Study Guide

The Wings of the Dove Youth

By Henry James

Youth

The irrecoverable days had come back to her from far off; they were part of the sense of the cool upper air and of everything else that hung like an indestructible scent to the torn garment of youth. (1.3.1.11)

While travelling in Switzerland with Milly, Susan Stringham remembers making this same trip in her own youth. It actually becomes kinds of creepy, as we start to realize that Susan is living vicariously through Milly in order to compensate for the fact that she wishes she were young again.

"Hard things have come to you in youth, but you mustn't think life will be for you all hard things. You've the right to be happy." (1.5.3.38)

Susan tries to cheer Milly up about the fact that all of the girl's family has died out. Little does Susan know that everything in Milly's life will be hard from that point forward, because she's about to find out she's terminally ill. There's a terrible irony here, as Susan is trying to look toward the future with hope, even though Milly doesn't have much of a future ahead of her.

"You don't see it, but she has clutched your petticoat. You can do anything—you can do, I mean, lots that we can't." (1.5.6.19)

Kate directly tells Milly that Susan Stringham is just riding her coattails because she's beautiful and young and everyone wants to be around her. On top of that, Milly can do absolutely anything she wants because she's totally rich. But again, this comes before the realization that Milly will soon die.

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)

Milly knows that everyone sees her as an innocent young girl. But partway through this book, she becomes determined not to let people push her around or treat her like a kid anymore. She takes control of her own life by visiting her doctor on her own terms and going out into public whenever she wants. She's tired of old, envious women telling her what to do and trying to live vicariously through her.

Milly felt, he could see, the difference; he might as well have praised her outright for looking death in the face. (2.9.1.50)

Merton is never supposed to show any knowledge of Milly's terminal illness in front of her. But he keeps slipping up by trying to compliment her on how brave she's being. Eventually, he realizes that his compliments are actually very painful for her, because they remind her of what she's being brave in the face of—you know, her own impending death. If Milly had it her way, she'd just talk to Merton about pleasant things like love.

"She doesn't want to die. Think of her age. Think of her goodness. Think of her beauty." (2.9.3.36)

Well of course Milly doesn't want to die. Few people do. But Milly has tons to live for, including her beauty, money, and charm. Unfortunately, the whole "Oh, no! Not Milly!" sentiment starts to suggest that Milly's life is worth more than the lives of people who aren't as rich or as beautiful as she is.

"Think of all she is. Think of all she has. She lies there stiffening herself and clinging to it." (2.9.3.36)

Like Maud Lowder, Susan Stringham tends to see in Milly everything that she lacks in her own life. Youth, beauty, money: you name it. People like Susan are very sympathetic toward Milly, but their sympathy is always connected to their own insecurities. Milly has everything that Susan wants in her own life. For this reason, seeing the poor girl lose all of it affects Susan on a very deep, personal level. It's like Susan feels the loss even more than Milly.

"Satisfied to die in the flower of her youth?" (2.10.1.175)

It's downright insulting to suggest that Milly Theale could ever be "satisfied" with the way her life has turned out. After all, the girl is dying in the freaking "flower of her youth." Then again, maybe it's a blessing that she won't have to grow old and mourn her lost youth the way that the rest of James' characters seem to do.

What deeply stirred her [Aunt Maud] was the way the poor girl must have wanted to live. (2.10.2.10)

Aunt Maud understands social class and cash more than she understands anything else, which is why she can be especially sympathetic to Milly's predicament. Of course, the girl is young and has her whole life ahead of her. But what strikes Maud as even sadder is that Milly won't live to enjoy all of her fantastic wealth.

"Our dear dove then, as Kate calls her, has folded her wonderful wings." (2.10.3.9)

This is one of the nicest sentences in the entire book, and it informs Merton that Milly Theale has passed away. Like a beautiful dove, Milly has floated through people's lives as a delicate and beautiful presence. But now, she has peacefully died and has left behind her a legacy of kindness. In her youth, Milly is really a symbol of innocence and goodness in this novel. She never grows old enough to be jaded, and in this sense, her death allows her to remain forever young. Let's listen to Milly's song.