How is realism depicted in Daisy Miller?

Quick answer:

Literary realism is illustrated in Daisy Miller in the way that Henry James uses realistic and factual traits to describe his characters as regular, flawed people. Realism is also evident in the situations that develop in the novel, which ultimately separate Winterbourne and Daisy for good. Rather than romanticizing the story of Winterbourne and Daisy, James presents the realistic situation that occurs when two very different people cannot figure each other out.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the many popular definitions of realism in literature explains the genre the following way:

a literary movement that represents reality by portraying mundane, everyday experiences as they are in real life.

This description is a salient factor that permeates the novel. Our main character, Annie P. Miller (or Daisy), is far removed from the role of the femme fatale embodied by characters such as that of the sultry Countess Oleska from Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. She also lacks the gravitas, endless suffering, and karmic tragedies of the eponymous main character of Anna Karenina.

In a huge contrast to the previously mentioned characters, Daisy Miller is basically a "girl next door" who is pretty enough, smart enough, and charming enough to be well liked. Winterbourne describes her as

wonderfully pretty, and, in short ... very nice.

Winterbourne does not romanticize Daisy or put her on some sort of romantic pedestal.

Additionally, the way Daisy is described in the novel embodies a realistic description of a typical, everyday woman much more accurately than the other female characters mentioned above;

this young girl was not a coquette ...; she was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt.

Ouch. No sugar coating there! Now, see this other very realistic description of Daisy by potential love interest, Winterbourne:

It was impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady; she was wanting in a certain indispensable delicacy.

We know, as readers, that Daisy is a somewhat naive and immature girl.

However, what is a girl from Schenectady, New York to do while traveling through Italy with her American family?

Clearly, the social manners, expectations, and behaviors of the Americans will clash at some point with the much more traditional Europeans. Yet, many people found Daisy's faux pas quite charming because they did appreciate her American ways. After all, she is not there to try to make rank among Europeans; she is just a young, charming woman enjoying herself.

Another way in which realism is depicted in the novel is illustrated in the situations that occur. Part of the definition of literary realism also reads:

[Realism] depicts familiar people, places, and stories ... about the middle and lower classes of society. [It] seeks to tell a story as truthfully as possible instead of dramatizing or romanticizing it.

We witness this in the novel, as well. Henry James cleverly illustrates Winterbourne as the typical American who has lived in Europe long enough to adopt all the behaviors and mannerisms of the continent.

He is furthermore shown as an expatriate who seems to believe that his adopted European behaviors make him automatically superior to Daisy in terms of class and sophistication. It may be so—in Europe.

James throws another realistic hit at Winterbourne's character by showing how the latter goes as far as thinking that he should try to "save" Daisy from her "indiscretions," which he sees as social flaws.

However, most everyone else sees Daisy's cheeky ways as the actions of a young, pretty visitor who is used to a lifestyle that is quite flexible in comparison to her European acquaintances' more stuffy and formulaic lifestyles.

This is realism at its best: Winterbourne does not romanticize or idealize Daisy. He is conflicted because he does not get why she behaves without a care in the world. Eventually, he sees her as a "lost case" and gives up. He is in no way a knight in a shining armor fighting for his love.

We, as readers, know that if Winterbourne had not been such as snob he would have enjoyed the company of Daisy. He always looked for rare and unique women, and yet, he was witnessing the most enigmatic woman he ever saw, but he was too stuck in his ways to see it. There is no romantic ending for them.

Finally, there is the fact that, in literary realism, there is no providence or miracle that could save the characters from their fates. Daisy dies from malaria, which is typically caused by a mosquito bite. Her death came as a result of a rendez-vous with Giovanelly at the Colosseum.

While Daisy's death is a tragedy, since it happened to a young, beautiful, charming woman, the circumstances surrounding her death were as commonly known as they were preventable. Roman fever was a reality in Italy, and people actively avoided exposure to it. Daisy died as a result of her own choices, and Winterbourne lost a chance in a lifetime to meet the woman he searched for as a result of his choices.

Therefore, the flawed characters, frustrating situations, and the circumstances that could have prevented a tragic ending make this novel quite realistic in every sense of the word.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial