by Henry James
Fresh as a Daisy
Hate to break it to you, but Daisy Miller's not her real name—it's Annie P. Miller. But the fact that she's called "Daisy" should give you some clue right off the bat as to how we're supposed to see her. Free associate with us: fresh as a daisy, he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not, wreaths for your hair on a summer day, the bouquet you give your kid sister at her ballet recital… you get the gist. She's innocence personified.
Daisy is an American girl from Schenectady, NY, traveling through Italy with her mother and her younger brother, Randolph. When Mr. Winterbourne, our guide, first meets her, she's wearing the kind of white, flouncy dress covered in ribbons that Cindy Brady might have rocked at a birthday party.
She Feels Pretty, Oh So Pretty
Despite her innocence, or maybe because of it, she's quite the favorite with the gentlemen. The word "pretty" is used to describe her again and again—and again.
- Her eyes are pretty: "the young girl's eyes were singularly honest and fresh. They were wonderfully pretty eyes" (1.44).
- Her hands are pretty: "She sat there with her extremely pretty hands, ornamented with very brilliant rings" (1.63).
- And when Winterbourne's trying to hype up her virtues to his aunt, he can for some reason only muster this: "she is wonderfully pretty, and, in short, she is very nice" (1.124). Normally the dude's like a walking thesaurus, but for some reason, on the topic of Daisy, his brain turns to mush.
This isn't just the goo-goo effects of l-o-v-e. Winterbourne's under the illusion that Daisy is as simple as ivory soap. He uses words like "pretty" and "nice" to describe her because, as enchanted with her as he may be, he's convinced there's not a lot of substance beneath her ivory soap complexion.
As far as we know from the information we get from Winterbourne and the cryptic narrator, Daisy is more cute than beautiful, more girl-next-door than femme fatale. Winterbourne seems to have seen his fair share of saucy, sexy women (mostly older) strut through Europe in search of a love affair or a husband. He defines Daisy against this nasty type, who he calls coquettes:
He had known, here in Europe, two or three women--persons older than Miss Daisy Miller, and provided, for respectability's sake, with husbands--who were great coquettes--dangerous, terrible women, with whom one's relations were liable to take a serious turn. But this young girl was not a coquette in that sense; she was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt. (1.67)
Yep, there's that word again. Pretty.
Still, like Kelis or any other decent ingénue, she's proud of her milkshake's ability to bring the boys to her yard, bragging about how many "gentlemen friends" have held dinners in her honor (three), and how she has "always had […] a great deal of gentlemen's society" (1.65). But Daisy's no player. She just likes the attention.
Daisy's taste for attention makes her some pretty powerful enemies pretty quickly. Mrs. Walker is the most vicious among them. She tells Winterbourne Daisy's been doing "everything that is not done here. Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o'clock at night. Her mother goes away when visitors come" (2.123). While we think hanging with mysterious Italians in corners sounds kind of fun, you're supposed to sit in drawing rooms with American guys, receive visits at tea time with your mom around, and not draw attention to yourself. Daisy seems to prefer throwing all of this caution to the wind and treating her Italian vacation like a vacation rather than a charm school boot camp.
Even Winterbourne eventually decides that she's not up to snuff when it comes to morals and tasteful behavior. After Daisy chooses a long and private walk with Mr. Giovanelli over a stuffy carriage ride with Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker, Winterbourne declares "It was impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady; she was wanting in a certain indispensable delicacy" (2.89). It's his loss really, because he's too pig-headed to see that dispensing with the "indispensable delicacy" is what makes Daisy so fun and cool.
Though everyone claims that what's going on with her and Mr. Giovanelli is totally wrong, we're meant to see that their love story is more Disney Channel afternoon special than Cinemax late night. Daisy is often cited as the first fictional depiction of a breed of modern, American girl who still exists in the popular imagination: the flirt.
In the 19th century, European female sexuality was associated with torrid affairs and women of the night. French novels by writers like Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, and Colette depicted aging courtesans with young boy toys and young prostitutes who would do anything to get what they wanted. The idea that a young, virginal woman could possess a fresh and innocent sex appeal was new and totally American. We're talking about young ladies with charm, wit, and beauty who still manage to stay squeaky-clean and not completely aware of the full extent of their je ne sais quoi. Yeah, we said it.
Daisy is a master of all of the flirt trades: clever banter, pouting, creating jealousy, acting spoiled in such an endearing way that instead of slapping her in the face, you buy her an ice cream sundae with gummy bears on top. Her character rides incredibly close to the brink of annoying, but we never quite get there, falling for her right alongside our guide, Mr. Winterbourne, who keeps waffling between whether he loves her or loves her not. This is because, in his own words, "Daisy continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence" (2.89).Daisy Miller Timeline