder’s choice of decoration, thinking that this may be the only thing he gets out...
(The entire section is 940 words.)
Chapters 5 and 6 Summary and Analysis
Milly Theale, an American heiress, and her traveling companion, Mrs. Susan Stringham, are making the European tour, and are now in Switzerland. Milly, twenty-two, has lost her entire family and is in mourning. Mrs. Stringham has also lost her family and makes her living as a writer of short stories. To Milly, Mrs. Stringham represents “culture,” something that Milly is hungry for. It is for this reason that Milly has invited Mrs. Stringham to accompany her on a protracted tour of Europe. Mrs. Stringham agrees, as there is something about Milly that draws people along.
Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, they tour through the Mediterranean ports, up through Italy, and across the Alps....
(The entire section is 915 words.)
Chapters 7-9 Summary and Analysis
Now in London, Milly and Mrs. Stringham dine at Lancaster Gate with Mrs. Lowder. Among the other guests are Kate Croy and Lord Mark. Milly is a bit overwhelmed to be in such sophisticated company. She talks specifically with Lord Mark, although she is not quite sure what to make of him. She is not sure whether he is the most intellectual person she has met or the most frivolous. She is impressed with Mrs. Lowder’s fidelity to Mrs. Stringham, although the former has not been in contact with her for years and has moved far ahead of the latter socially. Milly and Lord Mark discuss how people at the dinner know of each other, and how much is kept hidden. Milly wonders if, considering the time she...
(The entire section is 902 words.)
Chapters 10 and 11 Summary and Analysis
Milly and Mrs. Stringham are ready to leave Lancaster Gate, although Mrs. Lowder (and Lord Mark) wish them to stay. Milly sees Kate Croy through new eyes after the revelation of her relationship with Merton Densher. She fancies that Kate is made for “great social uses,” but she has no idea what those uses might be. Mrs. Lowder judges Kate to be a “luxury to take about the world.” Lord Mark is part of Mrs. Lowder’s plan for Kate, and he is aware of it.
Mrs. Lowder begs Milly to stay, stating that she needs her help in dealing with Kate. She is grateful for the reconnection with Mrs. Stringham and views her renewed friendship as a gift from God. Milly later recalls that the...
(The entire section is 917 words.)
Chapters 12 and 13 Summary and Analysis
Sir Luke Strett has only a few minutes to examine Milly, but requests that she come back in a day or two when he has more time to give her a thorough examination. A seemingly carefree Milly comes out of the office; her show of trust to Kate is designed to get her to open up about her relationship with Merton. Since she does not reveal anything, Milly says she feels comfortable enough to come back alone to see the doctor. As they wait for the carriage, Milly is moved by how nice everyone is to her.
At her second appointment with Sir Luke, Milly feels liberated by having someone fully aware of her dark situation. Even from her first visit, she felt as if she had gone to confession and...
(The entire section is 998 words.)
Chapters 14-16 Summary and Analysis
Milly cannot decide where she wants to go. At the moment, she is waiting for Sir Luke Strett’s house call. She knows that Sir Luke wants to speak with Susie and that he intends to give her instructions on taking care of Milly. Milly herself is ready to accept whatever the two plan.
Only a few days remain for the Americans’ sojourn in London. Much of the crowd has departed for other locations. Only a going-away dinner with Mrs. Lowder and Kate is left, other than Sir Luke’s visit, and Milly has a plan.
Milly sends Mrs. Lowder and Susie off by themselves. Before she leaves, Mrs. Lowder tells Milly that Susie informed her of Milly’s acquaintance with Merton Densher....
(The entire section is 828 words.)
Chapters 17 and 18 Summary and Analysis
Merton Densher had arrived back in London the day before he and Kate encountered Milly at the National Gallery. Heedless of being observed, Kate met him at the train station, where the couple made plans to get together to discuss their future. As they discuss their surreptitious rendezvous, Merton is struck by the fact that, although he tries to deal with this while demonstrating a respect for Kate’s position, respect is something of a fifth wheel; it is an unwanted element that hinders their plans. Should Kate drive him to his residence, he would be tempted to invite her in, with all that would entail. He thinks of it in terms of being vulgar, and believes that Kate is manipulating his lust...
(The entire section is 902 words.)
Chapters 19-21 Summary and Analysis
Merton is pleased to receive a dinner invitation from Mrs. Lowder, but his pleasure is abated on learning that Milly and Susie are also invited. He arrives to find himself alone with Mrs. Lowder until Susie enters without Milly. Mrs. Lowder tells Merton that she wants him to be as she is, which confuses him. She talks of a potential trip to America until Kate comes in. When Susie arrives, she says that Milly is indisposed and cannot come. The conversation centers on the absent Milly, with Merton appealed to as an expert since he knew her before his fellow Britons did. They are shocked that Milly was not appreciated in America as much as she is in England. Merton dismisses this, and he is made...
(The entire section is 918 words.)
Chapters 22 and 23 Summary and Analysis
Milly talks with Susie, who has just come from talking to Sir Luke Strett, Milly’s physician. Milly knows that her companion has taken the news of Milly’s fatal illness hard, and how she is struggling not to show pity. Milly sees this and in turn feels pity for Susie. Milly changes the conversation to talk about Susie’s impression of Sir Luke. The doctor had said that Milly is to do as she likes, and Susie is to help her in that.
Milly then asks Susie what she thinks of Merton Densher. Susie replies, after a prolonged pause, that she thinks he is handsome. Susie turns the conversation back to Milly’s health, and Milly states categorically that she is determined to live....
(The entire section is 1014 words.)
Chapters 24 and 25 Summary and Analysis
Milly, Susie, Kate, and Mrs. Lowder have been in Venice for three weeks. Milly has retained the services of an Italian guide named Eugenio, who has arranged a marvelous experience for her, but at a great expense. Instead of a hotel, she has acquired the use of a luxurious home, the Palazzo Leporelli, rich in Venetian history and culture. Having lived and travelled constantly with her three friends, Milly is now enjoying the first time that she has had a chance to be alone since they left London.
Milly and Kate, living in a relationship shot through with deception, cover their secrets with chatter. Now Milly needs to time to herself and tells Eugenio to take the other three ladies off...
(The entire section is 1053 words.)
Chapters 26-28 Summary and Analysis
Merton had been touring Venice with Kate, Mrs. Lowder, and Susie when Mrs. Lowder tells him to go back to visit Milly at the Palazzo Leporelli. He leaves them without a word, although he feels the awkwardness of being cast out. His feelings for Milly have not changed. He thinks of her in the same way he might a sister, but he does not hold her up like a princess as the others do.
The next visit is for dinner at the palace; all the ladies are present. Merton entertains the party with a description of his deplorable hotel. Milly is so amused that she asks herself to tea someday. Merton is nervous at her proposal, fearful of what it might do to his “game” concerning Kate and...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)
Chapters 29 and 30 Summary and Analysis
After Merton sleeps with Kate, he feels that he has been given a renewed kind of fidelity; he avoids all other human contact. Now, in order to maintain that fidelity, he must leave her alone and rejoin society. He knows that a sense of shame may come later, but for now he is content with this new intimacy. He may now focus on courting Milly in order to carry out the plan that Kate has devised for their future.
As Merton goes to the palace, he sinks at the thought that he must lie to Milly. Kate and Mrs. Lowder are returning to London. Mrs. Lowder is suspicious of Merton’s remaining in Venice.
Merton tells Milly that he is writing a book and needs quiet. London is too...
(The entire section is 993 words.)
Chapters 31 and 32 Summary and Analysis
Susie arrives at Merton’s rooms to tell him that Milly has “turned her face to the wall” (prepared herself to die). Susie has wondered about Merton, but knows that it was best that he stay away. She asks him, however, if he will stay in Venice, at least for her; he agrees. Milly has not spoken for three days, not about Merton or anyone.
Merton asks Susie if Milly is dying; Susie says, “Yes.” Merton asks if she knows everything about him. Susie replies that she does not know everything, but that is why she has come. He sees that she has not come to judge him but to pity him.
Merton asks if he could see Milly, but Susie replies that it is too late. She has sent...
(The entire section is 887 words.)
Chapters 33 and 34 Summary and Analysis
Merton has return to London. It has been three weeks since he left Venice and two weeks since he arrived home. He is just now contacting Kate, claiming that this is in accordance with their “system” of not seeming to be together. Kate and Mrs. Lowder knew that he had left Venice, as they had been informed by letter from Susie. He asks Kate if Milly is dead, to which Kate replies that she is not, although she is surprised that Merton does not know this. Merton tells her that it has been terrible for him; he asks again if Milly is dying. Sir Luke has returned to Venice.
Kate mentions how wonderful she thinks Milly is. Merton is surprised, but Kate says that of course she feels this...
(The entire section is 996 words.)
Chapters 35 and 36 Summary and Analysis
Merton is at an impasse. On Christmas Day, he dresses as for church and goes to Sir Luke’s home. There is something of considerable consequence about which he needs to speak to him, if he has arrived home yet. There is a carriage at the doctor’s door. It is that of Mrs. Lowder. In the carriage is Lord Mark, but Merton had been hoping that it would be Kate.
The door of Sir Luke’s home is answered by Mrs. Lowder, who tells Merton that the doctor should arrive the next day; he is on his way home from Venice. She tells him that Milly has died, or, as she phrases it, the dove has folded her wings. Merton says that perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the dove has spread its...
(The entire section is 916 words.)
Chapters 37 and 38 Summary and Analysis
Kate still does not answer Merton’s question as to how Lord Mark came to find out about their engagement. He then asks why Lord Mark was with Mrs. Lowder. Kate informs him that he is staying with her. Mrs. Lowder stayed in London for the Christmas season in order to wait for news from Venice. Lord Mark has stayed because he needs money and is renting his rooms; Mrs. Lowder invited him to stay at Lancaster Gate. Kate tells Merton that this was part of the reason for her leaving the house. Merton says he accepts this as the truth, as he always does when he is with her. She recognizes the conditionality of his statement.
Kate says she cannot remember the date, but she admits talking...
(The entire section is 1069 words.)