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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.


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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...

(This entire section contains 732 words.)

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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. They walk together for a while. Then Mrs. Walker’s carriage draws alongside the strollers. She beckons to Winterbourne and implores him to persuade Daisy to enter her carriage. She tells him that Daisy is ruining her reputation by such behavior; she becomes familiar with Italians and is quite heedless of the scandal she is causing. Mrs. Walker says she will never speak to Winterbourne again if he does not ask Daisy to get into the carriage at once. Daisy, refusing the requests of Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne, continues her walk with the Italian.

Mrs. Walker is determined to snub Daisy at the party. Winterbourne arrives, but Daisy has not yet make her appearance. Mrs. Miller arrives more than an hour before Daisy appears with Giovanelli. Mrs. Walker has a moment of weakness and greets them politely; but, as Daisy comes to say goodnight, Mrs. Walker turns her back upon her. From that time on, Daisy and Giovanelli find all doors shut to them. Winterbourne sees her occasionally, but she is always with the Italian. Everyone thinks they are having an affair. When Winterbourne asks her if she is engaged, Daisy says that she is not.

One night, despite the danger from malarial fever, Giovanelli takes Daisy to the Colosseum. Winterbourne, encountering them in the ancient arena, reproaches the Italian for his thoughtlessness. Giovanelli says that Daisy insisted upon viewing the ruins by moonlight. Within a few days, Daisy is dangerously ill. During her illness, she sends word to Winterbourne that she was never engaged to Giovanelli. A week later, she is dead.

As they stand beside Daisy’s grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, Giovanelli tells Winterbourne that Daisy would never have married her Italian suitor, even if she had lived. Then Winterbourne realizes that he himself loved Daisy without knowing his own feelings and that he could have married her had he acted differently. He reasons, too late, that he has lived in Europe too long and that he has forgotten the freedom of American manners and the complexity of the American character.


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