Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 995
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 resting, for example. Even Mrs. Miller, who adheres to so few social rules, manages to be ill most of the time; she rarely sees the beautiful artifacts of the countries she visits and is virtually unable even to go for short walks. When Winterbourne arrives in Italy, he hopes to find a Daisy who fits his own image of ideal femininity, one who gazes out the window of an antediluvian Roman dwelling, longing for his arrival. Winterbourne finds no such creature. Daisy is vivacious, strong-minded, and refreshingly assertive. She asserts to Winterbourne, for example, that she has “never allowed a gentleman to interfere with anything” that she does. In a time when women were the property of men, this sentiment is refreshing, even to Winterbourne.
Winterbourne, for all of his supposed sophistication, cannot shake his attraction to Daisy. He continually attempts to make her behavior conform to his dualistic expectations for women. As far as Winterbourne is concerned, Daisy is either good or bad. She cannot simply be who she is. Ironically, when Winterbourne finds, upon his arrival in Italy, that Daisy is spending a great deal of time with Mr. Giovanelli, he believes that she should have instinctively known that Giovanelli is inappropriate company. The irony lies in his own inability to recognize that perhaps he is inappropriate company for Daisy, or she for him. The hypocrisy of his...
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