Daisy Miller | Study Guide

Henry James

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Daisy Miller | Themes


American versus European Culture

Many of the people the Millers meet on their travels are Americans who have chosen to make their homes across the Atlantic. Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker are familiar with the American way of life, but they've been in Europe so long they have adapted to a different standard of behavior and no longer approve of American customs or mentality. This would include a greater emphasis on individuality and uniqueness in America, greater freedom in general, and increased flexibility in moving from a lower social class to a higher social class. Instead, they embrace the restrictive and repressive social customs of European culture and think themselves "better" than those, such as Daisy Miller, who are too independent and disregard those customs. Winterbourne, who has spent most of his life in Europe, isn't fully convinced that Daisy embodies all aspects of a stereotypical American, but he also doesn't trust himself to remember what constitutes acceptable behavior in the United States. "[H]e had become dishabituated to the American tone" and can't tell if Daisy is acting in accordance with American social customs or if she is the kind of girl who has no sense of propriety whatsoever. He ultimately determines that Daisy is someone a gentleman, such as himself, "need no longer be at pains to respect." He, too, believes his European values establish him as superior to Daisy and free to condemn her.

An American expatriate living in Europe himself, Henry James was fascinated by the differences in culture on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In Daisy Miller, he shows how the country someone is associated with dictates how that person is judged by others. Randolph, for example, thinks the United States is far better than any European country he's ever seen, and his rude behavior reflects poorly on his fellow citizens. American expatriates and native Europeans seem to take it in stride, however, because this is how they expect all Americans to act. When Daisy is shunned by "respectable" society in Rome, one reason is that other American expatriates don't want the Europeans they emulate to think Daisy Miller is representative of Americans in general, which would, in turn, reflect badly on them by reinforcing the stereotype of the vulgar American.

James isn't saying the European character is better than that of Americans. The expatriates Daisy meets are snobby and full of themselves, while Daisy is eager to meet everyone and enjoy everything. Her openness and zest for life make her a far more sympathetic character than Mrs. Walker, Mrs. Costello, or Winterbourne, and her death establishes her as a martyr for the cause of American independence and individuality. Daisy Miller is therefore a critique on the constraints of European-inspired cultural expectations.

Innocence versus Immorality

The status of Daisy's innocence and virtue plagues Winterbourne and the reader throughout the course of Daisy Miller. In the process it raises some important questions about the nature of innocence and its ramifications, particularly in regard to women. In Winterbourne's mind, Daisy is defined by her innocence (or her lack thereof). When he speaks of innocence, he is talking about her romantic and sexual experience with men, which then becomes an indication of her moral character. Like many Victorian-era gentlemen of a certain class, he believes a woman who is not innocent in this way must be immoral and therefore not worthy of his respect. Daisy can earn this only if she upholds Victorian standards of female decorum, which are built on the assumption that "nice" women are not sexual creatures and, by extension, are also not free to be themselves or dictate their path in life in other ways.

For the reader, the question of Daisy's innocence goes beyond her virginity and into the motivations behind her behavior. Is she one of those American socialites who goes to Europe to find a wealthy or titled husband, or is she simply interested in exploring a new continent? Is she usually so comfortable talking to strangers, or does she have an ulterior motive for befriending Winterbourne and Giovanelli? Above all, does she realize that her behavior is unacceptable in the social circles she frequents while in Europe? Daisy does eventually figure out her antics are attracting the wrong kind of attention, but by then it is too late for her to make amends for her behavior. The reader, like Winterbourne, is left to decide if Daisy was purposefully flouting the rules of European society from the beginning, if she was—as James insisted—completely ignorant of what society expected from her, or if she represents a young woman whose independence and individuality are in a category of their own.

Victorian Double Standards

Middle- and upper-class women's lives were far more restricted than those of men during the Victorian era. Women were expected to remain chaste until marriage and guard their virtue at all costs. Etiquette books dictated the "proper" procedures for female life, including how and where a woman should present herself in public and how she should conduct herself in the company of men to whom she was not related. Yet men, while subject to some conventions, such as those of social class, had much greater freedom than women in most respects. A man could speak to whomever he liked whenever he liked. He could walk by himself down crowded city streets without worrying about his reputation. He was even allowed to engage in covert sexual conduct before, and even after, marriage. Men and women were not equals during the Victorian era, and women suffered for it.

James brings this double standard to light through the characters of Winterbourne and Daisy. Daisy is thought to be ill mannered because she is too friendly to male strangers, going so far as to strike up friendships after brief introductions. Yet men, as Mrs. Costello tells Winterbourne, "may know every one. Men are welcome to the privilege!" She doesn't think badly of her nephew for making new acquaintances, as she does Daisy, nor does she fault him for inviting Daisy to go sightseeing after just a half hour's acquaintance. She believes Daisy is at fault for accepting the invitation. Likewise, much is made of Daisy's intimacy with Eugenio and Giovanelli. Although she has done nothing to suggest her virtue has been compromised, she is looked down upon for treating them with such familiarity. Winterbourne, meanwhile, is romantically attached to an older woman in Geneva. He is not scorned for this relationship, nor for the fact that he appears to be interested in Daisy while linked to another woman. He, along with the other men in the story, are not held to as high a moral standard.

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