Friday, May 5, 2017

more to the proof than tenderness and vagueness could permit - some of the abysses of The Wings of the Dove

The Wings of the Dove is built out of distances and gaps.  James approaches the central characters, the central story, from a distance, and then backs away from it just as he appears about to show it clearly.  The first chapter is a confrontation between the beautiful, troubled Kate Croy and her worthless father – he gambles, maybe, or drinks, or smuggles cigarettes, or fixes boxing matches; James never specifies – is given plenty if life but then never appears again.  He is barely mentioned again until the end of the book, and never appears because, apparently, he likes to sleep late.  He is memorable, is what I am trying to say, and gets a lot of artistic attention from Henry James, and is then tossed aside.  That is not the story.  It looks like it might be, but it is not.

Milly Theale, the young, rich, orphaned American with tuberculosis or cancer or circulatory collapse, or whatever she has – James never specifies – appears at the 20% mark, accompanied by Mrs. Stringham, and more to my point viewed by Mrs. Stringham.  The companion is a lady writer from Boston who is absolutely incapable of conveying even the simplest information directly.  The first view she gives me of Milly is of her taking in a Swiss “view of great extent and beauty, but thrown forward and vertiginous,” seated on “a short promontory or excrescence that merely pointed off to the right at gulfs of air” (3.1).  It is the first of the many “abysses” confronted by Milly, a motif that is built into a structural principle.

Milly takes over the novel for a while, and I found her personal story of high interest.  She confronts death more directly than I remember from much other James fiction.  She is a version of Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, wondering how she can really live, insisting that she can, in the face of what is likely a short life.  At the edge of this first abyss, Mrs. Stringham wonders if Milly is contemplating suicide, but thinks instead “[i]t was a question of taking full in the face the whole assault of life.”

Why wonder, why speculate?  Much of the novel is from Milly’s point of view, including much pure thought.  And then she is, essentially, a ghost, a hovering presence over the other characters.  She becomes, in her absence, the subject of the last part of the novel.  James creeps up on her introduction and then slips away from her exit, going so far as to create plotty obstacles – messages thrown into fires and so on – to ensure that Milly’s point of view about the later events of the novel cannot be known.

I mean, they could be known.  Who is in charge here?

Milly's assumption was immense, and the difficulty for her friend [Mrs. Stringham] was that of not being able to gainsay it without bringing it more to the proof than tenderness and vagueness could permit. (7.1)

The reference is to Milly’s illness.  Mrs. Stringham appears to have the moral high ground here.  “Tenderness and vagueness” are moral principles in The Wings of the Dove.


  1. I've enjoyed these posts on Wings of the Dove. I read it some time ago, so it's faded in my memory. I picked up my Penguin Classics edition and found a random passage I'd highlighted, that chimes a little with what you've been saying. Densher has just met Kate in London, and the plot is beginning to hatch against Milly. He sees Kate off in a cab and 'he stood a while by the corner and looked vaguely forth at his London. There was always doubtless a moment for the absentee recaptured -- THE moment, that of the reflux of the first emotion...His full parenthesis was closed, and he was once more but a sentence, of a sort, in the general text that, from his momentary street corner,showed as a great grey page of print that somehow managed to be crowded without being 'fine'. The grey, however, was more or less the blur of a point of view not yet quite seized again; and there would be colour enough to come out.'
    This is prose as densely packed as poetry. The metaphors of theatre that appear elsewhere are replaced here by those of 'text', colour, even punctuation. I must re-read it and rediscover it.

  2. Prose trying to do what poetry does - in James's own way, with different ideas about what poetry does, but much like Flaubert and a number of subsequent writers.

    The "text" metaphors caught my attention. Maybe I'll write about that. The quotation you give is a perfect sample of this novel.

  3. I may be an insensate clod, but I find it hard to see how vagueness could be a moral principle. Perhaps that is why I have trouble with James.

  4. Anita Brookner in her Paris Review interview described James's hesitations as the secular equivalent of religious obligations.

  5. It is, at times, maddening. In Wings, the representative episode is Milly's illness. If James just wanted to avoid the issue because it is vulgar, or because he did not feel he had the expertise to write about it convincingly, he could have hidden it easily. But instead he devotes a great deal of space and plot, moving characters around, to make sure that the characters do not know what the illness is - including the one who has the illness!

    And if there is a hint that this makes the characters crazy in some way, I missed it. In the novel's terms, they are doing the right thing.

    Brookner is insightful about James, but I guess she has absorbed his writing like few others have.

  6. Certainly James, for Brookner, can do no wrong!

  7. I just read this TLS review of Megan Quigley's Modernist Fiction and Vagueness, which sounds like it might be worth investigating:

    “Impressions are experience”, Henry James reckons in “The Art of Fiction” (1884), with a matter-of-factness that makes the indistinct sound equal to the self-evident. But what does it mean to equate visceral experience so confidently with the phenomenological fuzziness of perception? Perhaps the insistent tenor of James’s claim about ephemeral sensations befits the literary aesthetic it both requires and endorses.

    Paradoxes of this kind remained creatively fruitful for modernist fiction, suggesting literary affinities with philosophy’s shifting propositions about language. It is this connection which provides the premiss of Megan Quig­ley’s deeply engaging book, Modernist Fiction and Vagueness, in which she reads Charles S. Peirce alongside Henry and William James, places Bertrand Russell beside Virginia Woolf, and uses Wittgenstein and C. K. Ogden as lenses through which to view the work of James Joyce. What develops is more than a study in intellectual influence or conceptual coincidence.

  8. Yes, that is perfect. Maybe some answers there.