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The Wings of the Dove (A Norton Critical Edition)

The Wings of the Dove (A Norton Critical Edition) (Paperback) by Henry James (Author), Joseph Donald Crowley (Author), Richard A. Hocks (Author)

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Summary Review

The Wings of the Dove is a classic example of Henry James's morality tales that play off the naiveté of an American protagonist abroad. In early-20th-century London, Kate Croy and Merton Densher are engaged in a passionate, clandestine love affair. Croy is desperately in love with Densher, who has all the qualities of a potentially excellent husband: he's handsome, witty, and idealistic--the one thing he lacks is money, which ultimately renders him unsuitable as a mate. By chance, Croy befriends a young American heiress, Milly Theale. When Croy discovers that Theale suffers from a mysterious and fatal malady, she hatches a plan that can give all three characters something that they want--at a price. Croy and Densher plan to accompany the young woman to Venice where Densher, according to Croy's design, will seduce the ailing heiress. The two hope that Theale will find love and happiness in her last days and--when she dies--will leave her fortune to Densher, so that he and Croy can live happily ever after. The scheme that at first develops as planned begins to founder when Theale discovers the pair's true motives shortly before her death. Densher struggles with unanticipated feelings of love for his new paramour, and his guilt may obstruct his ability to avail himself of Theale's gift. James deftly navigates the complexities and irony of such moral treachery in this stirring novel. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


5 out of 5 stars An Old-Fashioned Genius, May 21, 2003

By B. Kuhlman "badgradstudent" (Chicago, Illinois) (REAL NAME)    

This review is from: The Wings of the Dove (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)

Two responses to previous reviews: it was written one hundred years ago, so it would of course be somewhat dated. Second, you should perhaps READ THE ENTIRE BOOK before you attempt to review the text.

The text follows the fascinating development of a manipulation: Milly Theale, an American woman, enters the London scene, endowed with prodigious wealth, youth, and beauty, and several characters vie for her affection. It's a standard James plot in that way. Much like Portrait of a Lady, the wealthy American is exploited by her European acquaintances. Kate Croy convinces her lover Merton Densher to take advantage of Milly's interest in him, and to go so far as to attempt to marry the young American for her money. She is, after all, fatally and tragically ill. James brilliantly depicts the struggle between Densher, Kate Croy, her powerful Aunt Maud, the piquant Susan Shepherd, Sir Luke, and Lord Mark, and his characteristically enigmatic ending does not disappoint. James manages to breathe life into these odd characters in a way that so few writers can: his genius is for complex character, and this book embodies that genius at its height.

The trouble with the book, however, is that it does not qualify as a "light read." The pace is incredibly slow - deliberately slow, of course. It is a novel about decisions, and the development of those decisions constitutes the bulk of the novel. James's prose does lack the terseness of a Hemingway, but the latter writer often fails to capture the nuances that James so elaborately evokes in his careful prose.

James, like Faulkner, is not for the faint of heart. Some of his work is more accessible; readers in search of a more palatable James should look to Washington Square, What Maisie Knew, or his popular masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw. This novel does not fit easily into a category, and its principal interest is that very quality of inscrutability. It's not really a "British" or an "American" novel but contains elements of both. It's not "Modern" or "Victorian" but both. Originally published in 1902, it's also not easy to include him in either the 19th or the 20th century. He appears to be writing in both.

In short, then, it's not a light-hearted novel and the prose can be challenging at times. But I believe that the effort of reading this book is well rewarded.

4 out of 5 stars Much to my surprise..., November 23, 2001

By V. J. ELIA "Veejer" (Cape May, NJ United States) (REAL NAME)    

This review is from: The Wings of the Dove (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)

I was certain, in the first 100 or so pages of this book, that I was going to hate it. I nearly gave up on it a half-dozen times. James' thick, sometimes impenetrable prose took a great deal of getting used to; in fact I never really did get completely used to it. However, much to my surprise, I wound up engrossed in this novel. I must admit that the very same writing style that had me talking to myself at first, drew me in to the story at a level I hadn't previously experienced. The plot is fairly uncomplicated on the surface (it has been explained sufficiently elsewhere in these reviews), but the depth to which James' characters respond to their situation is anything but uncomplicated. So, if you are looking for a literary challenge, one that will reward you if you stick with it, this is a good choice. If, however, you're looking for a light, easy read... this ain't it.

5 out of 5 stars The novel could never be the same again., April 23, 2002

By darragh o'donoghue (dublin, ireland) (TOP 500 REVIEWER)    

This review is from: The Wings of the Dove (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)

The title is a Jamesian euphemism for 'Pulling The Wings Off Flies'. In a book that is a vortex of ironies, the most fundamental is that a novel written at the highest pitch of literary sophistication, full of high-minded exchanges and a character repeatedly compared to an angel, is really about the body, one dying, the other brimming with sexual attraction and desire (for money, status and sex). Kate Croy, impoverished with a disgraced father, is in love with Merton Densher, an impoverished journalist. Her wealthy aunt, Maud Lowder, offers to take her in, provide all the advantages of wealth and groom her for the marriage market, on the condition she abandons both her family and her marriage plans with Densher. Genuinely passionate for Densher, but reluctant to return to the degradations of comparative poverty, Kate has an idea. When she meets the dying American heiress Milly Theale, who coincidentally made the acquaintance of Densher in New York on a newspaper trip, Kate propses her fiance make love to her and so become a beneficiary in her imminent will, freeing the two lovers to get married.

Among the most difficult books in the English language, 'The Wings Of The Dove' is one of the three late novels in which James pushed the novel to a stylistic and intellectual limit, but which many readers have found awkward to read. The difficulty doesn't lie in the verbal extrvagance of a Joyce or the dictionary-defiance of a Pynchon - the individual words in these novels are familiar and accessible. It's what James does with them, the lengthy, elaborate sentences distended by clauses and sub-clauses, and compounded by a narration that emphasises qualification, euphemism, ellipis and ambivalence.

It's not, however, as if James had reached the peak of his art and decided, 'Right, I've done what I can with the conventional novel, I'm going to be virtuosically mandarin for the sake of it.' After all, the subject matter is familiar from his more accessible work - the naive American in corrupt Europe; the decline of the aristocracy; the social manoeuvring needed by women to survive a rigidly unjust system etc. The difficulty of 'Dove' is an intrinsic part of the novel's meaning, which is not just an acknowledgement of the unfathomable density of human psychology and motivation, but the difficulty in gauging and interpreting other people full stop. The conflict between witholding novelist and baffled reader is played out throughout the book, with characters creating awesomely complex and allusive plots and counter-plots, staging tableaux and theatrical stand-offs, and other characters struggling to comprehend them. Our attempts to interpret match those of the characters, with related dangers of misreading.

A more aggravating difficulty might arise from the story itself. The reading of 'Dove' demands a monastic dedication, a concentrated devotion of months to unravelling its many mysteries and ambiguities. A reader likes to feel that there will be a worthy character or two who will help carry him/her over the many stumbling blocks. But all this intricately wrought language is expended on a horrid little tale of greed and lust in which the protagonists expend fearsome intelligence on concealing unpleasantness and spinning justifications. It might be helpful to think of the novel as an inverse 'Mansfield park', with Kate and Merton as resourceful but poor Crawfords manipulating rich outsider Fanny Price (it's significant that moral decency translates into money from Austen's to James' world). There is little nobility or spiritual refinement here (although many readers prefer the wit and energy of the lovers to sickly 'magnificence' of Milly, her very humanity reduced baldly to its material value). For which we can only give thanks, because there should be more to literature than that; the creation of real, believable, exposed characters, and their endlessly shifting psychologies being one of them, and for which the conventions and compromises of the traditional novel must be abandoned. The great reward for patient reading is that our own perception becomes monre minutely alert; we learn to hear, beneath the dense verbal grid, something that 'for the spiritual ear, might have been audible as a faint far wail', something we miss if we get stuck moaning about the superficial problems of James' style.

Such is the exhaustiveness with which James tracks down the elusive convolutions of individual psychology and social interaction, it's easy to overlook his mastery of description. The ratio between the two is probably 10:1, but in brief sketches, James is able to conjure whole worlds weighed down with all sorts of meanings, from the furniture-heavy mansions, dismal garrets and maze-like streets of London to the dangerous precipitations of Switzerland to the decadent beauty of Venice, all working their unnoticed influence on characters who think they arrange everything. These descriptions are essential to the effect of a work which, if you'll let it, is dramatic, tense, atmospheric, sinister, suspenseful, exciting, funny (yes!), and emotionally convulsive. If, as James' friend William Dean Howells suggested, it gives you a headache, well, from the books I love, I expect nothing less.

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