(Short Story Criticism)

Daisy Miller Henry James

The following entry presents criticism of James's novella Daisy Miller. See also, The Turn of the Screw Criticism.

Considered one of the greatest novelists of the English language, James was also an accomplished writer of short fiction. Shunning what he called "the baseness of the arbitrary stroke," James wrote carefully stylized stories, emphasizing introspection and moments of revelation over plot. The publication of Daisy Miller in 1879 earned him his first, and perhaps greatest, popular success. The novella contrasts the rigid social laws of Europe and the independent, unconventional spirit of a young American woman, Daisy Miller, who has been regarded by some commentators as an archetypal American woman. To this day the story continues to be widely anthologized and discussed for its complex and interesting characters and its examination of late nineteenth-century morality and manners.

Plot and Major Characters

In Vevey, Switzerland, a young American expatriate, Winterbourne, meets attractive, enigmatically naive Daisy Miller, an American traveling with her mother. Finding Daisy refreshing, Winterbourne escorts her to the Castle of Chillon. This outing annoys his aunt, Mrs. Costello, who believes Daisy to be uncouth and dangerous to the established social code. Meeting again in Rome, Winterbourne escorts Daisy on a walk with her new Italian acquaintance, Giovanelli, but the stroll is interrupted by Mrs. Walker, another American expatriate, who feels Daisy is ruining her reputation by associating with the handsome Giovanelli. Daisy rejects Mrs. Walker's advice, and is subsequently shunned by American society in Rome. After a harsh exchange of words with Winterbourne, Daisy pays a rash evening visit to the Colosseum. As a result, she falls ill with fever and dies a week later. At her grave, Giovanelli assures Winterbourne of Daisy's innocence and Winterbourne realizes his love for the dead American girl, his premature judgment of her, and his own blindness in the face of European convention.

Major Themes

In many early works James drew from personal experience and observation to focus on perhaps his most celebrated theme: the conflict between European and American culture. Daisy Miller is his best-known story in this vein; the title character is a young American woman oblivious to the social codes of the Old World. She is contrasted with the American expatriate character of Winterbourne, a man who harshly judges Daisy's alleged social transgressions at the expense of his love for her. His complex and deft portrayal is considered essential to understanding the tension between old and new, conventionality and individuality, Europe and America, and appearance and reality in the novella.

Critical Reception

As with much of James's work, critical estimation of Daisy Miller has fluctuated. While early discussion focused on the accuracy of James's depiction of the generic "American girl," later critics have suggested that Winterbourne is the pivotal character of the story. According to these critics, by presenting Winterbourne's disapproval of Daisy's essentially innocent activities, James subtly admonished the narrow attitudes adopted by many Americans abroad. Other early discussion of Daisy Miller examined the reasons for Daisy's death, and commentators debated whether Daisy deserved her fate or Winterbourne's inaction caused her downfall. Daisy Miller's originality, stylistic distinction, and psychologically complex characters have led many modern critics to regard James as a subtle craftsman who skillfully reflected the late nineteenth-century concern with morality and social behavior.

William Dean Howells (essay date 1879)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Defense of Daisy Miller," in Discovery of a Genius: William Dean Howells and Henry James, edited by Albert Mordell, Twayne Publishers, 1961, pp. 88-91.

[Howells, James's editor and literary agent for much of the author's career, was the chief progenitor of American Realism and one of the most influential American literary critics of the late nineteenth century. Through realism, a theory central to his fiction and criticism, he aimed to disperse "the conventional acceptations by which men live on easy terms with themselves" so that they might "examine the grounds of their social and moral opinions. " In the following essay, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1879, Howells responds to critics who had dubbed Daisy Miller "an outrage on American Girlhood."]

To read the silly criticisms which have been printed, and the far sillier ones which are every day uttered in regard to Mr. James's Daisy Miller would almost convince us that we are as provincial as ever in our sensitiveness to foreign opinion. It is actually regarded as a species of unpardonable incivism for Mr. James, because he lives in London, to describe an under-bred American family traveling in Europe. The fact that he has done so with a touch of marvelous delicacy and truth, that he has produced not so much a picture as a photograph, is held by many to be an aggravating circumstance. Only the most shiveringly sensitive of our shoddy population are bold enough to deny the truth of this wonderful little sketch. To those best acquainted with Mr. James's manner (and I believe I have read every word he has printed) Daisy Miller was positively startling in its straightforward simplicity and what I can only call authenticity. It could not have been written—I am almost ready to say it cannot be appreciated—except by one who has lived so long abroad as to be able to look at his own people with the eyes of a foreigner. All poor Daisy's crimes are purely conventional. She is innocent and good at heart, susceptible of praise and blame; she does not wish even to surprise, much less outrage, the stiffest of her censors. In short, the things she does with such dire effect at Vevay and at Rome would never for an instant be remarked or criticised in Schenectady. They would provoke no comment in Buffalo or Cleveland; they would be a matter of course in Richmond and Louisville. One of the most successful touches in the story is that where Daisy, astonished at being cut by American ladies, honestly avows her disbelief in their disapproval. "I should not think you would let them be so unkind!" she cries to Winterbourne, conscious of her innocence, and...

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Viola Dunbar (essay date 1948)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Note on the Genesis of Daisy Miller," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, April, 1948, pp. 184-86.

[In the following essay, Dunbar traces the development of James's novella.]

In his introduction, Henry James says that Daisy Miller originated in an anecdote about a young American girl which he heard in Rome in the autumn of 1877. However, two travel sketches which he wrote several years earlier help to explain the development of the story.

In 1872-73 James spent three months in Switzerland and six months in Rome, the two places which form the setting for Daisy Miller. In "Swiss Notes," contributed to the Nation for Sept. 19, 1872, he speaks of the moral individuality of Switzerland and of its want of a sense of humor. To support his own observation of the highly artificial character of life in Geneva, he refers to a novel by Cherbuliez: "A Swiss novelist of incomparable talent has indeed written a tale expressly to prove that frank nature is wofully out of favor there, and his heroine dies of a broken heart because her spontaneity passes for impropriety." James might have been stating the theme of Daisy Miller. The book to which he referred is Paule Méré, which he described the next year [in North American Review, October, 1873] as "an attempted exposure, rather youthful in its unsparing ardor, of the narrowness and intolerance of Genevese society." The similarity of Daisy Miller and Paule Méré does not extend beyond the theme, but it seems probable that when James came to develop into a story the anecdote which he heard in Rome in 1877, his recollection of the moral atmosphere of Switzerland and his familiarity with Cherbuliez's novel on the same theme caused him to place the first half of his story in Switzerland. He had already identified this country as a place where one could become the victim of rigid...

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Wayne C. Booth (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Uses of Authorial Silence," in The Rhetoric of Fiction, The University of Chicago Press, 1961, pp. 271-309.

[In the following excerpt, Booth discusses the importance of Winterbourne as narrator.]

The events in James's early success, Daisy Miller (1879), might seem to be naturally suited to tragic or strongly pathetic effects. An innocent young American girl tours Europe, behaving in the open, casual, uncircumspect way that comes naturally to her. Her free ways with men are misinterpreted by the sophisticated, Europeanized Americans she meets. She is gradually ostracized, forced more and more into the company of Europeans. Finally she is...

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Leon Edel (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Daisy," in Henry James: The Conquest of London, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1962, pp. 302-18.

[In the following excerpt, Edel discusses public reaction to Daisy Miller.]

"My London life flows evenly along, making, I think, in various ways more and more of a Londoner of me," Henry wrote to William at the end of January 1878. "If I keep along here patiently for a certain time I rather think I shall become a (sufficiently) great man. I have got back to work with great zest after my autumnal loafings, and mean to do some this year which will make a mark. I am, as you suppose, weary of writing articles about places, and mere potboilers of all kinds; but shall...

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Motley F. Deakin (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Daisy Miller, Tradition, and the European Heroine," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. VI, No. 1, March, 1969, pp. 45-59.

[In the following essay, Deakin places the character of Daisy Miller within the European tradition.]

When William Dean Howells selected Daisy Miller as the one Jamesian character to emphasize in his Heroines of Fiction, he did her two great services. First, he, as the dean of American critics, certified her important position in both the Jamesian canon and in the literary world at large. Second, he affirmed by both precept and example that she would be understood best not as an isolated phenomenon but as a part of a literary...

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Donald £. Houghton (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Attitude and Illness in James' 'Daisy Miller'," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1969, pp. 51-60.

[In the following essay, Houghton explores the role of illness in James's novella, maintaining that many Americans visiting Europe become ill in the story "not so much because of any objective circumstances in the new environment but as a result of attitudes the Americans take toward that environment."]

Oscar Cargill's definition of James' "international novel" indicates how close James came in so many of his novels to presenting the psycho-physical experience we now refer to as culture shock. "If Turgenev had originated 'the international novel,'...

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Ian Kennedy (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Frederick Winterbourne: The Good Bad Boy in Daisy Miller," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 139-50.

[In the following essay, Kennedy examines the character of Winterbourne, concluding that he is puritanical and hypocritical]

As James Gargano pointed out in his excellent article, "Daisy Miller: An Abortive Quest for Innocence," critical attention has concentrated obsessively on the heroine of James's most popular nouvelle and has consequently ignored the fact that its central character is, in fact, Frederick Winterbourne [South Atlantic Quarterly, Winter, 1960]. From the time of John Foster Kirk's denunciation of...

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Carey H. Kirk (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Daisy Miller': The Reader's Choice," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 275-83.

[In the following essay, Kirk examines stylistic aspects of Daisy Miller, focusing on James's use of ambivalence in the characters of Daisy and Winterbourne.]

Any overview of the past century's critical responses to Daisy Miller reveals a radical shift in readers' sympathies with its characters. The genteel American audience of James's day was outraged and insulted by Daisy's liberated behavior, but modern sensibilities identify Winterbourne as the principal offender against human decency. They accuse him of being everything from an...

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Richard A. Hocks (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Early James: Social Realism and the International Scene," in Henry James: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 12-35.

[In the following excerpt, Hocks maintains that Daisy Miller is truly the story of the making of a Europeanized American.]

Finally, the best known and perennial favorite among James's early stories is Daisy Miller (1878), a nouvelle that like "Madame de Mauves" employs third-person narration focused on a viewpoint character of "register." It occupies a special place in his canon for several reasons. First, its notoriety and popularity made James for a brief moment in his career a popular writer:...

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Lynn Wardley (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reassembling Daisy Miller," in American Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 232-54.

[In the following essay, Wardley explores the role of flirtation in Daisy Miller.]

There is only one way to improve ourselves, and that is by some of us setting an example which the others may pick up and imitate till the new fashion spreads from east to west. Some of us are in more favorable positions than others to set new fashions. Some of us are more striking personally, and imitable, so to speak. But no living person is sunk so low as not to be imitated by somebody.

William James


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Robert Weisbuch (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Winterbourne and the Doom of Manhood in Daisy Miller," in New Essays on Daisy Miller and the Turn of the Screw, edited by Vivian R. Pollak, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 65-89.

[In the following essay, Weisbuch analyzes Winterbourne's flawed perception of Daisy and the world around him, and compares him to other bachelors in modern literature.]


Henry James is like the modern jazz masters in this: He begins with the simplest romantic themes, then builds intricacies upon them until the once-clichés speak to all the subtle richness of social existence. With Daisy Miller and her reluctant suitor Frederick Winterbourne,...

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W. R. Martin and Warren U. Ober (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fame, 1877-79," in Henry James's Apprenticeship, The Tales: 1864-1882, P. D. Meany Publishers, 1994, 133-58.

[In the following essay, Martin and Ober provide a thematic and stylistic analysis of Daisy Miller.]

This was the first of James's tales to be published in England, and it is his first nouvelle, perhaps his favourite form: in the Preface to The Lesson of the Master he waxes lyrical about "the beautiful and blest nouvelle." Among the many merits of the tale is its architectonic structure. None of the scenes is set in Geneva, but Winterbourne, the central intelligence, studies there, and its presence is powerfully felt throughout as a...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Davidson, Cathy N. "'Circumsexualocution' in Henry James's Daisy Miller:" Arizona Quarterly 32, No. 4 (Winter 1976): 353-66.

Suggests that James's use of circumlocution to express Winterbourne's frustrations transforms Daisy into the "patron saint of repressed sexuality."

Draper, R. P. "Death of a Hero? Winterbourne and Daisy Miller." Studies in Short Fiction VI, No. 1 (Fall 1968): 601-08.

Contends that Frederick Winterbourne is a tragic hero and his final loss of spirit is the novella's theme.

Dunbar, Viola R. "The Revision of Daisy Miller" Modern Language...

(The entire section is 485 words.)