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Daisy Miller | Study Guide

Henry James

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Daisy Miller | Motifs



Several characters in Daisy Miller suffer from chronic illnesses: Mrs. Miller and Randolph have dyspepsia, or indigestion, Randolph has somehow lost all but seven of his teeth, and Mrs. Costello suffers from terrible headaches. These are the very same people who refuse to assimilate to European culture and customs. Mrs. Miller and Randolph both prefer the United States to Switzerland and Rome, and their unhappiness manifests itself in nagging ailments, which they blame for their bad time. Mrs. Costello, who has lived in Europe for several years, was well regarded in the New York social scene but never managed to get a handle on European high society. She uses her headaches, either real or imagined, as an excuse to keep to herself and maintain the air of "exclusivity" she so craves. Winterbourne points this out to Daisy, who is hurt that Mrs. Costello doesn't want to know her. "My dear young lady ... she knows no one," he says.

Winterbourne, on the other hand, knows a lot of people across the continent, as does Mrs. Walker. They, too, are Americans, but they are Americans who have adopted European customs as their own. They are robustly healthy, which symbolizes their assimilation to their chosen culture. Daisy, too, is healthy until she steps over the invisible line of impropriety by visiting the Colosseum with Giovanelli after dark. Her violation of proper etiquette and behavior results in her serious illness and early death.


Gossip follows Daisy Miller wherever she goes. Even people who have never met her are familiar with the stories about her unusually forward nature and the familiar way she behaves with members of the opposite sex. It is generally agreed that she is in violation of the unspoken code of restrained European values, but the Europeans who make her acquaintance—Giovanelli and Eugenio—don't seem very bothered by her behavior. It is rather her fellow countrymen and women who do most of the gossiping, much of which, according to Mrs. Walker, takes place at the Miller's hotel. "Everyone is talking about her," Mrs. Walker tells Winterbourne. This includes Mrs. Costello, who has never actually met Daisy, and Mrs. Walker, who pretends to be Daisy's friend when they are together but then talks about her to Winterbourne behind her back. It is not the Europeans who have problems with Daisy, but the Americans masquerading as Europeans. Their penchant for gossip symbolizes the worst of both cultures—the uptight and repressive morals of European society and the ugly and uncouth character of the stereotypical American abroad. Though they think themselves sophisticated and above reproach, the defamatory stories they spread about Daisy make them seem very low class.

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