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The Reificatiori of Milly Theale: Rhetorical Narration in The Wings of the Dove Prenda Austin-Smith There is our general sense of the way things happen—it abides with us indefeasibly, as readers of fiction, from the moment we demand that our fiction shall be intelligible; and there is our peculiar sense of the way they don't happen, which is liable to wake up unless reflexion and criticism, in us, have been skilfully and successfully drugged. There are drugs enough, clearly—it is all a question of applying them witÃ-i tact; in which case die way tilings don't happen may be artfully made to pass for the way things do. Preface to The American Despite the ambiguity associated with Henry James's Major Phase, The Wings of the Dove is regarded with a wealth of critical certainty which stresses Milly Theale as a "Christlike" figure (Ward). She is for many "the centre of action and morality in the novel" (Harland) and "the purest of Jamesian characters" (White), who finds meaning in "living with and even for others" (Booth 100). The view of Milly Theale as the moral centre of the book, and of the novel as "the very soul" of James's own canon (Matthiessen 43) is also habitually attributed to James himself. Emblematic of this opinion is Frederick Crews, who claims that James found Milly JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 30.2 (Summer 2000): 187-205. Copyright © 2000 by JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory. 188 INT '"unspeakably touching,'" and intended the reader to see her this way as well. According to Crews, the rationale for James's "increasingly allegorical " treatment of Milly is the justification of Densher's reaction to her: Milly's "symbolic value must be inflated to almost Christlike proportions in the reader's mind" in order to make Densher's actions "plausible" (76). Densher must be made convincing to the reader because, writes Crews, it is Densher who assumes "the role of an oracle for James's own opinions," and provides, by his actions, "our best clue to the author's moral judgement of his principal characters"(66). This particular reader, however, does not see Milly Theale as a transcendental heroine, Densher as reliable moral barometer, or accept that the novel's movement toward what John Carlos Rowe has called "the symbolization of Milly Theale" reflects James's own attitudes towards Milly. These interpretations are, I contend, an effect created by the nonomniscient third-person narrator, a figure characterized by a vulnerability to romantic narrative, and a slow and steady inclination to replace the sharp details of reality—those things which we cannot help but know, sooner or later—with the broad rhetorical appeal of reification. This paper argues that The Wings of the Dove demonstrates the narrator 's rhetorical efforts to paint Milly Theale's narrative portrait in hues consistent with his romantic conceptions of moral value and moral authority , conceptions conveniently in tune with the intentions of other characters , especially Merton Densher and Maud Lowder, Kate Croy's rich and socially powerful aunt. It is the narrator of Wings, particularly as he becomes narratively fused with Merton Densher and influenced by the persuasions of Maud Lowder, who orchestrates and delivers to the reader the romantic views of Milly Theale constructed by other characters, and who is actively engaged in the composition, rather than in the mere observation , of Milly as the dove of the novel's title. The narrator's reifying rhetoric thus functions as one of the drugs alluded to in the Preface to The American quoted above—a way of dulling "reflexion and criticism" in the reader. It is the representation of "disconnected and uncontrolled experience—uncontrolled by our general sense of 'the way things happen'—which romance alone more or less successfully palms off on us" (The Art of the Novel 34). The success ofthat "palming off' on James's part is the willingness of readers and critics of Wings to avert their eyes, as the narrator of this novel averts his, from the realities The deification of Milly Theale 189 that control and encumber the narrative: not only Milly's illness and approaching death, but the very...


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pp. 187-205
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