Analysis of Henry James’s Daisy Miller

Originally subtitled “A Study,” this novella was first published by Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf, in the Cornhill Magazine. The choice of a British press cost Henry James his American rights. The sheer amount of pirated versions, however, hints at the succès de scandale the book turned out to be in the literary marketplace on both sides of the Atlantic: Daisy-Millerites celebrated the textual subtleties of observation, while the (less numerous) anti-Daisy-Millerites disparaged it as a foreign and all-too-abrasive judgment on American citizens abroad.

The story of the young American naif sojourning in Europe was generally received as a theatrical comedy or tragicomedy of manners, even more so since James himself reworked his plot into a three-act comedy in 1883, characteristically failing at the dramatic medium. Critics have often commented on the text’s uncomfortable blend of the comic and mythic and the overly melodramatic structure peppered with a substantial amount of symbolically significant names, like “Daisy,” the spring flower suggesting freshness and innocence; a would-be lover whose name puns on winter-born; an inappropriately immobile Mrs. Walker; and the conflagration of old and new money imagery in the hotel’s name, Trois Couronnes.

Yet taking into account that even a literary master may accommodate effects generally associated with sentimental domestic traditions, it seems more fruitful to approach the text as a cultural study by an artistic expatriate. Daisy Miller furnishes an early example of James’s so-called international theme, which juxtaposes unsophisticated American travelers with an old Europe brimming uneasily with a profound, often strikingly carnal, knowledge of the world. As a structuring device, this theme traces the choreographies of curiously transitory identities, which circulate across boundaries of all sorts. Moreover, the characteristically Jamesian point of view can already be detected in the use of a third-person narrative voice as a central intelligence, embodied in the young American, Frederick Winterbourne. The novella thus focuses on the observer, and Daisy as the object of the gaze is accessible for the reader only through his jaundiced eyes. Winterbourne’s voice, however, is still framed by that of a first-person narrator whose minute hesitations and slips of the tongue prevent readers from an unproblematic identification with the male protagonist, calling into question his reliability as a storyteller and his frequently clinical judgments.

The novella begins with Winterbourne, just come over from Geneva, seated in the garden of the fashionably cosmopolitan hotel Trois Couronnes in the Swiss resort of Vevey. A disconnected bachelor with voyeuristic leanings, he is fully absorbed by his gentlemanly existence whose dated moral parameters account for his difficulty in understanding a fresh young woman, Daisy Miller, who is literally crossing his path.

The girl, with her fragmentary social know-how, seems on conscious display, adorned with a fan as an image of both feminine grace and challenge. In a recourse to a trope of realist writing, the text presents her as an unprotected daughter and a victim of flawed nurturing. She is associated with an uncultivated and alarmingly dysfunctional family background: Her father remains a blank, being far off on business; her mother is a hypochondriac dressing in Daisy’s discarded clothes; her younger brother is a xenophobic, provincial, and aggressively newly rich brat.

Fascinated with her good looks and confused by her candor, Winterbourne tests her to see to what violation of social codes she can be lured. Yet her behavior— when she upholds her suggestion of a boat trip à deux to Chillon, paying no heed to the warnings of the courier Eugenio, and even urges Winterbourne to come and see her in Rome—threatens to overwhelm the neat categories of her suitor’s obsessively itemizing mind. In his desperate attempts to make her legible by fi nding epithets and attaching labels, he seeks the feedback of his ilk in the expatriate American community of which his aunt Mrs. Costello is a crucial part. Here, among people more European than the Europeans, Daisy is unremittingly judged for letting herself be talked about in picking up chance acquaintances.

The subsequent geographical shift notwithstanding, rumors about Daisy fill the air in Rome as well. Confronted with her Italian cavalier, the gentleman lawyer Giovanelli, Winterbourne suddenly finds himself a substitute Eugenio dedicated to safeguard her. When the young woman is caught walking with both men in the Pincian Gardens in a blatant trespass of codes of propriety and refuses to heed Mrs. Walker’s urgent remonstrations, the American diaspora finally closes its ranks by ostracizing Daisy publicly as “damaged goods.” The object of this moral outrage, however, defiantly and deliberately leaves Winterbourne still at sea with regard to her possible engagement with Giovanelli.

Moreover, she even ventures to pay a nocturnal visit to the Colosseum with the Italian, even though the sacrificial site is notorious for its miasmal atmosphere. Winterbourne overhears their plans and seems to arrive finally at his sought-for ultimate reading of Daisy. He settles on the worthlessness of his former object of attention, and this pivotal scene is followed by the laconic report of her death by fever, which she contracted during her nightly excursion. Ambiguously, her loss of life in spring is either sentimentally readable as a willed suicide motivated by Winterbourne’s rejection of her or as a mere outcome of her imprudence. Winterbourne himself admits that confusion as to the young woman’s character still lingers in his mind, even more so since Daisy’s mother fulfills her daughter’s last wish in informing him that Daisy was never Giovanelli’s fiancée.

With his return to Geneva, however, which seems motivated by some foreign lady who is sojourning there, the plot comes full circle: Any illusion of personal development is shattered, as Winterbourne continues in his determination to censor otherness in order to maintain the social entropy that is required for his survival as a gentleman gigolo.

In this novella about the male gaze, everybody is busy forging fictions about others to such an extent that none of the narratives can be authenticated. Always alive to alternative options, the text resists the very conventions of realistic characterization on which it relies. The central consciousness is forever failing to arrive at ultimate certainty; the excess of sobriquets attached to Daisy drains them of any defining function. The gossip that characterizes the settings of Rome and Geneva may well look back on long traditions of moral absolutism, be they Catholic or Calvinist, yet it never fully manages to blot out Daisy’s plain formulation of relativity: “People have different ideas.”

The novella furnishes an example of indeterminacy and the provisionality of identities that came to be registered as a distinctively Jamesian hallmark. Moreover, in setting its characters afloat on a sea of rumors while telling a tale of failed communication and epistemological insecurity, the text anticipates a central concern of modernist writing.

Analysis of Henry James’s Novels

Bell, Millicent. Meaning in Henry James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Fogel, Daniel Mark. Daisy Miller: A Dark Comedy of Manners. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Graham, Kenneth. “Daisy Miller: Dynamics of an Enigma.” In New Essays on Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, edited by Vivian R. Pollak, 35–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
James, Henry. Daisy Miller and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Weisbuch, Robert. “Henry James and the Idea of Evil.” In The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, edited by Jonathan Freedman, 102–119. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis, Short Story

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