Daisy Miller, the charming and unconforming American tourist whose inattention to decorum (she walks unchaperoned with an Italian suitor in the daytime) results in her ostracism by the Europeanized Americans in Rome. In defiance, she visits the Colosseum at night with the same young man and later dies of a fever contracted there.
Frederick Winterbourne, an American expatriate from whose point of view the story is told. At first puzzled by Daisy, he soon becomes convinced that she is immoral. After her death, however, he realizes that he loved her, and that her manners indicated only a native American freedom.
Giovanelli, the young Italian whose companionship causes the scandal involving Daisy. An adventurer interested primarily in Daisy’s money, he admits to Winterbourne after her death that she never would have consented to marry him.
Mrs. Walker, an American expatriate. Because Daisy rejects Mrs. Walker’s efforts to preserve her from scandal, Mrs. Walker cuts her at a party, thus beginning Daisy’s complete ostracism.
Randolph Miller, Daisy’s young and spoiled brother. His impudence also shocks the American expatriates.
Mrs. Costello, Winterbourne’s aunt. She refuses to meet Daisy because she is convinced that the Millers are common.
Eugenio, the Millers’ courier and servant. That the Millers treat him almost as a member of the family also causes talk among the American expatriates.
The first of the great Jamesian heroines, Daisy is the prototype of "the American girl" of the post Civil War period — direct, independent and somewhat presumptuous. The contemporary reading public engaged in a lively debate about whether she was an unpatriotic image of American girlhood and at one point, as writer and critic William Dean Howells recalled, "The thing went so far that society almost divided itself into Daisy Millerites and anti-Daisy Millerites." The controversy probably arose because by Victorian standards a heroine could be only good or bad, without a shadow of ambiguity, whereas Daisy is not so easy to place. She is charming and somewhat foolish; she demands independence but wants social approval; she is victimized but also contributes to her unfortunate destiny. In short, she is an original creation, the product of James's keen social observation combined with his sensitivity to certain archetypal American traits as well as his insight into human psychology.
The key to Winterbourne's characterization is his association with Geneva. As the birthplace of Calvinism, Geneva symbolizes a Puritanical attitude toward the expression of sexuality, a strong sense of the need for social restraint and conventions and a morality that tends to evaluate people and events according to very rigid categories. Another important factor shaping his perspective is his reliance on the attitudes and ideas expressed by his social peers whose prejudices he regularly superimposes on whatever instinctively positive responses he has to Daisy.
Briefly but vividly drawn, the other important figures in the novel are the female characters, all of whom are compared to Daisy — and found wanting. Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker are "doubles" in that they both represent social decorum and serve as Winterbourne's "confidante" as well as his "conscience" in matters of social propriety. Similarly, both are associated with interiors and stasis, in contrast to Daisy's connection with nature and movement. Mrs. Costello's narrowness is symbolized by the fact that she spends most of her time shut up in her room with a sick-headache, a probably psychosomatic ailment that not only allows her to exclude the outside world but alienates her from it. Seemingly less rigid, Mrs. Walker attempts to "reeducate" Daisy,...
(This entire section contains 592 words.)
but they are unable to understand one other. Their conflict culminates in the Pincian Gardens when she tries to convince Daisy to stop walking and get into her carriage. Daisy's refusal to comply with this request signifies her refusal to be enclosed within social conventions alien to her way of thinking. The reverse image of these characters, Daisy's mother seems not to realize that any rules and conventions exist. She does not act as Daisy's chaperon, apparently places no limits on her interaction with her gentlemen friends and seems unaware of society's disapproval of her behavior. Only toward the end of the story, does she recover a sense of dignity and purpose in Winterbourne's eyes when she acts lovingly as Daisy's nurse.
Daisy's Italian suitor, Mr. Giovanelli, is seen only through Winterbourne who initially characterizes him in negative terms. Out of jealousy, he makes fun of his attractiveness and calls him "a presumably low-lived foreigner . . . anything but a gentleman." Subsequently, he admits he is a perfectly respectable lawyer who allowed himself to dream for a while that he and Daisy might marry. When this dream faded, Giovanelli kept on admiring her because he had learned to see her as an individual. Winterbourne is appropriately humbled by Giovanelli's final evaluation of Daisy as "the most beautiful young lady I ever saw, and the most amiable . . . And she was the most innocent."