Study Guide

The Wings of the Dove The Dove

By Henry James

The Dove

The image of the dove appears in the book's title, but it's not until the character Milly Theale shows up that we start to get an explanation of what the dove symbolizes. Traditionally, the dove is a symbol of peace, and yeah, Milly is a pretty peaceful lady. Certainly compared to everyone else in the book, right? She's not, for example, engaged in violent acts of manipulation like everyone else is.

But when Kate Croy says to her, "Because you're a dove," (1.5.6.23) she also means that Milly is delicate, beautiful, and innocent. This would seem like a nice compliment, except that's not necessarily how Milly takes it. For her, a dove is also a bird that people keep in a cage in order to possess its beauty. Milly realizes that in her own life, older women like Maud Lowder and Susan Stringham try to control her and parade her around London like a trophy. As she realizes at one point: "That was what was the matter with her. She was a dove. Oh, wasn't she?—it echoed within her." (1.5.6.23).

Milly doesn't want to be a dove. She wants to be a strong, independent young woman, and she spends the rest of the novel trying to live life on her terms. But by the end of the book, it looks like the other characters have still decided to treat Milly as a symbol of delicacy and innocence. When Aunt Maud delivers the news of her death to Merton, for example, she reports that, "Our dear dove then […] has folded her wonderful wings." (2.10.3.9).

This comment shows that no matter how hard Milly tried to strike out on her own, she was always viewed as a passive, fragile young lady who was an innocent victim of life rather than someone who lived on her own terms. It's pretty sad. But then again, people like Aunt Maud would never be able to understand the whole "living life on (your) own terms," thing anyway.

And of course no discussion of the dove as a symbol would be complete without ye olde Biblical references. If you recall the story of Noah and The Flood, you'll remember that Noah let out a dove to go check out whether there was dry land anywhere. The dove came back with a leaf in its beak, letting Noah and company know that—hecky yeah!—there was dry land around.

What does this dove-as-early-GPS story have to do with Milly Theale? Lots and lots. Merton and Kate are figuratively adrift: they want to get married and have no way to do so. For Kate especially, the only way out of this sticky pickle is to get money. Cue the seduce Milly plot. Although this novel doesn't end on a happy note, the most happiness Merton and Kate get is arguably when there is the hope of marriage and money on the horizon.

Much like Noah's dove marks the point at which Noah can dare to hope of eventually finding dry land, Milly allows Merton and Kate the hope of having the financially stable marriage they've dreamed of.

"She Has Turned Her Face to the Wall"

Susan Stringham tells Merton that "(Milly) has turned her face to the wall," (2.9.3.1) after learning of his engagement to Kate Croy.

Merton is unfamiliar with this phrase, and he tries to get Susan to explain it. But all Susan will do is repeat it. When Merton asks if he can talk to Milly, Susan repeats the phrase again. And, even though he doesn't know what the phrase entirely means, he repeats it word-for-word when Kate Croy asks him for an update on how Milly is doing.

What we have going on here, in deft Jamesian style, is an allegory of an allegory. What's an allegory, you ask? Check it out in detail.

But if you want our quick n' dirty definition right here, right now, we got it. An allegory is a story with two layers, like a delicious cake. The first layer is the stuff that is going down in the plot. The second is tasty, tasty symbolism.

So what's going on when Susan tells Merton that Milly has turned her face to the wall? That's right: two things. 1) Milly is dying, and 2) Susan is using a well-known Biblical quote to describe her death.

A king named Hezekiah, who had seen all sorts of crazy stuff like the siege of Jerusalem, grew sick and learned he was dying. So he prayed, but because he was too weak to get up and kneel down, he just "turned his face to the wall" and prayed. And you know what? When he did this, God granted him fifteen more years of life. Ta-da!

Funnily enough, this typically Biblical story of deferred death has become shorthand for giving up and accepting death. We don't know for sure what Susan meant by telling Merton that Milly had "turned her head to the wall," but we can guess: Susan comes to Merton to beg him to tell Milly that he isn't engaged to Kate, because Susan assumes that a happy Milly will die more slowly than a sad Milly.

So she's giving Merton a very subtle clue: answer Milly's "prayers" and tell her that you love her, and you might just, in a major God-move, extend her life for fifteen years.

And Merton doesn't get it. He's like "Turned her what to the what-now?" And he doesn't lie to Milly about being engaged to Kate, and Milly dies, and that's all she wrote.

It's really telling that Susan and Milly are more well-versed in Bible quotes than Merton and Kate. One of Henry James's big interests was the difference between Americans and Europeans: he tended to paint Americans as upstanding, pious and slightly dull and Europeans as shady, less religious, and more cunning. This little "turned her face to the wall" bit is James's America vs. Europe in a nutshell.

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