Henry James’s Daisy Miller, which explores the social expectations placed upon Americans traveling in Europe, reveals the hypocrisy inherent in judging other people. Throughout the novella, the reader is provided with numerous clues that the Miller family is not particularly sophisticated, although clearly wealthy. Winterbourne, for example, observes that Daisy Miller has beautiful clothing, but that her appearance suffers from “a want of finish.” Daisy’s mother, Mrs. Miller, who makes little attempt to control her children, has a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and is unaware that her daughter’s behavior is unacceptable. Eugenio, the Millers’ courier, acts shocked and disapproving when Daisy displays her inappropriate social conduct. He simply expects the Millers to know better.
Daisy, a young woman who knows her mind in a time when women were considered incapable of complex thought, confounds characters such as Mrs. Walker, who represents European standards of social conduct. Daisy, through her innocent, logical assessment of the social restrictions to which she is expected to adhere, reveals the hypocrisy of these expectations. When Winterbourne tells her, for example, that flirting is considered inappropriate behavior for young, unmarried women, Daisy retorts that flirting would seem more proper in unmarried women than in married women. Her logic is irrefutable; ironically, as Winterbourne discloses, there are married women with whom flirting might take a serious turn. Daisy flirts fearlessly, in public, but she is the most exemplary among her peers. She is the most honest.
In contrast, Winterbourne is reputed to have spent a great deal of time in Geneva in the company of an older woman whom no other character in the novel has seen. Moreover, the text implies that this woman may be married. In light of this possibility, Winterbourne’s hypocrisy is clear. Daisy, too, spends a great deal of time with an attractive, unmarried Italian who dotes on her, but her relationship with him is chaste. The sexist double standard that ruled Victorian morality made Winterbourne’s behavior acceptable and Daisy’s not.
Daisy’s behavior, in fact, is a refreshing deviation from the standard presentation of women of her time in art and literature as weak, fragile creatures. Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello, suffers from numerous headaches and hence spends a lot of time...
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