If you consider how Henry James progressed his craft throughout his career, it seems odd that he was so eager to go back to the American in Europe motif. but it is undeniable that this is a circle he knows quite well, but unlike the earlier Portrait of a Lady, mortality looms much more pressingly over the plot. The novel, like so many other of James’, is about people understanding the world around them by challenging the destinies set out for them. For The Wings of The Dove, this destiny is Kate Croy’s, as she is slated to marry rich to please her wealthy aunt.
Of course, this does not suit her current love interest, Merton Densher, the middle-class journalist with whom she is in love with. When an old friend of her aunt shows up in London with the young Milly Theale, the news that she is rich catches all of their attention. Kate realizes that if Merton marries Milly, they can inherit her money and marry in comfort, as she is dying of a rare illness. We learn that Merton actually met her in America once, and that there had been (and possibly still is) a love interest. Eventually, though, the plot comes out, and Milly stops seeing Densher as she dies. However, on one final visit, Milly forgives him and offers the inheritance, but Densher refuses. However, the possibility that Merton loved Milly still troubles Kate, and she gives him a decisive choice that will end up determining both their destinies.
I think that we have to see this novel as one of the culminations of his career, so it`s interesting to see how he all brought this together. This novel applies both narrative and dramatic aspects selectively to best fit the circumstances. Unlike his more progressive The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, the Wings of the Dove combines certain classical symbols with the naturalistic characteristics of contemporary european writing. Most of the action happens off-stage, per se, but we experience the many attempts at discovering truth by the narrator and the characters, who never quite find the most pressing answers to their complicated love triangle.
Critics have been wont to see this as a piece of high art, as Milly and Kate in particular seem to live in a certain strata of life beyond that of regular people. James is specifically focused on their complexity, and actually uses it to push the plot forward. He was one of the first to really impose the show-not-tell rule to its fullest effect, so he doesn’t even feel the plot needs to be put forward by an omniscient narrator. When the characters are manifested well-enough, it is their dialogue and their basic actions that speak more loudly than plot-shifting declarations.
James is extremely careful in either praising or lambasting the characters too, as even those who appear to be manipulating others are under the whim of other social forces. We may be lured into thinking Kate is trying to engineer the situation in her favor, but again we must remember that she’s vying for escape. It’s only that Milly’s intention, at least in relation to hers, are purer
However, I think that Milly, as the Wealthy American who expresses a genuine liking for Densher, is what explodes the system of love and courtship that they live by in England–that is, one based entirely on money. The novel isn’t just about the ills of money and love, obviously, but it’s about how it turns love into the contentious of calculated statements and actions, a set of strategies used within a strict social sphere.
This is a coming-of-age novel not set in an innocent countryside or a dreamy city, but rather within an enclosed game. Milly, in her untimely death, reveals that love must be the thing that sets you free, and any ulterior means to get there cancels out the expression of it completely. Critics have actually compared Kate to Lady Macbeth, in that her will to get the inheritance and to control Densher eventually overrides the reason they originally got together.
I think this novel is important because it brings all of James’ most prescient themes together. There doesn’t really seem to be any exclusive topics he’s confronting, and the same clash of old and new societies is as alive as ever. Like Portrait of a Lady, It’s also a novel of confronting destiny, and how we react to it when it’s all apparently planned out for us. What I love about Henry James he forces us to reflect upon our future, and ask how we can incorporate our own humanity, our own will into what we seemingly can’t avoid.