Spotted: Daisy Miller talking to Lonely Boy at the Trois Couronnes Garden. Is it love—or just a case of Vevay-induced boredom? Word on the street is they're slipping away to Chillon together this weekend. Good luck, Lonely Boy. We all know how quickly this Daisy switches from loves-him to loves-him-not. xoxo Henry James
That's right. Just like our good friend Gossip Girl, the narrator of Daisy Miller likes nothing more than to make clever puns and taunt everyone in the story. The American novelist William Faulkner reportedly said that Henry James was "one of the nicest old ladies I ever met." That Faulkner! We happen to only agree with the old lady part. But James isn't sad mean, he's fun mean. He also likes to take us, the readers, aside at a party to gossip with him, which of course we love. Consider this:
At the risk of exciting a somewhat derisive smile on the reader's part, I may affirm that with regard to the women who had hitherto interested him, it very often seemed to Winterbourne among the possibilities that, given certain contingencies, he should be afraid—literally afraid—of these ladies; he had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller. (2.47)
Why, you may ask, are we smiling derisively? Well, because old HJ is here trying to tell us that Winterbourne goes running the other way when someone his own age tries to actually get it on with him, and he likes Daisy because she's about as sexual as Dora the Explorer. Ha! (We didn't say he wasn't dark, we just said we thought he was kind of funny.)
Realism is a genre that has been poo-pooed to no end. But its works are some of the most read and respected among classic literature. Go figure. The naturalist writer (naturalism is like realism on absinthe and in need of a shave) Frank Norris complained that realism was "the drama of a broken teacup, the tragedy of a walk down the block, the excitement of an afternoon call, the adventure of an invitation to dinner" (source)—in other words, a lot of really boring everyday stuff made to seem like a big deal.
For lots of people, that's precisely what's cool about it. Most of us have never been in a pistol duel, led a railroad strike, or driven a dogsled through the tundra. But we can all relate to the razor-sharp remarks an enemy can make in casual conversation or the excitement of "running into" that certain someone at a dinner party engineered by a sympathetic friend.
Daisy Miller is written in a realist style that includes the smallest details of what a room looks like, what people are wearing, and the facial expressions they make. It also includes the plot hallmarks of tragedy, especially the untimely death of the beautiful female lead at the story's end.
Novels that simply bear the name of a woman (or girl) are kind of an 18th- and 19th-century English thing: Moll Flanders, Emma, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. It doesn't matter if you've read these or not, you can tell by their names that they're old and about women.
Oh, and that there's going to be a lot of anxiety about sex. Women weren't supposed to have sex, and weren't even supposed to want to have sex. If they did have sex, it had to be with their husbands, and they had to be not that into it. All of the novels mentioned above begin with single women who are, therefore, in sexually treacherous waters. In the context of their time period(s), even naming a woman in a title is kind of scandalous. It's like putting her up on a billboard in her nightie. By giving the novel Daisy's name, James is referencing a literary tradition of young, single women for whom attractiveness and publicity spelled danger—and sometimes death.
We also get a lot of information about Daisy simply from her name. "Miller" as a surname implies she's new-money; though she may have fancy clothes, underneath she's a simple girl from upstate. Millers (like those who have a saw mill or a wind mill for grinding corn) are not typically from illustrious backgrounds.
If you were writing a novel about a rich girl, her name would probably be Vanderbilt or Van Der Woodsen, not Miller, right? And if you were giving flowers to said rich girl, would you buy her a bouquet of daisies? Or would you go with something more along the lines of roses or gardenias or calla lilies? That's what we thought. Daisy Miller. She sounds like someone you'd meet on a bus, and that's sort of the point.
In the end of life, we all die. Sorry to bring you down.
But in the end of Daisy Miller, only Daisy dies. (Kind of a shame, because we find Mrs. Costello really annoying.) Daisy's death is a tragedy not only because she's a young, beautiful girl—though, it should be noted, that's a popular kind of tragedy. (It's a revealing fact that the public seems far more upset when someone hot and female dies—think Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana.)
When Daisy dies, a lot dies with her. Mainly, Winterbourne's hopes and dreams. He's a little bit dead inside when he meets her, but she brings him to life with her unconventional behavior, quick wit, and lust for life. Think about how she livens up everything they do together (which is basically their trip to the castle at Chillon in Part 1):
Winterbourne's preference had been that they should be conveyed to Chillon in a carriage; but she expressed a lively wish to go in the little steamer; she declared that she had a passion for steamboats. There was always such a lovely breeze upon the water, and you saw such lots of people. The sail was not long, but Winterbourne's companion found time to say a great many things. To the young man himself their little excursion was so much of an escapade—an adventure—that, even allowing for her habitual sense of freedom, he had some expectation of seeing her regard it in the same way. (1.242)
While Daisy represents innocence, she also brings out the innocence and child-like wonder in others, especially Winterbourne. He wants to go to Chillon in a carriage but she's like, "let's shake it up and take the steam boat!" That Daisy. She's so Raven!
Maybe you haven't been to/heard of Vevay (it's lovely this time of year!) but you certainly have some pretty strong associations with Rome. They say it wasn't built in a day, and the architecture really shows the time commitment. One thing's for sure: these places are classic and steeped in mythic import.
The castle at Chillon near Vevay, where Daisy and Winterbourne go on the day trip that sparks their romance, is the setting of a dark poem about a prisoner by Lord Byron, one of the most popular poets of the Romantic period.The French philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau also wrote a hugely popular novel in the late 18th century that was set in Vevay. Called Julie, it's about first love between two young innocents.
Rome is where some of the most dramatic stories in all of literature go down, ranging from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra to Hawthorne's The Marble Faun. In a sense, Daisy Miller is set in the world of literature as much, or even more than, it is set in the real world.
James picks places that remind us of stories so that we already sort of know how we're supposed to feel when we get there. It's like how when characters in a movie go to the top of the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, you know they're going to kiss and drop some huge romance bomb—usually an engagement. Oh, and there's also the "when in Rome" aspect of Rome. You know, you're supposed to do as the Romans do. Or, in this case, as the Americans in Rome do.
Rome and Vevay are specific locations in Europe, and a lot of this novel is about the contrast between America and Europe in general. America is the New World and Europe is the Old World. Americans go to Italy to learn about art, to Paris to buy clothes, to Switzerland to take in the healthy air, and to England to eat meat pies and bad-mouth the monarchy.
New money people like the Millers don't have a good, classical education or a strong foothold in high society. Europe is the perfect place to cultivate both of those things. So Daisy is supposed to be there to become best buds with people like Mrs. Costello while roaming through cathedrals and art galleries. But we all know she's more interested in sampling the living Italians than their musty oil paintings.
You can easily plough through Daisy Miller in one or two sittings, especially if it's raining or you're trying to carve some space out for yourself at an awkward family visit. It's one of James's most accessible pieces, and though he still writes with somewhat elevated prose (e.g., "Her conversation was chiefly of what metaphysicians term the objective cast; but every now and then it took a subjective turn" [1.43]), none of the plot points are buried very far beneath its shimmery surface. That said, this is definitely one of those texts where you can keep digging if you want to find some very weird stuff for building your esoteric beach sculpture of analysis.
The Jamesian sentence is not as wildly complex here as it is in later James works like The Golden Bowl or The Wings of the Dove. But still, he throws down some doozies that it takes us a while to find our way out of.
The almost overly formal style of writing is fun, though, because it provides a shocking contrast when he decides to insert a little joke or cutting remark. At other times, the writing is almost so grandiose and dramatic that we get the sense he's making fun of himself—or maybe just us. Like this:
The early Roman spring had filled the air with bloom and perfume, and the rugged surface of the Palatine was muffled with tender verdure. Daisy was strolling along the top of one of those great mounds of ruin that are embanked with mossy marble and paved with monumental inscriptions. It seemed to him that Rome had never been so lovely as just then. (2.208)
Nobody could take "tender verdure" or "mossy marble" too seriously. Just try saying "tender verdure" ten times fast. It's almost impossible.
But these descriptions are few and far between, as most of the novel is spunky dialogue between Winterbourne and the coquettish Daisy, or Winterbourne and his dowager-countess-like aunt.
A parasol is a fashionable 19th-century object used to block a woman's face from the sun. But let's face it—it's mostly a fashion accessory. Let's just say if you were an "it" girl a couple centuries ago, you'd be hoping for a parasol named after you—not a handbag.
Daisy Miller never leaves home without a parasol, even though it's often folded up. So we associate Daisy with her parasol, and it comes to symbolize many things. Most of all, it's about flimsy or superficial protection between her and the dangers of the outside world.
Daisy's out on her own with strange men in Rome, and all she has is this thin, white umbrella that isn't even waterproof. It's like driving with a paper seat belt or riding a bike in a clay helmet—if either of those things for some reason became fashionable.
When we first see her, she's wearing no hat, but has a large parasol. The 19th-century hat is a way of emphasizing one's propriety, respect, and station. Your taste in hats lets everyone else know what you're about, and hats are used to defer to others "I take off my hat to you!" or to display honor (think of a man taking off his hat to meet a lady.)
Daisy is bare-headed—gasp! You can imagine what that means. But her parasol is very large. This seems to imply that she lacks respect for others and that her own protection of herself (her face) has been replaced by something that is much more for show than for practicality. Her parasol is fancy and embroidered, and often she carries it with her closed. At one key moment, she even allows Mr. Giovanelli to handle it for her:
The western sun in the opposite sky sent out a brilliant shaft through a couple of cloud bars, whereupon Daisy's companion took her parasol out of her hands and opened it. She came a little nearer, and he held the parasol over her; then, still holding it, he let it rest upon her shoulder, so that both of their heads were hidden from Winterbourne (2.136).
The parasol should be shielding her from the heat of the sun, but instead it's directing her right into the heat of Giovanelli. The very thing that is supposed to protect Daisy from the elements is now used as a tool to further her own exposure.
Because of the parasol, Winterbourne doesn't have a clear view of Daisy and Giovanelli. He has no idea what they're doing behind there. And what he's imagining is probably way worse than what's actually going on. The use of the parasol as an ad-hoc privacy screen is a moment that neatly summarizes Daisy's lack of awareness of (or indifference to) the way her behavior reflects on her.
Roman Fever sounds like something we'd like to have. Turns out, though, it's just malaria. Yep, the mosquito-borne illness. Not as awesome as we'd hoped.
Back in the day, people thought you'd contract the disease from being out at night in secluded areas. So basically, you get "Roman fever" in the same way you get a reputation for being fast and loose. And that's no coincidence. Check out the scene when Winterbourne catches Daisy and Giovanelli in their late-night tryst at the Colosseum and warns her she'll catch Roman fever (remember now, that's both malaria and a bad rep):
"I don't care," said Daisy, in a strange little tone, "whether I have Roman fever or not!" (2.257)
Hmmm. Her strange little tone implies that she does care, maybe just a little, as it could cost her her true love—Winterbourne—and, far more importantly, her life. Being out in the buggy Roman night with a strange, touchy Roman stands to rob Daisy of her health and her squeaky-clean image.
The name "Roman fever" is also ripe for punning, which Henry James just loves. Edith Wharton, James's good friend and mentee, used it for the title of a 1934 short story about adultery. It can mean anything from the attraction American women experience towards Roman men to the romantic appeal of the ancient city itself.
"Fevers" in general connoted having gone a little crazy, as they still do today—like Spring Fever, Cabin Fever, Bieber Fever—you name it. What exactly is Daisy crazy for? Lust, attention, excitement, or foreignness? All of the above. Check please.
In ancient Rome, the Colosseum was the site of countless bloody battles and many moving speeches made by Russell Crowe.
Early Christians and slaves were sacrificed at the Colosseum. Now, it's Daisy whose innocence is laid on the altar of a great empire. Okay, in Daisy Miller, the blood that's being shed is not quite so literal, but it still has fatal consequences. The "wound" that leads to Daisy's death is inflicted in the Colosseum—it's there that she contracts malaria and also severs herself from Winterbourne most definitively.
This casts her in the position of a sacrificial victim to a few different things. Firstly, male power relations. Sometimes we wonder, is this really about Daisy, or is it just some weird pissing contest between Winterbourne and Giovanelli? Winterbourne's insistence that he's the real gentleman and Giovanelli is just a fake seems a little too big of a deal to leave us feeling like it's all about Daisy.
Secondly, nationalistic identity crises. Winterbourne has this casual relationship with an older (hint: Old World) European woman and then the American Daisy comes along all fresh and new (hint: New World) to make him question what he really wants and needs in a woman (or a nation). Since Daisy dies and Winterbourne goes back to his Swiss temptress, we feel pretty confident that little Daisy from the US of A is the one who gets the short end of the Winterbourne stick. That's a win for Europe.
Lastly, Daisy is sacrificed for a lot of class anxiety. The Americans in Rome are pretty sure of their place in America, but when they're in Rome, things get a little mixed up. New money people like Daisy come to town and get into society way more quickly than they ever would back in New York—that's part of the reason why they go to Europe in the first place. Making Daisy feel like she's inferior is how the old money people still get to feel like they're superior—and that's one heck of a sacrifice for our girl Daisy.
We know that's a lot to fit into the Colosseum, but we can assure you of one thing: the place is huge.
A carriage is a tidy haven of domesticity and comfort in which the young, vulnerable American abroad might go from safe location to safe location. It represents wealth but also security—like a little drawing room that you take along wherever you go. Of course, Daisy prefers to walk. When Daisy leaves Mrs. Walker's stuffy drawing room to meet Giovanelli at the Pincio plaza, Mrs. Walker follows her in a carriage:
"Do get in and drive with me!" said Mrs. Walker.
"That would be charming, but it's so enchanting just as I am!" and Daisy gave a brilliant glance at the gentlemen on either side of her.
"It may be enchanting, dear child, but it is not the custom here," urged Mrs. Walker, leaning forward in her victoria, with her hands devoutly clasped.
"Well, it ought to be, then!" said Daisy. "If I didn't walk I should expire." (2.101-104)
Mrs. Walker's "victoria" (that's like the Cadillac of carriages) displays her status and her removal from the hustle and bustle of the improper pedestrian walkways. Daisy, as a wealthy young American, "belongs" among the carriage set, but she'd prefer the excitement and exposure of travelling on foot. Her preference for walking also emphasizes her physicality. This girl exercises. She's not ashamed to have a body. No carriages for her.
Quick caveat: the narrator only breaks into the first person five tiny times in the whole book. Blink and you might miss it. Usually, when he does it, it's to imply something saucy. For example, at the very beginning he gives us the old nudge-nudge, wink-wink about Winterbourne's older lover in Geneva:
What I should say is, simply, that when certain persons spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there—a foreign lady—a person older than himself (1.2).
It's like saying, "I'm trying to say a lot of nice stuff about him, but I'll break this third-person routine to tell you that people gossip about his love life."
Unlike other first person peripheral narrators (like those in The Great Gatsby or Heart of Darkness), we know absolutely nothing about the guy. We're talking a first-person narrator so peripheral, most readers do not even recall the "I." This little recognized, but much discussed, feature of the text makes it an excellent focus for essays or discussion questions. Why does James include the "I" at all?
Seriously, we're asking.
To further complicate things, though this book is all about Daisy (the title at least would lead us to think so, right?) we only ever really see Daisy through Winterbourne's eyes. His opinions cloud every aspect of the book, so the narrator's judgment is hardly an objective one, but rather just a means of recounting Winterbourne's impressions of others.
This makes the whole novel read like a bit of a game of telephone: Is Daisy really like that? Or is that just what Winterbourne thinks? Or what the narrator thinks Winterbourne thinks? When you really let yourself get into this train of thought, Daisy Miller starts to feel like Inception with tea parties.
Frederick Winterbourne is hanging out around Vevay like a hipster at a coffee shop, bored and unimpressed with the regulars. Will someone or something new and exciting come along?
Winterbourne embarks on an acquaintance (let's be honest, they're never really that tight) with the young, attractive, and vivacious American, Daisy Miller. Though it's never made completely explicit, Winterbourne undoubtedly has eyes for Daisy and imagines they might have a future together. Maybe old Winterbourne is about to have his world rocked. . .
Gossip about Daisy and her inappropriate romantic antics with the Italian lawyer Mr. Giovanelli swirls around Rome. Daisy's frustrated because her little inroads into the world of high-class expats are getting blocked left and right. Winterbourne's frustrated because, in his opinion, Daisy keeps acting out of line. Can't he see that that's why he likes her in the first place? Great, now we're frustrated, too.
Daisy ignores Winterbourne and he begins to believe that she's going to marry herself to Giovanelli. All his hopes and dreams of Mrs. Daisy Winterbourne seem like they'll never be.
Daisy contracts malaria and dies. Winterbourne realizes she loved him all along and perhaps he should have made a move. Forget about not buying stocks in Apple years ago—this is some serious regret.
Frederick Winterbourne is a late-twenties American expat lightly involved with an older woman. He's suffering from ennui at a fashionable little hotel in Vevay, Switzerland. He meets a young and charismatic American girl: yep, Daisy Miller.
The older, established members of society, like Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs. Costello, and his friend Mrs. Walker, view Daisy's untraditional ways with deep skepticism. Everything seems pretty hum-drum, but the introduction of Daisy to the old scene promises to shake things up.
Daisy and her love interest, Mr. Giovanelli, roll into Mrs. Walker's uptight little party at 11 o'clock, and everyone is scandalized by their late arrival alone together. On their way out, Mrs. Walker snubs them, which is the beginning of the end of Daisy's reputation among the "proper" crowd.
We now know that Daisy's never going to be accepted among Winterbourne's crew, so the question arises: will Winterbourne go against the herd to make Daisy his own, or will he end up wimping out and snubbing her, too?
Winterbourne runs into Daisy and Mr. Giovanelli canoodling at the Colosseum like it's the last night of summer camp. It's evening and the mosquitos are out in full force, which means that Daisy is likely to contract more than just a bad reputation. Yikes.
Daisy semi-listens to Winterbourne and calls it a night, but we're not sure if this romantic evening with Giovanelli means Daisy's picked her man or if it's just another ploy to get Winterbourne's attention.
Edgar Allan Poe once creepily wrote that there's nothing more poetical than the death of a beautiful woman. That's basically what's going on here. Daisy's dying of malaria, and Winterbourne can't see her. But he begins to realize his feelings for her when Mrs. Miller passes along a cryptic message from Daisy: she was never really engaged to Giovanelli.
Daisy's death signals that Winterbourne was seriously too slow to make a move. Their love affair crash lands before it ever gets off the ground.
Winterbourne has a conversation with Giovanelli at Daisy's grave where Giovanelli confirms that Daisy and he were never engaged. Winterbourne reasons to his aunt that Daisy's message was intended to tell him that he was the object of her affection all along.
Winterbourne goes back to Geneva to keep on keepin' on, maybe engaging in an affair with the same older foreign woman we hear about in the beginning. You know how Gandhi said to be the change you wish to see in the world? Winterbourne seriously failed to heed that advice. He liked that Daisy was different, but he wouldn't make a bold move.
Frederick Winterbourne meets Daisy Miller in Vevay and is tantalized and intrigued. They take a day trip alone together, which, back in the day, is a slightly risqué and exciting adventure. He looks forward to seeing her again in Rome.
Daisy Miller makes a scandal of herself in Rome by cavorting with a handsome Italian lawyer, Mr. Giovanelli. She is snubbed by Mrs. Walker, the doyenne of Roman expat society. Winterbourne, meanwhile, is torn between the disdain he shares with Mrs. Walker for Daisy's impropriety, and a curiosity and longing for Daisy and all that she represents.
Daisy contracts malaria while spending an evening alone with Giovanelli at the Colosseum. Winterbourne begins to realize that Daisy may have had eyes for him all along and was just using Mr. Giovanelli to occupy herself and make Winterbourne jealous. All of this knowledge comes too late: Daisy dies of malaria and Mr. Winterbourne goes back to his lackluster life in Geneva. Womp womp.