Study Guide

Daisy Miller Innocence

By Henry James

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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.

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