Masquerades in Henry James's 'The Wings of the Dove'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 24 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature




1. Masks

2. Secrets

3. Games

4. Comings-out and Double Binds

5. Venice




Focusing on Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, the present paper explores a plurality of masquerades, conditioned by open secrets and their influence on the communication between the characters. In this respect, I consider masquerades in terms of mutual contracts. One pretends to be someone else and others pretend to believe in one’s pretences. Eventually, however, the performers develop the ‘symptoms’ of their roles in themselves and, thus, blur the distinction between dishonest and honest performances. Therefore, I argue that the masquerades in The Wings of the Dove are performances, which submit to the logic of simulation[1], revoking the separation of the real from the simulated. Besides, I refer to masks and masquerades not in a literal, but in a metaphorical sense.

The first chapter, Masks, examines a rich American heiress’s (Milly Theale) designations as dovelike and incurably ill, which turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, thus, indicating a complex relation between masks and the performativity of language and silence. The second chapter, Secrets, focuses on the pluralities of knowledge, ignorance and silence, which Milly’s mysterious illness and Lionel[2] ’s unknown crime presuppose. The third chapter, Games, argues that the masquerades in The Wings of the Dove violate the binary opposition between truth and deception. Therefore, they are to be understood in regard to the mentioned notion of simulation. The fourth chapter, Coming Outs and Double Binds, demonstrates that coming out of the closet, in other words, the disclosure of one’s secret, leads to another closet[3]. The last one, Venice, discusses the Italian city in terms of its relation to the characters’ masquerades and importance for the Jamesian text.

Briefly, the present paper is concerned with the masquerades’ functions for identity constructions, productions of simulation and The Wings of the Dove ’s establishment as a Venetian text.

1. Masks

A precise explanation of the masquerades’ role for identity construction requires a short remark on the relation between masks and selves. First of all, I consider identity as a discursive and performative construct. The term discursive signifies that the notions of the self do not embody deeper ‘truths’, lying at the core of one’s identity, but certain cultural and historical discourses, specific for the particular periods of their emergence. (See Tseëlon 2001, 8) Furthermore, identity is performative, because it is constituted through “corporal styles”, which consist of repeated and rehearsed bodily gestures, movements and enactments. (See Tseëlon 2001, 9) In this respect, the present section argues that the mask shares the identity’s contextuality and performativity. Furthermore, I claim that the mask does not hide the ‘real’ self, but reveals the multiplicity of one’s identity.

In order to illustrate my statements, the first part of this chapter concentrates on the dove metaphor and pays special attention to the relation between masks and the performativity of language. Generally, a metaphor “presents a new idea which, through its similarity to a known quality, seems based on experience and, yet, forges a new ground.” (Gabler-Hover 1987, 182) Therefore, it does not simply describe, but alters a thing or a person. So, metaphors possess the potential for a new self-definition. The rich American heiress’s reaction to her image as a dove demonstrates my assertion: “She met it on the instant as she would have met revealed truth; […] That was what was the matter with her. She was a dove.” (James, The Wings of the Dove, 173) Milly’s adoption of the role, proposed to her by her English friend, Kate Croy, signifies a complex relation between language and reality. Language does not merely describe reality, but actively creates it. Therefore, Kate’s statement, “[…] you [Milly] are a dove.” (James, The Wings of the Dove, 173), transforms into a performative utterance, which fashions or redefines Milly’s self-image. Moreover, the mask of a dove appears as revelation to Milly, in a sense, as her ‘truer’ self. My inferences allude to Erving Goffman’s notion that:

In a sense, and in so far that this mask represents the concept that we have formed of ourselves […] this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be. In the end, our conception of our role becomes second nature and an integral part of our personality. (1959, 19-20)

So, the mask ceases to be a mere surface appearance, it rather epitomizes the self.

Furthermore, I claim that the acceptance of a mask requires self-reflexivity. The mere interpellation as a dove is not enough for the construction of a dovelike identity. The interpellated Milly actively participates in the creation of this mask. Thus, trying to figure out “how a dove would act”, Milly lies to Mrs. Lowder that Merton is still abroad. (James, The Wings of the Dove, 174) The most dovelike answer, paradoxically, turns out to be a lie. Therefore, Milly’s active shaping and fashioning of the proposed dove role exerts crucial influence on the signification and function of the dove-likeness.

However, what does the dove-likeness epitomize? Kate’s comment on the dead Milly discloses the essence of the dove mask. She states: “I used to call her […] a dove. Well she stretched out her wings, and it was to that they reached. They cover us.” (James, The Wings of the Dove, 406)[4] The dove mask comes to designate power, rather than innocence and vulnerability. So, the mask turns out to be a means of self-definition, which empowers, defends, conceals and reveals.

The second part of this section continues to explore the relation between masks and identities, however, with an emphasis on the performativity of silence. For the purposes of the present paper, I refer to the following notion of silence:

Silence itself – the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers – is less the absolute limit of discourse […] than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in a relation to them. (Foucault 1990, 27)

Therefore, non-speaking alters meaning and shape communication, in the way, speech does it. Then, the performativity of silence comes to embody speech acts of non-speaking. Furthermore, Foucault claims that there are many silences. Therefore, “we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. (Foucault 1990, 27) So, there are different types of non-speaking, which signify different meanings and depend on the particular contexts, they emerge in. The silences about Milly’s illness, especially in the following dialogue between her and the famous doctor, Sir Luke Strett, demonstrate my assertions:

[Luke Strett:] “No”[…] “I don’t want you for the present to do anything at all […]” […] “I send you nowhere. England’s all right – anywhere that’s pleasant, convenient and decent, will be all right. There’s only one thing: you ought […] to get out of London.” […]

[Milly:] “May I then go back to the Continent?”

[Luke Strett:] “By all means back to the Continent.” […]

[Milly:] “May I come back to England too?”

[Luke Strett:] “Rather! Whenever you like.” […]

[Milly:] “So you don’t think I am out of my mind?”

[Luke Strett:] “Perhaps that is, […] all that’s the matter.” […]

[Milly:] “No, that’s too good. Shall I at any rate suffer?”

[Luke Strett:] “Not a bit.”

[Milly:] “And yet then live?”

[Luke Strett:] “My dear young lady, […], isn’t to ‘live’ exactly what I’m trying to persuade you to take the trouble to do?”(James, The Wings of the Dove, 152-153)

The physician appears as a performer, who is ‘cynical’ about his performance, because he, in a sense, deludes his patient, by keeping silent about particular details of her illness. Openly speaking about Milly’s incurable illness with her, telling her that she is on the cusp of death, does not present an ‘authorized’ discourse.

Besides, the above dialogue does not produce a final ‘truth’ about the nature of Milly’s illness. She does not receive any exact prescriptions; it seems that she is allowed to do everything, as if she were healthy. Furthermore, the lack of any bodily pain or any other recognizable symptoms poses the crucial question: Does Milly simulate a disease? In order to explain the logic of simulation, I turn to Littré, who asserts: “Someone who feigns an illness can simply go to bed and pretend he is ill. Someone who simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms.” (Baudrillard [1981] 2004, 366) Thus, simulation blurs the boundary between “true” and ‘false’. “Since the simulator produces “true” symptoms is he ill or not? The simulator cannot be treated objectively either as ill, or as not ill.”(Baudrillard [1981] 2004, 367)[5] The truth about the illness becomes undiscoverable for medicine, since it only knows how to treat “true” diseases. Moreover, “simulation [does not] stop at the portals of the unconscious”. (Baudrillard [1981] 2004, 367) Baudrillard considers “the work of the unconscious [as] “produced” in the same way as any other symptom in classical medicine.” ([1981] 2004, 367) Therefore, being neither true nor false, the discourse of simulation could never be unmasked by psychoanalysis. So, an exact diagnosis of Milly’s disease becomes impossible. Besides, Milly as a simulator has already produced the ‘symptoms’ in her, so the illness appears as a mask, in which she actively invests. Thus, this mask, just like the dove one, becomes an integral part of her identity. It embodies the concept she has formed of herself.

To conclude, masks, actively modified by their wearer, present the multiplicity of one’s identity. In this regard, the performativity of language and silence plays a crucial role for the masks’ construction, fashioning, protection, legitimisation and signification.

2. Secrets

By concentrating on stigmas and the open secrets, which they presuppose, this chapter elaborates further on the relation between identity constructions and masquerades. Goffman defines stigma as a discrediting attribute that makes someone different from the others, reduces him/her to a ‘tainted’ person. (1967, 11) In this regard, some examples for stigmas are illnesses, addictions, indecent past, belonging to lower classes, homosexuality. However, there is no clear distinction between normal and stigmatized, because the stigmas epitomize certain perspectives, produced under particular social, historical and cultural discourses. In other words, the value judgments, establishing stigmas, are contextual and contingent. As Goffman asserts:

Ein Stigma [umfasst] nicht so sehr eine Reihe konkreter Individuen, die in zwei Haufen, die Stigmatisierten und die Normalen, aufgeteilt werden können, als vielmehr einen durchgehenden sozialen Zwei-Rollen-Prozeß, in dem jedes Individuum an beiden Rollen partizipiert, zumindest in einigen Zusammenhängen und in einigen Lebensphasen. Der Normale und der Stigmatisierte sind nicht Personen, sondern eher Perspektiven. (1967, 169-170)

Therefore, one’s stigmatizing attributes determine the frequency, with which the two roles, normal and stigmatized, are played. For the purposes of the present paper, I focus on the cases, in which Milly and Lionel are considered through the perspective of their stigmas. Milly’s stigma[6] is her mysterious illness, which cannot be exactly diagnosed. Lionel’s stigma is an unknown crime, which made him socially unacceptable. Despite their different natures, these two stigmas are treated in a similar way. The following dialogues, the first one, considering Milly’s illness, and the second one – Lionel’s crime, illustrate my assumption:

Discretion has ceased to consist in silence; silence was gross and thick […].

[Susan:] “She’s wrong - she hasn’t what she thought.”

[Aunt Maud:] “And what did she think?”

[Susan:] “He [Sir Luke Strett] didn’t tell me.”

[Aunt Maud:] “And you didn’t ask?”

[Susan:] “I asked nothing.”

[Aunt Maud:] “Examining her for what she supposed he finds something else?”

[Susan:] “Something else.”

[Aunt Maud:] “And what does he find?”

[Susan:] “God keep me from knowing!” (James, The Wings of the Dove, 246-8)

[Kate:] “I don’t know – and I don’t want to. I only know that years and years ago – when I was about fifteen – something or other happened that made him impossible.” [….] “That has been a part of the silence, the silence that surrounds him, the silence that, for the world, has washed him out.” […]

[Merton:] “It satisfies me beautifully”, […], “but it doesn’t, my dear child, very greatly enlighten me. You don’t, you know, really tell me anything […] What has he done, if no one can name it?”

[Kate:] “He has done everything.”

[Merton:] “Oh – everything! Everything’s nothing.”

[Kate:] “Well then” [...] “he has done some particular thing. It’s known – only, thank God, not to us.” (James, The Wings of the Dove, 57-58)

The conversation between Maud, Kate’s rich and influential aunt, and Susan, Milly’s servant, mirrors that between Kate and Densher. In both cases, the stigmas presuppose the emergence of open secrets. Furthermore, the discourses on the stigmas exemplify the way, in which these secrets function. Considering the structure of secrets, Derrida claims that “nothing is more virginal and at the same time more purloined and penetrated, already in and of itself, than a secret”. (1981, 259) To put is simply, a secret emerges only then, when one is aware of the fact that there is something particular, which one does not know. Therefore, the crucial condition for the ‘birth of a secret’ is one’s awareness of the ‘fold’, which metaphorically separates the unknown from the known. This ‘fold’, paradoxically, “ruptures the virginity it marks as virginity”. (Derrida 1981, 259) In other words, the ‘fold’ gives rise to a secret by marking its distinction from the known and the familiar, and, thus, establishes it as unknown, untouched, virginal. However, at the same time, the ‘fold’ signals the knowledge of not knowing something. Thus, revealing the existence of something unfamiliar, the ‘fold’ ruptures its virginity, in the sense of its unknowness. The dialogues, I cited above, exemplify precisely the ‘fold’s function for the communication dynamics of secrets. The conversations about Milly’s illness and Lionel’s crime could only take place, due to the characters’ familiarity with the fact that there is something unknown. They know about the existence of Milly’s illness and Lionel’s crime, but not about the particular natures of the secrets. In order words, the participants in the cited dialogues are aware of the ‘fold’, separating knowledge from non-knowledge. So, to summarize, the open secret presupposes the existence of knowledge and non-knowledge ‘hand in hand’. The ‘fold’ keeps them together and apart at the same time.


[1] I refer to Baudrillard’s notion of simulation (See 2004 [1981], 365-377), which will be thoroughly explained and examined in 1. Masks and 3. Games.

[2] Lionel Croy is the notorious father of the intelligent, but poor English beauty – Kate Croy, one of the main characters in The Wings of the Dove.

[3] I refer to Eve Sedgwick’s text Epistomology of the Closet, where she designates the relations between the known and the unknown, the explicit and the implicit as relations of the closet. (See 1990, 3)

[4] Kate makes Merton pretend to be in love with the dying Milly, so that the rich American could leave him her fortune. Eventually, Milly dies and Merton falls in love with her memory. Thus, his relationship with Kate is irrevocably spoiled. (See James, The Wings of the Dove, 406-7)

[5] “Even military psychology […] hesitates to draw the distinction between true and false, between the “produced” symptom and the authentic symptom. “If he acts crazy so well, he must be mad.” Nor it is mistaken: in the sense that all lunatics are simulators and this lack of distinction is the worst form of subversion.” (Baudrillard [1981] 2004, 367) Since the real cannot be separated from the simulated, the truth principle becomes invalid.

[6] I consider Milly’s illness as a stigma in the sense that it makes her a less desirable partner, and, thus, different from the ‘normal’ girls. Densher asserts: “one has to try a little hard to propose to a dying girl. (See James, The Wings of the Dove, 313)


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Institution / College
LMU Munich – Department für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Venice Henry James Masquerades Wings of the Dove Venedig Maskerade Erving Goffman Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick




Title: Masquerades in Henry James's 'The Wings of the Dove'