March 1, 2004
Contrasts in Daisy Miller
Henry James’ Daisy Miller contains powerful juxtapositions which characterize social issues of the era. Through the death of an innocent American girl, we glimpse stark contrasts of class and society between America and Europe.
Winterbourne, the protagonist through whom we experience the novella, first encounters Daisy Miller in Vevey, Switzerland. Winterbourne is struck by and becomes attracted to the beauty and particular spirit of Daisy. “He had never yet heard a young girl express herself in just this fashion”. These peculiarities become the cause of much internalized debate of Winterbourne as he attempts to give her a type. “Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State… Or was she also a designing, and audacious, and unscrupulous young person?” Tragically, Winterbourne’s perplexity and over analysis leads to his ultimate failure to understand Daisy Miller for who she is, “the most innocent”.
Winterbourne’s puzzlement leads him to seek advice from his aunt, Mrs. Costello, an established American in European society. In a conversation concerning Daisy Miller, Winterbourne questions his aunt whether “she is the sort of young lady who expects a man – sooner or later – to carry her off?” Winterbourne posses this question to seek Mrs. Costello’s experience in categorizing the mass of contradiction he feels towards the behavior of Daisy.” The dichotomy of his thoughts is reflected by his conversations with Mrs. Costello. While Winterbourne feels that “She is completely uncultivated… But she is wonderfully pretty, and, in short, she is very nice”, Mrs. Costello describes her as “very common”, and “a dreadful girl.” Although he is partial towards Daisy and says “She’s a very nice girl”, he is continuously influenced by those around him, particularly his aunt to categorize Daisy as “the sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not – not accepting.
Daisy Miller, in American fashion” assumes little about her own social status. Although she is eventually shunned by European society, in her innocence, she believes that “They are only pretending to be shocked. They don’t really care a straw what I do.” While those around her, including Winterbourne misunderstand her as “hopelessly vulgar”, Daisy Miller is by no means such. “I’m a fearful frightful flirt… Did you ever hear of a nice girl that was not?” Daisy admits to her nature innocently. She seeks nothing of waiting to be “carried off” by some gentlemen. In fact, she conducts herself in the fashion that she conducts herself in America, through openness towards men on platonic terms. She does so innocently, and without realization of social consequences of her actions in Europe. Daisy is the height of innocence and does not realize the dire social position she is abases toward. When Winterbourne makes this realization that she is indeed “the most innocent girl” he has ever known, it is already too late.
By the end of the novella, it is Daisy who reminiscences about Winterbourne in her feverish state. Although she was “intimately involved” with Giovanelli, Daisy mentions that “she was never engaged to that handsome Italian”, and “remembered the times we went to that castle, in Switzerland.” In this final message, Daisy perhaps hints at the nature of her relationship with Winterbourne.
But Winterbourne is not such a man to “carry her off”. Although Winterbourne prides himself on being Daisy’s only advocate, he fails to assist her in any fashion. In fact, he is biased from the beginning by society. Winterbourne perhaps recognizes that “he was vexed with himself that, by instinct, he should not appreciate her justly.” Winterbourne soon becomes a distant individual who though advocating that he is “biggest supporter of Daisy”, does nothing to affect change. It is tragic that to the very end he still attempts to categorize her.
Winterbourne is markedly influenced by his aunt, who is in stark contrast to Daisy. In this sense, Mrs. Costello represents the ritualistic and rigid society of Europe. Since Winterbourne is willing to listen to his aunt and place some weight on her observations, it is clear that Winterbourne is biased by the rules of his society towards Daisy. Upon mentioning Mrs. Costello’s granddaughters, whom “Winterbourne remembered to have heard that his pretty cousins in New York were ‘tremendous flirts’ ”, Winterbourne immediately assumes Daisy to be even worst instead of arriving at the conclusion that Mrs. Costello’s daughters were flirts. Once Mrs. Costello describes to Winterbourne about “An intimacy with the courier”, Winterbourne’s mind is already tainted. “Winterbourne listened with interest to these disclosures; they helped him to make up his mind about Miss Daisy. Evidently she was rather wild.”
It is only after Daisy’s death that Winterbourne realizes his judgment and categorization of her was deeply flawed. In contrast to what he believed so far, she was indeed innocent, and it was Winterbourne who was at fault. In fact, “I have lived to long in foreign parts”, he says. However, Daisy’s death affects him little. He stays “European” to the very end.
Such an impossibility of a relationship between Winterbourne and Daisy suggests that European and American societies are indeed too different. A rift in communication and understand is apparent throughout the novella in failed attempts by Winterbourne and Daisy to understand each other. Any chance intermingling of the two on a social level will lead to tragedy. Daisy Miller can be paralleled to American society in general. It is reflected as innocent and vivacious, while Winterbourne, an American, but clearly the product of European society, is portrayed as “cold and stiff.”
Perhaps through the lack of understanding that eventually leads to the tragic death of Daisy Miller, James attempts to portray American innocence and show its limitations. The unbridgeable relationship between Winterbourne and Daisy hints at a corrupt European society. It is highlighted by Winterbourne himself, who is at fault for the misunderstanding, and in some ways, the eventual death of the heroine. As such, Winterbourne can never “carrying Daisy off”.
Through the impossibility of the relationship between Winterbourne and Daisy, James denounces European society as ritualistically superficial and rigid. He suggests that adhering to European society as an American seeking for civility, in the case of Winterbourne, will only bring about misunderstanding tragedy. In a sense James derides European society for hypocrisy. Individuals are not as easily forgiven for their wrongs if the are lower on the social scale. Moreover, men are at ease to social gaffe, in the case of Winterbourne’s foreign lover interest. However Daisy, a socially inexperienced American female, must die by them.
The themes in the novella of contrast between European and American society are exemplified by the interaction between Frederick Winterbourne and Daisy Miller. These interactions suggest that the two societies are too incompatible. These interactions help transcend mere contrast and aid to clarify appearance and deception. James poignantly expresses disdain at European society through Winterbourne’s interaction with Daisy. Although Winterbourne is portrayed as intelligent and cultured, it might be he who is weak and insensitive. Perhaps such is the same for European society.