Daisy Miller Themes
by Henry James

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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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, 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...

(The entire section is 1,269 words.)