Daisy Miller and the psychological novella The Turn of the Screw (1898) form the highlight of Henry James’s career. Published in 1879 in The Cornhill Magazine, Daisy Miller gave Henry James his first significant success as a fiction writer. It brought him fame as a novelist in the genre of “international” novels, right at the time when the number of Americans who could afford to travel to Europe for the first time increased following the American Civil War. It also raised a storm of controversy due to the nature of the titular character.
Winterbourne, the American expatriate who ultimately rejects Daisy and her “new American” manners, is the protagonist of the work, rather than Daisy herself. While some viewed the character of Daisy Miller as a refreshing depiction of a young lady unhampered by the rigid social structure in Victorian-influenced America and Europe at the time, many saw her as a shocking example of the type of American that was infiltrating upper-class society, both in the New World and the Old.
Henry James, though born in the United States, lived most of his life in Europe, becoming a British citizen shortly before he died, embarrassed by the failure of the United States to enter into World War I. However, it is his embarrassment over the lack of manners of many of his countrymen as they toured Europe that James pours out in the pages of Daisy Miller. Rather than making Daisy a heroine, he lets her die, with Winterbourne returning to his life as before, despite his intention to leave Europe for America. This ambiguous ending continues to cause discussion among its readers as to James’s real intent in writing the novella. Instead of a “declaration of independence” from the moral code of the middle and upper classes, perhaps Daisy Miller was meant to be a warning to American travelers of the period.
Winterbourne is a young American who has lived in Europe for quite a while. He spends a great deal of time at Vevey, which is a favorite spot of his aunt, Mrs. Costello. One day, while he is loitering outside the hotel, he is attracted by a young woman who appears to be related to Randolph Miller, a young American boy with whom he was talking. After a while, the young woman exchanges a few words with him. Her name is Daisy Miller. The boy is her brother, and they are in Vevey with their mother. They came from Schenectady, Winterbourne learns, and they intend to go next to Italy. Randolph insists that he wants to go home. Winterbourne learns that Daisy hopes to visit the Castle of Chillon. He promises to take her there, for he is quite familiar with the old castle.
Winterbourne asks his aunt, Mrs. Costello, to meet Daisy. Mrs. Costello, however, will not agree because she thinks the Millers are common. That evening, Daisy and Winterbourne plan to go out on the lake, much to the horror of Eugenio, the Millers’ traveling companion, who is more like a member of the family than a courier. At the last moment, Daisy changes her mind about the night excursion. A few days later, Winterbourne and Daisy visit the Castle of Chillon. The outing confirms Mrs. Costello’s opinion that Daisy is uncultured and unsophisticated.
Winterbourne makes plans to go to Italy. When he arrives, he goes directly to the home of Mrs. Walker, an American whom he met in Geneva. There he meets Daisy and Randolph. Daisy reproves him for not having called to see her. Winterbourne replies that she is unkind, as he just arrived on the train. Daisy asks Mrs. Walker’s permission to bring an Italian friend, Mr. Giovanelli, to a party that Mrs. Walker is about to give. Mrs. Walker agrees. Then Daisy says that she and the Italian are going for a walk. Mrs. Walker is shocked, as young unmarried women do not walk the streets of Rome with Italians. Daisy suggests that there would be no objection if Winterbourne would go with her to the spot where she is to meet the Italian and then walk with them.
Winterbourne and Daisy set out and eventually find Giovanelli....
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