The Wings of a Dove by Henry James
Reading The Wings of a Dove is like wandering for days through a thick heavy fog. At first the story is mildly entertaining and the characters show promise. But the entertainment factor soon wanes as the characters muddle along, pressing the reader for sympathy as James talks in circles, leading the reader through pages upon pages of dry verbose prose.
The basic plot is a story of Kate – an attractive young girl of modest means. Her well-to-do socialite Aunt Maud hopes to arrange a marriage between Kate and Lord Mark, a man who seems to have money but not much of anything else. The problem is that Kate is already in love with Mr. Densher and of course, Mr. Densher does not live up to Aunt Maud’s standards because he’s a poor working man. So when a fragile (very ill) American heiress named Milly comes to London and befriends Kate, Kate pushes Mr. Densher to start an affair with Milly in the hopes that he will inherit all her money when she dies. It’s a brilliant plot!
So, you ask, where did James go wrong?
For one thing, the characters remain vague and inaccessible. For instance, James tells us, Mr. Densher “looked vague without looking weak – idle without looking empty”, however through most of the story he does look weak and empty. And the entire story is so impersonal to James, he never gets past the point of referring to this primary character as Mr. Densher. And the other important characters are no more definitive.
As for the nature of his writing, it would not be appropriate to generalize and say the Jamesian style in itself is bland and boring. For example, James created an entertaining plot, bold characters, and showed some humor in The Ambassadors. But as the narrator of The Wings of a Dove, James is pompous and self-imposing. With long run-on obscure and vapid sentences, the dense fog sets in with an occasional glimpse of color and sharp images mostly devoted to the authors vivid descriptions of the scenery in Venice.
Just the pace of the story alone is a clear indictor of what life was like at the turn of the century… slow, rambling, and full of formalities. And that’s fine – it’s to be expected. But that is no excuse for this tedious mind-numbing prose. I’ve read all 4,347 pages of Marcel Proust’s long-winded seven volume epic compilation of In Search of Lost Time which encompasses the same time line, and was not bored for one single minute.
In my opinion, the imperceivable characters, the lack of emotion and humor, and the unnatural, lifeless dialogue in Wings of a Dove, doomed the story to insignificance – unworthy of it’s rating at number 26 on the Modern Library list of 100 greatest novels. Reading it was educational, in the sense of viewing the evolution of literature, but I would not recommend it for leisurely reading.
Rated 2.5 Stars
All contents © 2012 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.