The Wings of the Dove

by Henry James

My criticisms of The Wings of the Dove are largely the same as those of The Ambassadors & The Golden Bowl. The writing is arcane, no two characters ever have a conversation in which anything is actually said that conveys straight information, and the plot is hard to decipher. My vintage paperback from 1964 betrays James with a spine that's barely been cracked...over half a century. What else is new? It took two characters eleven pages and a chapter & a half in this book simply to open a letter. What'd they do for those eleven pages and chapter & a half? They talked around opening it.

So make no mistake, within the covers of The Wings of the Dove, you're sure to find the sadistic writing & masochistic reading that is Henry James. He'd have you believe that all his characters enjoy guessing games—or at least that all play by the rules of one—when they converse. Dialogue is represented here as an exercise in forbearance: Characters resist answering questions, but even more so, resist asking them. And the reader is left crying alone in the wilderness. I mean, the game of questions was fun in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, but let's remember that that's ABSURDIST literature, folks.

The Wings of the Dove is like The Golden Bowl turned upside down. By that I mean that this time it's the first four fifths of the book that feature a plot too tenebrous to navigate (I have to turn to online crib notes while I read to make sure I'm getting it, and in fact wouldn't have gotten a couple parts of it without the use of that crutch). But within the last 100 pages, the book becomes kind of a juggernaut! The writing gets lucid enough that if you've gotten that far—does anyone?—there's actually some satisfying payoff.

Themes that drive The Wings of the Dove include the following. Love makes people lose their otherwise good heads. Chasing money will get you no place you then want to be once you've caught it. And if you don't ever get asked something (out of perceived propriety) then you get to commit the sin of omission by never having to tell it.