Study Guide

Daisy Miller Themes

By Henry James

  • Innocence

    Remember when you were just a little child, being shepherded around Europe by your mother and your courier, convinced that the world was entirely yours for the taking—a vast dinner thrown in your honor by the gods of beauty and kindness? Neither do we. But, um, we had a friend born in December who thought that all the Christmas lights were for her birthday. Cute, right? That's sort of what Daisy is like.

    This is a girl who's unshakably optimistic and fun in that way that only slightly naïve people can be. We hate them for it and love them for it at the same time. Winterbourne feels kind of like that about her, too. Even though he's not yet hit the big 3-0, Winterbourne is all cynical and world-weary. Daisy offers a chance for him to recapture that innocence and charm vicariously.

    So the book becomes a sort of meditation on the pleasures and perils of innocence in all of its guises. How far should we go to maintain it? Is it better to remain ignorant of all the bad stuff and keep your childish glow or be informed and lose some luster? Do we have to watch all of those videos of heinous car crashes in driver's ed before we get behind the wheel or be lectured on STDs when we've barely had our first kiss? On the one hand, these lessons can really save lives. On the other, they make us grow up and get all Winterbourne-y really fast.

    Daisy is in real danger in Daisy Miller: she dies of exposure at the end, after all. Still, it's difficult to determine how much of the "concern" expressed over her by the novel's Debbie Downers is valid and how much is just a bunch of older people jealous because their heyday is over and they can't get down with anything the kids are doing these days.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Is Daisy's innocence genuine, or are we meant to think that she wears her innocence as Winterbourne wears his experience—a part of the elaborate social play that is their weird mating ritual?
    2. How does innocence correspond to nationality? Does Daisy's Americanness make her seem more innocent or does her innocence make her seem more American? Why?
    3. In what—if any—ways is Winterbourne more innocent than Daisy? Why is it so important to Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker that Daisy's innocence be preserved?

    Chew on This

    Winterbourne loves Daisy for her childlike qualities because he is still very much a child himself.

    Adulthood in this novel is characterized by a capacity for manipulation, and by that token, Daisy is hardly innocent.

  • Respect and Reputation

    All the older characters want in Daisy Miller is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. But that don't mean much to D-A-I-S-Y. She's more Cyndi than Aretha. In fact, Daisy and Mrs. Costello represent two theories of how you ought to live.

    In the Mrs. Costello school of thought, one must always be aware of how what one does reflects on one, and also one must refer to oneself and others as "one" all of the time because one has a pretty clear idea about how any and every one must behave. In the Daisy school of thought, you only live once, so ignore the haters and do whatcha wanna. It sounds like Daisy's school is a lot better. But don't forget that she dies in the end from all of that fun—so we can't be too quick to jump to conclusions.

    Between Mrs. Costello's sad life and Daisy's sad death, James seems to be saying that the tightrope of reputation must be carefully crossed. That is to say, don't let what others think of you dictate your every move, but don't forget to wear underwear while exiting a limo, either.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. If Daisy is indifferent to the opinions of others, why does she try to get introduced to Mrs. Costello in Part 1 and ingratiate herself to Mrs. Walker in the beginning of Part 2?
    2. Does Daisy enjoy her bad reputation or view it as an unfortunate consequence of her extracurricular relationship with Mr. G?
    3. Is Winterbourne respected? Can we tell from the narration what kind of reputation he has?
    4. Why is Mrs. Costello so respected? Why do Winterbourne and the rest of the Americans abroad seem to bow to her advice and opinions?

    Chew on This

    Daisy intentionally creates a sense of notoriety for herself because it is a more powerful status than respectability.

    Winterbourne's reputation is solely based on his social and familial associations. There is nothing in his behavior or personality that generates a reputation of his own.

  • Dissatisfaction

    If the Rolling Stones thought they couldn't get no satisfaction , they should have spent an afternoon with Frederick Winterbourne. Dude is disaffected as all get-out. Though he stays at fancy hotels and houses, doesn't work, and can go anywhere he wants whenever he wants all over Europe, we get the sense that Winterbourne is a bit glum. Why? Well, he's bored and his life has no meaning.

    We also see this guy's dissatisfaction reflected in others in Daisy Miller. Randolph Miller's dissatisfied with Europe; Mrs. Costello's dissatisfied with Daisy; Mrs. Walker's dissatisfied with people; Mrs. Miller has some kind of incurable stomach condition. Maybe when yoga teachers go on and on about how the world gives you back the same kind of energy you put into it, they're on to something. Namaste.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. How do Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Miller's illnesses reflect on their respective characters? Why does Henry James use the trope of illness with both of them?
    2. Does Daisy grow more satisfied or less satisfied over the course of the story? What about Winterbourne?
    3. Who is the most satisfied character in the story? Is anyone? How about the most dissatisfied character?

    Chew on This

    Randolph Miller is the external representation of Winterbourne's internal dissatisfied child.

    Giovanelli is the only character in the novel who is truly satisfied because he exists outside of the American social scene.

  • Hypocrisy

    Ah, Winterbourne. The biggest hypocrite ever.

    Cases in point:

    1. He tells Daisy it's inappropriate to be seen alone with gentlemen, and yet he takes her on a whole day trip alone with him to a spooky castle.
    2. He makes fun of Italians like Eugenio and Giovanelli for having elaborate mustaches, when he has a mustache that he's fond of twirling at times, so we figure it must be at least a little elaborate, too.
    3. He tells Daisy not to be such a flirt then says he wishes she would flirt with him.
    4. He tells Daisy not to have secret romantic relationships when he has a secret romantic relationship.
    5. He's an American who totally knocks Americans.

    What's the deal, Winterbourne? You better check yourself before you wreck yourself. And he's not the only one. Women in the novel are judged way more harshly than men, which is one of the worst kinds of hypocrisy in our book. There's also a lot of hating on Daisy by the potentially jealous (Mrs. Walker) and increasingly irrelevant (Mrs. Costello). Hypocrisy just looks bad on everyone.

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Is the hypocritical behavior exhibited by characters like Mr. Winterbourne and Mrs. Costello always contradictory? Or is the whole point that morals, behaviors, and values must be negotiated on a case-by-case basis?
    2. How and why does being in Europe, rather than New York, create instances of hypocrisy in the American characters?
    3. Does Daisy ever exhibit hypocritical tendencies, or is the hypocrisy limited to those who judge her?

    Chew on This

    Winterbourne's self-contradictory behavior and beliefs are not the result of deliberate hypocrisy, but rather of his failure to know himself.

    Daisy's downfall is her failure to perform the divide between public and private behavior that American necessarily adopt when abroad.

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    Someone once said that there are only two stories: (1) someone leaves home and (2) a stranger comes to town. The secret is, they're both the same story. Case in point: Daisy Miller. Home is really a foreign concept here. After all, everyone is more or less varying degrees of Other. Giovanelli is foreign to Daisy; Daisy is foreign to Winterbourne; Winterbourne is foreign to everybody. The takeaway? Foreign things are both more alluring and more frightening. Turns out, Henry James was majorly anticipating Bizarre Foods.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. Why does Winterbourne never return to America?
    2. Why would Mr. Miller send his family to Europe while he remains in New York? What can they hope to gain from their travels?
    3. What's the difference between the two different settings in the story? How does the change in setting affect the plot?
    4. How does each character make the most of the circumstances of being abroad?

    Chew on This

    Sexuality is the real foreign element in the novel; everything that is strange or otherworldly is immediately considered erotic.

    Winterbourne is a man without a country. He's foreign to Europeans, Americans, and even himself.

  • Tradition and Customs

    What hat do you wear to a winter wedding? How do you address a letter to an older cousin whom you've never met? Which spoon do you use for the jellied meats course of your lunch? These may not be the exact same questions that plague you today, but that doesn't mean tradition and customs have flown out the window completely. It's just that in the Daisy Miller set, they're going a bit stronger than you're probably used to. And that puts you in good company with Daisy, who's like "what's the big deal?" about practically everything the more traditional characters (Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker) hold dear.

    It's kind of ironic. They're all in a place that Americans associate with oldness and tradition: Europe (and more especially Rome), but the traditions they honor are their own, mostly made-up traditions. Oh, Americans.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. Why is it so important to Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker that people like Daisy observe their customs of behavior?
    2. How does the European setting change the way we interpret the behavioral guidelines that the Americans-abroad lay down?
    3. Does Daisy have any respect for tradition at all?
    4. Why does Winterbourne get in the carriage with Mrs. Walker? Does this mean he agrees with Mrs. Walker with regard to tradition?

    Chew on This

    Winterbourne must follow the traditions and customs represented by his aunt because, without them, he has no identity.

    Daisy highlights the hypocrisy of all these silly rules by breaking them and forcing others to spell them out for her.