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[45] The Wings of the Dove – Henry James

The Wings of the Dove weaves together three ill-fated lives to render a poignant tragedy of self-deception, betrayal, treachery, and love. A pair of lovers, who were victims of forbidden love, Merton Densher and Kate Croy, conspires to obtain the fortune of Milly Theale, a doomed American heiress. Until I read the novel, I have only witnessed the materialization of Kate Croy and her treacherous staring, calculated mind, and imperturbable cunning in motion picture. The erudition of James’s trickling prose reveals a perpetually conflicting character in her. I’m somewhat compelled to forgive her and sympathize with her in spite of her greed, selfish ambition and unflinching desire, when it becomes clear that her compromising father, is the impetus of her devious actions. Her father’s meager presence in the novel ironically accentuates his poisonous influence on Kate Croy: it imputes on her shame, irritation, and depression. It makes her wonder if she still has any right to personal happiness. Her scheme justifies her desire to grip a hold of happiness of her future.

The novel is a tragedy of love undeserved, of love unrequisited, and of desire’s miscalculation. Kate is in love with Merton. To her it is bliss. Her perception of happiness is to be free from her stricken Aunt Maud and her family and to be with Merton at all cost. The fortuitous knowledge of Milly’s terminal illness merely makes her an opportunist: to look out for her beloved Merton and to smooth his path, for she thinks she has lost the occasion of her life to her family. It behooves the lovers to face without delay the question of handling their immediate (financial) future. So without a tincture of scruple, she eggs Merton on to court Milly, who practically resigns in advance to any intimate relations and to the gesture of sympathy, in order to inveigle her fortune. Kate takes advantage of Milly’s taking a liking of Merton and her trust. So to Kate the scheme to obtain the money is no more than making the best of a friendship and reaping its benefits. She is the one who works behind the scene, perspicaciously plans every move, puppets Merton’s words and acts before the heiress. In fact, she does not cultivate a relationship close enough with Milly to feel the scruple of that one proper lie she tells – the one lie that encourages Milly to live and to hope for Merton.

The Wings of the Dove has very strong female presence throughout the novel. Enough literature and critics have done justice of these presences that serve distinct literary purposes. But I am most intrigued by Merton whom James uses as a handle on conscience, purging, and scruple. The narrative gives an impression that Merton’s motive to execute Kate’s plan is to win her love. Ironically he is to win Milly’s love in order to be with Kate, who has her eyes on the fortune. At the same time this deceptive scheme becomes a case of conscience and one at the prospect of which he is already wincing. He is also aware that he has yet done anything deceptive until he carries out Kate’s plan. So the difference between acting out of his own will and acting out Kate’s scheme makes a case of conscience. The issue becomes one that is core of humanity: conscience is indiscriminate to the person who commits the act. Merton might seem a subordinate in the scheme but I question he has any will left, as his notion of life has reduced to what Kate conceives for him. In succumbing to her cunning design and management of him, he has transcended his conscience in inveigling Milly’s fortune. His past history and remembrance of Milly pins his conscience and makes him shudder the thought of her having ceased to exist.

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