Daisy Miller | Study Guide

Henry James

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Daisy Miller | Context


Daisy Miller is often described as a "character study" of Daisy Miller—a lively and forward young American woman traveling in Europe in the mid-1870s. This time period falls within the Victorian Era, which had a repressive code of morals and values. As Daisy is accused of impropriety throughout the novella, it is vital to understand the society in which she lived and how she violated its rigid rules. It is also helpful to have a basic understanding of the differences between American and European social customs during the era. Only when readers understand what was considered "right" can they identify how Daisy is "wrong."

Changing Victorian Values

The Victorian era, named after Great Britain's ruler at the time, Queen Victoria, is characterized by the separation of male and female life into two different "spheres." Men engaged in business and politics outside the home while women were tasked with motherhood and managing the house and family. Rules about proper etiquette and decorum abounded, particularly for middle- and upper-class women, who were taught to always be pleasant, polite, and, above all, chaste. It was fine for a man to have premarital relations (usually with prostitutes or servants), but a woman was expected to maintain her virginity until marriage, at which point her sexuality was considered the property of her husband. Maintaining an image of purity and modesty was of the utmost importance. Any rumor of improper conduct could damage not only a woman's reputation but that of her family as well.

Not all women were content to abide by these social restrictions. By the last quarter of the 19th century, technological advances such as the expansion of railroads, the development of the steamship, and the invention of the telegraph made travel and commerce more viable than ever. The Industrial Revolution, which brought manufacturing and factories to the forefront, had transformed the work world.Although certainly not the norm, it was no longer out of the question for women to pursue jobs in factories, offices, and retail establishments. Higher education opportunities for women were also increasing. By 1870, 21 percent of all college students were female. Although the Victorian woman was still supposed to be "the angel in the house," a pure soul strictly devoted to family life, there was a sense, particularly in the younger generation, that the rules and regulations of proper society were beginning to shift in a direction that allowed for other choices.

International Clash of Customs

Daisy Miller is a representation of the Gilded Age, a term coined by 19th-century American novelist Mark Twain that refers to the years between 1870 and 1900 following the United States Civil War (1861–65). It is also a nod to Twain's 1873 novel "The Gilded Age," which exposed corruption in finances and politics in the United States. The end of the war gave way to industrial expansion, particularly in the North, which led to a new class of wealthy Americans. Daisy Miller's father, a businessman, falls into that category. Those with such "new" money were eager to show it off. Many emulated what they believed to be the refinement of upper-class Europeans, while others actually went to Europe on "grand tours." Thousands of young American women and their families traveled there each year, and they weren't always welcome. Though considered "beautiful," these girls were also labeled "vulgar," "loud," "fast," and "strange." It wasn't unusual for bold and forward young American women, uncultivated and unfamiliar with European culture, to cause social scandals simply because they were unaware of the local customs.

It was generally felt that young American women, who had grown up with ideas of individuality and independence, didn't have the proper respect for class structure and social positions. This behavior might have initially amused new acquaintances, but it soon became tiresome and was perceived as a lack of respect. More often than not, counsel about proper behavior would be received with indifference or anger on the part of the young lady in question. It all came down to a difference in culture, and there was a distinct difference in the way people of high society were expected to present themselves in America versus Europe. The young woman whose high energy and more flexible attitude toward social class would be considered natural, and even desirable, in American society would be an anomaly in repressive and more class-conscious European social circles.

The accessibility of European travel to American citizens broadened not only the cultural experiences of the middle-class and elite but also the available subject matter for Victorian-era writers. Alongside authors Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Dean Howells, and Edith Wharton, Henry James is often cited as one of the originators of the "international novel," a genre that is generally confined to the exploration of the transatlantic relationship between Americans and Europeans. All four authors wrote narratives that showed the differences between the new world and the old, pitting the fresh and vivacious American spirit against stodgy European society. James's American of choice was the guileless young woman trying to navigate the unfamiliar customs of European society, often to ill effect. Daisy Miller was the first work in James's "international" period, which culminated with the publication of The Portrait of a Lady in 1881, a novel whose independent American heroine, Isabel Archer, also finds herself face to face with the unexpected and devastating complications of European society.

Critical and Commercial Reception of Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller was originally published in the June and July 1878 issues of The Cornhill Magazine. Critical reviews, for the most part, were positive. General audiences, particularly those of the upper classes, weren't so kind. Many focused strictly on Daisy's flaws rather than on the sympathetic aspects of her character, believing that James's portrayal of the spirited American violated Victorian standards of good breeding and etiquette. A prospective publisher even called her "an outrage on American girlhood." Yet, as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity, and sales of the story surpassed 20,000 copies in just a few weeks. James became a household name, at least for a while. Twentieth-century literary critics heaped even higher praise on Daisy Miller, elevating its status to that of a "minor masterpiece."

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