Study Guide

The Wings of the Dove Themes

By Henry James

  • Mortality

    Even before The Wings of The Dove gives us proof that Milly is a goner, Milly just knows. She drops little hints in her conversations with her friend Susan, saying absentminded things like, "I wonder how much longer I'll be around…" At first, we dismiss these statements off as meaningless and maybe a tad emo.

    But once Milly starts visiting the doctor, we start to realize that this beautiful, rich young woman—who seems to have everything in life—is totally going to kick the bucket. Milly never feels sorry for herself in the face of death. Instead, she decides to meet death on her terms, which is a brave and awesome move.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. When do you think Milly first realizes that there's something seriously wrong with her? How does she react to the news?
    2. What does Sir Luke Strett mean when he tells Milly that living is something you choose to do, rather than something your body does on its own?
    3. According to the people surrounding Milly, why is her death especially tragic? What makes her life so worth living?
    4. What's the most important thing Milly should do before she dies, according to Sir Luke Strett? How does Maud try to help make this possible?

    Chew on This

    In The Wings of the Dove, Henry James shows us that living isn't a biological state; it's something you choose to do every single day.

    In The Wings of the Dove, the characters are just the pawns of fate. They have no personal control over what happens to them in the long run.

  • Family

    Family is no straightforward—or laughing—matter in The Wings of The Dove. For starters, Kate Croy has a terrible father, and, as a result, a cynical and self-interested view of the world. Milly Theale, on the other hand, has no family at all, which leaves her vast fortune up for grabs to any man who marries her. Aunt Maud and Susan Stringham are both widows, which causes both of them to invest all their happiness in controlling the young people in their lives. Throughout this book, people always seem to be compensating for the ideal family they lack. The problem is that, while they're compensating, these characters are usually busy meddling in other people's affairs.

    Questions About Family

    1. What do you make of the opening scene in the novel between Kate Croy and her father? What's their backstory and how does it set up Kate as a character for the rest of this book?
    2. How does the narrator explain the connection between Susan's being a childless widow and the interest she takes in Milly? Is it a healthy connection?
    3. What are the conditions that Aunt Maud gives Kate for giving her (Kate) money? Do you think they're fair conditions? Why or why not?
    4. What kind of family figure does Sir Luke Strett become in Milly's life? Why is the famous doctor so important to her?

    Chew on This

    In The Wings of the Dove, Henry James shows us that family is created by bonds of love, not bonds of blood.

    In The Wings of the Dove, we find that difficult family situations can leave emotional scars that never heal and hinder us from being the people we want to be.

  • Lies and Deceit

    The way different characters in The Wings of The Dove deal with deceit gives us some seriously solid insight into their personalities. Kate Croy, for example, has no problem deceiving Milly into marrying Merton so that Merton can get her dollars. For Kate, this is a win/win situation: Milly will get to feel loved before she dies and Merton will get her money.

    But Merton feels morally uncomfortable with lying—so uncomfortable that he simply can't do it even when a little white lie from him would allow Milly to die happily. His resistance to lying makes him kind of a jerk, and the ease with which Kate lies makes her a bit of a scumbag.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Do you think Merton does the right thing by refusing to deny his engagement to Kate in front of Milly, or should he just lie to make Milly happy before she dies? Why?
    2. Is Kate a bad person in your view, or do you agree with her "everybody wins" approach to having Merton marry Milly? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    3. When Milly deceives Susan about her visit to Sir Luke Strett (the doctor), does it establish Milly's newfound independence in a positive way? Or should we think of this as a negative development for Milly's otherwise good character?

    Chew on This

    The dominant moral of The Wings of the Dove is that honesty is always the best policy, no matter what.

    Ultimately, Merton is selfish for refusing to lie to Milly about loving Kate. If he were truly good, he'd overcome his lame conscience and do whatever it took to make Milly happy in her dying days.

  • Marriage

    Everyone wants to get hitched in The Wings of The Dove. Merton wants to marry Kate, Aunt Maud wants Kate to marry Lord Mark, and Milly wants to marry Merton. The only reciprocal relationship is Merton's and Kate's, which means that it's the one we're rooting for. As the plot unfolds, though, we learn that Merton marrying Milly might (ironically) be his only chance to marry Kate, since Milly will soon die and leave whoever her husband is a vast fortune. Merton, as you can imagine, takes the marriage oath very seriously, but his fianceé Kate is more than willing for him to fake it 'til she makes financial gain. We can understand a lot about the inner workings of characters' minds based on their attitudes towards marriage.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. In your opinion, should Merton just man up and marry Milly to get her money? Why or why not?
    2. Why is Kate so willing to let her fiancé marry another woman? What in the book helps explain her cynical and selfish approach to marriage?
    3. If Merton and Kate did get married, do you think it would work out? Why or why not? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    At the end of The Wings of the Dove, the reader is left thinking that marriage is all about happiness, and that Merton should have married Milly in order to give Milly, Merton and Kate maximum happiness.

    Merton is right to resist Kate's plan of him marrying Milly. Marriage isn't about anything practical or cynical. It's a symbolic form of love that shouldn't be messed with.

  • Appearances

    Characters in The Wings of The Dove spend a whole bunch of time people-watching. They also spend a bunch of time being watched. In a world where nobody seems to say what they mean, appearances often give the best insight into a person's character and motives. Everyone in this book is middle to upper class, meaning that they spend most of their time at dinner parties and in living rooms, sizing one another up from a distance. Yuck. Sometimes appearances are comforting and sometimes they're downright unsettling. And sometimes, just sometimes, they're totally misleading. That's when—for Henry James at least—things get interesting…

    Questions About Appearances

    1. On the whole, do appearances in this novel give us a good indication of what kind of people we're dealing with? Why or why not?
    2. What role does physical beauty play in the life of Milly Theale? Use specific evidence from the novel to support your answer.
    3. In what instances are people fooled by appearances in this book? Why are they fooled?

    Chew on This

    In The Wings of the Dove, we learn that there are few things more important than physical beauty.

    In The Wings of the Dove, Henry James shows us that appearances can often be deceiving, especially when people only see what they want to.

  • Gender

    Ah, the old "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" tune. When hasn't that been a favorite? The only thing more popular through the ages than a heterosexual love story is a heterosexual love story that sits back and speculates on just how different men and women are.

    Henry James, being awesomesauce, doesn't just sit back and let the narrator of The Wings of The Dove say "Whoa! Men and women are, like, not the same at all!" Instead, he uses a character's views on gender to tell you more about that character's understanding of gender. Because he's the master of (extensive) character-building, James approaches even sociological questions from a character's point of view. 'Attaboy, James. We like you.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Do you agree with any of the generalizations that characters in this book make about women and men? Which ones, and why? Please quote directly from the text to support your answer.
    2. At one point in the book, Kate feels like everything in her life would be much simpler if she were a man. Why does she think this?
    3. When Sir Luke Strett comes to Venice, Merton is happy to have an opportunity to hang out with a man for a change. Why is this the case? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In The Wings of the Dove, Henry James suggests that women are more interested in controlling the people around them than men are.

    In The Wings of the Dove, James suggests that women are in general much better at social observation and subtlety than men.

  • Society and Class

    If the Jeopardy answer is "Society and Class," the correct question would be "What is the main obstacle to Merton and Kate's happiness?" Aunt Maud will only be satisfied if Kate marries a man who is either rich or part of the British aristocracy—and Merton, unfortunately, is a poor nobody with no prospects of climbing the social ladder.

    It's also the necessity of getting Merton into the upper classes that leads Kate to encourage him to marry Milly. If you think of the action in The Wings of The Dove as a really depressing Rube Goldberg machine, the issue of society and class is the initial mechanism that starts the whole shebang running.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Do you think Aunt Maud has a point when she insists that Kate marry someone wealthy or upper class? Why or why not?
    2. What kind of comment does this book make about social class in general? Are all upper class people good? Are they bad? Or is it a mixed bag? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    3. How does Milly manage to confuse the expectations of the people in London? Even though she's rich, why are people confused about which social class she belongs in?
    4. Why have Aunt Maud and Susan Stringham grown distant over the years? Why does having Milly around make Susan feel better about seeing Maud again? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In The Wings of the Dove, we are supposed to admire people like Maud Lowder and Sir Luke Strett as positive examples of how wonderful the upper classes can be.

    In The Wings of the Dove, Henry James shows us that social class should never matter, and that true love should conquer all… even if sometimes it doesn't.

  • Youth

    The saying "Youth is wasted on the young" was not coined to describe Milly Theale. As Henry James says in his preface, The Wings of the Dove is mainly a story about the tragedy of a young woman being cut down in the prime of her life. Milly has everything to live for, but she's racing against the clock. The only thing she can do in this situation is to enjoy her life and her youth while it still lasts.

    That's exactly what she does, with the blessing of Sir Luke Strett. James' overall point seems to be that—whether we die young or die old—life is something we must choose to partake in. There are plenty of old people in this book, but are they able to say that they have lived and loved as passionately as Milly does in her short life? Probably not.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Why is it so important to this book for Milly Theale to be in her early twenties? How would the story be different, for example, if she were 45 years old?
    2. Does Milly mature significantly from the beginning of this book to the end? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    3. Do you find Susan Stringham's relationship to Milly predatory in any way? Or is she truly an altruistic person who wants what's best for Milly? Why?
    4. How does Milly cope with her illness? In your mind, does she show wisdom beyond her years or does she act the way you'd expect a young person to?

    Chew on This

    In The Wings of the Dove, James shows us that there is nothing more precious—or foolish—than youth.

    Henry James' The Wings of the Dove delivers one key message to us: seize the day while you're still young.