Jamesian Delineation and Technique in The Wings of the Dove

Any critical analysis of a Henry James work must eventually, whether we wish it or not, address the famous Jamesian style – one in which the reader is treated to complex sentence structures, a reluctance on the author’s part to state anything directly, and a rigidity often described by critics as difficult or unnecessary.  His good friend and contemporary Edith Wharton went so far as to call some of his later work “incomprehensible.”    This use of numerous qualifying phrases, stated or implied negatives, with deferred verbs and clouds of adverbs does little to change the impression that reading and analyzing a James work is, at best, a difficult task.  Also, when one considers many of his most popular novels involve entering into the deep consciousness of his main characters, the reader is faced with a challenging proposition.  That James uses point of view in such a way is to say that he sticks us headfirst into long streams of consciousness and internal monologue as he introduces us to his characters.  Far from simply describing them with prose, or using passages of dialog to familiarize us with them, he manipulates language into a means of characterization with lengthy passages of narrative.  And while this technique points to his unmatched ability as a dramatist, this subtle wordplay also creates differences in character and in their attitudes – which in turn affects both theme and plot.   As you can see, use of language as a way to delineate character is a major tool for James – from the way he manipulates grammar to how he forms paragraphs.  In his novel The Wings of the Dove, James is at his consummate best by granting us access into his characters’ individual consciousnesses and challenging us to jump right in.  The purpose then, of my analysis, is to take this specific work and examine it in terms of how James achieves this goal. 

How exactly does he manipulate language to one, develop interesting and robust characters, and secondly intertwine them into a successful story with strong themes and meanings?  How does he achieve then, as he states in his Preface to the 1909 New York Edition of the novel, “the indirect presentation of his main image?”  The answer may not be quickly or easily reached, but there are examples in the text that illustrate certain techniques.  Among these are his introductions into each of the main characters’ consciousness, how he chooses to let a reader into this internal monologue, and by his skillful use of omission.  In terms of this last technique, we will see that sometimes James conveyed a stronger message by leaving out descriptive narrative to depict elements of plot and theme.  To bolster our argument that James was a master of this unique style of language, Kathleen Komar’s critical essay “Language and Character Delineation in The Wings of the Dove” will be used as a primary source.  Additionally, other critical analyses will be used as secondary sources. 

Most importantly, as we begin a discussion on character and language, we must look at how the characters are introduced to us.  Or, at least in the case of Henry James, how we are introduced to and given access into their minds.  For this particular novel, there are three main characters into which we gain such access.  Chronologically, we meet Kate Croy, Merton Densher, and Milly Theale – and thus begins our journey into the depths of their consciousness.  To start off with, Kate Croy “waited”.  The very first sentence of the novel, “She waited, Kate Croy…for her father to come in…”  It is interesting and crucial for James to introduce us to the character of Kate not based on her personality or to even tell us much about her personality, but to give us the introduction in the form of her function.  In other words, he puts his verb before the subject, so that we see Kate first as someone who “waits.”  Komar contends in her essay, and it is supported in the text as well, that Kate’s identity takes a secondary position to her own primary function of preserving her family by “actively waiting” on things.  In my personal opinion while studying the novel, I never thought of a traditionally passive verb such as “to wait” as being associated with action.  Here is an excellent example of Jamesian technique – linking an assumedly passive verb into a character who is shaped by her activity level – in particular, the activity she puts forth in hatching her curious plot against Milly.  Evidence from our text shows that Kate waited on her father in the opening passage; she waited on Densher to return from America, she waits for her Aunt Maud’s approval, and for Densher to accept her plan.  She also waits to see what Milly may or may not bequest to Densher, and she ultimately waits for Milly’s death.  For Kate’s character then, waiting becomes more active than passive, and depicts a special determination.  When evaluating her motivations throughout the course of the novel, this sense of activity becomes paramount to her character. 

From this, James paints Kate as functionary instead of personality-based.  Since we learn also from the text that she has several motivating factors – not the least of which is her desire to escape from the environment depicted in her father’s squalor at the novel’s outset – it is not unusual that James chooses to create her in this manner.  This is what Komar calls the “dangers of degeneration”, and I feel like Kate must avoid them at all cost.  Therefore, it should be no surprise that we are thrown into her consciousness even before we know much about her physical description.  Another point to be made here is whether or not James uses these key elements in Kate’s debut to confuse the reader or to clarify his depiction of her.  Komar contends it is simply because they are unusual that they stand out so well against traditional character development.  Secondarily, the fact that James announces Kate as “violent and almost unfeminine” seems less important in comparison to her action-oriented character.  As the novel progresses into Book Second, we meet the second of the three main characters, Kate’s fiancé Merton Densher.

Densher is introduced to us, not by function – as Kate was – but directly, with his name front and center from the outset of Book Second as the object of interest.  The opening sentence of this Book reads:

“Merton Densher, who passed the best hours of each night at the office of his newspaper, had at times, during the day, to make up for it, a sense, or at least an appearance, of leisure, in accordance with which he was not infrequently to be met in different parts of the town at moments when men of business are hidden from the public eye.”


Once the Jamesian style is analyzed and the “fluff” removed, the sentence can be better read and comprehended as “Merton Densher had a sense of leisure.”  Differing greatly from Kate’s inclusion into the story, James presents Densher’s personality as in a sense of inactivity by using difficult qualifying phrases and clauses.  The difference in style here is evident when you compare it to the novel’s opening sentence, which leads with a verb.  Whereas the functionary Kate actively “waits”, Densher is viewed as a passive spectator by noting his work at the newspaper and the concept of leisure.  Using Komar’s words, James actually “reveals the quality of consciousness of his characters through language”.  To me, this is amazing literary skill and detail of craft.  Of course, a reader can get lost in the words and the difficult, long paragraphs.  But the beauty of the Jamesian style is that it means something; something that we can see in real relationships with real people in our real lives.  Some people are defined by what they do in life, their actions, and some are framed by what they are.  Henry James realized this, and used amazing wordplay to edify (in my opinion) his characterizations of these complex players.  To vary the language and grammatical structure to reveal character differences in context is, quite simply, literary genius.

As we delve deeper into Merton Densher’s character development, it is important to note the physical description James creates for him.  We see him as “longish”, “leanish”, and “fairish” – all very non-specific terms.  This picture of him is full of qualification and shows him neither as “extraordinary nor abnormal”.  Because of this non-specificity, we get the idea that his own character may somehow be in parallel with this concept.  The fact that Julie Olin-Ammentorp labels him as “marginally masculine” speaks volumes to James’s ability to create in Densher such an alternative male entity.  In her article “A Circle of Petticoats:  The Feminization of Merton Densher”, she implies that James uses these differences in language to strongly contrast Kate and Densher.  This goes perhaps even to the strongest degree of contrast, in that the characters assume many stereotypical roles associated with the opposite gender.  We see Kate in the typical masculine, assertive role; while Merton Densher represents the more feminine, or “conspicuous consumption” persona.    As the novel progresses, we see proof in the language that this is extremely potent use of grammar – especially in the fact that the morally-conflicted Densher exerts no will of his own, and seems to have the ability to rationalize his actions and his ultimately doomed relationship with Milly.  The language also brings to the surface the knowledge that Densher is a very different character from Kate, and serves the juxtaposition well.  Whereas Kate has very strong motivations, Densher seems to have no sense of urgency or “discomfort in his situation.”  Contrast this with what Komar calls Kate’s situation of “urgent suspense”, and the difference is clear – all due to James’s linguistics.  As the plot unfolds, we also see Densher’s malleability in the fact he knowingly participates in Kate’s lie, but does nothing to stop it.  Kate, by contrast, is characterized by suspenseful verbs:  she “waited”, “remained”,” took a brief stand”, “continued to wait”, “showed herself”,” looked”, “tasted”, “felt the room”, and she “felt the street.”  James even goes so far as to expound (via Kate’s consciousness) that she has thoughts about “the way she might still pull things round had she only been a man.”  This manipulation of language by James establishes subjective attitudes and motivations.  It is also highly important to keep in mind as we enter the consciousness of the third main character, Milly Theale, and how the relationships are defined by the former’s actions towards her.

The technique of using grammar continues with Milly’s consciousness and its introduction, in that it differs so much from both of the other characters.  Starting with Book Fourth, we see her psyche introduced not with her function (like Kate), or her personality (as in Densher’s case), but with one of James’s favorite and descriptive words, “It.”  The passage begins:

“It had all gone so fast after this that Milly uttered but the truth nearest to hand in saying to the gentleman on her right…”

In studying Wings, I noticed “it” was used almost as frequently as the word “everything”, pointing again to James’s vagueness – another example of his “exasperating” use of language for the modern and everyday reader.  But as we meet Milly and her inner monologue in Book Fourth, we are already inundated (perhaps too much?) into the consciousnesses of Kate Croy and Merton Densher.  Personally, I don’t think this is unintentional.  We have to know what is going on inside the psyche of Kate and her fiancé.  James is, in a very real way, almost required to form these characters in terms of their inner thoughts and desires.  We have to know their personalities, motivations, circumstances, situational conditions, and the basic framework of their lives to fully understand how Milly’s inclusion into this triangle is going to form and establish itself.  Honestly, James’s use of “it” was confusing to me at first – what was “it” referring to?  Komar contends it creates a “flurry or blur”, representing a sense of fleeting and passing time.  It is interesting also to note that later in the passage above, there is a reference to Milly’s physical location in the room (something literally evident to the reader), but James’s implication is that emotionally and mentally, “she scarce knew where she was.”  This could be, and probably is, conducive to the fact Milly’s consciousness is not stable – possibly due, in my opinion, to her emotional state (dealing with a serious illness and thoughts of dying).  Additionally, when Milly’s consciousness (based on idealistic chivalry and romance) meets the reality of the external world (lies and deceit created by greed), that is when her character famously “turns her face to the wall”.  In an essay by Sheila Teahan entitled “The Abyss of Language in The Wings of the Dove”, this was the renunciatory act that gave the “angel” figure of Milly her Christological, or Christ-like, attributes.  This creates the causal relationship that results in Densher’s redemption.  The irony in this Christ vision and the concept of renouncing anything is that it is exactly this renunciation that causes the eventual dissolution of Kate and Densher as a couple.  In my eyes, Milly comes to represent the definite center of attention and the “truth”.  In a novel like this, when a major theme is the confliction between right and wrong in terms of Kate’s plot for Milly’s money, Milly’s character stands out as this symbolic representation of truth and honesty.  To borrow a moniker from one of our earlier Wharton works, Milly represents innocence. 

In Komar’s mind, James has placed Milly in the position of owning an absorbing consciousness upon whom the rest of the consciousnesses flood.  In this capacity, she is referred to as both an absorbing consciousness and an imaginative creator.  My own interpretation of this analysis is that her perception of what is actually happening differs slightly in the truth.  Or more simply put, I think her consciousness thinks one thing while something completely different is being played out upon her.  The question then becomes what does all this prove, if anything?  For a critical reader of James, I think it proves everything!  It gives us the tacit understanding that James isn’t typical in his narrative style, and with such a novel of consciousness, how can he be?  His techniques are designed to give the reader a different view of the story from a psychological angle, and he does indeed use language to delineate (as our title allows us insight), or describe, character.  The interesting part to understand, to me, is that he doesn’t do it by character dialogue – although this is a useful and popular way to write.  Instead of delineating character by long passages of dialogue, he does it by lengthy passages of narration – which not only point to his skills as a dramatist, but also to the fact that he is able to structure such powerful characters out of “thoughts” instead of words or deeds.  So in effect, it isn’t the characters use of language, but his own, in terms of describing them.  This is the method by which we are granted access into each character’s individual consciousness – and for a very long time, sometimes forced to remain there. 

It is possible to believe that in a novel of consciousness such as this, it would be easy to understand the depths of each character, but James (in my opinion) has many layers.  He himself talks about reading between the lines, a process he said was “one of the most interesting pursuits in the world…of the best literature.”  And as Komar concludes her essay, I agree with her completely on her final point – if James’s novels are the do-it-yourself type, or rather the perceive-it-yourself type in terms of becoming “attuned” to James’s potential meaning, then his novels provide “an incredibly detailed set of directions.”  My personal analysis of this statement is that I couldn’t agree more.  His detail speaks for itself within the first few pages of the novel.  As he describes Lionel Croy’s surrounds, we get a “sense of the slippery and of the sticky”, a “shabby sofa”, and “glazed cloth”.  With a “centre-piece wanting in freshness”, and a “vulgar little room” overlooking a “vulgar little street”, we can see James’s use of detail early on.  This is the style we see throughout the novel, which edifies his themes of consciousness.  By providing such detail, we become conditioned to look for clues along the way, especially in instances where he leaves things out.  This brings me to another point in terms of James’s skill in using language – most notably what he left out.

Again, I do not believe that this was unintentional – but it is vitally important to note in any study of Jamesian technique, and that is his technique of omission.  Quite prominently, he leaves out of the novel two of the most important central events, sex and death.  Specifically, the consummation of Kate Croy and Merton Densher’s affair and Milly’s death occur during breaks in the narrative.  As he must be implying, these events elude representation.  For they must, if he was to intentionally omit them, be of the same unspeakable make-up.  Milly’s illness was, throughout the novel, an unspeakable condition – one that I personally wasn’t expecting to be completely revealed by the novel’s end.  I was even less sure that James would describe her death, in which he proved me correct.  This technique speaks to the fact that James is telling us “something” by telling us “nothing.”  Sheila Teahan also brings up the excellent point that the “unspeakable-ness” of Milly’s illness and death parallel the fact that Lionel Croy’s indiscretions as a husband and a father go unnamed as well.  In the fact that Milly was sick, and that Kate’s father did represent the element of irresponsibility, that is all we need to know in Jamesian fiction.  Here, the details are irrelevant.  Once the character is developed, especially by techniques I have described to this point, James saw no real reason to expound on these details.  There is power, to me, by using omission in literature; as much as what is said (or implied, or reached – in James’s case – after removing some of the “fluff”). 

A few other elements of this Jamesian style need to be addressed before concluding this analysis.  One is his use of alliteration in various passages throughout the novel.  For example, the phrase, “first full sense of a situation really romantic.”  This particular phrase and the alliteration that comprises it, gives the passage a fairy-tale, or nursery rhyme feel.  Not coincidentally, this coincides with James’s intention of coloring Susan Stringham as a fairy-godmother type.  Susan is also held up to this alliterative standard by this Jamesian prose, “Susan Stringham still sitting up,” in which consecutive “-s” sounds are all strung together.  This is a precursor to the introduction into Milly’s consciousness at the outset of Book Fourth, and what Komar calls a “fairy-tale-like” scene.  Earlier, I talked about Milly Theale and how she represented goodness and truth.  This depiction of her as fairy-tale princess, with the doting fairy godmother, lavish riches, and a core nature (ability) to bequeath, fits nicely with James’s use of the alliterative tool.  Again, we see his use of the English language in spectacular ways and tremendous technique.

Another point to ask ourselves as critics is whether or not Henry James was intentional in his “un-readability.”  Was his intent to tell us a story, or to literally investigate the depths of human consciousness?  How much was he influenced by his brother William’s work in the field of psychology?  Was he personally (maybe selfishly?) being vague with long, undulating passages of prose, or was it a necessary technique for this type of novel?  Empirically, there is little textual evidence to point us either way.  But as both a reader and a critic, I think there was a subtle mixture of both.  Based on the text itself, there is little doubt that The Wings of a Dove is a tough novel to tackle and digest.  It can become increasingly frustrating when trying to pare down James’s complex sentences to their root meaning.  However, I think what he has done is intentionally make this type of novel a little more difficult (in terms of syntax) based on the complexities of the human mind.  Referencing the Preface to his 1909 New York Edition again, James reflexively admits to his “having to sound here and there a little deep.”  My interpretation of this is that he intentionally has to be complex in order to illustrate the concept of complexity, something a novel of consciousness certainly has to contain.  Certainly, his work on Wings accomplished this goal.

In conclusion, I think it is evident that James has created a valuable work in The Wings of the Dove.  His use of language to delineate his characters – and more specifically – his ability to deliver us inside their consciousness, is a rare thing.  Language, and our love of it, is really what drew me to this topic, and generated such interest.  Words and grammar can formulate so many different things, and I think Henry James – despite some critics’ efforts to tear him down and label him as “un-readable”, did two things.  One, he made us think; and to a real extent, made his readers feel the points of view of his incredibly shaped characters.  He made us feel what they felt and think what they thought.  Secondly, he introduced us into the novel of consciousness like nobody else – most specifically in the identifiable forms of Kate Croy, Merton Densher, and Milly Theale.  These characters not only built the triangular theme around which the novel centers, they also represented what was quintessentially Jamesian.  By this I mean we learn of them not through their own mouths, but through their internal thoughts, ideas, motivations, and conflicts.  What James leaves out in terms of dialogue, he strengthens with his ability to deliver strong prose within the paradigm of consciousness.  And to any student or critic of Henry James and his work, we have to both recognize and analyze in that context.  James called on us to recover our “critical balance”, and so it is with this particular analysis.  To be complex or “incomprehensible” is one thing, but to manipulate language to form such a lasting and relevant work, is simply Jamesian.


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