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Henry James

Henry James (1843-1916) wrote more than twenty novels, including The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw, and The Golden Bowl.


"Featuring a new introduction, it is a brilliant and sophisticated satire of manners and morals in the best Jamesian tradition. The Wings of the Dove is an indelible take on the tragic love triangle in which two poor yet ardent lovers seduce a dying woman in the hope that she will leave them her fortune."

– Penguin Classics

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The Wings of the Dove

Most book reviews these days are ninety percent plot summary — so is it any surprise that we have trouble understanding an author who was trying to transcend plot?


A number of years ago, I became very interested in what I thought of as Henry James’s best book, The Turn of the Screw­­. In particular, I believed that one hundred years of critical study had missed the point of it completely, and I had a better idea (which I still believe to be true).  It’s only recently, however — in the wake of completing the manuscript for a short book about the correspondence of Henry James and his philosopher brother William — that I’ve come to realize that I thought of The Turn of the Screw as Henry James’s best book only because it was the one I could understand.

James had a lot of problems with people understanding him — most notably, William — and to this day he has a kind of writer’s-writer grudgingly granted Master-status. Tooling around on Facebook, I’m surprised to see him so infrequently listed (as in never, so far) among folks’ favorite books or authors. If he is discussed these days, it’s for his famous ghost story, which mostly gets used to justify the recent glut of crossover literary/genre books.

But there’s a problem with that: James didn’t think a whole lot of The Turn of the ScrewNo, scratch that. He did like the book, he thought he’d executed it perfectly — he just didn’t prefer it. It was too obviously commercial. James wrote a lot of things for money in his life, and occasionally he was craven in doing so, but he always recognized it for what it was. He didn’t like unambitious writers, or writers who wrote only one kind of thing, and he criticized “vulgar,” tasteless audiences, too — ones that wanted to be told only stories that were exactly like stories they had already been told.

So what were James’s new stories? Well, they were the big novels that I didn’t think were his best work. I had told myself that my problem with them was that I just couldn’t get all that worked up about whether some young girl was going to marry. Without really knowing it, I was signing on to a familiar take on James — his fascination with the lives of young women spoke probably to some latent facet of his psychology or personality. AKA, he was gay. But the truth is, that’s stupid. I don’t know whether James was gay, and neither do you, and neither of us should care. And more important, these books are much better than The Turn of the Screw, and I had to write a book of my own to figure out why. (It’ll appear, by the way, from the University of Iowa Press in Fall 2012!)

And that brings me to my real recommendation here — The Wings of the Dove. I’m not going to bother telling you the plot of the book at all, because that’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. Most book reviews these days are ninety percent plot summary — so is it any surprise that we have trouble understanding an author who was trying to transcend plot? The plot of The Wings of the Dove doesn’t matter; it’s how the story’s told that makes the difference. Which means that if you’ve seen the movie, then you don’t understand anything at all about the book.

How’s it told?  It’s almost entirely without events. That is, it’s almost all character interiority — you’re in the mind of a character, riding sidecar to their consciousness, as they mull away on some upcoming event, and then suddenly, whoosh, the event has come and gone, and now the character is recalling the event, characterizing it in retrospect. Through almost the whole book — and it’s a big book — almost nothing just outright happens.

To understand why he would do this, we have to go back in time a little bit. For James, just about everything returns to Balzac (e.g. the plot of Eugenie Grandet sounds so much like a Jamesian plot it’s not even funny). Late in his life, in an essay called “The Lesson of Balzac,” James described Balzac as a “painterly” writer, and a monk. It’s the painter part I want to focus on (though if we were to all think of James as a monk, too, we’d probably have much more intelligent discussions about him).

Henry and William James were both more or less reared in the nursery of museums, and you’ll have to take my word for it that Henry said on a number of occasions that what he wanted to do, as a writer, was what he thought he saw happening in the history of art. What was that? Well, after the invention of perspective — depth — paintings were divided into foregrounds and backgrounds. Often you had a portrait in the foreground — Virgins and Jesuses — and in the background you’d have some kind of landscape, maybe some ruins. As time passed (art historians, please sheath your sabers — this is not an art history lecture), artists started to get more and more interested in that background. The background, in other words, climbed into the foreground: thus, the shift from portrait painting to landscape painting. In the avant garde — though Henry didn’t know this — something else was happening: even though the background became the foreground, it didn’t come into any kind of focus. Hello, impressionism!

Now that’s a terribly, terribly, terribly simplified version of things — but it does seem to jibe with how Henry James basically thought of it, and he articulated as much in a story that described the illustrations of a particular edition of Sleeping Beauty. In short, he noted how the blurry background of an image seemed to tug on the imagination, how it triggered something like a stream of thought, a reverie of images. That’s what he wanted his fiction to do — inspire readerly reverie.

So how does The Wings of the Dove do that? Well, in a story, the plot is the foreground — the events, the dialogue, the action. What’s in the background, often unstated (think Hemingway, Carver, etc.), is the meandering minds of the characters who have mulled these events in advance, and who will reflect on them in retrospect. The Wings of the Dove, like the art that Henry wanted to emulate, inverts the background and the foreground so that all we get are blurry impressions of events — blurry impressions that are truer to a reality the confusion and ambiguity of which we fool ourselves by denying.

When I reread The Wings of the Dove for my book, I started to see it like this, as James wanted me to see it — I started to make out the shapes in the fog. My old anxieties faded away. I found that I cared a whole lot less about who was going to wind up marrying whom than I did about recognizing the mind wheeling there on the page, streaming and reverieing away — didn’t it seem a little similar to mine? That, I realized with a jolt, was the whole point.

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  1. Brooks said on 01/04/12 at 11:09 am Reply

    I remember reading TURN OF THE SCREW in a class on the Gothic Novel in college and my class hated it across the board. I remember my professor being really annoyed with us about it too!

    But I love what you have to say about THE WINGS OF THE DOVE and I think I’ll have to check it out and give James another chance.

    Also – you’re right, 90% of book reviews are plot summaries. Ugh.


    J.C. Hallman said on 01/05/12 at 10:47 am

    Yeah, HJ can be a frustrating writer — especially if you think of him as falling within the constraints of “realism,” which one often hears. He was a much more experimental writer than many gave him credit for being — and I think those experiments were what was dearest to his heart. But the main thing is to be sure to read not just for the story, but for how it’s told: that was the thing HJ pleaded for in his famous prefaces, again and again.

  2. Jordan Blum said on 01/08/12 at 1:11 pm Reply

    I read Turn of the Screw during my sophomore year of college (when I also skimmed through “Heart of Darkness” and adored “The Great Gatsby”). I remember the professor kept asking us if the ghosts were real or if they were symbolic of the woman’s sexual frustration. Ah, college lit classes haha. Any thoughts on that?


    J.C. Hallman said on 07/03/12 at 7:46 pm

    Hi Jordan —

    It’s almost six months since you wrote this note, so I’ve no idea whether you’ll ever see it…but perhaps for others, you’re spot on to be suspicious of this. Your professor was trying to steer you to a very misguided (in my opinion) Freudian reading of the tale — promoted by Edmund Wilson and many others. There’s lots that’s wrong with that take on the book — namely, that it misses completely what James himself said he was writing about in the introduction he produced in 1909. But of course, once a critic has signed on to “the death of the author” there’s little reason for them to listen when an author tries to shed a little more light on their own work, and therein lies one of the central problems with literary criticism today.

  3. Judy said on 07/03/12 at 5:42 pm Reply

    I’ve just finished TWoTD and absolutely loved it, although I found it to be very different from his others that I’d read (Portrait, Bostonians, Screw, Aspern and Washington). At the same time that I was reading it I was listening to a Radio4 production of ‘Ulysses’ and luckily made the connection between the characters’ thoughts and feelings as the main driving force in the novel, with plot very much in the background. I have found your article very interesting and also helpful – I’ll have to admit that this wasn’t the easiest book to understand, but I’m glad I persevered because it was well worth it and it has re-inspired me to read more of James’ novels. A big ‘thank-you’ from me, here in the UK.


    J.C. Hallman said on 07/03/12 at 7:52 pm

    Hi Judy,

    What a truly heartwarming note. And I’m quite jealous that you could just slip down to Rye and visit the Henry James house — a place I’ve long wanted to visit. It’s true that James’s work is demanding, but where does this idea come from — so prevalent today — that literature ought not require much from us? Do we ask mountains to be less steep — or is it even more of an accomplishment to summit them when they are as steep as can be? Do we prefer an unchallenging video game — or do we play the one that is absolutely the most difficult to master, and find that very difficulty a “pleasure”? A related question — why do we celebrate “books on the nightstand” when the worst we can say of a book is that it “put us to sleep?” Books like The Wings of the Dove might be a challenge, but it’s one that makes us feel more awake — and thereby more alive. Or so’s the hope.

  4. Rue said on 09/16/13 at 8:36 am Reply

    Hi J.C. I just finished The Wings of the Dove for the second time which now has gotten me through about %60 of James, whom I adore, and who never ceases to amaze me. (I have noted too that James doesn’t seem to be very much of a presence among modern readers, perhaps because of the problem of shortened attention spans… You have to approach his work with absolute concentration and lots of time. This, to me, is very sad because he’s is such a rewarding writer.)
    However the first time I read The Wings of the Dove I didn’t have the benefit of a plot summary easily found on Wikapedia or some other website, and I was continually lost. Yes, the book is impressionistic, and I love your comparison of James working to bring the background into the foreground. But for many readers it becomes IMPOSSIBLE with a mooring of some kind,. So the second time around I did orient myself with summaries from time to time, and then was able to really just relax and enjoy the painterly impressionism of James. Also, I often thought that if a modern writer penned a manuscript of the complexity and depth of The Wings of the Dove, they would likely never get it published. I can hear the crit now: too wordy, too opaque, why do I care about these people? And it’s a shame, because this book is the closest exposition of emotional subtext and the ways in which people REALLY interact as any I’ve read.


    Rue said on 09/16/13 at 8:38 am

    I meant IMPOSSIBLE without a mooring of some kind!

    J.C. Hallman said on 09/20/13 at 11:50 am

    Hi Rue,

    I think you’re right on with all of this — with the added caveat that James requires a particular kind of concentration. I just finished a little book about the correspondence of HJ with his brother, William, the psychologist and philosopher, and WJ had a lot of problems with HJ’s writing, if only because he wanted it to strive for clarity. If you read HJ for clarity, forget it. He wants you to read over the surface of it all, surf the current of the prose, and let your mind make what associations it will as a result of your interaction with it. Try to make it make too overt a form of sense, and you’ll just get lost. You have to arrive at what might be called the Jamesian trance state — then it all sort of rises off the page. Then you’re really reading.

    All best,
    J.C. Hallman

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