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.
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.
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)
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...
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