Daisy Miller: A Study of American Realism

At first reading, Henry James’s Daisy Miller: A Study seems to be just another romance—a story about lovers and wooing told in a way suitable to be read aloud as an engaging pastime. Because of the structure of its plot and the elements it encompasses (such as the pursuit of the love interest or the fancy European locales), the novella could easily be misunderstood as a Romantic piece, for it shares vaguely some of the traits of that movement. However, when examined more thoroughly, the details in Daisy Miller of how its elements function to make the story unfold reveal a general lack of idealization (idealization which would be essential for Romanticism) proper to the Realistic movement to which the novella belongs.

Daisy Miller first lacks idealization in the very nature and development of the lead characters’ romance, since it doesn’t overtly involve “higher” emotions such as passionate and undying love. Rather, the relationship between Winterbourne and Daisy Miller arises from a sort of mutual curiosity. Winterbourne becomes “amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed” (James, 118) with Mrs. Miller because of her free spirit, her uncultivated manners, and her being a compatriot in foreign lands (and her beauty, to a degree), all which contrast with the stern standards of the Calvinist society of his hometown, Geneva, which had “dishabituated him to the American tone.” (James, 118). His main drive is to understand his peculiar object of desire—the American flirt.

Daisy Miller’s interest for her suitor, on the other hand, springs from her general curiosity about Europe and its society, not from an interest in marriage or romantic engagements. Daisy wants to explore, to go places (such as the Chateau Chillon), and to be part of society as she is back in New York, for she is “very fond of society, and [she has] always had a great deal of it…a great deal of gentlemen’s society.” (James, 117-118). Her mother and brother, with whom she’s travelling, don’t entirely share her desire for discovery, nor do they participate in its fulfillment. Hence, the relationship between the two characters develops as a mutual enhancement: Winterbourne learns about “the regular conditions and limitation of one’s intercourse with a pretty American flirt” (James, 118) while he serves as companion and guide for Miss Miller when they meet. Their courtship is no love affair but (as the title suggests) a mutual study of culture and character.

Overall, the romantic aspect of the characters’ relationship, which is mostly implied by the narrative that reveals Winterbourne’s interest for the girl, reveals to be meek at best, for neither character displays or expresses great affection for the other, externally or internally. For instance, Winterbourne barely defends Daisy’s reputation when his aunt, Mrs. Costello, bashes it, at times submitting to her judgments (James, 122); and Daisy “goes about alone with her foreigners” (James, 133) in Rome, undermining the idea that Winterbourne might mean to her a special escort of any kind. Their courtship, limited to staggered days and a few encounters, never culminates in either an ideal, grandiose love proclamation or a passionate sex encounter—their courtship simply comprises their whole relationship.

Not only do Winterbourne and Daisy fail to be Romantic heroes or the epitome of passionate love, all the supporting characters are presented far from the ideals of what their roles would be under Romantic standards. Randolph, the little brother, and Mrs. Miller, the mother, long for America rather than enjoy the trip the way that people of their wealth should. Moreover, they long for America not because they miss some ideal of home, but because in America Randolph would get candy (James, 115) and Mrs. Miller would have Dr. Davies, the family physician, tending her illnesses and aches (James, 134)—both unsophisticated and superficial reasons. The family as a whole seems and acts so uncultivated that even their compatriots abroad shun them despite their wealth and rank back home, calling them “very dreadful people” (James, 133)—disdain expected more from the stuck-up English aristocracy than from the seemingly cosmopolitan Americans.

Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello, who first shuns the Millers, has social prejudices which don’t allow her to even meet the possible romantic interest of her (presumably) beloved nephew. In spite of Winterbourne being more loyal and caring than her own children, she refuses to comply to Winterbourne’s request of meeting Daisy simply because “They are the sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not—by not accepting.” (James, 121). In Daisy Miller, social scorn not only exists—it rules and isn’t ideally debunked or defeated by love and individuality.

Mr. Giovanelli, Daisy’s Roman suitor, fails to be the epitome of gallantry too. He does have the manners and etiquette of a gentleman, but his intentions seem questionable due to his reputation as a chaser of American heiresses with whom he had learned English so well (James, 139). His worst display of non-gallantry and selfishness happens towards the conclusion of the story, when he accompanies Daisy to the Coliseum at night despite the danger of the Roman fever (James, 154). Giovanelli claims twice that he took Daisy there (which led her to become ill and die) and disregarded the danger because he didn’t fear for himself (James, 154, 156), thus hinting at his selfishness and lack of strong emotional attachment to Daisy.

The Roman fever that killed Daisy also belongs to the details that portray Europe as a non-idealistic place: Rome is an ill-ridden city with a judgmental society which is just as pernicious as the epidemic; scammers and money-grubbing suitors populate all of Italy; and Swiss spas attract tourists but lack liveliness while Calvinist Geneva chokes liveliness out of those who live in it (such as Winterbourne). Only the ship in which the Miller’s travelled, “The City of Richmond,” is presented favorably—through the opinion of a young boy who had fun and enjoyed the trip except for its destination.

Maybe the conclusion of the novella falls farthest from any sort of ideal, considering that Daisy Miller ends with a courtship instead of a full romance; that the main female character dies suddenly; that Daisy leaves with her mother only a meek and unclear dying-words message for Winterbourne (James, 156); and that Winterbourne regrets “his mistake” and moves on with his life at Geneva mostly unaffected (James, 157).

Despite its apparent Romantic plot, Daisy Miller cannot be deemed romantic when love is so weak or Romantic when emotions are so absent, social constraints succeed at keeping the couple apart, and existence appears unjust and imperfect. Ultimately, all the bleakness of the world and the flaws of the characters in Daisy Miller exist to bring the story closer to the reality of the late 1800s and put that world into perspective—the perspective of a Realistic study.

Works Cited

James, Henry. Daisy Miller: A Study. New York: Pearson Custom Publishing, 1878.

Dallas, TX. June 2008.

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