Attitude and Illness in James' Daisy Miller



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Attitude and Illness in James' Daisy Miller

Donald E. Houghton


Oscar Cargill's definition of James' "international novel" indicates how close James came in so many of his novels to presenting the psycho-physical experience we now refer to as culture shock. "If Turgenev had originated 'the international novel,' James was to perfect and more sharply define it. An 'international novel' is not simply a story of people living abroad, as in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, but it is a story of persons taken out of the familiar contexts of their own mores where their action is habitual and placed in an element, as in a biological experiment, where everything is unfamiliar, so that their individual responses can be examined" [found in the introduction to the 1956 edition of Daisy Miller]. Cargill, of course, is using the term "biological experiment" metaphorically, but in fact the experience of encountering a foreign culture where "everything is unfamiliar" often does have "biological" implications which go far beyond the physiological consequences of a mere change of climate, food, and drinking water. In James' Daisy Miller the experience of Europe affects adversely the health of a number of Americans visiting Europe, and it would appear that the Americans become ill not so much because of any objective circumstances in the new environment but as a result of attitudes the Americans take toward that environment.

The relation of illnesses to mental states in James' novels has been suggested by Napier Wilt and John Lucas: "Europe has the power to inflict pain, visit ill, work disaster only upon those Americans who arrived or remained in the wrong spirit" [Americans and Europe: Selected Tales of Henry James, 1956]. The "wrong spirit" is the belief that America is superior to Europe in about every way and that the American does well to resist, ignore, or retreat from any aspect of European life he does not immediately like. Several characters in Daisy Miller have the "wrong spirit," and as a result Europe visits ills upon them ranging from minor discomforts to a fatal disease. Those Americans like Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker, who accept Europe on its own terms, thrive while there. On the other hand, Americans like Mrs. Costello, Randolph, and Mrs. Miller take a negative attitude toward Europe. They survive their tour, although uncomfortably, by developing neurotic symptoms which keep to a minimum unpleasant or dangerous encounters with the unfamiliar European culture. Finally there is Daisy, whose sudden switch from a highly positive to a highly negative attitude toward Europe leads to her death.

Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne have the "right" attitude and remain healthy throughout the novel. Both are long-time residents of Europe. Whatever pain Europe may have inflicted upon them upon their arrival is now in the past. Mrs. Walker's health, happiness, and social success result in part from the fact that she came to terms with European culture. "Mrs. Walker was one of those American ladies who, while residing abroad, make a point, in their own phrase, of studying European society. . . . As a result of her study, Mrs. Walker has come to know the rules, she abides by them, and she cuts from her social circle anyone who endangers her own position by not following what she calls the "custom here." Like Mrs. Walker, Winterbourne is quite comfortable in Europe because while in Rome he does as the Romans do. His advice to others is to "go by the custom of the place." Winterbourne's adjustment is so complete that he apparently comes to prefer Europeans to Americans. We hear at the end of the novel that he probably will make a permanent alliance with "a very clever foreign lady."

Winterbourne's aunt, on the other hand, has not succeeded in adjusting to Europe or making Europe adjust to her, with the result that Europe is to her still a painful experience. Mrs. Costello suffers from sick headaches. A social climber who gave Winterbourne to understand that she exerted a considerable influence in social circles back home in New York, she evidently has not been socially successful in Europe. Too proud to associate with Americans touring the continent and yet not having been accepted by European society or the society of Europeanized Americans, she has developed sick headaches and withdrawn from society altogether. Upon his arrival at Vevay, Winterbourne goes at once to call upon Mrs. Costello, but "his aunt had a headache--his aunt had almost always a headache--and now she was shut up in her room, smelling camphor. . . ."

Mrs. Costello "admitted that she was very exclusive. . . ." This is her way of explaining her unconscious withdrawal to protect herself from further unsuccessful and painful social encounters in Europe. In her anxiety over her social position she has repressed her desire to enter European society. The headaches are a symptom of this repression.

Once present, the headaches become useful to Mrs. Costello. They serve as an acceptable, face-saving excuse for not succeeding in European society and for not risking further humiliations. She "frequently intimated that, if she were not so dreadfully liable to sick-headaches, she would probably have left a deeper impress upon her time." The headaches also serve to protect her from the unpleasantness of having to meet people like the Millers, whom she considers below her. Both Winterbourne and Daisy understand that Mrs. Costello uses her headaches to her advantage. When Daisy suggests a meeting between her and his aunt, Winterbourne is embarrassed:


"She would be most happy," he said; "but I am afraid those headaches will interfere."

The young girl looked at him through the dusk. "But I suppose she doesn't have a headache every day," she said, sympathetically.

Winterbourne was silent a moment. "She tells me she does," he answered. . . .

"She doesn't want to know me!" she said suddenly.


Winterbourne's reply to Daisy at this point summarizes the relation between Miss Costello's headaches and what Mrs. Costello has come to call her "exclusiveness": "My dear young lady," he protested, "she knows no one. It's her wretched health."

The three members of the Miller family in Europe suffer in varying degrees from ill health, and the illness of each appears to be related to the attitude each takes toward Europe. To Randolph the only good thing about the trip to Europe was the ship, but "it was going the wrong way." Daisy tells Winterbourne, "He doesn't like Europe. . . . He wants to go back . . . he wants to go right home." Randolph tells Winterbourne, "My father ain't in Europe; my father's in a better place than Europe." Later Randolph tells Winterbourne that he hates Rome "worse and worse every day!" Randolph's teeth are coming out, no doubt from natural causes, although Randolph blames Europe even for this: "I haven't got any teeth to hurt. They have all come out. . . . I can't help it. It's this old Europe. It's the climate that makes them come out. In America they didn't come out."

Randolph's strong disapproval of Europe, however intense, is not accompanied by deep anxieties and neurotic symptoms that occur in the travelling adults. He is too young to have arrived in Europe with any special hopes or expectations and so he is not shocked or bitterly disappointed by the fact that Europe has nothing to offer him. He is also too young for Europe to expect much from him and so he is not faced with the kind of decisions which might set up conflict within him. Still, since Randolph does want to return home, the longer he stays in Europe the more likely he too will be subject to frustrations and the development of neurotic symptoms. There is some evidence that this may be happening already. Randolph does not sleep well. Daisy tells Winterbourne that Randolph "doesn't like to go to bed" and that she believes Randolph doesn't "go to bed before eleven." Later when Daisy and Winterbourne join Mrs. Miller, the three discuss Randolph's sleeping habits:
"Anyhow, it ain't so bad as it was at Dover," said Daisy Miller.

"And what occurred at Dover?" Winterbourne asked.

"He wouldn't go to bed at all. I guess he sat up all night in the public parlour. He wasn't in bed at twelve o'clock: I know that."

"It was half-past twelve," declared Mrs. Miller, with mild emphasis.

"Does he sleep much during the day?" Winterbourne demanded.

"I guess he doesn't sleep much," Daisy rejoined.

"I wish he would!" said her mother. "It seems as if he couldn't."
Like Mrs. Costello, Randolph instinctively protects himself from Europe by keeping to a minimum his exposure to the place:
"Your brother is not interested in ancient monuments?" Winterbourne inquired, smiling.

"He says he don't care much about old castles. . . . He wants to stay at the hotel."


Mrs. Miller does not like Europe any more than Randolph, but as an adult she can not indulge in the outspoken criticism of Europe which provides some therapeutic release for Randolph. Mrs. Miller is not well, and her "illness" appears to be an adaptive symptom to keep to a minimum further encounters with foreign ways. Like her son, Mrs. Miller does not sleep well. When Winterbourne asks Daisy at one point if her mother had gone to bed, Daisy says, "No, she doesn't like to go to bed. . . . She doesn't sleep--not three hours. She says she doesn't know how she lives. She's dreadfully nervous." Later in Rome, Winterbourne says to Mrs. Miller, "I hope you have been well since we parted at Vevay," and she replies, "Not very well, sir." Randolph volunteers the information to Winterbourne that Mrs. Miller has the dyspepsia and that the whole family has it, him most of all. Mrs. Miller then blames her illness on Europe: "I suffer from the liver. . . . I think it's this climate; it's less bracing than Schenectady. . . ."

It is, of course, not the climate but the total impact of Europe upon her which causes Mrs. Miller's suffering. Her blaming the European climate reveals only her general attitude toward her total experience of the continent. That her illness is psychosomatic, caused by her negative stance toward Europe, is underscored by James in this same scene after Winterbourne has had "a good deal of pathological gossip" with Mrs. Miller and attempts to change the subject by asking her how she liked Rome. "Well, I must say I am disappointed," she answered. "We had heard so much about it; I suppose we had heard too much."

Mrs. Miller's illness stems from the anxieties attendant upon her having to face daily, even hourly, the strange and unfamiliar. She labels her illness "dyspepsia" and then uses her discomfort to ward off further pain. She withdraws from Europe as much as possible. Early in the novel, Daisy informs Winterbourne that they were all going to the Chateau de Chillon "but my mother gave out. She suffers dreadfully from dyspepsia. She said she couldn't go." Later Daisy tells Winterbourne that her mother doesn't like "to ride around in the afternoon" and on still another occasion she tells him that her mother "gets tired walking around." When Daisy and others are talking with Mrs. Walker about a forthcoming party and also about Daisy's new Italian boy friend of uncertain character, Mrs. Miller senses she is about to encounter another array of new experiences and problems she has never had to face back home. Her instinctive response, like that of Mrs. Costello and Randolph, is to retreat from danger: "I guess we'll go back to the hotel." She and Randolph do so, leaving Daisy to face alone a decision which turns out to be a life and death matter.

The picture James gives of Daisy's psycho-physical state in Europe is quite different from that of the others. The novelties of Europe charm rather than threaten her. Consequently, she has no occasion to be anxious and she does not develop the neurotic symptoms which insulate Mrs. Costello, Randolph, and Mrs. Miller from Europe. Daisy, on the contrary, is "carried away" with enthusiasm for Europe and wants to widen rather than narrow her experience of the place. Until very near the end of the story she enjoys good health. When she does finally become ill, her illness is not a protective psychosomatic symptom which comes from within, but a disease contracted from without. Her fatal illness, however, does resemble the illnesses of the others in one important way: it is causally related to a negative attitude she finally takes toward Europe.

Mrs. Costello, Randolph, and Mrs. Miller develop neurotic symptoms which prevent their experiencing Europe in any significant way. While they will return to America as innocent and ignorant of Europe, as they were when they arrived, at the same time they do survive to return. Daisy's lack of apprehension over surface differences, on the other hand, allows her to enjoy Europe and good health for a long time, but her health and happiness last only until she discovers, with startling suddenness, a fundamental difference between American and European values which she can not accept. Unlike the others whose ailments help to spare them from any direct confrontation with Europe, Daisy, with a father in America and a mother back at the hotel with dyspepsia and with no knowledge of the realities of European traditions and taboos, unknowingly drifts into a crisis situation unprecedented in her experience.

The crisis comes in the scene in which Daisy is about to take a walk on the streets of Rome in the company of the questionable Mr. Giovanelli. Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker know that what Daisy is about to do is dangerous from many points of view, but their warning to her is put so delicately that Daisy does not get their meaning. She understands that considerable pressure is being put upon her not to walk with Giovanelli, but she does not understand why. She thinks they may be concerned over her health. Before Mrs. Miller left for the hotel, she had warned Daisy, "You'll get the fever as sure as you live. Remember what Dr. Davis told you!" When the more sophisticated Mrs. Walker tells Daisy that walking at this "unhealthy hour" under these circumstances is "unsafe," Daisy still thinks she is talking about catching Roman fever. Daisy does not realize that Mrs. Walker is speaking metaphorically and is warning her against doing something which would not only be potentially dangerous to her health but which also would be damaging to her reputation. Mrs. Walker then makes her meaning explicit: "You are old enough, dear Miss Miller, to be talked about."

In one terrible moment Daisy understands what all the fuss has been about. She understands for the first time the full sexual and moral implications for Europeans and Europeanized Americans of what she is about to do. It is a traumatic and psychologically violent moment for Daisy. She is at once confronted with the facts of European life and the facts of life in general, facts which she had previously been ignorant of or had unconsciously avoided. A gradual unconscious withdrawal from her dangerous and painful predicament is not an alternative open to Daisy. It is an either-or matter: she must either walk with Giovanelli or not walk with him, and the decision must be made here and now on the streets of Rome with Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker on one hand and Giovanelli on the other awaiting her decision.

Shocked, outraged, and hurt by her discovery, Daisy is in no state of mind to weigh the matter carefully and deliberately. As Frederick Hoffman points out, decisions made under such circumstances are likely to be impulsive and irrational, even self-destructive:


An uninhibited drive toward satisfaction of unconscious wishes (or expenditure of libidinal energy) would lead to death. The wish needs instruction in the shock of reality; if the character of the inhibition is moderate, the shock will lead to readjustment; if the reality is too suddenly and too brutally enforced, the effect will be a traumatic shock, leading to one of several forms of compulsive behavior.
Daisy chooses complete freedom rather than cultural and moral relativism and walks with Giovanelli. It is the dangerous rather than the protective choice and her walk leads to illness and death.

Daisy's resolve to make a moral principle out of not comforming to European customs finally leads her to the scene of her most daring indiscretion, the Roman Colosseum. It is there she receives through Winterbourne the final condemnation by society of her character and it is there she contracts the malaria which leads to her death. The causal relationship between her death and her attitude toward Europe is clear, since Daisy would not be in the Colosseum with Giovanelli at this unhealthy hour if she were not intent on flouting European standards of conduct.

In this climactic scene, the contrast between sickness and health is used ambiguously by Daisy and Winterbourne to refer both to Daisy's physical state and to her moral condition. When Winterbourne first sees Daisy there, his first thought is of "the craziness, from a sanitary point of view, of a delicate young girl lounging away the evening in this nest of malaria" and he warns her of the great danger she is exposed to. But since Winterbourne is also much concerned with and aware of Daisy's moral state, he is also telling her that he thinks she is being corrupted by this Roman and that she will suffer from this. He tells Daisy that "you will not think Roman fever very pretty. This is the way people catch it." Since Daisy's discovery of the realities of European culture came through her ultimately understanding metaphorical meanings, particularly those related to health and sickness, she is now alert to the double meaning in Winterbourne's warning and answers him in kind: "I don't care . . . whether I have Roman fever or not!" But Daisy is very fond of Winterbourne and still cares about his opinion of her. She wants him to know that he has been mistaken to judge her morals by her manners, her character by appearances only. Extending the metaphor further, she conveys this final message to him: "I never was sick, and I don't mean to be! . . . I don't look like much but I'm healthy!"

What Daisy says is true only in the sense she is still innocent sexually, but she has by now contracted malaria and so is fatally ill. James' novel also suggests that anyone who ignores or defies society to the extreme that Daisy did is "sick" also in the psychological sense, sick even unto death.


(Source:  Donald E. Houghton, "Attitude and Illness in James' 'Daisy Miller'," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1969.)


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