Study Guide

The Wings of the Dove Gender

By Henry James

Gender

There was a minute during which, though her eyes were fixed, she quite visibly lost herself in the thought of the way she might still pull things round had she only been a man." (1.1.1.3)

Early in the book, Kate thinks that she might have been able to save her family if she'd been a man. Had she been a man, she could have gotten a job and supported her family. Maybe she could have even kept her mom from dying. But in 1902, it was very difficult for a young woman to find a job that could support a family. Her father's desertion basically meant that the rest of them were doomed financially.

The hitch here, of course, was that, with whatever beauty, her sister, widowed and almost in want, with four bouncing children, was not a sensible value. (1.1.1.6)

D-bag Lionel Croy really has a thing about his daughters' "sensible value." Kate's poor sister Marian is a widow with four kids, but instead of feeling sympathy for her, Lionel considers her worthless. Marian's value as a woman is gone because it's unlikely that a rich guy is going to want to smooch/marry her.

She had seen the general show too early and too sharply, and she was so intelligent that she knew it and allowed for that misfortune; therefore when, in talk with him, she was violent and almost unfeminine, it was almost as if they had settled, for intercourse, on the short cut of the fantastic and the happy language of exaggeration. (1.2.1.23)

James' narrator suggests here that Kate was exposed to too many harsh social realities too early in her life. This has caused her to have a sharpness that the book describes as "unfeminine." Merton seems to tolerate this aspect of Kate's personality, but it doesn't make life any easier for him.

He wouldn't grovel perhaps—he wasn't quite ready for that; but he would be patient, ridiculous, reasonable, unreasonable, and above all deeply diplomatic. (1.2.2.1)

Merton isn't all that interested in begging Aunt Maud to let him marry Kate… but he'll do everything but grovel. He still has a bit of pride, but he's prepared to be "ridiculous" for the sake of love.

"There are refinements—!" she more patiently dropped. "I mean of consciousness, of sensation, of appreciation," she went on. "No," she sadly insisted—"men don't know. They know, in such matters, almost nothing but what women show them." (1.2.2.62)

Kate sometimes gets frustrated with how naïve Merton is about reading social cues. He, for example, takes nearly the entire book to understand that Kate is trying to get him to marry Milly in order to collect her money when she dies. It could be that Merton is just a clueless guy. But on the other hand, it could be that the reason Mert's so naïve is that he's always giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Lone women, however reinforced by a travelling-library of instructive volumes, were apt to be beguiled and undone. (1.3.1.1.)

Susan is a little worried about travelling with Milly through Europe, because she doesn't think all that highly of women's sense of direction. She's particularly concerned that without a man around, they won't be able to read their travel books properly and will get lost. Ugh. Get out of the dark ages, Susie.

That was what was the matter with her. She was a dove. Oh, wasn't she?—it echoed within her as she became aware of the sound, outside, of the return of their friends. (1.5.6.23)

When Kate calls Milly a "dove," Milly is flattered at first. But the longer she thinks about it, the more she realizes that "dove" translates to "typical timid female." Milly is peeved, and decides to act in an unfeminine manner by deceiving the people around her and going out into public alone whenever she wants. Get it, gurl.

"The women one meets—what are they but books one has already read? You're a whole library of the unknown, the uncut." (2.6.4.119)

Merton seems to think that all women are the same. But he thinks that Kate is completely different, that she's deeply interesting. That's pretty romantic. There's a sad irony to this, because Kate believes that everyone is essentially superficial.

"[We're] widows and orphans. But I think [...] that we shall not be unattractive, as we move, to gentlemen. When you talk of 'life' I suppose you mean, mainly, gentlemen." (2.7.2.36)

When Sir Luke asks Milly if she'll be doing a lot of "living" during her trip to Venice, he's actually asking whether there will be any men in her life. Bow chicka bow bow! Luke, you see, wants Milly to fall in love before she dies. Milly gets the message loud and clear, but admits that she'll only be traveling with three other women. Little does she know that her crush, Merton Densher, is going to tag along on the trip.

There had been, in all the case, too many women. A man's sense of it, another man's changed the air. (2.9.4.9)

Merton is pumped that Sir Luke Strett has come to Venice, if only because it gives him the chance to get some much-missed bro-time. He has spent nearly this entire book getting bossed around by women, and he feels like it's high time he spent some QT with a guy. Sure, Lord Mark has been around, but Merton is too smart to think that Lord Mark is cool.