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
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?
Does Milly mature significantly from the beginning of this book to the end? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
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?
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.