Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

Source of book: I own this. 

 There is an old saying, attributed to various famous people, to the effect that sculpture is easy: just remove whatever stone doesn’t look like a…

 I am reminded of this whenever I read Henry James. His style isn’t really to tell anything outright, but to nibble around the edges by telling you what it mostly, sort of, with a myriad of contingencies and subordinate clauses, what something isn’t, or what it isn’t quite like, or both is and isn’t to differing degrees. As he unfolds his tales, he looks forward and backwards. He views incidents through the eyes of multiple characters, and from different parts of their psyches. He chips away and chips away at the impenetrable opacity of human complexity, until, finally, when all is told, the complete work of art emerges. It takes work, and time, and careful structural analysis of 100 word sentences, but it is definitely worth it.

I'm not always a fan of movie adaptations, particularly ones that take some liberties with the plot.
But Helena Bonham-Carter as Kate does sound promising.

 The Wings of the Dove is arguably Henry James’ finest novel, although it has competition. As one of his later works (1902), it is definitely in his later style (the language in his earlier period is definitely easier and simpler), where sentences are complex and relationships are even more so. The psychology is deep, motives complex, and characters nuanced. Nobody is entirely who they seem, particularly to the other characters. The language itself serves to convey this endless ambiguity, opacity, and conflictedness. 

 I think perhaps the best explanation of this that I have read comes from James Thurber’s essay on this very novel, contained in Lanterns and Lances. Although the whole essay is enlightening, the best quote is actually from Owen Wister. 


“I explain to myself his bewildering style thus: he is attempting the impossible with it--a certain very particular form of the impossible; namely, to produce upon the reader, as a painting produces on the gazer, a number of superimposed, simultaneous impressions. He would like to put several sentences on top of each other so that you could read them all at once, and get all at once the various shadings and complexities, instead of getting them consecutively as the mechanical nature of his medium compels. This I am sure is the secret of his involved parentheses, his strangely injected adverbs, the whole structure, in short, of his twisted syntax...He does not undertake to tell a story but to deal with a situation, a single situation. Beginning (in his scheme) at the center of this situation, he works outward, intricately and exhaustively, spinning his web around every part of the situation, every little necessary part no matter how slight, until he gradually presents to you the organic whole, worked out. You don’t get that organic whole until he wishes you to and that is at the very end. But he never lets the situation go, never digresses for a single instant; and no matter how slow or long his pages may seem as you first read them, when you have at the end grasped the whole thing, if you then look back you will find that the voluminous texture is woven closely and that every touch bears upon the main issue.” 

 It’s art of a certain sort. I rather enjoy it, but not as my entire diet of reading. It makes significant demands on one’s brain, and thus is slower reading. To keep in mind all of the built up clauses in a sentence, waiting 50 words to get to the main verb, requires both memory and careful attention. And sometimes (often, actually) rereading. This will be apparent in some of the quotes later in this post, but I did want to discuss some of the techniques specifically. 


First is the use of “both/and” as a device. James will mention the effect of some conversation, look, or other incident as having two effects on a character, often as a contradiction or a paradox. It can both be a comfort and yet alarming on a different level - and quite often these effects are simultaneous, although they can also be sequential, offset by hours or days or a nebulous “later.” Second is “neither more nor less than,” a phrase used quite often. James uses it to set boundaries around a fuzzy impression, create a paradox, or focus on a particular joint in the web he is weaving. It is often oddly precise and yet vast, or opaque and intimate, or other unexpected combinations. I could literally have written down an example from each chapter, but they are best in context. The web is greater than its parts. 

 The basic plot is reasonably well known nearly 120 years later, but if you don’t want spoilers, you might skip the next few paragraphs. 

 The story opens in London with Kate Croy and her ne’r-do-well father. It is unclear exactly what his crime is, but I would guess either gambling or opium. In any case, when Kate’s mom died, the two sisters inherited a small legacy. Kate gives half to her sister, who is widowed and poor with a lot of children. Kate is taken in by the wealthy (and tacky) Aunt Maud, who wants to “make something of her.” Kate isn’t thrilled with the impecunious but promising (and definitely aristocratic) Lord Mark. She is actually in love with Merton Densher, a young journalist who is neither rich nor aristocratic. Aunt Maud disapproves. But so do Kate’s sister and father, both of which expect her to marry for money….so they can have some of the spoils. Kate and Merton become secretly engaged, then he heads off to America on a journalistic assignment. 

 At this point, we are through sixty-seven pages and two of the ten “books” in this book, before we even meet the main character. Millie Theale is the very young, very rich, last person in the line of a wealthy American family. She is touring Europe with an older companion, Susan Shepherd Stringham, a novelist. It turns out Susan went to school with Aunt Maud back in the day, so they look her up when they get to London, which is how nearly everyone involved in the story meets. Millie is desperately trying to live life to the fullest, because she is dying of what is probably tuberculosis. (The disease is never named, but James said he based the character of Millie on his cousin Minnie, who died at age 25 of tuberculosis.) 

 Although Millie never says she is dying (and in fact rather denies it), everyone knows eventually. This sets in motion a whole series of schemes. Aunt Maud wants Merton to pursue Millie, because then Kate will be free to marry Lord Mark. Kate wants Merton to marry Millie so he can inherit the fortune, then marry Kate. Presumably Kate is willing to get sloppy seconds for the money. Lord Mark would like to marry Millie himself, so he can inherit. Susan wants to see Millie happy. And Millie wants to LIVE! In both meanings of the word. She fights against her impending death, and also tries to live and love to the fullest while she can. 

Millie and Susan head to Venice for the summer, and the rest tag along, more or less. Millie rebuffs Lord Mark, as she is in love with Merton, who she met in America. Merton agrees to woo Millie at the urging of Kate, who has Merton pretty well whipped. Everyone except Merton, Millie, and Susan return to England, leaving the field free for Merton. However, Lord Mark proposes to Kate, and, being rebuffed, guesses (correctly) that Kate and Merton are engaged. He goes back to Venice and rats Merton out, breaking Millie’s heart, and sending her into a death spiral. 

Millie, however, doesn’t hate Merton and Kate, but chooses to leave a significant fortune after her death to Merton so he can marry Kate. Merton, finally, mans up, and tells Kate that she either takes him as he is, without the fortune (he will disclaim it), or she can have the fortune for herself but not him with it. Kate leaves with a cryptic last word that implies she refuses Merton. 


While that is the basic plot, it fails to capture all of the nuance that surrounds it. At any given time, who knows what, who understands what, and who intends what is in constant flux and turmoil. 

 In fact, if I were to state one of the two central themes, it would be this idea of fundamental dishonesty and lack of candor which infects every single character in the book. It is a dishonesty mostly of omission: nobody is open about their desires, their motives, their intentions, or what they know of the situation. The whole social edifice, in fact, depends on these partial deceptions and things left unspoken. It is a figurative giant herd of elephants in the room. Two lines really bring this out, one from the opening of the book, and one near to the end. The first is in the scene between Kate and her father. 


The inconvenience--as always happens in such cases--was not that you minded what was false, but that you missed what was true. 

 This could be a synecdoche for the whole book. The little falsehoods told to keep up social pretense aren’t the problem so much as the fact that truth is almost entirely missing from everyone’s public facade. The passage continues:


He [Kate’s father] might be ill and it might suit you to know it, but no contact with him, for this, could ever be straight enough. Just so he even might die, but Kate fairly wondered on what evidence of his own she would some day have to believe it.

 At the end, Densher knows that Millie is dying, but the truth is not - and never has been - stated outright. 


He hadn’t only never been near the facts of her condition--which counted so as a blessing for him; he hadn’t only, with all the world, hovered outside an impenetrable ring fence, within which there reigned a kind of expensive vagueness made up of smiles and silences and beautiful fictions and priceless arrangements, all strained to breaking; but he had also, with every one else, as he now felt, actively fostered suppressions which were in the direct interest of every one’s good manner, every one’s pity, every one’s really quite generous ideal. It was a conspiracy of silence, as the cliche went, to which no one had made an exception, the great smudge of mortality across the picture, the shadow of pain and horror, finding in no quarter a surface of spirit or of speech that consented to reflect it. 

 For those counting, that’s a sentence of 92 words followed by one of 48. I can’t imagine trying to diagram either. But they are dang effective. All those beautiful fictions and actively fostered suppressions - isn’t that the perfect description for it, in real life as well as the book? James is just relentless in his careful autopsy of his “situation,” as Wister calls it. 

 This never-ending dancing around the truth, concealing it, and playing games finally comes to an end in the last page. Literally. When Merton finally finds the huevos to tell Kate to either take him as a poor man or shove off, it is the first real dose of straight-up honesty we see in the book. And it is devastating. For nearly 500 pages, James weaves the web of deceptions and defense mechanisms and schemes, and then shatters them...and then walks away. It’s brilliant. 

 A weird note here: James wrote an extended preface to the book, explaining how he wrote it (starting with the character of Millie and her doomed attempt to live), how he viewed the characters, and so on. He concludes, at the end, however, that he has failed, and that the book didn’t really “work” as he intended. This is pretty amusing, honestly, because James apparently never realized just how great this book is. The verdict of history has been that it is one of his best - and indeed one of the best novels of all time. 

 The second theme in the book is essentially carpe diem. Henry James chose this as a theme in many of his books, actually. In another irony equal to his underestimation of this book, he felt he had failed in life, had failed to do what he intended, and never really “lived.” And yet, he lived to a decent age (for his era), wrote large number of books which were popular at the time and have endured as classics, had a reputation as the perfect dinner party guest, was well liked by his friends, and would be considered a “success” by any reasonable standard. He never had a significant romantic relationship, it is true, but from his own writings, the general conclusion is that he was on the asexual spectrum, and felt his art was more important anyway. 

 It is Millie in this book who gets to be the personification of carpe diem. After her arrival in London, she consults the famous doctor, Sir Luke Strett, who advises her to do as she wishes. She should be happy, be active, and live her life. James describes her response to this news with a characteristically complicated emotions. 

That had been in fact the final push, as well as the touch that most made a mixture of her consciousness--a strange mixture that tasted at one and the same time of what she had lost and what had been given her. It was wonderful to her, while she took her random course, that these quantities felt so equal: she had been treated--hadn’t she?--as if it were in her power to live; and yet one wasn’t treated so--was one?--unless it had come up, quite as much, that one might die. The beauty of the bloom had gone from the small old sense of safety--that was distinct: she had left it behind her there for ever. But the beauty of the idea of a great adventure, a big dim experiment or struggle in which she might more responsibly than ever before take a hand, had been offered to her instead. 

 In addition to being a great example of James’ paradoxical writing, this is not a bad summary of the human condition, is it not? Millie may die young, but we all die, usually sooner than we would like. We are all offered that opportunity. We will die, but we also live, and can live while we can. 

 After receiving this news, Millie wanders London, including the rough parts, pursuing her own version of adventure while clearing her head, before fatigue makes her rest. 

This and the charm, after a fashion, of the situation in itself made her linger and rest; there was an accepted spell in the sense that nobody in the world knew where she was. It was the first time in her life that this had happened; somebody, everybody appeared to have known before, at every instant of it, where she was; so that she was now suddenly able to put it to herself that that hadn’t been a life. 

I know I freaked out my poor mother a few times as a teen by disappearing for an afternoon, but this is kind of why. I needed, particularly at that time, to be somewhere and have nobody know where. These days, with a family, I have to do it in a more reasonable manner, usually by walking by starlight when we are camping. 

 Anyway, Millie decides to enlist Kate to help her chase adventure. 


“I’m to go in for pleasure.”

“Oh the duck!” --Kate with her own shades of familiarity, abounded. “But what kind of pleasure?”

“The highest,” Milly smiled.

Her friend met it as nobly. “Which is the highest?”

“Well, it’s just our chance to find out. You must help me.”

 This all sounds good, and the adventure indeed starts well. The problem is, unlike the naive and pure-hearted Millie, the Brits are all conspiring in some way. Millie may deceive about her illness, but that is really the depth of her prevarication. Her motives are pure. 

 There is an interesting contrast between Millie and Kate throughout. Millie loves without hesitation, and without ulterior motives. Kate has that concealed knife. Perhaps one might see their respective histories in this. Millie is rich and has been protected by her family until they died off in succession, leaving her alone. Kate has always had to protect herself against her father and sister, and then her scheming, if charitable, aunt. Here is an example of Kate, talking with Merton about how Aunt Maud doesn’t trust Lord Mark. 


Densher gave it his wonder. “Takes him to her heart and yet thinks he cheats?”

“Yes,” said Kate--”that’s the way people are. What they think of their enemies, goodness knows, is bad enough; but I’m still more struck with what they think of their friends.” 

 Millie, in contrast, is trying to figure out how to navigate the complexities of society. Susan is more worldly wise, although her motives are more pure than Kate’s. Millie concludes that she has good friends and that her friends are good for each other - definitely not the reality, but how Millie sees it. 


There came to her on this occasion one of the strangest of her impressions, which was at the same time one of the finest of her alarms--the glimmer of a vision that if she should go, as it were, too far, she might perhaps deprive their relation of facility if not of value. Going too far was failing to try at least to remain simple. 

 Millie does, however, see through Lord Mark, eventually. 


“You know, Lord Mark, what I mean. One isn’t in the least turning you out into the cold world. There’s no cold world for you at all, I think,” she went on; “nothing but a very warm and watchful and expectant world that’s waiting for you at any moment you choose to take it up.” 

There is the implication at the end that he is pursuing Aunt Maud, having failed at both Millie and Kate. 

The most fascinating relationship in the book is definitely that of Merton and Kate. Merton is kind of naive in his own way, and pursues the relationship openly and devotedly. He gets frustrated, however, but Kate’s unwillingness to commit, as well as her opacity as to her intentions. To start with, Kate never mentions Densher to Millie (even though other characters do), and Kate never mentions Millie to Densher, until they meet. 

What was to be in the retrospect more distinct to him was the process by which he had become aware that Kate’s acquaintance with her was greater than he had gathered.

 That’s also a good example of James’ time shifts. The incident occurs, Densher draws one insight now, but the other will not come until later - probably at the end. But Densher too hasn’t exactly squared with Kate. He met Millie in New York, and they became closer than either of them entirely admits to themselves, let alone to Kate. 


At the same time, while many things in quick succession came up for them, came up in particular for Densher, nothing perhaps was just so sharp as the odd influence of their present conditions on their view of their past ones. It was as if they hadn’t known how “thick” they had originally become, as if, in a manner, they had really fallen to remembrance of more passages of intimacy than there had in fact at the time quite been room for. They were in a relation now so complicated, whether by what they said or by what they didn’t say, that it might have been seeking to justify its speedy growth by reaching back to one of those fabulous periods in which prosperous states place their beginnings. 

 So many Jamesisms in that passage. The tying of the past and present, the recurring motif of “said or didn’t say,” which comes back so many times throughout the book. In any event, Millie realizes she is - and has been - in love with Merton. It takes Merton longer to realize that he is in love with Millie. In fact, he doesn’t fully understand until she is dead. 

 Kate pretty much manipulates Merton half to death to get him to do her bidding and take the risks of the scheme. Little by little, Merton comes to understand this. The first crack comes in this passage. 

His question, as we have called it, was the interesting question of whether he had really no will left. How could he know--that as the point--without putting the matter to the test? It had been right to be bon prince, and the joy, something of the pride, of having lived, in spirit, handsomely, was even now compatible with the impulse to look into their account; but he held his breath a little as it came home to him with supreme sharpness that, whereas he had done absolutely everything that Kate had wanted, she had done nothing whatever that he had. 

 This unhealthy relationship is the setting for two of the most, well, I can’t even find the right word here. There are two sex “scenes” involving Kate and Merton, and both have the tension of a hair-trigger nuclear weapon. I say “scenes,” because James writes about sex like he writes everything else: nibbling around the edges so you know what is there despite never seeing it. When it becomes fully clear to Merton that Kate wants him to marry Millie, he finally starts to put his foot down. He will do as she wishes - but only if she will have sex with him. (It isn’t spelled out that way, but it is damn clear what James means.) We never see the sex, but we get a brief mention of it the next chapter. 

Kate had come to him; it was only once--and this not from any failure of their need, but from such impossibilities, for bravery alike and for subtlety, as there was at the last no blinking; yet she had come, that once, to stay, as people called it; and what survived of her, what remained and insisted, was something he couldn’t have banished if he had wished. Luckily he didn’t wish, even though there might be for a man almost a shade of the awful in so unqualified a consequence of his act. It had simply worked, his idea, the idea he had made her accept; and all erect before him, really covering the ground as far as he could see, was the fact of the gained success that this represented. 

 For a non-graphic description of sex, dang that’s potent. Whatever James’ own sexual identity, he was the master of writing about sexual entanglements. This particular one is both transactional (from Kate’s view) and a moral victory for Merton, who feels he has finally gotten his way on something. 

 The second sex scene occurs after Millie’s death, when Merton receives a letter from her which they both know is to tell them that she has left Merton a fortune. He can’t open it, but gives it to Kate, who throws it in the fire. They then have what has to be described as hate sex. Again, it is all innuendo, but the totally fucked up emotions they express to each other are, perhaps because of the indirect way James describes them, graphic and horrifying. At that point, we know that this will end badly, no matter what. If they marry, they will hate each other. If they don’t they will pine for what could have been - two very different visions of what might have been. 

 The ending of the book is just freaking amazing. Although we know so much and can predict at least an unhappy ending, the one we get is the one we least expect. Merton has spent the entire book kissing Kate’s ass, and doing what she wants, with the exception of that first coerced sexual encounter. Throughout the last couple of chapters, it is clear his conscience is bothering him, and he is furious with Kate for coercing him into pursuing (and being dishonest with) Millie. In the very last scene, he and Kate continue their pattern of avoiding saying what they mean, so it is a shock when, as I said, on the very last page (literally!), he finally mans up and draws a hard line in the sand. 

 The struggle for Kate then assumes two fronts: love and money. While I think she would ultimately have rejected him if she had to take him penniless, what seems to push her over the edge is that he cannot bring himself to deny that he loves Millie. I’ll quote the final bit of it.

“There’s but one thing that can save you from my choice.”

“From your counce of my surrender to you?”

“Yes”--and she gave a nod at the long envelope on the table--”your surrender of that.”

“What is it then?”

“Your word of honour that you’re not in love with her memory.”

“Oh--her memory!”

“Ah”--she made a high gesture--”don’t speak of it as if you couldn’t be. I could in your place; and you’re one for whom it will do. Her memory’s your love. You want no other.” 

He heard her out in stillness, watching her face but not moving. Then he only said: “I’ll marry you, mind you, in an hour.”

“As we were?”

“As we were.”

But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. “We shall never be again as we were!”

 Damn. What a way to end it. 

 I have read it over several times, that last scene, and it still feels like a slug to the chest. That scene is, in its way, the emotional equivalent of the ending of a Shakespeare tragedy, where nearly everyone lies dead, and the survivors sit stunned and traumatized. 

 There is something else unspoken here, a “truth” that James never reveals. After Lord Mark reveals Kate and Merton’s engagement to Millie, she “turns her face to the wall,” as Susan puts it, and refuses to speak to anyone. After time, however, she summons Merton. 

 The substance of that meeting is never fully revealed. We know that it occurred. We know that Millie apparently told Merton to return to London. We also know that Merton hesitates and prevaricates when describing what happened to both Kate and Aunt Maud. In fact, it is strongly implied that he is lying in the little he does tell - other than that he was sent back to London. 

 His hesitancy to discuss it with Kate could be simply due to his guilt at deceiving Millie. But I also wonder if James means to imply that he and Millie had sex, giving Millie her last grasp at love before she died. Because of how oblique James is, it seems possible. The hesitancy to discuss the meeting, combined with Kate’s suspicion and Merton’s inability to deny his love for Millie does make me wonder if that “memory” is of a passionate encounter. 

 Whatever the case, James was such a master of the implied sex scene. No knock on more modern authors, although some definitely write better sex than others. But nobody could do more with less than Henry James. 

 It is hard to be objective about The Wings of the Dove so soon after finishing it. I do know that, with the exception of Daisy Miller (meh), I have enjoyed all the James novels and stories I have read. Right now, I am inclined to consider this one the best of them all, but acknowledge that recency bias is a possibility. 

 Whatever the case, I thought The Wings of the Dove was a fantastic novel, a compelling read, and a true masterpiece. The language is a challenge (that’s not a bad thing in my book, but your mileage may vary), but the depth of characterization and psychology is stunning, and that ending...that’s one of the most memorable endings to a book ever. 


Other posts about Henry James:


Eight Novellas and Stories (including Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw)

Washington Square

The Bostonians

The Portrait of a Lady

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