The Wings of the Dove

by Henry James

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Critical Evaluation

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Henry James came from a family whose members considered themselves observers of, rather than participants in, society. James and his father both suffered from physical disabilities that to some degree enforced this detachment, which was emotional as well as physical. The family traveled continually during the author’s youth. As an adult, James lived chiefly in Europe, and though he maintained close relations with his parents and siblings, he considered himself a citizen of the world. He regarded the life of his countrymen with the same objective, albeit curious and sympathetic view he accorded society in general. Coming as he did of parents whose chief business in life was the cultivation of their own and their children’s sensibilities, and sharing the family’s strong if eccentric religious bent, he took it as his artistic mission to examine the condition of human society at large as that condition manifested itself in the most subdued and civilized of human milieus.

The outline of the plot of The Wings of the Dove was suggested to the author by the premature death of his cousin Mary Temple, called Minny. The girl had charm, beauty, money, and love. She had, as it is said, everything for which to live and she resisted her fate to the end. After her death from tuberculosis in 1870, James was, as he later wrote, “haunted” by the tragedy of her situation. Two of his most appealing heroines take their essential lines from her, Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady (1880-1881), and Milly Theale.

James wrote three of his best novels in quick succession shortly after 1900. As the new century began, he produced The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). According to one critic, the three themes that impel these novels, as well as most of James’s previous works, are “the contrast of American sincerity and crudity with European deceit and culture, the conflicting realities of life and art, and the substitution of psychological for ethical measurements of good and evil.”

The first is most neatly illustrated by the characters Mrs. Lowder and Mrs. Stringham. Mrs. Lowder’s wardship of Kate has a monetary quality to it that is made explicit in her remark to Merton Densher: “I’ve been saving [Kate’s presence] up and letting it, as you say of investments, appreciate, and you may judge whether, now it has begun to pay so, I’m likely to consent to treat for it with any but a high bidder.” Mrs. Stringham’s attachment to Milly, on the other hand, has the quality of a holy mission to shepherd through the hazards of the world a being so exalted that the heroines of literature pale beside her. Her view of Milly is essentially romantic; she calls her “an angel,” “a princess in a palace,” and, ironically, “the real thing.” The differences between Kate and Milly enlarge on this theme; Kate accepts her aunt’s definition of herself and uses it but succumbs to its corrupting influence, thus losing both love and honor. Milly, resisting the dehumanizing effects both of hero worship and of pity, works her own salvation as well as Densher’s.

The life that Milly makes for herself, knowing her days are numbered, comprehends abysses both sublime and terrible. She recognizes from the first the effects of her money on the company into which she is betrayed by her shepherd, so graphically if unintentionally particularized for her by kind, corrupt Lord Mark, who takes her to see the Bronzino portrait, which is so like her but, most poignantly to Milly’s sense, “dead, dead, dead.” She has,...

(This entire section contains 891 words.)

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even before she hears her sentence pronounced by Sir Luke Strett, a trick of deferring judgment, of not permitting the baseness of others to circumscribe or to debase her experience. Afterward, this tendency flowers into a kind of divine duplicity, a double reverse, which consists of her keeping from everyone but Mrs. Stringham the fact that she is dying. After a certain point, she inevitably sees everyone else acting in the knowledge of her limited future, yet she makes no move to defend herself but simply, profoundly, trusts. In short, she offers herself as a dove for sacrifice, a gesture that parallels the willingness of others to sacrifice her to their own designs. All her putative friends deceive themselves in regard to her, acting in the name of her happiness but actually for their own good. Milly does not deceive herself. Her surrender is deliberate. In this she is a supreme artist; she makes of her life an instrument for Mrs. Stringham’s gratification, for Kate’s enlightenment, and for Densher’s redemption, a creative act of the highest kind.

James captures these characters, as well as diverse strokes of their wickedness, in a few murmured words, a nod or a look, an invitation accepted or declined, gestures always within the bounds of propriety. Such an exposition of the instincts of the jungle expressed in the manners of the salon generates, in the end, more force than many a less-subdued narrative. For the reader is treated not only to the powerful spectacle of Kate Croy prowling within her situation with the disciplined rage of a caged tiger but also to the vision of Milly triumphant over betrayal and death and fulfilling her extraordinary nature.