Of the three late masterpieces that crown the extraordinary literary achievement of Henry James, The Wings of the Dove (1902) is at once the most personal and the most elemental.
James drew on the memory of a beloved cousin who died young to create one of the three central characters, Milly Theale, an heiress with a short time to live and a passion for experiencing life to its fullest. To the creation of the other two, Merton Densher and the magnificent, predatory Kate Croy, who conspire in an act of deceit and betrayal, he brought a lifetime's distilled wisdom about the frailty of the human soul when it is trapped in the depths of need and desire. And he brought to the drama that unites these three characters, in the drawing rooms of London and on the storm-lit piazzas of Venice, a starkness and classical purity almost unprecedented in his work.
Under its brilliant, coruscating surfaces, beyond the scrim of its marvelous rhetorical and psychological devices, The Wings of the Dove offers an unfettered vision of our civilization and its discontents. It represents a culmination of James's art and, as such, of the art of the novel itself.
(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)
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.