Henry James believed that an author must be granted his donnée, or central idea, and then be judged on the execution of his material. James’s stories are about members of high society. The characters do not engage in dramatic actions but spend much of their time in cryptic conversations, which slowly reveal the intense psychological strain under which they are laboring. James’s narrators are often confused individuals trying to puzzle out and evaluate themselves and the people around them. Romance is frequently at the center of James’s tales, but his lovers have difficulty coming to terms with their own feelings, and often love goes unrecognized and unfulfilled. Marriage is often rejected by his characters, and when it does appear, it is often the scene of heartaches and hidden resentments. Death and dying are also a part of James’s stories. Even though he focuses on the death of women and children, he avoids both the macabre and the sentimental. His stories can be divided into three categories: international romances, tales about writers and artists, and introspective narratives about wasted lives.
James has not been given the same recognition for his short fiction that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe have received; yet James devoted much of his literary life to the creation of short fiction and made many attempts to master the form. Several times in his life he expressed the desire to give up writing novels and to devote himself solely to creating short fiction. For half a century, James employed himself in the writing of 112 pieces of short fiction, beginning with “A Tragedy of Error” in 1864 and ending with “The Round of Visits” in 1910. He began writing stories ten years before he published his first novel, and over his lifetime, his stories appeared in thirty-five different periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic.
James called his short fiction “tales,” and he divided his tales into types. The anecdote, which focuses on one character and one incident, is a brief, compact, and highly distilled story comparable to a sonnet. The longer nouvelle, which often ran between twenty thousand and forty-five thousand words, allowed James greater development in his short fiction, not for multiplying incidents but for probing the depths of a character’s experience. James expanded his stories because he wanted to explore the richness of human experience that lies hidden behind the surface of everyday life.
James’s major tales can be divided into three periods: His early stories focus on the international theme; during his middle years, his stories center on writers and artists; and his final stories focus on older characters who have gone through life but never really lived. James’s international stories focus on taking characters with set expectations and placing them in foreign environments. Daisy Miller is one of James’s early novelettes and deals with a young American girl who finds herself out of place in a European environment.
In Daisy Miller, young Frederick Winterbourne, an American living in Europe, becomes fascinated with the garrulous Daisy Miller, who is vacationing on the Continent. The free-spirited Daisy amiably flirts with Winterbourne. Although he is attracted to her, he is aware that she and her negligent mother are the source of gossip among European Americans, who are scandalized by the forward ways of the unchaperoned young American. After seeing Daisy in Vevey, he again meets her in Rome, where she is frequently seen with Giovanelli, who is thought to be an Italian adventurer. Ostracized by her American compatriots, she continues to be seen with Giovanelli and risks her life by spending a moonlit night with him at the Colosseum, where she contracts malaria and dies. The puzzled Winterbourne attends her funeral and realizes that she is innocent.
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