In Henry James, we rarely if ever have a villain - a real, horrible blackguard character for whom we feel morally adequate enough to pass severe judgment. There are characters with evil intentions, who do evil thing: who lie and undermine the hero or heroine, Mme. Merle and Gilbert Osmond, of The Portrait of a Lady
, may be among the most "evil" duos in the James canon, if only for the tenderness we feel toward the passionate Isabel, who they snare. What is perplexing in James, which frustrates us, is that we are nearly always on the precipice of love and hate for non-protagonist characters, there is an ambiguous moral haze which pervades James's works, and steals away our ability to classify, to count the troops of good and evil. Moral ambiguity may be at its consummate peak in The Wings of the Dove
, a book populated by characters which elicit, in turnstile fashion, our censure and sympathy, which are condemned only to be redeemed, and condemned again. With the exception of the fatally ill, angelic, Milly Theale, (and perhaps her duena
Susan Shepherd), whom we may only hold her naivete against, no character remains unmarred by human foible - and that is the transcendent beauty of The Wings of the Dove
Set in the mannered and deeply class-divided Victorian England, the story follows Kate Croy and her lover, Merton Densher: separated by class but passionately in love and still heatedly in lust. Despite Densher's willingness to break with convention and marry the higher-class, though essentially orphaned, Kate, if he did so she would be disinherited by her wealthy aunt-dowager, Maud. When an enigmatic young American woman, Milly, arrives on the scene, connected to Maud through her travel companion Susan, it is discovered that she is the "wealthiest orphan in America" - and also that she is fatally sick. These dual revelations begin the moral descent of many of the money-lusty characters including Lord Mark, a fading noble, and our own Kate Croy. Kate's quick-witted devices which she places upon Milly's money are startling, and reveal her perniciously creative mind. Her gift of morbid certitude is almost reminiscent of Lady Macbeth (and at times, Macbeth himself) in its terrible improvisational tact, and malignant boldness which surpasses conventional expectations of her 'weaker sex'. She devises a plan which sets her secret fiancé to fool the invalid into loving him, and then leaving him her money when she soon passes. Kate's Janus-faced friendship with Milly is chilling, and veiled. While she seems to hold some genuine affection for Milly at the onset of their friendship, it cools to a remote admiration for her unnatural goodness, and is corrupted by Milly's money to a hauntingly composed opportunism - as Kate waits for Milly to die.
Perhap's the book's greatest strength is the transition of perspectives between the three main characters: Kate, Milly, and Merton. In addition to a masterful play of dramatic ironies, in which there is ever the floating question-mark of "who knows what? who knows what who else knows?" - an infinitely recursive self-questioning and hyper-sensitivity to the awareness of others, it also deepens our understandings of all the characters, and confronts our prejudices against them. Merton Densher remains for me one of the most intriguing and frustrating characters in the Jamesian universe. Like his counterpart, Kate, he too hearkens us to Shakespeare's Macbeth
in his initial moral reticence, rash complicity, and ultimately trapped feeling of remorse for his transgressions against the innocent and doting Milly. Unlike Macbeth (though undeserving of a comparison to Hamlet), his great flaw is not haste but hesitation: He had thought, no doubt, from the day he was born, much more than he had acted; except indeed that he remembered thoughts--a few of them--which at the moment of their coming to him had thrilled him almost like adventures. But anything like his actual state he had not, as to the prohibition of impulse, accident, range--the prohibition in other words of freedom--hitherto known.
What Densher lacks is Macbeth's horrible boldness to follow through, he only half commits and so is at one time less of a villain than Macbeth, but as morally outrageous and self-emasculating. In a book which is overwhelmingly about the illusion of gender, Merton is the only significant male figure, while significantly lacking in conventional masculinity - a trait which is made up for in his stronger half, Kate. The almost epicene quality of Densher is perhaps partially a result of his consort, which is described as a "circle of petticoats." His seeming preference for female company, even platonically, appears to parallel his creator, and may perhaps indicate the ambiguity of a repressed sexual preference. Merton's over-reliance on consideration, and his moral hesitations bring in to question his love for Kate. Does he love her, or does he simply envy her stirring temerity? Left alone with Milly, he is drawn to her subtle bravery and unnatural kindness and generosity - something which he lacks in his life with Kate, but perhaps he is also drawn to her fragility. Milly is the only character who despite her moving strength in character, is reliant on the physical aid of others. Merton's perverted views of love leave the reader unsure of him. He seems to us hopelessly lost. Milly's death brings upon Merton a Jamesian epiphany: an epiphany which shakes his self-understanding and causes him to question his choices, but ultimately is insufficient to change his weak convictions. He is aware of the spoiled happiness he may look forward to married to Kate, he is left aware, not of what he has to gain through Kate, but what he has lost in losing Milly. The moral descent of Kate coincides with the moral ascension of Merton: though he passes up the full potential of his rise. The ending is perhaps one of the most moving I have read, with such a poignancy and fullness of emotion it is shocking: "Your word of honour that you're not in love with her memory."
"Ah"--she made a high gesture--"don't speak of it as if you couldn't be. I could in your place; and you're one for whom it will do. Her memory's your love. You want no other."
He heard her out in stillness, watching her face but not moving. Then he only said: "I'll marry you, mind you, in an hour."
"As we were?"
"As we were."
But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. "We shall never be again as we were!"
We are left with the specter of uncertainty - do they get married? We hope not, but we are not left with the knowing petit mort
which we feel at the close of The Portrait of a Lady
, the conclusion is not forgone, there is time to redeem what one has left of life. The novel what actually written after The Ambassadors
, though publishing circumstances delayed the later book's publication, and the ending is reflective of the solemnity of "the life unlived" of Lambert Strether. It is the openness of the ending which sets it apart from some of James's other works. We are saddened to see the dissolution of love, but we question whether what Densher and Kate felt for each other was truly love at all. Kate's love for her father, which seems to transcend situation, is starkly juxtaposed to her love for Merton which seems so dependent on his situation. While Kate descends in our moral estimation of her, it seems that by the end of the novel she reaches her own epiphany, it seems she has learned love from Milly, a thing which before had eluded her. So we are left reservedly heartbroken at the end, for Kate, but also reservedly happy. The friendship of Milly ameliorates both Kate and Densher: she changes them irrevocably for the better. But she changes them completely: they are no longer the compatible couple they once were, the passions are realigned and their love for each other is a mnemenic shadow of their adoration of Milly's goodness - a goodness which they can never reach.