Analysis of Daisy Miller

Analysis of Daisy Miller

Henry James' Daisy Miller tells the tale of a young girl, Daisy Miller, who travels around Europe unchaperoned. The story is filtered through the narrative point of view of Frederick Winterbourne, a 27-year-old American who resides in Geneva, Switzerland. Daisy is outspoken, and straightforward, and flouts prevailing European customs and traditions, to the dismay of sophisticated Americans, like Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello, living in Europe. Although Daisy Miller might be construed as a story about a young innocent woman, the story is really about a teenage American girl who rebels against the rigid British patriarchal values. Daisy Miller is not a helpless female gothic character; she is an independent, freedom-loving heroine.
      James begins the story, showing the difference between Americans and Europeans by having Winterbourne observe the environment before meeting Daisy: In this region, in the month of June, American travelers are extremely numerous; it may be said, indeed, that Vevey assumes at this period some of the characteristics of an American watering place. There is a flitting hither and thither of "stylish" young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music in the morning hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times… neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors. (James 3-4)
      The difference between Americans and Europeans is solidified. The American tourists are carefree and noisy while the Europeans are formal, restrained and disciplined. Immediately, the narrator’s bias against Americans is shown. Although the story isn’t told from a first person point-of-view, it’s told while looking over Winterbourne’s shoulder. Because of this, Winterbourne isn’t exempt from the bias against Americans. Even though he is American by birth, Winterbourne has lived in Geneva for such a long time that he has become Europeanized. Therefore, he cannot appreciate the freedom exercised by Daisy Miller.
      To understand Winterbourne’s dilemma, one must first understand the difference between both societies. Although the upper-class Americans looked to Europe for societal norms, the American society in the nineteenth century was different from the English society. Social class wasn’t as important as it was in England, thanks to the rise of new money. Also, etiquette and social decorum were not high priorities either. All these were due to the reforms that were taking place in America – the fight for social justice, equality, public safety and women’s right. America was truly the land of freedom. Hence, Daisy’s behavior isn’t that of an uncultured teenager but that of a teenager who has been brought up in a less strict environment. So, she ignores the customs and traditions of diaspora American high society, especially in her interaction with the opposite sex.
      And because she doesn’t behave like a prim and proper European girl of her age, Winterbourne believes Daisy Miller to be ignorant and uneducated. When Mrs. Costello, talks about the Millers being “very dreadful people,” Winterbourne defends them by saying “They are very ignorant-- very innocent only.” (James 40). He also says of Daisy, “she’s completely uneducated” (James 22). However, one has to question Winterbourne’s credibility in understanding and molding her characterization. Is Winterbourne’s opinion of Daisy correct or is his opinion based on his patriarchal (European) desire to find her needing his protection and help? Perhaps if Daisy Miller is innocent and unprotected, Winterbourne can justify his attraction to her. From the very first time they meet, Winterbourne is taken by her beauty and innocence, and “desired more and more to make it a certainty that he was to have the privilege of a tete-a-tete with the young lady, who was still strolling along in front of them …, Mrs. Miller's unprotected daughter” (James 30). Obviously, he considers himself a protector and teacher that Daisy Miller needs. This is why he sees her shortcomings and convinces himself that she needs his guidance. According to Lynn Wardley, in the article “Reassembling Daisy Miller, “Winterbourne flatters himself that she [Daisy] has come to Europe, and to him, as to a finishing school” (238) Then, should Winterbourne’s view be accepted at face value? One then has to question whether his profiling of Daisy Miller is correct. Shouldn’t his profiling of Daisy Miller as an innocent young girl be examined?
      A reader cannot ignore the innocence and youth of Daisy Miller. The narrator makes it a point to mention those two qualities a lot in his narrative. His first description of her is her youth, “the young lady meanwhile had drawn near,” before launching into her physical appearance (James 7). And her age is linked to her innocence: Daisy is innocent because she is young. This may be so. However, her age is also the cause of her rebellious attitude. She is at the developmental stage where teenagers question rules, parental and societal, and seek to find their place in the world. To do so, teenagers often disregard rules created by other and do whatever they like. And this is exactly what Daisy Miller does. For example, when Winterbourne tries to discourage Daisy from hanging out with Giovanelli, she takes a stand against Winterbourne, a man she had just met, deciding what she should and shouldn’t do. She tells Winterbourne him that his declaration is “imperious,” and that “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do” (James 49). Daisy takes offense at Winterbourne’s domineering attitude and tells him how she feels. At her funeral, Giovanelli says “…and she—she did what she liked” (James 80). Daisy’s actions are not that of someone who is not aware of what she is doing but that of someone who doesn’t want other people dictating or deciding her fate and actions.
      Henry James, in his letter to Elizabeth Lynn Lynton, emphasizes Daisy Miller’s innocence as the major conception of her character: “Poor little D.M. was (as I understand her) above all things innocent…. She never took the measure, really, of the Scandal she produced, & had no means of doing so: she was too ignorant, too irreflective, too little versed in the proportions of things. (Jobe 84). However, he goes further to say “she became conscious that she was accused of something …. This consciousness she endeavoured to throw off; she tried not to think of what people meant & easily succeeded in doing so…. She only wished to be left alone” (Jobe 84). Although James emphasizes Daisy’s innocence as the keynote of her character, he agrees that Daisy really isn’t bothered by the society’s view of her. And it’s a conscious decision.
      Even Winterbourne agrees. The narrator says “at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced” and pondered whether Daisy's "innocence" wasn’t “more and more a matter of fine-spun gallantry” (James 70). Yes, Daisy Miller easily trusts Winterbourne and Giovanelli. In the short time of meeting Winterbourne, Daisy shares personal details about herself, Randolph – her 9-year-old brother, their intended trip to Italy, and Randolph’s need for a tutor and playmates – in an easy manner that undermines the fact that they just met. She is also extremely willing to go with him, in his boat, in the middle of the night. Also, she is willing to go on a late night walk with Giovanelli, her Italian gentleman caller, which scandalizes Mrs. Walker, “one of those American ladies who, while residing abroad, make a point, in their own phrase, of studying European society” (James 58). Mrs. Walker orders Daisy to get into the carriage in order to save Daisy’s reputation, saying “"Will you get in and let me put it over you? Do get in and drive with me … it is not the custom here” (James 53). By doing this, Mrs. Walker “echoes a turn-of-the-century rule of thumb among members of her class that a ‘lady was simply not supposed to be seen aimlessly wandering the streets in the evening or eating alone,’ that such acts were themselves potentially fatal forms of exposure” (Wardley 245). Daisy, however, refuses to get into the carriage even when Mrs. Walker informs her that she would be “talked about.” Instead, she replies, “Talked about? What do you mean? … I don't think I want to know what you mean. I don't think I should like it” (James 55). Her reply might be construed as that of a child, who has been caught doing something wrong but refuses to accept the consequences of her action. However, it’s more than that. She tells Winterbourne “did you ever hear anything so cool as Mrs. Walker's wanting me to get into her carriage and drop poor Mr. Giovanelli, and under the pretext that it was proper? People have different ideas! It would have been most unkind” (James 61). Rather than save her own reputation, Daisy refuses to change her behavior to please the society. She stands for her belief and refuses to be embarrassed into becoming a submissive lady.
      Tristram P. Coffin says in the article, “Daisy Miller, Western Hero,” says that Daisy “was willing to rely on her own judgment and so befriends Giovanelli in defiance of society; trust her own moral fiber and so travel to Chillion with the puzzled Winterbourne; to rest secure in her self-esteem and so treats her servant with familiarity” (278). She is willing to sacrifice her reputation because she is determined not to be who others want her to be. When Winterbourne first met Daisy, he remarked that she “had a spirit of her own; but in her bright, sweet, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony” (James) And even though Giovanelli, at her death, declares her innocent: “She was the most beautiful young lady I ever saw … and she was the most innocent,” he also pronounces her as a free-spirited person, someone who simply does what she wants (James 80). Because of this, she is snubbed by Mrs. Walker, Mrs. Costello, and their crowd.
      Oh how easy to classify Daisy Miller as just an innocent and ignorant American. However, that doesn’t fully classify Daisy Miller’s personality. Daisy Miller is a free bird who does not abide with the rules of a society that seeks to clip the freedom afforded to women. She is on her European tour: “the rite de passage for an aspiring young woman of her class. This rite of conspicuous acculturation loses none of its significance as a passage into adult sexuality: for not only does the tour prepare her, like a regimen of etiquette lessons, for a well-made match but … also … represent … the difficult development to femininity” (Wardley 238). The tour often spans two to four years traveling around Europe and its purpose is to broaden the horizons and knowledge of participants in language, architecture, geography, and culture. Young women went on this tour in order to prepare themselves for marriage. However, Daisy Miller refuses to become the perfect bride. She, according to Barbara Welter, is “reluctant to submit to the initiation into adult womanhood sometimes referred to as “‘breaking the will’ of the wayward tomboy” by curbing her behavior and “calming her down” around the time of menarche” (Wardley 239). And this is one of the reasons why Daisy went around unchaperoned: “Daisy Miller resists the forfeiture of an unchaperoned autonomy as a single American girl for what she suspects is the “dreadfully pokey time” of a married woman” (Wardley 239). Daisy Miller isn’t willing to give up her freedom just to become the perfect candidate for marriage.
      Daisy also demonstrates her desire for freedom by flirting. Winterbourne declares her to be “a pretty American flirt” (James 15). Flirting is more than a woman being immoral; it’s more about a woman exercising her right to choose whoever she likes. This is the opposite of patriarchal society which dictates that a woman must be coy at all times and control her emotions while the man decides how the relationship should go. In patriarchal societies, the woman has no choice in her relationship matters. However, Daisy Miller does the opposite of this. By flirting with her gentleman callers, she takes control of her own destiny. In “Reassembling Daisy Miller, Lynn Wardley quotes Georg Simmel’s opinion about flirting as a form of power: “for when a woman flirts, she flirts with freedom and power” (Wardley 241). Daisy doesn’t flirt with her gentlemen callers because she is innocent or because she has no idea what she is doing but because she values freedom and independence.
      Yes, Daisy Miller is an independent freedom-loving girl. But she dies at the end of the story. One cannot help wonder if it is meant to project Daisy Miller as a martyr or as a villain. Henry James, with this development, comments on the political atmosphere of the time period. England was losing its power, both as a world power and as a patriarchal society. Daisy Miller as an American Woman is the symbolism of the threat that faced Europe. And people like Winterbourne, Mrs. Walker, and Mrs. Costello held on to European values as a way to ignore what was happening around them.

Work Cited.
Coffin, Tristram P. “Daisy Miller, Western Hero.” Western Folklore 17.4 (Oct., 1958): 273-275
      JSTOR Web. 24 July 2012.
Deakin, Motley F. “Daisy Miller, Tradition, and the European Heroine.” Comparative
      Literature Studies 6.1 (1969): 45-59. JSTOR Web. 24 July 2012.    
James, Henry. “Daisy Miller.” Daisy Miller and Other Stories. New York: Oxford University
      Press, 1985. 1-81. Print.
Jobe, Steven. “Henry James and the innocence of Daisy Miller: A Corrected Text of the Letter to
      Eliza Lynn Linton.” American Literary Realism 29.3 (Spring, 1997): 82-85. JSTOR Web. 24
Ohmann, Carol. “Daisy Miller: A Study of Changing Intentions.” American Literature 36.1
     (Mar., 1964): 1-11. JSTOR Web. 24 July 2012.
Wardley, Lynn. “Reassembling Daisy Miller.” American Literary History 3.2 (Summer, 1991):
     232-254. JSTOR Web. 24 July 2012.

Popular posts from this blog

Feminism in Angela Carter’s “The Magic Toyshop”

A List Of African Literary Magazines