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Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, Bks. 8-10: Crisis and Climax Remembered in the Dénouement

Overview of the Development

In the last three books of James' novel, we find that Milly is increasingly subsumed under the perspectives of Susan and Densher.  Indeed, the last portion of the novel is in many ways a story of the crisis in Densher's conscience.  Because, we follow the remainder of the novel essentially from Densher's view, the actual climax of the novel is delivered inside the dénouement.  Another way of seeing this is that the climax and dénouement are reversed. Densher's return to London seems to relax tension even as they slowly build again to the last confrontation between Densher and Kate.   We learn the following:

  • How Densher uses sex as a method of power over Kate, and how he grows to trust Kate less and less.
  • How the situation of Milly, and then later her memory, grow more and more to control Densher.
  • How Densher finally forces Kate to make a choice at the end.
  • The growth and complication of the symbol of the dove.
  • The final unraveling of the connection between economics and aesthetics.

8.1: We return to Densher's perspective.  We see his view of Milly and of Kate.  Kate has a hold on Densher, who is passive and shameful.   She has never done anything that he wanted.  He still has real misgivings about what he is doing and makes excuses for his actions.  Milly, on the other hand, appears as an American girl to him and not as a pricess, yet she is one with real music and beauty. 

8.2: Densher learns of Lord Mark's failed proposal to Milly and wants sexual proof of Kate's loyalty to him, convincing her to "come to me" in his lodgings.

8.3: The way in which Densher should treat Milly continues to be specified by Kate.They attend an evening where Milly is the star.  She appears in white and has an almost sacramental presence.  She is a bejeweled dove who spreads her wings of wealth for protection.  During this affair, Densher finally understands Kate's plan--he is to marry Milly for her money, so that after Milly dies, he may marry Kate.  Densher uses this as a threat to convince Kate to go to bed with him before she and Maud leave for London.

9.1: Their sexual encounter gives Densher a feeling of control over Kate.  It becomes a kind of mental treasure to him after Kate leaves.  But Densher also becomes ugly to himself because he realizes that Milly invites him each day to the Palazzo out of selfless care for him. She is merciful, while he is lost.  He continues to visit her, and he reveals that he is not staying in Venice to write a book.

9.2: Densher realizes that whatever he does could kill Milly.   He continues to attend on her for 20 days until he is turned away one day.  He begins to piece together what has happened after he sees Lord Mark in the Piazza.  He realizes that Lord Mark is responsible in some brutish way.

9.3: Susan meets with Densher and announces that Milly has "turned her face to the wall." Milly is refusing to talk to Susan about it.   Densher realizes that Sir Luke is coming.  Susan explains that Lord Mark arrived under false pretenses, and then he turned about to inform Milly that Densher and Kate were engaged.

9.4: Densher goes to meet Sir Luke.  Densher realizes that he has been outside Milly's illness, and he begins to feel deeply the effect of Milly upon him.  When Sir Luke returns from the Palazzo, he informs Densher that Milly is willing to see him again.

10.1: We now move forward several days.  Densher has returned to London and contacted Kate.  Densher eventually reveals what has happened and that he saw Milly one more time before he left.  During this time, Densher and Milly went on as if nothing had changed, and Milly indicated that Densher should leave so as not to see her deathly sick.  Kate teases Densher that he has begun to fall for Milly.   Kate is relieved because she believes that her plan will succeed, for Milly is still well disposed to Densher and will, thus, leave a large amount to him after her death.

10.2: Maud now treats Densher differently, and Densher continues to try to ignore the power of Milly's consciousness on him.  He struggles to hold himself together and meets Kate on a warm Christmas day,  Densher wants to marry Kate as he is without any money.

10.3: They learn that Sir Luke has returned and Milly has died, like a dove spreading her wings. Kate has left Maud for Christmas to stay with Marian who is forced to entertain their father.  Densher attends a church and settles on a plan.

10.4: He goes to see Kate at Marian's. Densher has received a letter, which he has left unopened, that Milly postmarked before she died.  He wants to know how Lord Mark knew that he and Kate were engaged.

10.5: Densher has come to distrust Kate, though he still loves her.   Kate opens the letter and learns that Milly has left Densher a large sum of money.   She burns it so that Densher may not read it, which Densher treats as a kind of sacrifice.

10.6: Two months later, the offer from Milly's New York lawyers makes it across the Atlantic. Densher proposes that they return the money.  Kate makes excuses. Densher proposes to give all the money to Kate, but she must choose between him and the money.  Kate insists that Densher is now in love with Milly's memory.

Observations on and Questions about Select Passages

284-285--Kate's "poetic" claims don't displace Densher's misgivings.

286--Milly's music and beauty impact Densher.

293-294: Densher wants sexual proof of Kate's loyalty to him.

298--Densher to be a part of Milly and Susan's picture (like Tasso).

*301--Milly dressed in white has an almost "sacramental" quality.  What is James suggesting by this?

*304--Milly is a pearled, bejeweled dove who spread her wealth like wings for protection.  How has the dove image continued to change? (c/c with 171-172)

308--Densher finally understands the extent of Kate's plan.   Note the almost sexual nature of Densher and Kate's exchange over this.

311-314--Densher forces Kate's hand by threatening to leave in order to consummate their relationship.  He treats the sexual encounter as a treasure of memory.

316--Milly's mercy vs. Densher's lostness.

318--Densher insists that he will believe in Milly's living.

*329--Why is Densher relieved that Lord Mark was a brute towards Milly?

334--Note how Susan and Densher agree so closely on their view of Milly.

*347--Densher realizes that an aesthetic instinct of himself and others has kept him on the outside of Milly's illness.

360--What does Kate mean by suggesting that Densher has "fallen in love" with Milly?

*364--Note how Kate has completely submerged her hypocrisy in the language of love and peace for Milly.

369-370--Densher tries to hold it together as his sense of Milly continues to take hold of him.

372--Densher sees an announcement of Kate and his marriage as a way to right all the wrong that has happened.

*377--The dove has spread her wings to die.  How does this develop and alter the dove imagery?

*380--What is the effect of the Oratory upon Densher?  Why does it achieve this effect?

387, 389--Densher growing distrust of Kate

392-394--The opening of Milly's letter.   By refusing to open it, Densher treats it as a sacrifice.

401-402--Densher refuses to touch the money vs. Kate's arguments based on status and reputation.

*403--How would you sum up Densher's forced choice and Kate's final observations?  Why does James end his sprawling novel this way? How do Milly's wings cover them?

Overall Questions for The Wings of the Dove

  1. What finally is James saying about the relationship between economic realities and aesthetics?
  2. What is he saying about the way we conceive of other realities, places, and people?
  3. What is he suggesting about beauty, illness, and death? (i.e. "the poetics of misfortune")
  4. Is Densher's crisis and recovery of a conscience convincing?   What motivates it?  Is Kate right?
  5. What is James suggesting about the nature of consciousness and good and evil?
  6. What, finally, are the wings of the dove?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding