Study Guide

The Wings of the Dove Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

By Henry James

Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

The Quest

The Call

The force that "calls" Merton Densher is the same force that has called upon the heroes of stories for as long as anyone can remember: love. Merton loves Kate Croy. He believes that, truly, all you need is love, and he will do anything to marry her.

But Kate's rich and micro-managing Aunt Maud forbids Kate and Merton from ever marrying, because he's poor. Merton doesn't know what to do other than try to get Aunt Maud to like him and to quit being such a classist rhymes-with-witch. We imagine that he spends a lot of time sighing, looking out at the rain, and writing really cheesy love poetry to Kate.

The Journey

James lays on the dramatic irony extra thick when it comes to Merton's journey: the poor dude doesn't even know that he's taking a journey. When the rich and terminally ill Milly Theale shows up in London, she does so with a huge crush on Merton. Merton's ego is totally boosted (Milly is a babe), but he still plans on going about his normal life. All he wants to do is marry Kate, and he plans on continuing his top secret Mission Suck Up To Aunt Maud.

He doesn't realize that Kate is trying to manipulate him into seducing Milly so that he can marry her and inherit her fortune when she dies. For Kate, this is the only hope she and Merton have of overcoming their main obstacle—Aunt Maud. Aunt Maud is trying to get Kate to marry a certain fancypants Lord Mark. During a series of dinners, parties, and dinner parties, Kate tries to arrange for Merton to have all the opportunity he needs to seduce Milly. Merton, however, has some serious moral problems with what they're doing. Good call, Mert. You're a-ok.

Arrival and Frustration

The relationship between Merton and Kate gets a little bumpy once they both follow Milly to Venice. This vacation may sound idyllic (she's renting a freaking palace) but it's also clearly her dying wish to spend time in Italy. That puts a damper on things.

And Merton is becoming less thrilled by the day about Kate's seedy seduce-this-soon-to-be-dead-girl plot. So Merton does something a little seedy himself: he tells Kate that if she wants him to go on with the plot, she needs to have sex with him. Blackmail sex: gross. But Kate comes to his rooms and they go at it.

Once Kate and Maud have returned to England, Milly wants to visit Merton in his rooms. She's casting aside all that Edwardian-era innocence and wants to live life fully. But Merton finds that he just can't bring himself to invite Milly over to his rooms because of the memory of Kate.

Shortly after rejecting Milly's attempts to come over, he finds out that a jerk named Lord Mark has come to Italy and told Milly about Merton's secret engagement to Kate. The news makes Milly's illness take a turn for the worse, and she begins her slow descent toward death. Merton has the opportunity to make things right by denying that he's engaged, but again, his inconvenient moral compass keeps him from lying. Everything looks totally messed up at this point. Milly is going to die sad and lonely, and Merton will never be able to marry Kate.

The Final Ordeals

Back in London, Merton hears that Milly has passed away. He continues to hate himself. Then he receives a letter on Christmas Eve informing him that—despite his lies and deception—Milly has left him the largest part of her huge fortune.

Now for most people, this would be great news. But not for Merton, who feels terrible about being rewarded for being a terrible person. Instead of taking the money and marrying Kate, he presents Kate with a choice. She can marry him, but he'll refuse to take the money; or she can refuse to marry him and he'll give her all the money. It's him or the money, but not both.

The Goal

At this point in a Quest story, like in The Lord of the Rings Triology, you usually have things wrapping up nicely because the goal has been achieved. If this were your standard paint-by-numbers quest, Merton would sweep Kate off her feet and carry her to the new mansion he just bought with all his newfound wealth.

But that's not the case here, because Henry James, like Homey D. Clown, don't play that. James doesn't care about the standard Quest rubric, because James is a force to be reckoned with and cared more about changing the rules of literature than playing by them.

In the end, we don't actually learn what Kate's answer to Merton's ultimatum is. After all, that would make this story a little too predictable for Henry James' taste. James tended to prefer stark, realistic endings to ones that make us feel all warm and fuzzy. Life doesn't always offer closure, dear Shmooper, and James believed that books should be an accurate reflection of life.

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