|Exercise on Henry James's Daisy Miller
Two contemporary views of Daisy Miller:
Harper's Magazine, December 1878: “Daisy Miller is an impossible daughter, who regards her mother as a cipher, and who, besides, is an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence, elegance and vulgarity. A young person of bad manners.”
Henry James himself in an August 1880 letter: “Poor little Daisy Miller was, as I understand her, above all things innocent. It was not to make a scandal, or because she took pleasure in a scandal, that she went on with Giovanelli. She never took the measure really of the scandal she produced, and had no means of doing so: she was too ignorant, too irreflective, too little versed in the proportions of things. She was a flirt, a perfectly superficial and unmalicious one. . . . I did not mean to suggest that she was playing off Giovanelli against Winterbourne—for she was too innocent for that.”
What contrasts or oppositions does James draw between European and American characters and ideals? What rules are implied here for the behavior of young girls and married women in each culture?
To what extent is Daisy responsible for her own fate, and to what extent is she an innocent crushed beneath a corrupt civilization? Discuss Daisy’s character in detail. Did you find her a sympathetic character or an irritating one? What does she fail to understand about expected roles for girls and women?
James uses language carefully in this novella as in all his works; certain words (“pretty”) and images (flowers, for example) are repeated with variations throughout. Choose a few of the most important examples that you have seen in this work and discuss their significance in terms of images of women.
Examine closely the ways in which Winterbourne assesses Daisy and interprets—or misinterprets—her language and behavior.
Two of the most crucial words in this story are “innocent” and “intimate,” especially because the characters define them in various ways and apply them to Daisy’s relations with others. Find some of the places in which these words are used and discuss the ways in which these loaded terms help to create tension (and misunderstandings) in the story, especially in terms of expected roles of women.