The Wings of the Dove by Henry James is the story of Kate Croy, the contemporary London female of the late 19th century, of the upper classes yet with a minimal income, since the death of her mother. Her father, Lionel Croy notes his daughter for her beauty and cognitive merit. But does not love her in the least for any of her finer qualities. Kate is simple, of fine proportion, and known by her friends to be clever. Of her father, those who knew him said, "how he does dress!" those who knew him better state, "how does he?"
The family's fortunes seem to be in the hands of women. Kate is granted an inheritance by her recently deceased mother, that she agrees to share with her widowed and overburdened sister; Marian. The inheritance is not enough for both Kate and Marian to live on forever so it is agreed Kate should be taken in by her Aunt Maud until Kate finds a suitable marriage arrangement, but it is all to be sufficed upon one agreed condition. Kate is to give up her father. Despite that Lionel is the reason for the Croy family's current representational and financial floundering, Kate asks him to refuse her Aunt's request. Lionel does not because, "What he couldn't forgive was her dividing with Marian her scant share of the provision their mother had been able to leave them. She should have divided it with him."
And so Kate returns to her Aunt Maud and her financially conditional world where, "there were always people to snatch at you and it would never occur to them that they were eating you up. They did that without tasting."
Kate visits her sister to discuss their affairs as they are comrades in a lost Serengeti of apathetic survival. Marian, with greasy children, who had grown near fat and was a consummate widow. A verily named Mrs. Condrip who was now a faded icon of her husband's existence, "She was little more than a ragged relic, a plain prosaic result of him as if she had somehow been pulled through an obstinate funnel, only to be left crumpled and useless and with nothing in her but what he accounted for."
The image of Mrs. Condrip is what is at the heart of Kate's dilemma: What are her choices? Her boyfriend, Merton Densher is conceivably likable but of no substantive purpose nor fortune. Densher has a Cambridge upbringing and is known in finer circles, but does not have the financial backing to provide for Kate, Marian and Marian's family. And Kate knows that if she marries Densher on his fortune alone, she could become her sister. Aunt Maud is the power presence with both Kate's and Densher's lives. Aunt Maud is the representational matriarch, the keeper of the bread, the ultimate holder of any opinion.
Upon such a scene enters Milly Theale, the prodigious American with pure red hair, who was striking in beauty, but of an unusual sort. Milly comes to Europe with a companion, Mrs. Stringham, a financially independent writer, and joins Kate's circles. At first the games played are with Kate and her lovers by Milly but the tide turns on Milly as Kate knows of one thing that can tilt the board in her fortune: Milly is dying and rather quickly of a wasting disease of unknown detail. Kate attempts to set her lover, Densher up with Milly, to cause Milly to fall in love with him so they can have Milly's fortune post her demise. But Kate wielded Densher upon the chessboard in an unusual fashion: she pushed him, the pawn ahead and he became a queen. He could now move in whatever direction he willed, as Milly's death freed him on many levels of social stance and financial merit. He also had fallen in love with Milly in earnest.
The Wings of the Dove title could be an allusion to The Bible, Psalm 55 (or to Psalm 68:13) the infinitely suffering infinitely gentle creature to fly away and be at rest away from the horrible conditions otherwise known as friends. But really, the irony is the title could be nothing but pure sarcasm. There is no dove in the entire novel. It is darker even than the ideal of a singular innocence tolerating the world of the wicked and living on hope of a better breath somewhere. There is no innocence. One spends the novel searching for this dove.
By Sarah Bahl