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What makes Daisy Miller, by Henry James, a Realist novel, and what is the role of...

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asleepinakitchen | eNoter

Posted March 15, 2013 at 8:10 PM via web

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What makes Daisy Miller, by Henry James, a Realist novel, and what is the role of Realism in psychological exploration of the characters?

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K.P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted March 16, 2013 at 5:18 PM (Answer #1)

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Three things stand out that mark Daisy Miller as being written in accord with the Realist movement. Realism began as a reaction against the idealism, romanticism, emotionalism and supernaturalism of the Romantic period poetry and novel, such as, for example, Fanny Burney's epistolary novel Evelina. Romanticist traits, though, that were most objected to by Realists were more pronounced in poetry, such as Wordsworth's The Ruined Cottage and Colridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, than in Romanticist novels because novels featured much less the characteristics of subjectivity, emotionality and the supernatural than the poetry did.

Dominant traits of Realism--which were ironically emphatically evident in Realist novels--that distinguish James's Daisy Miller as being in the Realist are:

  • careful, abundant and specific descriptive detail.
  • characters selected from the middle class.
  • characters engaging in "quotidian" (everyday, mundane) activity and demonstrating "domestic affections" (Breen and Nobel).
  • psychological development of characters through revealing motivations, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, value judgements, affective states etc.

The opening paragraph shows the first point about descriptive detail quite well. James's description of Vevey gives a broad yet particular description of the "many hotels, for the entertainment of the many tourists." Interspersed with this description are passages that give detailed descriptions such as of the "stylish" impression of "young girls" and the "array of establishments":

from the "grand hotel" of the newest fashion, with a chalk-white front, a hundred balconies, and a dozen flags flying from its roof, to the little Swiss pension of an elder day, with its name inscribed in German-looking lettering upon a pink or yellow wall...

Daisy and her family are quite notably characters from the middle class and present the major thematic juxtaposition of qualities representative of new American culture and of old European culture.

"My father's in Schenectady. He's got a big business. My father's rich, you bet!"

The contrast between the two and Winterbourne's confusion over the contrast--a confusion that is heightened by Winterbourne's own American roots that are overshadowed by his European upbringing--is born out by Daisy's occupation in and preoccupation with everyday concerns or with quotidian life.

James's development of characters is not performed exclusively by expressing their actions and the effects their actions have, but rather by expressing their psychological states as exposed through their thoughts, motivations, feelings, opinions and other mental and emotional processes. This technique of the Realist novel--this technique of the psychological novel--is what gives this exploration of the lives of Daisy and Winterbourne its significance because readers know more about these characters than even other characters know. This creates sympathy with even unfortunately erring characters and exposes unfortunate mistakes and errors in judgement as they occur.

Thus Realism's role in psychological exploration of characters is to expose their inner psychological, cognitive and emotional processes whereby the reader understands the characters as distinct individuals having traits and motivations representative of those really felt by living people and representative of those present in real experience.

"And what is the evidence you have offered?" asked Winterbourne, rather annoyed [emotion] at Miss Miller's want of appreciation [opinion; attitude] of the zeal [psychological affective state] of an admirer [emotion] who on his way down to Rome had stopped neither at [psychological affective state] Bologna nor at Florence, simply because of a certain sentimental impatience [emotion; attitude]."

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