Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Political Context Re-Considered: Henry James and Marriage Reform in the Wings of the Dove

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Political Context Re-Considered: Henry James and Marriage Reform in the Wings of the Dove

Article excerpt

CRITICS CONCERNED TO MAP GENDER-BASED POWER RELATIONS within Henry James's The Wings of the Dove have tended to focus both on the courtship ritual involving Kate Croy and Merton Densher and on Kate's relationship with her father, Lionel Croy, and Maud Lowder. What has emerged from the various analytical approaches which have attempted to establish a correlation between historical context and The Wings of the Dove is a broad consensus that James's characters subvert or collapse the traditional categories of gender difference in Victorian society that prevented women from participating in the public sphere. That is, such critics suggest that Kate Croy and Maud Lowder ambiguously wield a social and economic authority within the novel that was denied to women living in Victorian society at the time of the novel's conception.

The central weakness of this approach has been to treat context and the signifiers associated with it as stable and monolithic, devoid of the expression of individual contradictory political intention. For example, Millicent Bell begins her analysis of The Wings of The Dove by endeavouring to review "its precise reference to the social and economic world of the early twentieth century, a stratum of meaning to which its narrative language and formal design are closely attached" (291). Additionally, specific historical events of the economic market involving specific individuals are overlooked in favour of analyses based on practices of exchange. Bell, for example, demonstrates the ubiquity and pervasiveness of a rhetoric or language of exchange, which has a kind of levelling effect in terms of gender-based power relations within the novel. For Kate and Densher, Bell suggests, "their mutual love comes to constitute a commerce by which--Kate dealing with Densher, Densher with Kate--each can bend the other to his purpose" (294).

Michael Moon, too, considers the "text's representations of sexuality in the context of some of the specific social and historical conditions under which these representations were produced" (427). Moon does provide specific contextual evidence of a "suppressed male-homoerotic thematic" based on the correlation of his construction of a history of homosexual relationships at the turn of the century, which includes, the relationship between James's friend John Addington Symonds and Angelo Fusato, and the dramatized exchange of gazes between Densher and Eugenio in the novel. Moons discussion of the power wielded by Aunt Maud and Kate Croy over Merton Densher is, however, couched in the language of monolithic contexts, stable signifiers: "Kate Croy's Aunt Maud Lowder is the pre-eminent embodiment in The Wings of The Dove of the woman who is considered 'potent' by virtue of the fetishization by her society of her economic and social power: she presides over the phallicized world of the novel" (429). Lowder's wealth, which is a socially determined metonym for the phallus, capital accumulation, enables her to subvert the gender specific categories of normalization to achieve power over men. This power is not traced to the specific practices of individuals within a heterogeneous context but is, rather, the byproduct of a stable context of economic and social consensus.

Focussing on Kate's relationship with Maud Lowder and Mrs Condrip, Hugh Stevens broadens the possibilities for tracing the correlation between political context and literary text. He subsumes under the icon of the New Woman the struggle of a series of individuals to communicate in diverse, but also similar, ways their resistance to structures of repression. This historical figure, a category under which practices of resistance are catalogued, constitutes, for Stevens, a focus for comparison with Kate in the novel: "Kate and Mrs Lowder's struggles, however, can be specifically linked with anxieties surrounding gender at the fin de siecle, revolving partly around the figure of the 'New Woman"' (27). The practices to which Stevens refers are briefly summarized with a focus on the New Woman's challenge to a variety of institutions composing a repressive state apparatus: "The New Woman, in her demands for education and the right to pursue a career rather than marriage, her rejection of the patriarchal family and the life of domesticity, and her demand for political power, actively questioned the biological determinism and gender assumptions of the Victorian era" (27). …

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