Author: Henry James
First published: 1902
Locale: London and Venice
Plot: Psychological realism
Time: c. 1900
Mildred (Milly) Theale, “the dove” who goes to Europe to learn to live and to die there of an incurable disease. A handsome young woman of great means, inherited through the deaths of her entire family of six, this New Yorker with her Bostonian writer friend and a companion her own age tries to extend her experiences so as to encompass a lifetime in a few short months. Although Milly seems never to suffer, she is the first to know that her sickness will be fatal, and she needs only the strength and subtlety of an eminent physician to confirm this fact. Her fine manners and sensitivity to others' needs make her a delightful companion to all, even when the truth of her condition would otherwise make others pity her. Bright, vivacious, and charming in all ways, she finally wins a heart and ironically loses both hers and his to the tragic situation. Her generosity in remembering her two closest friends (whom she forgives for plotting a scheme of marriage) is unacceptable finally. The wings meant for sheltering then become symbols of religious purity.
Kate Croy, the young woman who befriends Milly Theale in England and seeks through her a solution to her own problems. A victim of her father's bad reputation and her uncompromising aunt's machinations, Kate is a beautiful, stylish, and acute observer of the society in which her aunt, Mrs. Lowder, has placed her. Her hopeless love for a young newspaper reporter only makes her decisions more poignant, for she decides he must marry the rich and doomed Milly for their own marriage finally to be realized. Sparkling and perceptive as she is, Kate fails to live the lie so calmly planned and must live out her existence in her aunt's entourage.
Merton Densher, Kate Croy's unacceptable lover and Milly Theale's beloved. Densher, just returned from a journalistic assignment in America to a secret engagement with Kate, finds that his charms, good looks, and good manners are the pawns to two separate schemes. He is rejected as her niece's fiancé by Mrs. Lowder but encouraged as a suitor of Milly Theale, whom he had met briefly in America. His fine perceptions and sensitivities are so keenly balanced that he can neither propose nor reject, neither have nor hold. He binds Kate as his lover to an agreement, only to find at last that he loves Milly, but he cannot break off his engagement to Kate. Both he and Kate suffer.
Lord Mark, a nobleman encouraged by Mrs. Lowder as a suitor for her niece. He is attentive to both Kate and Milly, and both reject him. He then gains an unconscious revenge by informing the dying girl of the relationship between Kate and Densher. Neither young nor old-appearing, Lord Mark is supercilious to the point of caricature. Without intending malice, he manages to do harm more efficiently than if he had intended it. He is considered a good catch by older match-makers and abhorred by the objects of his attentions.
Mrs. Lowder, a managing woman who succeeds in convincing everyone that her own will is the strongest and that her judgments are infallible. Although Mrs. Lowder intimidates more than she inspires, her nature is not altogether cold. She simply sees the world as it is and tries to fit those nearest her into the mold.
Mrs. Stringham, a schoolmate and longtime friend of Mrs. Lowder and the companion to Milly Theale. Her warm nature and compassionate responses offset the calculating forces of the highborn English. As a writer, she observes and comments wisely on human character and manners.
Susan Shepherd, the younger American companion to Milly and a sweetly sympathetic friend to all the troubled young lovers. Susan suffers more than emphatically and comforts the stricken compassionately.
Sir Luke Strett, the distinguished physician who involves himself more than professionally to make of Milly Theale's living death an experience in vivid life. Although there is nothing he can do for her, he extends his great humanity to the young and lovely American so desirous of life and so tragically doomed.