"The Wings of the Dove". A Socio-Historical Analysis of Henry James' Novel Through the Lenses of Edwardian Performance

Exegesis, 2017

23 Pages, Grade: A


The Wings of the Dove: A Socio‐historical analysis of Henry James` novel through the lenses of Edwardian performance

A critical analysis of Henry James` novel with a particular emphasis on a dichotomy of Michael Trasks` and Slavoj Zizek`s interpretations through the concept of an Edwardian performance

To begin with, Michael Trask’s The Romance of Choice(1999) as an interpretation of James’ The Wings of the Dove is considerably more complex than Žižek's straightforward, yet slightly chaotic exploration of the infamous final scene between Kate and Densher. The underlying motif of Trask's essay is movements and dynamics related to the sociohistorical and cultural contexts of the early 1900s. Trask’s aims to connect the paradigm of new historicism with other minor paradigms such migration studies, rational choice theory, pragmatism, nativism and opportunistic behaviour. Trask highlights especially links between “moments and places” along with “chances and choices” function as catalysts for “the collapse of private into public”( Trask, 355 – 356). He further elaborates on the connection between “desire as a function of choosing”, which results in “slippery” and this approach is repeated throughout Trask’s essay countless times, when he quotes directly from The Wings of the Dove and connects it with “real historical referents” (Trask, 357‐358). Furthermore, Trask locates the source of drama and suspense in James’ books behind the synthesis of “chance, choice and mobility” working as an engine of The Wings of the Dove (358).

Significantly extended part of Trask’s article is dedicated to the status of immigrants and their role in reshaping the notion of “choice and risks” along with Densher’s similar status of the “stranger in the land” and possible implications for the rise of progressive middle‐class (Trasks, 361). As the essay itself progresses, Trask seem to be incorporating more and more topics such as possible connection between Kate’s elliptical face to the structure of the book itself and whole range of symbolisms linked to her name, which he suddenly abandons and focuses rather on James’ understanding of “Will to Believe”(Trask, 366).

The middle part of Trask's text is loaded with clear examples of "mobility" and "groundlessness" as it is implied by James' writing and choice of words to capture the essence of “the anxiety of groundlessness” (Trask, 371). By the end of his work, Trask suggests connection between dove‐like prey Milly and predators epitomised by Kate and Densher as an allegory to 1900s hypothetical scenarios of immigrants(aliens) taking control over the traditional culture (Trask, 375 – 380).

The entire paper is clearly written for experienced scholars with deep knowledge of James' life and even more profound knowledge of The Wings of the Dove, since Trask's frequent referencing to particular parts of the book with either single words or short phrases presumably operates with the notion that the reader is a seasoned aficionado of Henry James, who is simply able to connect subtle references to whole parts of the book by heart. However, Trask's essay does not bring any ground‐breaking ideas, and the content itself gives an impression of interesting, but not necessarily useful interpretation of the Wings of the Dove.

Despite the fact that it is undoubtedly exciting to explore interconnectedness of choice, belief, chance meeting and dynamics on both horizontal (migration) and vertical (class relations) axes, it does not answer primary questions related to e.g., Milly, Kate or Densher, but rather it discusses problematics that already discusses the book itself such as for instance Densher's British/Non‐British/Continental identity. In fact, the very notion of characters travelling from New York to Switzerland or From London to Venice and so forth speaks for the motif of dynamics and motion within the narrative as much as shifts in focalizations and therefore it is probably not necessary to shed light on the issue, which is quite well addressed by the book itself. Conversely, the greatest accomplishment of Trask’s article is undeniably a demonstration that concepts of “abysses”, “groundlessness” and “aloft” are connected and how these concepts manifest themselves in relation to characters of Milly Theale, Lord Mark and Kate Croy.

Conversely, Žižek's article is, in fact, a chapter from his book Lacan: The Silent Partners (2006), though the chapter had been reprinted in other “Critical Companions” and even appeared in another Žižek's book The Parallax View. Žižek's "Kate's Choice" is undeniably written more on the side of trying to show the application of Lacanian theory and few minor concept dealing mostly with a connection between ethics and materialism from a Marxist point of view. Žižek stays faithful to his reputation of Slovenian rock star of philosophy, and he accomplishes his common task of turning things upside down again in Kate's Choice when he concludes by putting Kate as the materialist and ethical hero of the book. One can immediately sense that there is something fishy going on there because Žižek staunchly defends his Lacanian turf against another scholar Sigi Jotkandt and thus Žižek indirectly places himself into the role of the supreme Lacanian authority.

The chapter starts with an awkward introduction since Žižek briefly introduces us to his rather lengthy thesis statement and suddenly abandons the topic altogether. The first half of the chapter discusses various topics, and Žižek uses the space to show the reader what is his place within the academia. Moreover, he simultaneously elaborates on various topics that are not necessarily connected to Wings of the Dove or Henry James with an expectation of introducing James as a writer coming from an upper class of the society, which indirectly prepares the battleground for Žižek's close reading of the last scene of Wings of the Dove. The paramount scene is carefully quoted with an insertion of small paragraphs analysing passages of the last conversation between Densher and Kate (Žižek, 133‐139). Besides, Žižek interweaves his close reading with parallels dealing with the Hitchcockian object and tries to depict the scene with the envelope as a sequence from suspense horror movie (Žižek, 134‐135).

Žižek presents set of interesting and well‐elaborated arguments supporting his initial claim that the real ethical hero of the novel can be only Kate due to her behaviour and consequent choice during the last scene of the book. The ethical map sketched for Kate’s decision is sketched by Žižek according to atheistic perspective, which denounces the possibility of Milly’s Dove‐like heroic “self‐sacrificial goodness” with strong Biblical underpinning (Žižek, 139, 143). Moreover, Žižek claims that the process of “losing the ethical substance” and thus opening up new space captures the ethical formula of James book perfectly since the loss of ethical substance should be seen as a positive opening (Žižek, 127). It is no surprise then, that Žižek teases the reader with possible interpretations of the “dove” ranging from classical reference to the 55the Psalm to a reading of Densher’s dove‐like desires as an attempt to “escape from everything”, but the true dove according to Žižek is Kate, who “stretched out her wings, covering Milly and Densher with her plot, and then, when Densher or money was at her disposal, turned to the door and left—refusing the choice, she leaves both behind, and flies away forever”(Žižek, 144).

Last, but not least the idea that the big Other or shared knowledge prevents the reestablishment of status quo between Kate and Densher is particularly interesting, though it remains mostly unexpanded in Žižek's text. It is evident that Žižek originally intended this chapter to be a part of the book dealing with Lacanian theories and therefore it would not be fair to evaluate Žižek’s take on Wings of the Dove as a standalone piece written specifically for journals of literary criticism. Žižek undoubtedly introduces fresh and provoking ideas throughout the text, but his conclusions are predominately based on close reading of only a handful of passages, which raises a question how well these theories hold together we confront them with different parts of the book? Event though, Žižek discusses various interesting topics related to Wings of the Dove, but his essay entitled Kate's Choice is not particularly helpful in elucidating the text of the whole book, since Žižek selection and scope of interest is too specific and therefore it does not say too much information about other places, characters or different focalizations. Hence, concerning wider theory dealing with the ethics of choice in Wings of the Dove, much is left to be desired.

The interpretation of a tragic love story presented in The Wings of the Dove juxtaposes plenty of stereotypes and tropes based on the interpretation of everyday interactions of individuals and more specifically the game, which is performed by those these individuals in both public and private space. Thanks to Henry James, we have a chance to explore his characters in an exceptionally rich story and to some extent non‐idealised presentation doing justice to complex characters such as Kate Croy, Merton Densher or Milly Theale. There is little doubt that James' beloved cousin Minny Temple is floating in the background of Milly's character, but there is an equally important presence of another woman, who was close to Henry James – Constance Fenimoor Woolson. Apparently, Woolson suicide was partly caused by James' series of excuses for not moving the villa in Venice hired by Woolson for her and James (Dix, Theoretical Paradigms – Class Notes ). Thus it does make sense to see Milly's character being composed of at least two layers since arguably the deeper and more conflicted one belongs to Constance Fenimoor Woolson.

Henry James insisted that writing should be based on personal experience and his frequent travels from the USA to European countries inspired him to portray the international theme and interactions of people from both continents as main pillars for his prose. James was especially successful in the form of narration that would follow the equally important conflict of character's consciousness and carefully reveal the reader only certain amount of facts, while intentionally omitting to tell the rest. We can juxtapose the narrator’s description of particular moments with character’s inner conflicts and thoughts to establish a space for interpretation of characters performance and their authenticity. This paper aims to provide a modest analysis of several key scenes of The Wings of the Dove by utilisation of theories developed by Herbert Mead and Ewing Goffman with an emphasis on concepts such as “Self”, “performance” and “game”. Hopefully, this analysis will help to solve the ambiguous questions surrounding major characters as a result of James’ use of impersonal narrative. The reader can observe these characters from various point of views, and different point of views are essential elements within Mead and Goffman's theories. The performance itself is shaped and adjusted by the society and other individuals as well, and therefore the quality of the authenticity of the performance relies equally on the shoulder of the performer and the audience's willingness to believe in such performance. The complex world of intrigues and charades from The Wings of the Dove provides us with fertile soil for the analysis of several key parts of the book and evaluation of major character’s performances in general.

Firstly, it is necessary to realise that chronology of narratives and their focus on a particular character such as Kate Croy, Milly Theale or Merton Densher is crucial for the initial establishment of reader’s level of empathy with abovementioned characters. Hence, the first book's narrative following Kate's point of view helps us to understand her financial 6 problems, complicated relationship with her father, who presumably violated the rules of the game by committing an unacceptable action against Victorian/Edwardian moral code (Trask, 357).


Excerpt out of 23 pages


"The Wings of the Dove". A Socio-Historical Analysis of Henry James' Novel Through the Lenses of Edwardian Performance
University College London
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Henry James, Wings, Dove, Edwardian, Zizek, Trask, Literature, English, Culture, Analysis, Novel
Quote paper
Dr. Martin Mares (Author), 2017, "The Wings of the Dove". A Socio-Historical Analysis of Henry James' Novel Through the Lenses of Edwardian Performance, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/505044


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