Study Guide

Daisy Miller Innocence

By Henry James

Advertisement - Guide continues below


In Geneva, as he had been perfectly aware, a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions; but here at Vevey, what conditions could be better than these?—a pretty American girl coming and standing in front of you in a garden (1.27)

Winterbourne and Daisy first meet in a garden, reminding us of the original innocents: Adam and Eve. Does that make Giovanelli a snake or an apple? We're not prepared to carry it that far, but James is clearly setting up a fall.

Certainly she was very charming, but how deucedly sociable! Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State? Were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen's society? Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person? Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Daisy Miller looked extremely innocent. Some people had told him that, after all, American girls were exceedingly innocent; and others had told him that, after all, they were not. He was inclined to think Miss Daisy Miller was a flirt—a pretty American flirt. He had never, as yet, had any relations with young ladies of this category. (1.67)

On the one hand, Winterbourne thinks Daisy's flirtatiousness is a mark of her innocence; on the other, he's the one who "never had any experience." Who's the innocent here?

"I haven't the least idea what such young ladies expect a man to do. But I really think that you had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated, as you call them. You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent."

"My dear aunt, I am not so innocent," said Winterbourne, smiling and curling his mustache.

"You are guilty too, then!" (1.130-32)

Winterbourne gets all Britney Spears on us here. You go, girl! Turns out the whole innocence business is remarkably relative and subjective. Mrs. Costello sees Winterbourne as innocent and youthful, and Winterbourne sees himself as wise in the ways of the world. Especially compared to little Daisy.

How did Miss Daisy Miller know that there was a charmer in Geneva? Winterbourne, who denied the existence of such a person, was quite unable to discover, and he was divided between amazement at the rapidity of her induction and amusement at the frankness of her persiflage. She seemed to him, in all this, an extraordinary mixture of innocence and crudity (1.255)

Daisy has some pretty impressive psychic gifts for an innocent know-nothing. Winterbourne is shocked that Daisy knows he has a lover. Why? Because it means that she thinks of such things. Naughty!

The news that Daisy Miller was surrounded by half a dozen wonderful mustaches checked Winterbourne's impulse to go straightway to see her. He had, perhaps, not definitely flattered himself that he had made an ineffaceable impression upon her heart, but he was annoyed at hearing of a state of affairs so little in harmony with an image that had lately flitted in and out of his own meditations; the image of a very pretty girl looking out of an old Roman window and asking herself urgently when Mr. Winterbourne would arrive. (2.10)

Winterbourne wants to think of Daisy as a virgin in a tower, pining for her prince (read: him). But she's no Sleeping Beauty—she's got more mustachioed admirers than an indie singer-songwriter at a mixology bar.

She showed no displeasure at her tete-a-tete with Giovanelli being interrupted; she could chatter as freshly and freely with two gentlemen as with one; there was always, in her conversation, the same odd mixture of audacity and puerility. Winterbourne remarked to himself that if she was seriously interested in Giovanelli, it was very singular that she should not take more trouble to preserve the sanctity of their interviews; and he liked her the more for her innocent-looking indifference and her apparently inexhaustible good humor. (2.176)

Is she or isn't she? The uncertainty of Daisy's innocence is driving him absolutely wild.

Mrs. Costello inspected the young couple again with her optical instrument. "He is very handsome. One easily sees how it is. She thinks him the most elegant man in the world, the finest gentleman. She has never seen anything like him; he is better, even, than the courier."

We've all been young and crushing on a hottie who's more surface than substance. Even Costello's kind of throwing Daisy that bone here.

He asked himself whether Daisy's defiance came from the consciousness of innocence, or from her being, essentially, a young person of the reckless class. It must be admitted that holding one's self to a belief in Daisy's "innocence" came to seem to Winterbourne more and more a matter of fine-spun gallantry. (2.207)

Gallantry makes you think of knights, right? And knights make you think of what? Maybe fiction? Or gender roles? Men like Winterbourne want to believe that women need to be rescued. Daisy knows it—and what's worse, he knows she knows it. All the world's a stage, friends, and we're merely the players.

What a clever little reprobate [Daisy] was, and how smartly she played at injured innocence! (2.242)

Winterbourne's clearly onto her, so why does he still buy into it?

At last [Giovanelli] said, "She was the most beautiful young lady I ever saw, and the most amiable"; and then he added in a moment, "and she was the most innocent."

Winterbourne looked at him and presently repeated his words, "And the most innocent?"

"The most innocent!" (2.262-4)

This is Giovanelli's Bill Clintonest moment: He did not have sexual relations with that woman.

Daisy Miller Innocence Study Group

Ask questions, get answers, and discuss with others.

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

This is a premium product

Please Wait...