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 thinking is thus continually revealed.
Throughout the novella, Daisy confounds other Americans who are traveling abroad, as was the custom of well-to-do Americans of the late nineteenth century. Yet, sadly, as the novella reaches its conclusion, Daisy Miller, who catches a fever after recklessly going out late in the evening, loses her life. Her death is not dramatized in an overt attempt to impart a moralistic message about prudence to the reader. Rather, her death provides her with a level of social acceptance that she never attained in life. She is buried in a small Protestant cemetery; the burial in consecrated ground professes her innocence and morality. Her funeral is well attended, another clear indication of her virtue. As if these indications are not enough, Giovanelli tells Winterbourne outright that Daisy was innocent. Another subtle irony emerges in that although Winterbourne may think himself socially superior to Giovanelli, he is clearly Giovanelli’s inferior, as Winterbourne is uncouth enough to insult Giovanelli at Daisy’s funeral. Furthermore, Giovanelli never questions Daisy’s innocence, while Winterbourne continually wavers in his judgment of Daisy’s character, even telling her at one point that she should not flirt with anyone except him.
One of the greatest tragedies of the novella is not that Daisy is continually misjudged by her hypocritical peers for her nonconformist behavior, but that she eventually conforms. The beautiful virgin dies in the prime of her life. In so doing, she conforms to another common portrayal of ideal femininity in art and literature. Winterbourne learns the gravity of his misjudgment of Daisy not only through Giovanelli but also through Mrs. Miller, who informs Winterbourne that Daisy spoke of him on her deathbed. Daisy’s greatest concern was that Winterbourne know that she was not engaged to Giovanelli. The novella then makes clear that Daisy might very well have been in love with Winterbourne, although she refused to adhere to the social standards of what was considered appropriate behavior toward him or toward Giovanelli. The novella ends with a reference to Winterbourne’s possible relations with a foreign woman in whom he is much interested, implying that his own adherence to the hypocritical double standard continues. Daisy, after all, was also much interested in a foreign man, yet her behavior cost her her life.