Daisy Miller, Tradition, and the European Heroine

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Daisy Miller, Tradition, and the European Heroine

Motley F. Deakin

When William Dean Howells selected Daisy Miller as the one Jamesian character to emphasize in his Heroines of Fiction, he did her two great services. First, he, as the dean of American critics, certified her important position in both the Jamesian canon and in the literary world at large. Second, he affirmed by both precept and example that she would be understood best not as an isolated phenomenon but as a part of a literary tradition. The reasons for Daisy's significance have been examined often enough; one need only add that since Howells stated his preference, other Jamesian heroines--Isabel Archer most forcefully, and, not far behind her, Milly Theale and Maggie Verver--have challenged his prescriptive choice. In contrast, Daisy's relevance as a phenomenon within some particular literary tradition does need to be studied. We do not know enough about what influences conditioned her conception.

If we follow Howell's precedent, then we find that this tradition is purely English and American, the heroines of which "are of easily distinguishable types, and their evolution in their native Anglo-Saxon environment has been, in no very great lapse of time, singularly uninfluenced from without." Which all sounds most promising until we begin examining the American part of this tradition and Daisy Miller in particular, for then the usefulness of Howells' assertion becomes questionable. The tradition that Howells presents in his two-volume study is overwhelmingly English; what is American is but a fraction, or, as Howells describes it, "wilding off-shoots," whose main representatives--whose very substance really--constrict to only Hawthorne's heroines and Daisy Miller herself. We wonder about the importance and memorableness of Howells' other examples in that American tradition: Marjorie Daw, Miggles, Nellie Armitage, Aurora Nuncanou, Jane Marshall, Jane Field. We are even puzzled at how we can place them in this tradition Howells is postulating when, without his aid, we would first have to guess at the identity of many of them. Nor, when we try to place Daisy Miller in Howells' English tradition, can we find much resemblance between her and Emma Woodhouse or Jeanie Deans, Amelia Sedley or Dorothea Brooke, who seem representative in one way or another of the host he lists. Only occasionally, in, say Elizabeth Bennet or Catherine Earnshaw or Clara Middleton, does one find qualities in these English heroines that seem comparable to Daisy's; and we might further note that though Howells presents the two earlier heroines, curiously he did not like Meredith's novels and had not read The Egoist. So, though we can accept Howells' premises, his guidelines are not too helpful.

Looking to James for aid, we find his position not so explicit as we would wish. Certainly he was conscious of the need for tradition, especially for the literary artist: his admiration for Balzac and his study of Hawthorne are evidence enough. But to him Daisy was as ostensibly American as empirical evidence could make her; she was representative of an evanescent phenomenon that suddenly appeared on the European scene during the decade 1860-70 and then as quickly vanished. These facts taken at face value make Daisy an objective rendering of an existing reality without any marked relation to a literary tradition, American or otherwise.

But though one may wish to read Daisy Miller in this way, he must recognize too that the creative mind seldom works so simply, and certainly not James's. We should remember that several of James's early efforts in fiction, including that so obviously American novel, Washington Square, are adaptations of literary works by foreign authors. We should recall too that James's personal experience as a boy and a young man had, in large part, nullified for him any chauvinistic notion of what constitutes an individual's identity. His impulse was always to break beyond the national boundary, and when he could not do so physically, he found his escape through books. So what James brought to the creation of Daisy was a sense of life that, for his generation, was singularly emancipated and broadly informed. And though James may have styled himself a realist, the world of his mind, as evidenced in his fiction, is one replete with ambiguities and complexities, images and figures, that had been actuated, not by knowing the security and stability of living in one place, but rather by experiencing the tension and excitement of moving through the flux of new and continually changing environments. The one constant that remains is human nature, which in an important, ultimate sense is unweighted by larger, social or nationalistic identifications. All of this means that insofar as Daisy is concerned, James most probably would not have seen her simply as the product of Schenectady but, rather, would have taken what he needed in her creation from whatever sources were available--sources which for him were various. In Daisy Miller the result should be something less clear and simple than would at first appear, and the character of Daisy should exemplify some attributes that would transcend the limiting identifications of upstate New York or even of America.

The clue to this literary tradition we are seeking lies, I think, in James's placing Daisy in a scene neither English nor American, and in the insistence of both James and Howells that this character in this scene postulates the International Situation. For proof we note that James has set Daisy in an atmosphere reverberating with other names and other histories which impinge upon and color our response to Daisy--names and histories which do not belong just to the other characters in the story but rather are evoked by the setting or other referents. Thus we should recognize that Daisy is moving in and being influenced by a new and different world, not necessarily the same as the world of the transplanted American dowagers who surround her.

This is a world long since familiar to James both as fact and fiction. As a tourist he had attentively watched and noted what he needed for the realistic accouterment of a Daisy Miller. But just as important, as a "devourer of libraries" he had already observed many other fictive heroines move through this same setting--heroines who, because of similar forces and tensions conditioning them, may be found to resemble Daisy both in their attributes and their fates. It is significant that Daisy is American, but it is equally significant that the great crisis of her life is experienced in Europe. Expressed in terms of literary influence, one could say that James's affinities with the continental authors were, in his early maturity, stronger than what he felt for the English, and though the American Hawthorne certainly exerted his influence, he was but one against a whole array of other, equally significant but non-American writers. Thus one would expect that if a literary tradition helpful in enlarging our understanding of Daisy Miller is to be found, it would more probably appear in the novels of these European authors James admired than in the Anglo-Saxon tradition Howells postulated.

In his critical essays James has left an abundant record of his reading. Looking through them we are struck by the frequency with which he notes and delineates the fictive heroines he encountered. With persistence he expresses admiration for them while at the same time ignoring the masculine element he may have met. But even among the heroines he discriminates, selecting for special commendation those young maidens who demonstrate a flair of independent individuality that reminds one of Daisy. If we try to place these heroines in some kind of order, we soon become aware that it is not so profitable to try to determine when the young James read what novel. However, it is important to realize that James's interests tend to attenuate as the authors he read are removed from him chronologically; his favorites seem to be of his generation or, more often, that of his father, but certainly not much more removed than that of his grandfather. But even within this relatively short period of time, if we place in chronological order those fictive heroines who both fascinated James and have qualities comparable to Daisy's, we still can construct a tradition significant in both its fictive and its historic connotations.

The development of this tradition, and particularly of Daisy's place in it, is best seen if we approach it at that point in time most contiguous to Daisy. So we must start with Turgenev, whom James both admired and knew personally. His heroines appeared to James to be "one of the most striking groups the modern novel has given us" ["Ivan Turgenieff," The Art of Fiction and other Essays, 1948]. James's admiration even carried him to the point of asserting a similarity between the American and Russian characters: "Russian young girls . . . have to our sense a touch of the faintly acrid perfume of the New England temperament--a hint of Puritan angularity" ["Ivan Turgenieff," French Poets and Novelists, 1908]. In these heroines James found a strong will, an ability to resist, to wait, a sense of honor more exigent than that of the men they love. Their strength of character is so powerful that it exceeds their formal significance in their respective novels; though they are not centers of the novels in which they appear, they often dominate them.

The best examples are Marianna (Virgin Soil) and Elena (On the Eve). As future brides of revolutionaries, their assurance and sense of purpose commend them as embodiments of a Daisy-like independence of spirit. Dedicated to freedom, both personal and public, they resent oppression and inequality. "Justice satisfies but does not gladden them; while injustice, to which they are frightfully sensitive, stirs them up to the very bottom of the soul" [Ivan Turgenieff, The Novels and Stories of Ivan Turgenieff, 1904]. But, despite their unselfish devotion to commendable ideals, they irritate a public that thinks they set a bad example for other girls. They are iconoclasts. Unlike Daisy, who is usually accepted as at least representative of part of that American society from which she comes, Turgenev's heroines personify a disturbing new force in Russian society. Marianna is proud and surly: "rom her whole being there emanated a strong and daring, impetuous and passionate element." She longs for freedom "with all the force of [her] unyielding soul," a freedom to be realized only in a complete, selfless dedication to a noble cause [Turgenieff]. Elena, James's expressed favorite, has this same impetuous and passionate element. Like Marianna, she thirsts for the opportunity to do good, to help the poor, the hungry, and the sick. Leading an intense but lonely life, she ignores parental authority, asserting her independence at the age of sixteen. She dawdles in boredom until, through love and a new-found sense of purpose it embodies, she discovers a direction for her life. Finally, she realizes personal freedom through her dedication to the cause of political freedom which her husband symbolizes. The response of these two heroines to life is not formed so much by a groping ignorance as by an intuitive understanding of the forces that impel them to action. Their activities are not marked by the gaucheries and surges of pudency that usually characterize young innocence. Instead, they move with assurance to their fates. As literary cousins of Daisy Miller, they offer a sense of liberating humanity, a strength and moral beauty that to some extent informs James's own creation. But there is a difference: Daisy knows only a present, whereas Turgenev's heroines anticipate a future, even though over that future hangs the pall of death.

Moving back in time to Victor Cherbuliez, a French author whose heroine is actually cited in Daisy Miller and thus is the most obvious link with this tradition we are tracing, we find on examining his novel Paule Méré that the stories of James and Cherbuliez have much in common. They both explore the theme of social disorientation, examining the effects of rigid conventions on a young girl not sympathetic to them. Like Daisy Miller, Paule Méré relies for its clash of personal and social attitudes in part on regional and national distinctions, though it also derives some of its effect from the more romantic concept of the superior, liberated role of the artist in society. The male protagonists in both novels cannot resist the pressures of convention, thus exposing the unprotected heroines to the crushing power of these pressures. Both novels present a protest against these inhuman social forces, but both also contain the bitter recognition that they are invincible, destroying as they do the young innocents.

Paule Méré is the child of a Venetian dancer and a Genevan father of strict Calvinistic background, a background that informs, to an extent, Winterbourne's character in Daisy Miller. Since the paternal side of the family thought it best that the child be removed from the environment of the theater, she is given into the care of her father's parents on the condition that her mother not see her. The child is raised in this somber Geneva household, always cautioned against her tainted maternal ancestry, but always secretly drawn to the brilliant image of her mother. From her mother she has inherited a talent for and delight in aesthetic pleasures, but she is compelled to look upon them as sinful. Finding it impossible to suppress her artistic impulses, she seeks refuge with friends. Misunderstood by society and finally by the man whom she loves, she "dies of a broken heart because her spontaneity passes for impropriety" [James, Transatlantic sketches, 1888]. This innocent and ardent spirit must exist in a society whose password is Qu'en dira-t-on? She is imprudent, perhaps, but this is "la dernière vertu qu'apprennent les âmes généreuses" [Paul Méré]. For herself and those whom she loves, she insists on a faith in the integrity of one's spirit that would transcend conventions and appearances. But in the opinion of this society's religious leader, M. Gérard, Paule suffers from two incurable maladies, "le mépris des convenances et le goût du fruit défendu." Judging her most generously, this society can only say:
Voulez-vous savoir son plus grand dêfaut? Cette chere enfant a mauvaise téte. On a toujours les défauts de ses qualités. Sa droiture est cause qu'elle manque de souplesse; elle ne sait pas se plier aux circonstances ni patienter avec la vie, et quand la vie lui manque de parole, la chaleur de ses ressentiments trouble la justesse naturelle de son jugement.
In this society a young girl who respects herself can take seriously only "le tricotage, la couture et le catéchisme." It regards "l'enthousiasme, l'imagination, toute supériorité de l'esprit comme autant de dangers et de piéges tendus à la vertu." The weight of its disapprobation finally destroys Paule Méré.

But though James does give special prominence to Paule Méré, he could have found just as adequate an analogue for Daisy from the long list of feminine protagonists created by that earlier and greater artist, George Sand. He knew her novels and in his early criticism wrote admiringly of them. These heroines are often creatures of instinct and impressions, natural and simple in their responses. Rarely well-educated, they exemplify a self-learned, self-imposed creed that distinguishes them from other characters in these novels. Even Indiana, the simplest and weakest of them, has a will of iron, an incalculable force of resistance against any oppression, even to the point of death, the fate of many of these heroines. Forced back upon themselves by their unwillingness to accede to the demands of society, they have developed habits of introspection and self-examination. They are superior women in their dedication, their moral virtue, or their genius. Though rarely exhibiting great physical courage, "elles ont souvent le courage moral qui s'exalte avec le péril ou la souffrance" [George Sand, Indiana, 1948]. They are a compound of sentiment and intelligence. When they surrender to sentiment they suffer; when they are guided by intelligence they survive, but only at the risk of renouncing something cherished. To Consuelo, who embodies so much of the best in George Sand, this desire for renunciation is instinctive but is supported and made rational by her dedication to her art, an attitude congenial to James as person and as author. The situations of these heroines are often morally ambiguous. Unattached, at variance with society, they often suffer from the acts of men weaker or more conscious of convention than they. Surrounded by selfishness and intrigue, they are victimized by appearances and their own generous natures. Sometimes they succeed in retaining their social integrity, sometimes they fail, but, as their author intended, they always capture the sympathies of the reader. Unlike Cherbuliez, Sand does not make use of the International Situation, seeking no further than personal or family attachment for relevant social compulsion. Indiana is Creole, but socially this does little more than make her a provincial. Of greater significance is Consuelo's early attachment to Venice, for this city meant for both Sand and Cherbuliez an ambiance conducive to the development of the artist. It meant the same to James, though, oddly enough, it, like the rest of Italy, represents for these earlier authors a freer, more relaxed social order, whereas James finds there a sordid, cynical appearance of conformity as well.

Thus George Sand helps fill out the tradition we are tracing. But if we are to find its origins we must move beyond Sand to that other great literary feminist, Mme de Staël, who seems more clearly a seminal force, a shaper of literary trends and traditions. With her we are coming to the limits of James's interests. He mentions her less often and wrote no critical study of her; still he does make enough scattered allusions to her to indicate that he was familiar with her and her work.

Her novels Corinne and Delphine are these on the problems of the socially disoriented woman. Both novels could serve as exempla of the ironic epigraph found on the title page of Delphine: "Un homme doit braver l'opinion; une femme doit s'y soumettre." But if she must submit, still first she will always resist. This resistance is necessary, for, like George Sand, Mme de Staël intended her works as defenses of herself, as vindications of her own unorthodox opinions and actions. Consequently, in all circumstances these heroines are commendable. Even in adversity they can only be pitied, not condemned. To them, as to both George Sand and Mme de Staël, the villain must always be society.

Corinne is the literary antecedent most clearly useful to James. It is Mme de Staël's defense of the artist, stating as it does the romantic concept of the artist's inherent superiority, his strength of perception, his greater moral virtue and passionate attachment. Like Paule Méré, Corinne is of mixed nationality, thus affecting, as Cherbuliez and James do, a tension between two cultures. Her father is a British aristocrat, her mother is Italian. Though she combines qualities of both countries, she responds most evidently to Italy and its attributes of beauty, spontaneity, pleasure, and freedom. Here she can gratify her aesthetic interests and delight in knowledge. To her, Britain, in contrast, represents conventions, duty, and joyless obligation conceived of as morality. In that country a woman was thought to be of questionable virtue if she tried to assert herself, and for her efforts she could gain nothing. The opposite was true in Italy, for there Corinne was admired as an improviser in poetry and music, a talent that exemplified the imaginative élan governing her life. Accompanying this Orphic gift she had, like Faust, a desire for vast, profound learning which she could also gratify in Italy, but not in Britain. Every object that arouses Corinne's affection she can love with the same impetuous ardor, whether it be art and learning, or country, or the man she hopes to marry. With this affection she combines a constancy, an impulsive generosity that is too often misunderstood and exposes her to the disapprobation of a society which finally destroys her. This conclusion is possible because, as is characteristic of this whole literary tradition, Corinne, despite her allure and strength, cannot control the action of the novel, an action which turns not on her love for the hero, Oswald, but on the conflict he feels between his love for Corinne and his desire to obey the last wishes of his dead father. Caught between the liberating force of love and the constraint of filial obedience, he sacrifices Corinne to a conscience burdened with guilt and remorse. On her side, by surrendering to her love for Oswald, a love conceived romantically as overpowering and total, Corinne cannot forestall or turn away the fatal consequences of her devotion. Unlike Daisy, who dies a maligned innocent little aware of a threat to her freedom, Corinne is alert and committed but is also powerless in the grasp of her passion. As a victim of love, Corinne exudes an erotic sentiment characteristic of the Romantic Movement and reminiscent of a host of earlier heroines--a sentiment that, though later diminished and viewed negatively as scandalous impropriety, still informs Daisy Miller.

As support to this pervasive sentiment, a similar romanticism colors the setting of Corinne, to which James--who, like Winterbourne, could quote Byron, that symbol of social misanthropy, in the Colosseum--responded sympathetically. The Italian scene, in particular, is presented with an enthusiasm, a comprehension and sympathy, that James would have appreciated, for a relevant correspondence exists here between Corinne and Daisy Miller in both the choice of subject and its picturesque presentation. The most striking parallel is the emphasis placed on that magnet to the romantic spirit: the Colosseum. Corinne does not seek her fatal rendezvous there, as Daisy does, but she is attracted to it nonetheless, because if excites in her a confusing multiplicity of responses, all delightful to the romantic spirit. Corinne comes to it as to a church, kneeling before its huge black cross set in soil once accursed but now sanctified to the memory of the martyrs sacrificed there. There too she senses reverberations of old Rome and, among these crumbling ruins, even an escape into Nature. But no one effect dominates, for each melts into the other, especially when seen, as it is by both Corinne and Daisy, at night, the time favored by romantic devotees of this scene. At this place and time she can feel her soul "frissonne et s'attendrit tout à la fois en se trouvant seule avec la nature" [Corinne], and she can cry out in longing and ecstasy. The romantic sentiment felt for the Colosseum is still strong enough to draw Daisy to it, but the attenuation of its attraction becomes evident in Daisy's incapacity to see this somber scene as anything more than "pretty."

But the Colosseum is dangerous too, because here lurks malaria, a malignancy mysterious and inseparable from the beauty and charm of its environment. The fascination Corinne feels for the Colosseum is symptomatic of an impulse towards death to be found in the whole tradition from Corinne to Daisy Miller. This imminence of death foreshadowing the fates of so many of these heroines may be seen as perhaps the most dramatic evidence allying the tradition of the socially emancipated woman to the larger literary fascination with the gothic, erotically motivated theme of the persecuted woman. In the social evaluation with which we are concerned here, the urge towards death appears motivated by the exigencies of the victim's relation to society: society requires the sacrifice of its opponents. The larger tradition depends, rather, on a privately motivated cruelty: the villain must persecute and destroy his victim. Within the more limited tradition considered here, the tradition of the socially disoriented woman, the compulsion toward death seems to indicate a morbid scepticism about the efficacy of the individual's revolt.

As an influence on Daisy Miller, Mme de Staël's other novel, Delphine, does not seem so immediately significant as Corinne. It does, however, develop a concentration of interest upon the superior woman and her relations to society that establishes with clarity the tradition in which Mme de Staël's successors could work. Abandoning the romantic scene and the emancipated genius, the author concentrates here on Delphine as an example of natural goodness caught in the power of a society hostile to her. Delphine, an orphan and a widow, unfamiliar with a sophisticated society, schooled by her former husband to love philosophical inquiry and the natural impulses of the heart, is forced, as Mme de Staël felt she herself was, into an intimate relationship with a society she can not respect but is forced to fear. Singularly independent in her judgments, she finds it difficult to submit her sense of rightness to the laws, let alone to the opinions, of society. If the true desire of her soul is not in accord with the proprieties of society, then those proprieties must be ignored. If she were to succeed socially, she would be forced to lead a life "politiquement ordonnée" [Delphine], a life of calculated dissimulation. To live even comfortably in society Delphine must suppress everything that could distinguish her among women: her "pensées naturelles, mouvements passionnés, élans genereux de l'enthousiasme." The opinions of society are the consensus of the bourgeoisie--of mediocrity which "ne suppose rien au delà de sa propre intelligence, et regarde comme folie tout ce qui le dépasse." The author argues that in America, where Delphine's husband, M. d'Albemar, had served in the Revolutionary War, this constraint is mitigated and the laws and the customs are more humane. In part it is this spirit of revolutionary America, as conveyed through M. d'Albemar to his wife, that motivates Delphine's opposition to the society she finds in Paris. Natural, generous, impulsive, she responds as well to the liberating urge of the French Revolution. A society so freed, she feels at first, will acquiesce in her actions, motivated as those actions are by empathy and a desire to alleviate unhappiness and suffering. But she is disappointed. She is born too late. The Revolution manifested politically the personal ideals impelling Delphine into opposition to a society no longer stirred by the clarion of that Revolution. So she must die: society must claim its victim.

Here, caught up in the surge and violence of the liberating impulse rocking France, Mme de Staël projects into her autobiographical novels her sense of its significance as it affected her personally. In her, later in George Sand, transmuted in Cherbuliez, and transferred to a new scene and a new revolution in Turgenev; the impulse to freedom, the desire for individual emancipation, is continuous. What is conscious revolt in Mme de Staël becomes finally an accepted, natural, quiescently felt attitude in Daisy Miller. A revolutionary ideal has become a convention, but in the process it has changed, losing its enthusiasm and some of its power to stir men's hearts. By the time it reaches Daisy, this ideal is flattened and attenuated; it is diminished to deportment and manners. As a result, Daisy comprehends only dimly the ideal of freedom which she symbolizes.

This European aspect of Daisy's antecedents is a curious irony, considering the apparent cohesiveness of Daisy's American identification. But that cohesiveness is not the only reality of the story. What we have taken as Daisy's American indifference to propriety can also be seen as an acquisition, an adaptation of an older and larger foreign tradition. The independence she exemplifies, in part coddled in the social vacuum of the American Frontier, had also roiled up in defiance to the repressive stagnation of the more ancient, denser European social scene. If it was a response to an American ethos, it was also a revulsion from a European miasma; it was in either form an expression of a will to be free.

Thus, when a naïve, ill-prepared Daisy returns to the battle-ground which first gave meaning and purpose to her innocent free will, it is proper that she too resist as best she can. But it is also inevitable that, like so many heroines before her, she should be defeated by the same force that gave her, as an exemplification of this tradition, a reason for being. If she will not conform, society must punish her; it must, one could even say if he sees her death as something more than accident, claim her as a victim. For somehow we must find a justification for the enormous irony of her death. It seems something less than satisfactory to explain that death away by attributing it to chance, or to Daisy's perverse willfulness, or to Winterbourne's need to be taught a lesson. Is it not more satisfactory to accept the postulate of the tradition we have examined here and say that her death becomes a social and symbolic necessity? Writing in the American tradition that James knew, Howells had refused to recognize this necessity. In his novels he allowed those of his heroines for whom James expressed admiration a happier future with marriage and children at the end of it, and his precedent, not James's, was followed by later writers. By letting Daisy die, James allied himself to an essentially traditional, European resolution to a theme that by this time offered him the opportunity to break with it. But he chose not to and consequently succeeded in making Daisy Miller, at first so stark and slight a record of actuality, into a story of resonating cultural significance.
(Source:  Motley F. Deakin, "Daisy Miller, Tradition, and the European Heroine," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. VI, No. 1, March, 1969.)

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