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.
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...
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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 sure that neither Mrs. Lowder nor Mrs. Stringham will try to prevent a marriage between Milly and Densher, for both of them love Milly and will go to any lengths to make her final days happy.
On the advice of Sir Luke Strett, the three women and Densher accompany Milly to Venice for the winter months. Densher makes little effort to bring about Kate’s plan and marry Milly until after Mrs. Lowder and Kate return to England for a few weeks. Before they leave, Kate makes Densher promise to follow her plan. Densher’s conscience rebels at the duplicity of the scheme, however, and he is not sure that when the plan works out to its finish Kate will still want him. As a sign that there is mutual trust between them, he asks Kate to come to his rooms with him. She does so the day before she leaves Venice.
One day, as Densher approaches the house Milly takes for the winter, he sees Lord Mark leaving. He soon finds out from Mrs. Stringham that Lord Mark proposed to Milly and was rejected because the girl detects unwanted sympathy in his proposal and suspects that he is after her money rather than her love. Densher believes, rightly, that Lord Mark’s rejection gives him some reason to be hopeful. He informs Milly that she is the only reason he is neglecting his work. She is pleased and hopes that he will propose.
Lord Mark disappears from Venice for almost a month. Then, shortly after he is refused admittance to Milly’s house, Densher sees Lord Mark in a café. Densher knows immediately that Lord Mark somehow discovered and told Milly about the engagement between Densher and Kate. Densher tries to think of a way to right the situation. Three days later, Mrs. Stringham comes to him and tells him that it is as he guessed. What he did not guess, however, is that Milly no longer takes any interest in living and is refusing to eat or to talk to anyone. Mrs. Stringham is in despair and sends for Sir Luke.
Densher returns to London but does not, at first, go to see Kate. He cannot face her after the turn that their plans take, and he cannot bear the idea of having hurt Milly as he did. Finally, on Christmas Day, he has a premonition. He hurries to Sir Luke’s residence. There he finds Mrs. Lowder, who tells him that she received a telegram the previous day with news of Milly’s death. A few days later, a letter arrives from Venice. Without opening it, Densher knows what the message is, for it is addressed in Milly’s handwriting. He immediately goes to see Kate, who also guesses that it is a letter to tell Densher that Milly left him part of her fortune so that he and Kate might marry. Neither of them dare open the letter because they are ashamed of their conduct, and they burn the letter in the fireplace.
Ten days later, a letter comes from a New York law firm. Densher sends it to Kate unopened, whereupon she comes to his rooms, wanting to know why he sent it to her. He replies that it is up to her whether he should take the money that is offered, but that he can never marry her with the money Milly left him.
Kate refuses to answer him or to open the letter, lest the large amount of the fortune tempts either of them into accepting it. Finally Densher says he wants to marry her, but only as they were before the arrival of Milly. Kate leaves, after reminding him that they can never be the same.