Social Concerns / Themes

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Daisy Miller, which first appeared in England in Cornhill Magazine in 1878, has always remained one of Henry James's most popular works. It has some characteristics of the novel of manners, a genre, often but not always satiric, which represents the behavior, customs and values typical of a particular social class in a given time and place. Specifically, in it James presents an early version of his "international theme" by juxtaposing the manners and culture of American tourists in Europe with those of Americans who have lived abroad for such a long time that they have become Europeanized. The major aspects of this America-Europe contrast are innocence vs. experience, spontaneity vs. ritual, naturalness vs. artificiality and frankness vs. duplicity. In developing these polarities, James moves beyond the surface to endow his story with deepening social, psychological, and moral significance.

The social dimension arises from the differences between Daisy Miller, a young woman from Schenectady, New York, who is touring Europe with her mother and younger brother Randolph, and Frederick Winterbourne, a twenty-seven-year-old native of the United States who has spent most of his life in Geneva, Switzerland. Daisy and Winterbourne meet one June morning in the garden of a hotel in Vevey, a charming resort town on Lake Geneva. He is immediately attracted by her prettiness and her air of directness and independence so different from the restrained demeanor of European girls. With an audacity unusual for him, he tries to engage her in conversation even though they have not been properly introduced and he is pleasantly surprised when she finally begins to chat with him. They go on an excursion to the Castle of Chillon and display the stirrings of a reciprocal romantic interest. Some months later, in Rome, Winterbourne desires to resume their acquaintance but discovers that her unconventional behavior has made her a subject of gossip.

From the start, Daisy is compared to her European counterparts. She has been indulged materially and encouraged to develop an independent spirit but she lacks parental supervision. Her father has remained in Schenectady to take care of the family business and her excessively permissive mother fails to protect her sufficiently. The girls in Geneva and Rome, instead, are always shielded by anxious parents. Related to the question of chaperoning is the issue of flirting which for Europeans was a sign of impropriety in young women while in America it was considered a natural part of healthy courtship. Daisy herself points to this cultural difference when she says she thinks it more proper for young unmarried girls to flirt than for older married women to do so.

Through Daisy, the narrative also critiques how Victorian society limited women's intellectual growth and personal freedom. Not having received a good education, Daisy knows very little about the places she visits and admits she would not be able to act as a tutor for her brother who, unlike herself, is destined for college. As for free exploration of the world, Winterbourne can speak to strangers, go walking wherever and with whomever he wishes and openly express his ideas, but when performed by Daisy such actions appear scandalous and authorize others to speculate about her morality.

Whereas Daisy is too impulsive, the expatriate Americans with whom she unsuccessfully attempts to associate have become so inflexible about social behavior that they seem to have forgotten the existence of human feelings. In their eyes, the Millers transgress essential codes of behavior in their overly familiar relationship with servants, in their failure to discipline little Randolph, and in the liberty accorded Daisy. The key issue in their negative judgment,...

(This entire section contains 1269 words.)

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however, regards the question of Daisy's "innocence," a word they use in several senses: to signify being unsophisticated in terms of social mores; to distinguish behaving naturally from playing a role; to refer to a young woman's sexual intactness. Daisy never fully understands why these people react to her so strongly or why conduct which is acceptable at home is misunderstood and disapproved of in Europe. In particular, she sees nothing wrong in openly enjoying the company of her gentlemen friends while for them her major failing is precisely her free manner with men which they insistently misinterpret as a sign of her impropriety.

Developing parallel to the social dimension of James's tale, there is a psychological theme that concerns how individuals respond to the constrictions of conventions. The characters who occupy a position at the top of the social pyramid, rigidly adhere to the prevailing modes of conduct and expect others to do likewise. Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs. Costello, is so sure about Daisy's vulgarity that she refuses even to be introduced to her, while the ironically-named Mrs. Walker severely advises Daisy that to walk unchaperoned at twilight will ruin her reputation and becomes angry when the girl refuses to change her plans accordingly. It is on the basis of such opinions, and not for any specific wrongdoings, that Daisy is ultimately ostracized by the entire community of upper-class American expatriates in Rome.

Since we are never given access to Daisy's thoughts, we cannot know whether she ignores the existence of rigid codes regulating the behavior of young unmarried women or is determined to flaunt them. Whatever her motivation, she succeeds in proclaiming her independence. Besides continuing to frequent Giovanelli, a handsome young Italian whom everyone believes is a fortune-hunter, she allows herself to be seen with him in relatively secluded places, walks with him unchaperoned and finally accompanies hint to the Colosseum at night. However, after she is "cut" by Winterbourne at the Colosseum she seems to lose heart, perhaps realizing she cannot continue to exercise her individuality and still claim a portion of social approval.

Winterbourne is not as free as Daisy nor as rigid as some of the other characters. He at first seems capable of seeing that Daisy offers him a vision of a new way of life and whenever he is in her presence, he is tempted to test the limits of his habitual behavior, if only to enjoy the pleasure of flirting with her. Yet, after each encounter, he feels perplexed about the true meaning of her behavior and remains under the influence of the opinions of his aunt and Mrs. Walker. Thus, he finally cannot overcome his tendency to condemn people who disregard social decorum.

A third thematic dimension centers on the moral issue of judging people according to pre-established categories. Winterbourne is a prime example of this tendency since throughout the story he searches for the right formula to describe Daisy and to clarify for himself how to conduct his relations with her. He alternately sees her as "a pretty American flirt," "an unscrupulous young person," and "an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence." Frustratingly for him, she constantly eludes such labeling by actions he is unable to predict. His vacillation continues until the evening he sees her with Giovanelli at the Colosseum when, with a sense of relief, he decides "she was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect." At the end, Winterbourne senses he judged Daisy unfairly because he was too inflexible, but this insight does not lead him to change his values and he returns to Geneva without having become a new man. No explicit judgment is passed but, implicitly, he is depicted as a failure. His relationship with Daisy was something of a moral test involving his ability to overcome his adherence to categorical thought and to relate to people as individuals rather than as types, as well as to begin seeing life anew from outside the boundaries of narrow conventions.


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