Saturday, May 6, 2017

Imagery in The Wings of the Dove, ethical and aesthetic - vague faint snatches, mere ghosts of sound, of old-fashioned melancholy music

When Mrs. Stringham sees Milly Theale on the edge of an abyss, she imagines that Milly is contemplating suicide, but she also imagines that Milly “was looking down on the kingdoms of the earth, and though indeed that of itself might well go to the brain, it wouldn’t be with a view of renouncing them” (3.1).  There are other possibilities, I know, but given the location Mrs. Stringham is thinking Matthew 4:8, which makes Milly, a wealthy twenty-two-year-old American woman into a Christ figure.  Whatever kind of Satan is tempting her is not visible to her friend.

Milly is surrounded by figurative language of the abyss, but also with Biblical language.  She is the dove of the title.  She has “lien among the pots” yet shall be “as the wings of a dove covered with silver,” assuming that Psalm 68:13 is the correct reference.  So then she should be the wings, but characters repeatedly refer to Milly as the dove, not the wings, as one would.

Milly’s actions towards the end of the novel, one or more of which might be considered a sacrifice, either redeem one or both of the couple that was trying to grift her, or destroys them, as a couple, or perhaps individually.  Or maybe one thief is saved and the other damned.  I do not know how to reconcile the contradictions of the two sets of endings, or the multiple possibilities of the ending.  Nor did James, I suppose, which is why he wrote the novel.

Another set of images attached to Milly aestheticize her.  She is frequently like someone in a painting, sometimes religious, but in a key scene, not.  “She was the image of the wonderful Bronzino, which she must have a look at on every ground.”  And she is, in fact Milly looks exactly like the woman in this portrait, because it is on the cover of the edition of the novel I read, and I am told the resemblance is uncanny, and there we are.

The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michael-angel-esque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded [?] jewels, her brocaded and wasted [?] reds, was a very great personage – only unaccompanied by a joy.  And she was dead, dead, dead.  Milly recognised her exactly in words that had nothing to do with her.  “I shall never be better than this.”  (5.2)

The way that the mortally ill Milly’s recognition is not of herself but of death – or that she only recognizes herself through death – is a great moment, one of the surprising yet exactly right psychological insights that suit fiction so well.  But I picked the quotation because it begins the strange process by which everyone else aestheticizes Milly, one more for example of the novel’s distances, while she transforms aesthetics into ethics.  She uses here wealth to become the Renaissance noblewoman in the painting, moving to a Venetian palace and so on.  But she does it as a way to live.

As with many ideas in James, where this falls between utterly bizarre and ingeniously insightful is unknown to me.

Maybe the answer is in the great scene at the National Gallery (5.7), where Milly wonders if she could “’lose myself’” among the paintings, where “[i]t was immense, outside, the personal question.”  She wants more aesthetic distance.

I could pursue a related set of images that are associated with Martin Densher, a journalist, engaged to Kate Croy but in pursuit of Milly, who compares people to texts.  His girlfriend, for example:

“You’re a whole library of the unknown, the uncut.”  He almost moaned, he ached from the depth of his content.  “Upon my word I’ve a subscription!”  (6.6)

Hilarious.  Or how about 8.1, where Densher thinks that he does not want to “read[] the romance of his existence in a cheap edition.”  Getting dangerously meta-fictional there, Henry.

Milly is not text to him, though, but music: “her whole attitude had, to his imagination, meanings that hung about it, waiting upon her, hovering, dropping and quavering forth again, like vague faint snatches, mere ghosts of sound, of old-fashioned melancholy music” (8.1).

I do not yet understand Henry James’s use of imagery, but at least I have learned to look for it.


  1. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination, on 'abysses' in Wings: [abyss] 'may be taken to stand for all the evacuated centers of meaning in [James's] fiction that nonetheless animate lives, determine quests for meaning, and which confer on life, particularly on consciousness, the urgency and dramatics of melodrama'.

  2. The Brooks quote is helpful. I can argue with how this idea really works in the novels, but it is there.

  3. You could do five more entries on Wings of the Dove and not be done with it.

    Since I am traveling right now, I don't have the wherewithal to give my full response to your interesting take on the novel. I'll restrict to a few comments:

    This book is about sexual politics and is surprisingly, particularly for James, successful at it. James leads us by the nose through our shifting loyalty first to Kate (for her sacrifices she makes for her father), to Milly (for her delicacy that is not as fragile as if she were a Dickensian heroine), and finally to Merton Densher, perhaps James's most fully heteronormative male. With respect to Densher, James even makes us understand an action that, in these times, is reprehensible but has the unpleasant effect (at least for me), of thinking that Kate ends up with just what she deserves from Densher. I almost hate myself for saying that.

    Virginia Woolf is hardly one to cast stones at James for manipulating situations to fit artistic ends. Her flying narrator in Mrs. Dalloway is proof that she will also do whatever it takes to get her point across.

    Although I missed the windows and balconies in Dove, I can assure you that when you get to The Golden Bowl you'll want to pay attention to the staircases on which so many of the conversations, particularly those of the Assinghams, occur. This is my one nod to the New Criticism.

    I need to watch the movie again because, coming back to Densher, I remember that Linus Roache, in his heyday, was a highly effective sexual magnet (at least I remember Priest very, very well). And Densher, as I commented in one of your postings on The Ambassadors, is far more male than even the randy Chad, and Chad serves more to throw Strether's asexuality into relief, while Densher's manhood, to be arch about it, is front and center.

    Can't wait until you start blogging about The Golden Bowl.

  4. All right, staircases, good. It does not hurt to know some of these things in advance.

    I saw Priest, too, way back when. I used to watch a lot more movies - good movies.