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^Fierce Privacy in The Wings of the Dove Joan Lescinski Henry James, known for his subtle portrayals of psychological states, has produced in The Wings of the Dove a major problem of interpretation for his readers. The novel belongs to what F. O. Matthiessen calls "The Major Phase," that group of novels written by James at the end of his career. Like the other important novels of this period in his writing, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, this novel baffles readers with several mysteries, not the least of which is the cause of Milly Theale's illness. We are perplexed, even as the charaders in the novel are, about such questions as "What, predsely, is the matter with Milly?" "Is the disease real?" "Why does James persist in masking the illness behind layers of language and unspoken signs?" We are used to novelists helping us to understand their characters and their motivations. Why then does James refuse to do this? One possible explanation for James's reluctance to reveal the specifics of Milly's illness may lie in his determination to shroud her in levels of mystery in order to heighten the power of this lonely millionaire upon the novel and the charaders in it, espedally Kate Croy, her English friend, and Merton Densher, the young journalist who eventually falls in love with both women. Since mystery always seems more tantalizing and suggestive than "plain truth," James may be refusing to satisfy our curiosity in order to exploit the mystery surrounding Milly. His treatment of the illness is, in fad, in line with the privacy about herself that Milly proteds so fiercely. A number of critics have discussed the question of Milly's illness. Some commit themselves to a specific disease such as tuberculosis; others, like myself, hold that James deliberately refuses to reveal the cause of Milly's death.1 Elizabeth Allen asserts a more psychological basis for Milly's demise: "Milly dies . . . because the weight of manipulation and objectification she has to face as being perpetrated on her shatters her ability to control her existence in the world."2 R. P. Blackmur contends that Milly was "actually killed by the conditions of life,"3 while Ruth B. Yeazell believes that although we never know the literal disease to which Literature and Medicine 9 (1990) 125-33 © 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 126 FIERCE PRIVACY Milly succumbs, "we may assume that she dies of betrayal," making the careful distinction that we may as easily believe that "what kills Milly in the end is not the lovers' ambiguously kind deception, but Lord Mark's brutal truth."4 In any case, the determination by James to keep us and the charaders in the novel in the dark does make reading the novel an intellectual challenge. Critics have noted this before as, for example, Oscar Cargill: . . . The Wings of the Dove is not for every reader of Henry James. . . . Ability to recognize subtle dramatic tensions, the proliferation of poetic imagery, the iteration of symbols, the rich interweaving of themes, and the control of the multiplidty of elements comes only from a long saturation in James. The readers with such a saturation find The Wings of the Dove an immensely rewarding book and an immensely personal one.5 This carefully stated praise, however, does not simplify the complexities involved in the novel, espedally those related to the diarader of Milly Theale and the questions surrounding her illness. The fads available about the malady are few, and these are provided with the dense and convoluted language charaderistic of late Jamesian prose. Milly is not introduced immediately, but held off until the third book when we are already enmeshed in the affair between Kate Croy and Merton Densher with its attendant complications: their poverty, the determination by Mrs. Lowder, Kate's aunt, to arrange a "striking" marriage for her niece, and the lovers' attempts to conceal the true nature of their relationship, a secret engagement, from everyone.6 Milly seems almost an intrusion into the novels at this point, and Matthiessen notes that the unique feature of the method of The Wings of the Dove "is its deliberately indirect presentation of its...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 125-133
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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