Milly Theale and Pragmatism in The Wings of the Dove
Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove is said to have been based on the late relative of the author, Minny Temple. In James’s autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother, he writes about his inspiration for creating the novel; it was “to lay the ghost [Minny’s ghost] by wrapping it, . . . in the beauty and dignity of art.” (515). However, it seems that James was too harsh on the character in letting her die in a miserable way; being deceived by the man whom she sincerely loves, she nevertheless arranges to leave her fortune to him. This mysterious action has been controversial among critics and scholars. Traditionally, it has been thought to be an act of redemption. More recently, another view has attracted attention, namely that it is intended to be an act of revenge on Merton Densher and his fiancé, Kate Croy. This paper offers another view on Milly’s mysterious bequest, namely that this novel is greatly influenced by Pragmatism.
Milly Theale is thought to be self-deceptive. This, indeed, can explain a lot about her. However, there are things that the theory of her self-deception cannot explain. For instance, when Lord Mark tells Milly that Merton and Kate are engaged, she not only refuses to believe it, but also is able to convince Lord Mark that he is wrong. Since self-deception should solely affect the person him/herself, Milly’s belief needs a different name from self-deception.
Although Milly refuses to believe what Mark has told her, she suffers greatly, and eventually, Milly makes up her mind to let death come and devour her. Milly’s attitude toward death is somewhat extraordinary—that she wants to die as if she were alive. This implies that she will not passively wait and waste time until death comes. Since Milly is seriously ill, she is unlikely to be able to be united with Merton physically, as a man and a woman. However, she still has a way to win his love; for her love is so sincere and strong that she has a chance to achieve what she truly wants.
At her last meeting with Merton, she does not even mention the slightest hint of what she heard from Lord Mark, and neither does Merton. Merton is supposed to deny Lord Mark’s story, but he chooses to remain silent about it. Milly probably notices that he not only avoids the topic but also determines to stick to the truth—that Lord Mark is right about it. If he denies something from the bottom of his heart he will make it happen anyway. So he has made up his mind to protect his engagement.
Since Merton and Kate really need a large amount of money to wed, they must have been craving for Milly’s money. As Kate thinks the money represents Milly herself, receiving the money means accepting Milly in the Pragmatic sense. Supposing the bequest is made purely out of Milly’s love, and Merton receives it, it means that Merton will accept her love, and he will also make his love for her true. By applying such Pragmatism, there is no need for Milly’s bequest to be an act either of revenge or of redemption. It can be thought that because she sincerely loves Merton she just leaves him “what she was herself”.