Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603
An early work, Daisy Miller is written in a simple style that avoids the ponderous and abstract vocabulary and syntax of James’s later works. Also, like most of his early fiction, the tale has elements of a moral allegory and features a love triangle as the basis for the plot.
Here we have the prototype of a situation that James called the “international theme.” Though he was American by birth, James spent most of his life abroad living in France, Switzerland, and England, finally becoming a British citizen. He found that his perspective on both American and European cultures could be employed in plots where characters from the new and old world interact. The international theme, in addition, was well suited to show his talents as a social historian and satirist.
Daisy Miller begins in the summer of 1875 in Vevey, Switzerland. Daisy is traveling in Europe with her mother and young brother, Randolph, trying to acquire the finish many nouveau riche Americans thought European travel would provide. She meets, without proper introduction, another American, 27-year-old Frederick Winterbourne, who has lived in Geneva most of his life. He is immediately fond of Daisy despite her laxity of deportment. After a few days of pleasant flirtation they part, agreeing to meet later in Rome.
Their reunion in January is not a happy one. Winterbourne’s doubts about Daisy’s morality are deepened by reports of her social eccentricities. Mrs. Costello, Winterbourne’s stuffy aunt, remarks that Daisy acts as if she lived in the “Golden Age” before society had rules. One night Winterbourne discovers her in the Colosseum with an Italian admirer and decides that she is not the kind of girl he can respect. In a cutting adieu, he warns her of the danger to her physical health posed by the dank ruin. When she dies from Roman fever some time later, he learns that he was mistaken about Daisy; she was innocent and played the coquette only to attract his attention.
Despite the melodramatic denouement of a sweet young girl dying of a broken heart, qua Roman fever, the moral point of the story is serious: Naturalness and innocence are blighted by artificiality and sophistication.
Graham, George Kenneth. Henry James: The Drama of Fulfilment. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. Concentrates on the tragicomedy of Winterbourne’s attempt to understand Daisy. Examines the interplay between the social and the personal, and the rational and the emotional.
Hoffmann, Charles G. The Short Novels of Henry James. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957. Examines how Daisy Miller presents European social codes as constraints on evil—and Daisy’s defiance as foolish American innocence of evil. Looks at the theme of appearance (Daisy’s corruption) versus reality (Daisy’s innocence).
Samuels, Charles Thomas. The Ambiguity of Henry James. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1971. Shows how Daisy Miller fits into James’s view of the guilt of innocence. Daisy is culpable, as are her persecutors—especially the fastidious Winterbourne, yearning for American purity in a fallen world.
Tintner, Adeline R. The Museum World of Henry James. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986. Concentrates on James’s use of the portrait of Pope Innocent X as analogy and contrast to Daisy’s innocence in the work. Points out the ironic ending: that Winterbourne will be subject to the gossip he sought to avoid.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Eve and Henry James: Portraits of Women and Girls in His Fiction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978. Looks at the origins of the work, the controversy it aroused, and its literary counterparts. Considers Daisy’s character, her refusal to conform, and her ignorance of corruption.