On Reading Wings of the Dove

For the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly trudging through Henry James’s Wings of the Dove. Slowly and trudging is, after all, the way to do James. I’ve never studied him much in the past and don’t recall ever feeling so alienated, or “put out” as some might say, by his style as I was during much of Wings. I read “Turn of the Screw” in college and Daisy Miller in conjunction with studying Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and wasn’t then quite so vexed by his style, which apparently H.G. Wells described as a Hippopotamus struggling to pick up a pea.

Indeed, one of my recurrent thoughts throughout my plodding time with the novel was that it could never be published today. It’s a self-serving and predictable lament for a writer frustrated by the lack of an audience to complain about the maddening squeamishness and inscrutable subjectivity of the publishing industry, but on this occasion, I wonder if the industry doesn’t have it right as James’s syntax is not so much intricate as obtuse and his approach to exposition is in stark contrast to the show-don’t-tell directive I always give my students in creative writing class.

James tells. And tells. And tells. In seemingly interminable passages of prose he describes the characters’ thoughts and moods at a remove of several meters. This distanced relationship to their own emotions does not fall away when the characters actually speak to each other either. Their discourse is so heavy with vague vagaries and nineteenth century euphemisms that I often had to put the book down with a shake of my head after puzzling out a list of three or four possibilities for just what exactly they might be talking about.

But still, after finally finishing it, I can see why Wings of the Dove is lauded by some. There are layers of irony–though I’m not always sure they were all deliberate–that suffuse the story of journalist Merton Densher’s love triangle with his fiancé Kate Croy and the rich, yet doomed American socialite Millie Theale. It’s the kind of tragedy of manners that could only be set in England before the twentieth century. The shades of morality and immorality revolving around the dying girl’s fortune stir up quite a few contradictions. Kate always professes to admire and love Millie–well, everyone does as James develops her character primarily by having other people praise her as “stupendous” and call her a “dove” oh-so-many times…sooooo many times–but her intentions toward the girl are perhaps the most underhanded, in some ways worse than the rakish Lord Mark who gets summarily dismissed as a “wretch” and scoundrel by Densher even though his own girlfriend is the most manipulative of them all.

Of course, he does come to see this, leading to his ultimatum to Kate that closes the book. Spoilers: her scheme has paid off and without Densher ever having had to actually marry the sick girl. Millie, having come to understand the lovers’ scheme and seeing their need, just goes ahead and wills Densher a small fortune (how much of her ridiculous wealth she bequeaths him is never revealed, not even, apparently, to Densher himself) but the young man’s had enough. He tells Kate she can have the money…or she can have him. He wants them to be together just as they were before Millie came into their lives or not at all, which elicits Kate’s famous line to close the novel so ambiguously: “We shall never again be as we were!”

James Thurber wrote a long review for The New Yorker back in the fifties about the difficulty of adapting James to the stage and screen, but I disagree with him in thinking that this ending is actually quite fit for the screen. I find myself wondering how it’s played out in the most recent adaptation wherein Helena Bonham Carter’s Kate would have the honors of closing the drama, but unfortunately the film doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere and isn’t even readily available in Netflix’s DVD inventory. Reading that conclusion–just a few hours ago–I felt a bit like the Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings Playbook who hurls away Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms in a fit of literary dissatisfaction. I think I (almost audibly) muttered: “You’ve got to be f’ing kidding me.”

It’s quite a canned moment, particularly from an author associated with Realism, but despite or perhaps because of that unsettled final moment, Wings does seem like a story that stays with one beyond the denouement. These characters, who for much of the past few weeks I felt were tedious (or at least tediously rendered) are now flitting about my mind, quiet and poised, naturally. Their overwrought, self-inflicted predicament lingers. I imagine them there still, frozen in a moment of “just what have we done,” unable to move forward…forever.

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