Study Guide

Daisy Miller Tradition and Customs

By Henry James

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Tradition and Customs

"They are very common," Mrs. Costello declared. "They are the sort of Americans that one does one's duty by not—not accepting."

"Ah, you don't accept them?" said the young man.

"I can't, my dear Frederick. I would if I could, but I can't." (1.101-3)

It's dreadfully inconvenient how Mrs. Costello has no free will over her own actions and is merely a slave to custom and social convention. Bummer.

"She has that charming look that they all have," his aunt resumed. "I can't think where they pick it up; and she dresses in perfection—no, you don't know how well she dresses. I can't think where they get their taste."

"But, my dear aunt, she is not, after all, a Comanche savage."

"She is a young lady," said Mrs. Costello, "who has an intimacy with her mamma's courier." (1.108-10)

Winterbourne's offensive joke about Comanches is his way of telling his aunt that even though Daisy comes from a different culture than they do, it doesn't mean she has no culture. Weirdly enough here, you get to see his compassionate cultural relativism through his total ignorance about actual Comanches.

"I think you had better not go out in a boat, mademoiselle," Eugenio declared.

Winterbourne wished to Heaven this pretty girl were not so familiar with her courier; but he said nothing.

"I suppose you don't think it's proper!" Daisy exclaimed.

"Eugenio doesn't think anything's proper." (1.228)

Man, Eugenio really guards propriety like it was the last peanut butter M&M in Shmoop's kitchen.

"Winterbourne told her about the place. But he saw that she cared very little for feudal antiquities and that the dusky traditions of Chillon made but a slight impression upon her." (1.250)

Daisy wants to see the pretty castle, but puhleeze don't bore her with the details. This should've been Winterbourne's heads-up that this girl doesn't give a rat's badunkadunk about tradition.

"If, after what happens—at Vevey and everywhere—you desire to keep up the acquaintance, you are very welcome. Of course a man may know everyone. Men are welcome to the privilege!" (2.3)

So men can be as inappropriate as they like when it comes to illicit love affairs, romantic liaisons, and public intrigues. Women? Not so much. Now that's one custom we'd be glad to get rid of.

"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." (2.102-3)

Daisy's custom is to walk, Mrs. Walker's is to drive. Houston: we have a clash of customs here! Mrs. Walker is scandalized by Daisy's walking because she sees the young lady as an advertisement for herself, strutting her stuff in the public gaze in a manner that is totally gasp-worthy to a traditionalist like Walker.

"What has she 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." (2.122-3)

No one puts Daisy in a corner—except for mysterious Italians, that is. Part of the reason a girl like Daisy comes to Rome is to get in with the high and mighty Americans-abroad. Spending her time canoodling with the locals not only seems to be missing the point, it makes the high and mighty feel skipped over, and they don't take kindly to such antics.

If you won't flirt with me, do cease, at least, to flirt with your friend at the piano; they don't understand that sort of thing here."

"I thought they understood nothing else!" exclaimed Daisy.

"Not in young unmarried women."

"It seems to me much more proper in young unmarried women than in old married ones," Daisy declared. (2.160-63)

Daisy knows a nonsensical custom when she spies one. Unfortunately, just because rules don't make sense doesn't mean people don't observe them.

"Well," said Winterbourne, "when you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place. Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn't exist here. So when you show yourself in public with Mr. Giovanelli, and without your mother—"

"Gracious! poor Mother!" interposed Daisy.

"Though you may be flirting, Mr. Giovanelli is not; he means something else." (2.164-6)

What does Giovanelli think it means? And how did Winterbourne become such an expert on Italian dating?

Daisy turned very pale and looked at her mother, but Mrs. Miller was humbly unconscious of any violation of the usual social forms. She appeared, indeed, to have felt an incongruous impulse to draw attention to her own striking observance of them. "Good night, Mrs. Walker," she said; "we've had a beautiful evening. You see, if I let Daisy come to parties without me, I don't want her to go away without me." Daisy turned away, looking with a pale, grave face at the circle near the door; Winterbourne saw that, for the first moment, she was too much shocked and puzzled even for indignation. (2.173)

This is right after Walker snubs Daisy at her party. Mrs. Miller is so socially clueless, she doesn't even know enough to be offended. On the other hand, we see Daisy gets it in a serious way and this is the only time we see her really looking "grave" until she's under one.

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