Exploring the conflict between concepts at the heart of the American dream—personal freedom and the social limitation others want to place on that freedom—Daisy Miller was a smashing success when originally published in 1878. It remains one of the most popular books written by author Henry James. The short novel established James's reputation as an author on both sides of the Atlantic, and he went on to further explore complex women in such celebrated novels as The Portrait of a Lady (1881).
James had two significant inspirations for the tale he told in Daisy Miller. In the fall of 1877, he heard a story in Rome about a somewhat ignorant, unknowing American mother new to the ways of Europe. The mother allowed her daughter to befriend a Roman man, whom she introduced to new friends they met in the city. Because of their poor social choice, the mother and daughter suffered social outfall and were ostracized by other Americans living in the city. James also had a free-spirited cousin, Minny Temple, who, though dead for several years, was an inspiration for Daisy and many of his early female heroines.
Daisy Miller was written early in 1878 while James was living in London. After being initially rejected by an American publisher, the novel was originally published as Daisy Miller: A Study in two parts by a British periodical, the Cornhill Magazine, in the summer of 1878. The story proved to be immediately popular. Because James failed to secure the American rights to the work right away, Daisy Miller was pirated by periodicals in Boston (Living Age) and New York (Home Journal) that same summer. An authorized American edition was finally put out that fall by Harper's, which also sold well. Over the years, Daisy Miller was republished several times in book form, with James making a number of alterations and revisions each time. The author made major revisions with the so-called New York Edition, published by Scribners in 1907–1909, which is the text used for the discussion here.
Though social mores and attitudes have changed significantly since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Daisy Miller continues to be a popular and relevant story. Filtered through the conflicted perspective of Frederick Winterbourne, an American expatriate who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, James describes the last months of the socially naive, essentially innocent Daisy Miller. Daisy has come to Europe with her mother, Mrs. Miller, and younger brother Randolph. The family does not know what they are doing in Europe. The Millers do not appreciate the culture, art, and monuments yet are rich enough to live in fine hotels for months on their trip abroad. While staying in Vevey, Switzerland, Daisy meets Winterbourne, who is both charmed and bewildered by the flirtatious young American woman who does not follow social norms. He enjoys her nonconformity to a point—especially when she is focused on him—but wants to curb it as well. Winterbourne sees that she lacks education and cultivation, and, especially after the scene shifts to Rome, he wonders if she lacks scruples, too.
In Rome, where the Millers and other Americans vacation in the winter, Daisy spends most of her time with an Italian man, Giovanelli, who is not regarded as her social equal. The pair is also often alone, creating a social scandal among the Americans as well as their European counterparts. While Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs. Costello, has disapproved of the Millers since Vevey, the family's new friend, Mrs. Walker, also comes to disdain Daisy because of her continued disregard for propriety. While Winterbourne shares their concerns and comes to see her as more common than he initially thought, he remains protective of her because of her attractive, stubborn naivety. When Winterbourne finds Daisy and Giovanelli alone at the Colosseum late at night, he finally loses respect for her. After her death, caused by picking up a fever (actually malaria) there, Winterbourne comes to understand that she really was just a spontaneous and innocent flirt. His relationship with Daisy does not change him in the long term except that he realizes that he no longer understands young American girls.
Born in New York City on April 15, 1843, James was raised on both sides of the Atlantic. His grandfather had founded a business that made him wealthy, while his father used his money to live in Europe for a significant time during James's childhood. James received his education in New York as well as London, Paris, and Geneva. Returning to the United States in 1860, James briefly studied art and attended Harvard Law for a term. When his family moved to Massachusetts in 1864, James decided that he wanted to be an author and began publishing stories and reviews anonymously. He published his first signed story in 1865 in the Atlantic Monthly.
From 1869 to 1875, James moved back and forth between the United States and Europe as he worked on his writing career, publishing his first novel Atlantic, Watch and Ward in 1870. After settling in London in 1876, James wrote Daisy Miller in 1878, which established him as an author of note. As he continued to write, he was influenced by his status and experiences as an ex-patriot. James eventually made London his primary home, though he returned to the United States on occasion and continued to travel. After becoming a British subject in 1915, he died in London on February 28, 1916, after a series of strokes.
As James has written her, Daisy believes she does not have to follow social rules; her mother seems to have never enforced discipline of any kind upon her or Randolph. A physical embodiment of something essentially America, freedom, she charms Winterbourne with this attitude, but chafes every time someone tries to impose any guidance on her, even for her own safety. Such a free nature leads to a close relationship with Mr. Giovanelli and excursions to tourist spots in Rome, but also to her death.
While James shows the intoxicating effects of freedom, he also emphasizes how Americans embrace rules and can be as intolerant abroad as at home. Daisy shows the world a new way to live, but she is rejected for it. In Daisy Miller: A Dark Comedy of Manners, Daniel Mark Fogel claims, "In his title character, Daisy Miller,… James created the paradigm of a central American myth, the myth of the American girl as free, spontaneous, independent, natural, and generous in spirit."
While readers and critics embraced Daisy Miller when it was initially published, the novel eventually came to be seen as one of James's major works. Though the way of thinking about manners and women has changed over time, James's book and his literary creation remain powerful. Carey H. Kirk writes in Studies in Short Fiction, "In Daisy Miller James has designed a story that will continue to challenge readers' interpretive skills and cause their attitudes toward Daisy and Winterbourne to vacillate for a considerable time to come."
Daisy Miller opens with a description of the town of Vevey, Switzerland, and a certain hotel therein, Trois Couronnes. Both are popular with the many American tourists who visit in the spring. Frederick Winterbourne is introduced. He is a twenty-seven-year-old American expatriate who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, and is staying at the hotel while visiting his aunt, Mrs. Costello. She lives in Vevey and is staying at the same hotel. Because his aunt had one of her headaches this particular morning, Winterbourne is free to spend his time as he wishes.
In the course of his wanderings, Winterbourne is asked for a lump of sugar by a nine-year-old American boy, Randolph Miller. He tells Winter-bourne of his love of sugar and American candy, though his mother does not want to him to have any. Their conversation is interrupted when Randolph's elder sister, Annie P. Miller, commonly known as Daisy, appears. James describes her as "strikingly, admirably pretty." Though Winterbourne initially subscribes to social mores that dictate that he should not speak to a young unmarried woman, he tells her that Randolph and he have met.
Daisy ignores Winterbourne and asks her brother where he got the pole with which he is playing. Winterbourne learns that they are going to Italy, but when they finally begin to converse, she does not know exactly where they are going. Because Daisy says little, Winterbourne observes what she reveals about her personality and appearance as he continues to try and start a conversation. He eventually finds out that she, her mother, and her brother are going to Rome for the winter, and that Daisy does not think of him as a "real American," but a German.
As Daisy opens up more to Winterbourne, he learns that she is from New York state. Randolph informs him that their father, Ezra, is at home in Schenectady tending to his successful business. After Daisy allows Randolph to go play, she tells him that her brother does not like Europe, has had little in the way of other boys to play with, and has not been receiving any education. Daisy also informs Winterbourne that her brother is going to college.
Winterbourne is intrigued by their conversation: "She addressed her new acquaintance as if she had known him a long time. He found it very pleasant. It was many years since he heard a young girl talk so much." Daisy tells him more about where they have been and her society life in the United States. Winterbourne grows more intrigued by her and her talkative innocence. He believes that she is "a pretty American flirt."
When Daisy asks Winterbourne if he has been to the Château de Chillon, he says yes and offers to take her and, a moment later, her mother there. Daisy decides that she can go with him alone as their courier (a paid guide/travel helper) Eugenio and her mother stay with Randolph at the hotel. Winterbourne is glad about the excursion. Their conversation is interrupted by Eugenio, who tells her that lunch is ready. Daisy asks for assurance that they will go, and Winterbourne wants her to meet someone who will speak for him. Daisy says that "we'll go some day," and leaves with Eugenio.
When Mrs. Costello's headache abates, Winterbourne asks her if she saw the Miller family in the hotel. His aunt does not think highly of them. She tells him, "They're horribly common…. They're the sort of Americans that one does one's duty by just ignoring." Mrs. Costello is especially harsh in her judgment of Daisy, whom she believes "has an intimacy" with Eugenio. When Winterbourne tells her of his plans to take Daisy to the castle, his aunt expresses more disapproval. Mrs. Costello refuses to even meet Daisy.
Despite his aunt's feelings on the matter, Winterbourne remains intrigued. That night around ten o'clock, he finds Daisy walking around the garden. They talk about their respective evenings. Her mother does not sleep much while her brother does not like to go to bed nor sleep. Daisy has also learned some information about his aunt and wants to meet her. Winterbourne tells Daisy that his aunt has a headache every day and cannot, but Daisy understands that Mrs. Costello does not want to make her acquaintance. This fact does not upset Daisy much but makes her think his aunt is quite "exclusive."
Daisy sees her mother and insists on introducing Winterbourne to her. Mrs. Miller initially ignores Winterbourne to tell Daisy about Randolph's actions. Winterbourne is eventually drawn into the conversation as they tell of a time in Dover when Randolph would not go to sleep at all. Winterbourne brings up the matter of the castle, and Mrs. Miller acquiesces to Daisy going alone with him. Daisy immediately wants him to take her out in a boat to the château, though it is eleven o'clock, and Winterbourne agrees.
Winterbourne and Daisy's plans are stymied by the appearance of Eugenio, who agrees with Mrs. Miller that Daisy should not go out in a boat at the time. Daisy chafes at Eugenio's insistence on propriety but is amused that he and Winterbourne are both prepared to "make a fuss," she says, "That's all I want—a little fuss!" Her interest in the trip ends when Eugenio announces that Randolph is asleep. Daisy goes inside with Mrs. Miller and Eugenio.
Two days later, Daisy and Winterbourne make the steamer trip to the castle unaccompanied. Winterbourne gives her a tour, and she is impressed by his knowledge. Daisy wants him to be Randolph's teacher, but he tells her he must soon return to Geneva. This information upsets Daisy, who believes that a woman must be involved. She wants him to come to Rome that winter; Winterbourne already has plans to visit his aunt there. Daisy tells him, "I don't want you to come for your aunt. I want you just to come for me." Winterbourne only promises to be in Rome. When he tells his aunt of what has transpired during the day, Mrs. Costello is unimpressed and dismissive of Daisy.
In January, Winterbourne goes to Rome to visit his aunt. She had already written him about the Millers, especially Daisy's actions. She reports that Daisy has become "very intimate with various third-rate Italians." Mrs. Costello tells him that Daisy spends much time alone with such men, many of whom she believes are fortune hunters. Because Mrs. Miller has not acted to stop Daisy, the aunt dismisses the whole family as "vulgar."
The information imparted by Mrs. Costello tempers Winterbourne's previous wish to see Daisy right away. He is jealous about the other men she has been seeing:
He had perhaps not definitely flattered himself that he had made an ineffaceable impression upon her heart, but he was annoyed at hearing a state of affairs so little in harmony with an image that had lately flitted in and out of his mediations.
Instead of seeing Daisy right away, Winterbourne visits other friends. When he calls on an American woman he knew from Geneva named Mrs. Walker, he is surprised by the arrival of the three members of the Miller family. Daisy continues to flirt with Winterbourne, offended that he has not come to see her yet and not believing he arrived only yesterday. While Daisy then focuses her attention on the hostess, Winterbourne talks to Randolph and Mrs. Miller. She tells him of their illnesses and why they came to Europe. Mrs. Miller also declares that Rome is not what she expected, and Randolph interjects his dislike of the city.
When Mrs. Miller starts talking positively about Daisy's many gentleman admirers, Daisy starts talking to Winterbourne again. He remembers that he came directly to Rome without stopping in other Italian cities to see her, and the memory stings because of her attitude toward him. Daisy then asks Mrs. Walker if she can bring "an intimate friend of [hers], Mr. Giovanelli, to her party," which Daisy already planned to attend. Though like all of Daisy's gentleman friends, Mrs. Miller has not met him, Mrs. Walker agrees that he can come.
As the Millers take their leave, Daisy is going walking to the Pincio while her mother and brother return to the hotel. Mrs. Walker tells her not to go, believing it unsafe by the amount of late afternoon traffic, while Mrs. Miller worries about Daisy catching an illness that has been going around Rome. When Mrs. Walker learns that Daisy is going to meet Mr. Giovanelli, the hostess begs the young lady not to go. "Gracious me, I don't want to do anything that's going to affect my health—or my character either!" Daisy protests. To satisfy them, Daisy has Winterbourne escort her there.
Walking to the Pincio, Daisy asks Winterbourne why he had not come to see her. She points out that he visited Mrs. Walker when Winterbourne again states that he just arrived in Rome. Daisy tells him about their hotel as they arrive at the gardens. She wants Winterbourne to help her find Giovanelli, but he refuses. Winterbourne also will not leave her alone there. The matter is solved when Daisy spots Giovanelli resting against a tree.
After Winterbourne sees Giovanelli, he refuses to leave Daisy alone with him. Daisy does not take his attitude well, stating, "I've never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me or to interfere with anything I do." Winterbourne does not see Giovanelli as a gentleman, and tells Daisy to listen to one—himself. By this time, Giovanelli has seen them and approaches. Daisy makes the introductions, and she holds one on each side as they walk together. "Giovanelli of course had counted upon something more intimate—he had not bargained for a party of three; but he kept his temper in a manner which suggested far-stretching intentions."
In Winterbourne's eyes, Giovanelli is nowhere near a gentleman such as himself, only an imitation at best. Winterbourne has a hard time understanding why Daisy cannot look down upon him. Because she cannot, he wonders if she is really a "nice girl." Winterbourne starts wondering if he should be thinking less of her because of her actions and attitude. Yet, "Daisy at any rate continued on this occasion to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence."
After walking in this manner for about fifteen minutes, a carriage with Mrs. Walker inside pulls up near them. She summons Winterbourne and tells him that Daisy's behavior—walking alone with the two men—is scandalous. "Fifty people have remarked [on] her," Mrs. Walker claims. Winterbourne defends Daisy, declaring her "innocent." Mrs. Walker will not let the subject drop, and also denounces Mrs. Miller for her lack of action. Mrs. Walker wants Daisy to get into the carriage, drive around for a bit, and go home to save her reputation.
After introducing Giovanelli to Mrs. Walker and complimenting her carriage, Daisy refuses to get inside and resents being treated like a child. Winterbourne finds the scene uncomfortable and his discomfort only increases when Daisy asks him what he thinks. He tells her truthfully that she should get inside. Daisy responds, "I never heard anything so stiff! If this is improper, Mrs. Walker, then I'm all improper, and you had better give me right up."
Mrs. Walker asks Winterbourne to get in the carriage. Though he wants to stay with Daisy, Mrs. Walker says she will never speak to him again unless he rides with her. After saying his goodbyes to Daisy and Giovanelli, he tells Mrs. Walker, "That was not clever of you." Winterbourne emphasizes that angering Daisy will not help the situation and that she does not want to hurt anyone. Mrs. Walker informs him that Daisy has been acting this way for a month, flirting indiscriminately and scandalously. His hostess also wants him to have nothing more to do with Daisy. Winterbourne refuses, and Mrs. Walker drops him off near where Daisy and Giovanelli are. After witnessing the pair from afar in a moment of friendly familiarity, he walks toward his aunt's home.
For the next three days, Winterbourne tries to talk to Mrs. Miller, but she is never at home. Despite the tensions with Mrs. Walker, he goes to her party, where he finds Mrs. Miller also in attendance and alone. Mrs. Miller tells him that Daisy is dressed and ready to go to the party, but she is playing on the piano and singing with Giovanelli at the hotel. Mrs. Walker vows not to speak to Daisy when she comes.
Daisy arrives after eleven in the evening with Giovanelli, immediately approaches Mrs. Walker, and explains her tardiness. Mrs. Walker is short with her. Giovanelli sings a handful of songs for the party. Daisy also talks familiarly with Winterbourne, referring to the incident several days earlier. She thinks it would have been "unkind" to leave Giovanelli as the walk they went on had been planned for some time.
Winterbourne tries to point out the impropriety of the situation, but Daisy does not care. He also tells her he wishes to be the only one she flirts with; Daisy believes he is "too stiff." Winterbourne continues to impress upon her that Giovanelli might not interpret her flirtations the same way an American would, yet Daisy still will not hear of it. She believes that she is only close friends with Giovanelli and blushes when Winterbourne suggests they are in love with each other.
Giovanelli has completed his performance, and he asks Daisy to have tea with him in the other room. They stay there until they take their leave. When Daisy and Giovanelli do depart, Mrs. Walker turns her back on them. Mrs. Miller does not understand the snub, but Daisy does. Mrs. Walker tells Winterbourne that Daisy will not be coming to her house again.
Because of this tension, Winterbourne begins going to the Millers' hotel. On the rare occasions that they are home, Giovanelli is almost always there as well. Daisy's actions do not change when both men are present:
Winterbourne reflected that if she was seriously interested in the Italian it was odd she shouldn't take more trouble to preserve the sanctity of their interviews, and he liked her the better for her innocent-looking indifference and her inexhaustible gaiety.
Winterbourne realizes that there is little to be jealous about and she is nothing but lightness. Winterbourne also realizes that her primary interest is in Giovanelli.
Some time later, Winterbourne is walking with his aunt at Saint Peter's when he spies Daisy and Giovanelli together. Mrs. Costello notes that Daisy and her paramour are the reason her nephew has been "preoccupied." She also comments that others have noticed that relationship. In addition, Mrs. Costello believes that Eugenio arranged their meeting in the first place and will be paid off if Giovanelli marries her. Winterbourne discounts his aunt's theories, informing her he had Giovanelli checked out and that he is "a perfectly respectable little man." Giovanelli, however, does not have much social standing. Winterbourne does not believe Giovanelli has hope of such a relationship with Daisy.
After a time, his aunt sits down outside of Saint Peter's and other Americans talk to her. They all comment negatively on Daisy and her scandalous actions. Watching Daisy leave with Giovanelli, Winterbourne feels pity for her for how low she has sunk in the eyes of others. He even tries to communicate about the situation with Mrs. Miller on an occasion when he knows she is alone. Mrs. Miller believes Daisy and Giovanelli are essentially engaged; Giovanelli promised to tell her if that happens.
Winterbourne does not see Daisy socially any more as the people they know in common have shut her out. He is torn inside between admiring her defiance and thinking of her as ignorant and shallow. Winterbourne knows he has no chance to help her because she focuses totally on Giovanelli.
Several days later, Winterbourne happens upon them at the Palace of the Caesars. Daisy remarks on what she perceives as Winterbourne's loneliness. She also states that Winterbourne believes she spends too much time with Giovanelli. Winterbourne emphasizes to her that everyone thinks this way and if she goes to see most people, they will treat her as Mrs. Walker did. Daisy does not like this cruelty. She teases him about their alleged engagement, and tells him first that she and Giovanelli are, then that they are not.
A week later, Winterbourne comes upon them again at eleven o'clock at night inside the Colosseum. He does not see them at first as he focuses on quoting Lord Byron's "Manfred," but when he does, he hesitates to approach. Winterbourne is finished with her: "She was a young lady about the shades of whose perversity a foolish puzzled gentleman need no longer trouble his head or his heart."
Just as Winterbourne is about to leave, Daisy sees him, and he walks over to her and Giovanelli. When Winterbourne learns that she has been there for some time, he tells her that she is putting herself at extreme risk for catching the "Roman fever." He reprimands Giovanelli for allowing her to take the risk, but the Italian tells Winterbourne that Daisy does not care. Giovanelli agrees with Winterbourne that she should be taken home and should take preventative pills. Daisy does not believe she will be sick, but she goes along.
Though Winterbourne does not mention finding Daisy and Giovanelli at the Colosseum, other Americans soon learn of her latest scandalous episode. Daisy soon becomes quite ill with the sickness. Winterbourne calls on the family repeatedly during her ill-health, but Giovanelli disappears. Mrs. Miller informs Winterbourne that in a lucid moment, Daisy told her to tell him that she was never engaged to Giovanelli.
Within a week, Daisy dies of the illness, perniciosa, and she is buried in a Protestant cemetery in Rome. Giovanelli is among the mourners. He is quite saddened by the loss. He tells Winterbourne, "She was the most beautiful young lady I ever saw, and the most amiable." A moment later, he adds, "Also—naturally!—the most innocent." Giovanelli further confides in Winterbourne that he thought for a moment she might marry him, but he now understands she would not have.
After the burial, Winterbourne leaves Rome. He reunites with his aunt the following summer in Vevey, where the Millers are still a topic of conversation. Winterbourne tells Mrs. Costello that he finally understands her deathbed message now as a call for "esteem." He soon returns to live in Geneva and resumes his interest "in a very clever foreign lady."
One of the primary themes explored in Daisy Miler is that of freedom. Daisy's American dream is her unflagging belief that she should be free to act however she pleases without regard to what anyone else thinks, Americans or otherwise, nor any social norms, American or European. It is her innocent, if not naïve, belief that she can endlessly flirt and spend time alone as an unmarried woman with any unmarried man she chooses that both attracts and befuddles Winterbourne. Her unabashed embracing of her personal freedom leads to condemnation from other Americans in Switzerland and Italy, including Winterbourne's aunt Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker.
From the moment Daisy is introduced in the garden of the hotel in Vevey, she acts as she pleases. The narrator notes that Winterbourne "had begun to perceive that she was really not in the least embarrassed." Daisy easily talks to Winterbourne without a hint of self-consciousness and he recognizes that she is a flirt. She almost immediately suggests they go to a nearby castle alone. Later, in part 2, Daisy even wants to take a rowboat there that night. Though Daisy will not go once her mother is free to join them, Winterbourne and Daisy make it there several days later on a steamer.
Daisy continues to exercise her freedom in Rome. Much to Winterbourne's consternation, Daisy spends her time with an Italian man named Mr. Giovanelli. Though other Americans, including Winterbourne, think of him as their social lesser, Daisy chooses to be alone with him at various sites in Rome, both during the day and at night. Even though this action puts her on the social outs with people like Mrs. Walker and even Winterbourne at times, Daisy does not doubt that she can act any way she wants.
She does not care about consequences; she only cares about being herself. When Winterbourne and Giovanelli become concerned that she might catch Roman fever (malaria) by being at the Colosseum late at night, Daisy agrees to leave but dismisses their concerns. She tells Winterbourne as her carriage pulls off, "I don't care whether I have Roman fever or not!"
Daisy's mother, the only parental figure traveling with her, does not attempt to squelch her daughter's freedom or question her choices. Mrs. Miller allows her daughter to act as she pleases and does not try to meet the men Daisy spends time with in Switzerland or Rome. Even Eugenio, their trip coordinator, does not have a chance of modifying Daisy's actions and attitudes.
However, there are consequences to Daisy's freewheeling actions, whether she likes it or not. There are social snubs from women like Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello. Daisy is judged and looked down upon by other Americans abroad as well as the workers from the hotels. More importantly, Daisy dies because of her defiance. Though the others try to convince her not to go out for danger of catching a dread disease, she does go out, contracts the illness—malaria—and dies a week later. While Daisy acts as freely as she wishes while alive, it ends up costing her life.
Social Status and Mores
Though Daisy lives as freely as she can, she still embraces some sense of social status. Another part of the American dream is defining one's self from everyone else while fitting into a social stratum by embracing its norms and mores. When Daisy first meets Winterbourne in Vevey, she tells him that she is disappointed by the lack of "society" in Europe. Daisy states, "I'm very fond of society and I've always had plenty of it." She goes on to explain that she is socially active in her hometown of Schenectady as well as in New York City, and has been given parties by both gentlemen and young lady friends.
The society that Daisy could not see early in Daisy Miller condemns her and her mother for the way Daisy chooses to live her life. Though some of their fellow Americans recognize that the Millers have some social standing because of their money and background, Daisy's actions, her mother's inactions, and even Randolph's often out-of-control behavior lead to negative social judgments. Others Americans, such as Mrs. Costello, dismiss them outright. In part 2, she tells her nephew, "They're horribly common…. They're the sort of American that one does one's duty by just ignoring." While Mrs. Costello calls Daisy "a young lady" later in the same conversation, her opinion of the Millers, Daisy especially, does not improve over the course of the book, despite her nephew's feelings. She does not like Daisy for ignoring what she believes are social norms to be followed to the letter.
In Rome, Mrs. Costello's disapproval only increases as Daisy becomes close to an Italian gentleman, Mr. Giovanelli, who people generally consider to be her social lesser. Daisy's stubborn insistence that she is free to do as she wants compels Mrs. Walker to grow frustrated as well. While Mrs. Walker wants to help the Millers, especially Daisy, she does not want Mrs. Walker's version of social help.
The only reason Mrs. Walker takes her carriage to the Pinicio is to save Daisy's reputation when she is seen walking with both Winterbourne and Mr. Giovanelli. Mrs. Walker tells Winter-bourne, "That crazy girl musn't do this sort of thing. She musn't walk here with you two men. Fifty people have remarked [on] her." When Daisy refuses Mrs. Walker's version of help and then shows up at Mrs. Walker's party later with Giovanelli, Mrs. Walker condemns her as unwelcome in her home. Becoming a social outcast does not seem to affect Daisy in the least.
Winterbourne has the more challenging relationship with social status and social mores. While he embraces the values of his aunt and Americans of her ilk in Europe, he also sees the absurdity of living strictly by the rules. After becoming charmed by Daisy because she ignores society's rules as he knows them, Winterbourne is happy to break them himself. He talks to her, an unmarried woman, as an unmarried man, without an escort, and even takes her on an excursion under the same circumstances.
What compels Winterbourne to retreat to his previous way of thinking is the presence of competition in the form of Giovanelli. Winterbourne wants to be the only object of Daisy's flirtation, but when he learns she is very friendly with someone from a lower social stratum, his social mores change as he becomes jealous. Winterbourne sees the problems with Daisy's free actions in terms of social norms, and he tries to intercede for her benefit several times.
Despite Winterbourne's jealousy, he also sees the absurdity of some social attitudes. When Mrs. Walker drives up in the aforementioned carriage and speaks to Winterbourne that way, he bristles: "Winterbourne—suddenly and rather oddly rubbed the wrong way by this—raised his grave eyebrows. 'I think it's a pity to make too much fuss about it."' Though Winterbourne does not like nor trust Giovanelli, he supports Daisy in his own way until the end. After her death, Winterbourne realizes that his error in his belief about Daisy and society's rules: "She would have appreciated one's esteem." He finally understands his own American dream about this part of his life, though the writer implies it is forgotten when he returns to Geneva.
Changing Role of Women in American Society
In the late nineteenth century, women's position in American society was changing in some social strata. By 1880, 2.6 million women were employed in the United States, primarily in domestic work, though an increasing number found employment in manufacturing jobs, especially as the twentieth century loomed. While middle and upper class women generally did not work outside the home, rising incomes, better nutrition, and the increased availability of consumer items changed how they lived their lives as well. More leisure time was available to many women to enjoy emerging mass culture (sports, circuses, arts, and entertainment) as technological advancements resulted in many time-saving devices in the home and some industries.
As women's lives changed in the United States, they demanded more political rights. Women's suffrage, or the right to vote, was a war that saw significant battles in the 1870s. Susan B. Anthony tried to vote in 1872, but courts would not allow it. She took a new tactic in 1878 when she convinced California Senator A. A. Sargent to introduce a constitutional amendment allowing women to vote. The amendment died in committee on this occasion, but the movement continued. Supporters of such an amendment, such as the National Woman Suffrage Association, helped get it reintroduced in committee and even to the Senate floor, but the amendment did not pass until the early twentieth century. Women had more luck gaining the vote on the state level. By 1890, nineteen states allowed women to vote on certain issues.
Victorian Morals and Etiquette
In the late nineteenth century, Americans were greatly influenced by and often practiced Victorian morals and etiquette. The era was named for Britain's Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, and the morals had their foundation in her country. The beliefs were derived from the image projected on the queen and her husband, Prince Albert, but often had little basis in the reality of the lives of the royal couple.
Victorian morals and etiquette were strict and often defined by social status. Self-control was important to Victorian Americans, as was the display of good character, propriety, and respectability. Respectable people did not talk or write about their emotions or sexual feelings. For instance, it was considered improper by many in Victorian society to use the word "leg" when both men and women were present.
Women were idealized, often received less of an education than their male counterparts, and were expected to be sexually pure. A woman's primary purpose was raising a family and maintaining a home, and she was to act accordingly. They were not to show off their bodies in any way, nor wear makeup. Their actions were considered reflections on their families. If a woman erred, as Daisy did in Rome, it reflected poorly on her family, who also had to pay a social price.
Until the 1870s, Americans making tourist visits to Europe were relatively uncommon because of the limitations of travel. While the family of Henry James made a number of these jaunts while he was a child, the advent of passenger steamships in post-Civil War America made such excursions more common and affordable for Americans. Mass transit such as railways and cable cars also became more common in the 1870s, aiding the tourist experience in both the United States and in Europe. It is said that the popularity of Daisy Miller increased American tourism abroad in following decades. It was not only families making sometimes years-long trips through key locations in Europe as the James family did decades earlier: American students also began going abroad more often to study at European universities and art schools in this time period.
When Daisy Miller was first published in England in 1878, the story was immediately popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Copies even found their way to America before the novel could be published there. When officially published in the United States, Daisy Miller sold 20,000 copies in just a few weeks. The story was reprinted fives times between 1880 and 1902 alone, and James regularly revised the work. He even wrote an unsuccessful dramatic version, Daisy Miller: A Comedy in Three Acts, in 1883.
Daisy Miller was generally well received by critics in the United States when published in the late 1870s. Initially, the novel was praised for its style, cleverness, and realism. It was often originally read as a mild social satire, a cautionary tale of what can happen to an independent, free young lady, especially when abroad, if she is not careful in the company she keeps. Some women readers were offended by his depiction of an American girl. Such women did not believe they were like Daisy and they believed James gave foreigners the wrong impression about what American ladies were really like. Readers in London found Daisy and Randolph amusing examples of Americans and their poor behavior. Yet the novel was also said to influence the increase of American tourism in Europe in the 1880s and 1890s.
Later critics realized that the novel was key in the development of the concept of the "American Girl" as a popular figure in American literature in the late 1800s. Though a pinnacle of James's early period as a writer, some critics saw Daisy was not a particularly well-developed character. Some critics found the depiction of Daisy as flat, primarily because she is seen through Winterbourne's eyes. Over time, critics and readers changed how they interpreted Daisy Miller and its characters' actions as culture, manners, and attitudes toward women evolved. The book remained popular, however, as the issues of stereotyping, assumptions, convention, and self-deception remain part of the human condition even if the rules of society and social taboos, especially for women, have changed.
In a 1992 article in the Sunday Times (London), Roy Hattersley discusses the larger clash of cultures depicted by James's book:
Superficially, James's writing confirms the impression of a socialite's concern with manners rather than morals. His novel Daisy Miller an early commercial success describes the tragedy that engulfed a young American girl who defied European conventions. The book's popularity was, in part, based on prurient speculation about the nature of Daisy's relationship with the Italian friend who keeps the reckless rendezvous in the moonlit Coliseum. But the story concerns something far more important than the line that divides innocence from indiscretion: Daisy Miller is a casualty of the conflict between the old world and the new.
During the twentieth century, Daisy Miller also came to be regarded as one of James's masterpieces, a reputation that continues into the twenty-first. Describing the importance of the book, Daniel Mark Fogel writes in Daisy Miller: A Dark Comedy of Manners,
Not only was the publication of Daisy Miller a pivotal moment in James's career; it also may be said to be a turning point in the development of American literature…. [W]ith Daisy Miller he conferred on our national literature a stature in the wider world of letters that it had never before enjoyed. At the same time he gave enduring form to some of the foundational myths of modern American literature.
Today, Daisy Miller remains relevant to critics and readers alike. As Scott Eyman notes in his review for the Palm Beach Post:
I hadn't read Daisy in about 25 years and was struck by how little it had dated in the 130 years since it was written. James hit on something profound about the innocence of the American character, as well as the potential for destruction that innocence carries with it—you can see Daisy Millers in every mall in America.
Daisy Miller (1974) is a film version of James's story. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, it stars Cybill Shepherd as Daisy. Though this adaptation of the novel received poor reviews, it follows the basic premise of the book. It is available on DVD from Paramount.
In the following excerpt, Weisbuch considers the nature of American masculinity and how Winter-bourne's expatriate status complicates the reader's understanding of such an ideal.
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Source: Robert Weisbuch, "Winterbourne and the Doom of Manhood in Daisy Miller," in New Essays on Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 65-89.
Eyman, Scott, "130-Year-Old Daisy Miller has Aged Quite Well," in the Palm Beach Post, July 21, 2002, p. 8K.
Fogel, Daniel Mark, Daisy Miller: A Dark Comedy of Manners, Twayne Publishers, 1990, p. 3.
Hattersley, Roy, "Good Behaviour; Literature," in the (London) Sunday Times, (November 22, 1992, p. 6.
James, Henry, Daisy Miller and other Stories, Oxford University Press, 1909; reprint, 1985.
Kirk, Carey H., "Daisy Miller: The Reader's Choice," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer 1980, pp. 275-83.
Norton, Mary Beth, et al., A People & A Nation: A History of the United States, Volume II: Since 1865, 3d. ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1990.