Literature · Novels and Novellas

Daisy Miller by Henry James: An Analysis

daisymiller2 A man named Winterbourne meets a flirtatious young American woman from a Nouveau Riche family. He begins falling for her but the upper class society they live in rejects her.

Society has all sorts of rules that are forced on everyone. Some, or many of them, are arbitrary and foolish. Those who don’t follow the status quo are often punished for doing so in some way. In this story, most of the characters are wealthy American expatriates staying in Europe and they certainly go by a strict set of social rules.

Which leads to Daisy Miller, the title character, who’s part of the upper class. But she’s Nouveau Riche (“new money”) and they were generally looked down upon. Daisy is also looked down at because she’s flirtatious among other things.

The main character, Winterbourne grows fond of Daisy but he is unable to pursue a serious relationship with her. This is because his aunt, Mrs. Costello (whose fortune he wants to inherit), doesn’t approve of the girl. Here is what she has to say about Daisy and her family: “ ‘They are very common’ Mrs. Costello declared. ‘They are the sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not – not accepting’.”

However, there’s a more significant moment in the text that gets Daisy labeled improper – she walks in public with two men! This happens when she goes to Rome where she meets, Mrs. Walker, a fellow expatriate. At first, this woman is fairly kind to Daisy but then there’s the moment with the two men.

It’s important to understand that Daisy isn’t sexually promiscuous – she’s just flirty and naive. When the girl wants to walk somewhere with both Winterbourne and a young Italian man named Giovanelli, Mrs Walker desperately pleads for Daisy to come with her instead. “Should you prefer being thought a very reckless girl?” the woman asks at one point.

But Daisy doesn’t listen. Unlike the others, she believes the societal rules to be frivolous. “Daisy gave a violent laugh. ‘I never heard anything so stiff!’ she pursued, “then I am all improper, and you must give me up. Goodbye; I hope you’ll have a lovely ride!’ ”

This is a fascinating moment of rebellion. Daisy, a young girl, boldly challenges societal norms. Her older counterparts in the story remain stuck in their ways. They can’t understand someone like Daisy because, unlike her, they can’t comprehend any kind of nonconformity. The reason for this is that they have always done what their society expects without question.

Why? Because they are afraid of the consequences. An example is, Winterbourne being afraid of not receiving his aunt’s money.

Apart of Daisy’s rebellion, however, comes largely from her naivety. It’s not that she doesn’t fear the consequences, it’s more so that she doesn’t fully understand them.

Rebelling always comes with a cost and Daisy soon finds this out. She gets “cut” at Mrs. Walker’s party. “Cut” is an upper class tradition where women would turn their back on another woman and ignore her. This was usually punishment for “improper” behavior. It was, of course, humiliating and Daisy experiences this firsthand: “When Daisy came to take leave of Mrs. Walker, this lady conscientiously repaired the weakness of which she had been guilty at the moment of the young girl’s arrival. She turned her back straight upon Miss Miller and left her to depart with what grace she might. Winterbourne was standing near the door; he saw it all. Daisy turned very pale and looked at her mother…”

This is a very powerful scene. It’s the perfect example of social shaming. Many people stay in line with the status quo because they fear this sort of humiliation. Basically, a large number of people crave and need acceptance.

Another important factor of this part of the story is that it shows how sometimes women will police the behavior of their fellow women. This is seen even in modern days. So the text is addressing a longstanding social issue.

The way women are shamed is by being thought of as a whore, essentially. Which is pretty much what the other characters calling Daisy improper means in this story. Indeed, when Winterbourne sees Daisy sitting with Giovanelli he tries to write her off by labeling her that: “She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.” However, Winterbourne probably doesn’t mean this since he actually loves Daisy.

But the thing about Winterbourne is that he’s “stiff”. He follows what society expects of a gentleman and this gets in the way of him loving Daisy.

They could have complimented each other. But Daisy dies due to her immaturity – she refuses to take some malaria preventing pills in order to spite Winterbourne. He, on the other hand, ends up getting absorbed into the “acceptable” society. Perhaps, their qualities would have worked well together and they could help each other with their flaws – Daisy’s immaturity and his stiffness.

But in the end, Winterbourne chooses to conform. The end of the story states he is studying and “interested in a very clever foreign lady.” This indicates he is completely doing what is expected of him. The one, who could have took him away from the stiff upper class society, had died.

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