That's Miss Daisy—and don't you forget it.
She's Mama to Boolie, Daisy to her friends, and Mother Werthan to Florine—but she's Miss Daisy to the help. Even the title lets us know that we're dealing with a traditional Southern lady locked into traditional Southern attitudes.
The Times They are a-Changin'
Daisy Werthan is a wealthy Jewish widow, aged 72 at the start of the film in 1948. That means she was born just 11 years after the end of the Civil War. Reconstruction had failed, and blacks no longer had equal access to public facilities or equal protections under the law. Daisy grew up in a highly segregated South where oppression, exclusion, and lynchings (Hoke witnessed one) were the daily experience of African Americans. Atlanta wasn't as bad as the rural areas of Georgia, but there were still "colored-only" and "whites-only" schools, restaurants, bathrooms, and water fountains. Intermarriage between whites and blacks was illegal. Even black barbers were prohibited in Georgia from cutting the hair of white customers.
Think about all the changes Daisy sees in her 96 years. Here's how one theater critic described it:
She was in Atlanta when Leo Frank was lynched in 1913—one of the most horrific displays of anti-Semitism in Atlanta's history. She lived through the woman suffrage movement and the passage of the 19th Amendment (which guaranteed women's right to vote), World Wars I and II, the Temple bombing of 1958, Martin Luther King Jr.'s ascension to fame and the civil rights movement, the Cold War and the beginning of the Watergate Scandal. (Source)
No wonder she's clinging to her old ways; the whole world's changing faster than she can keep up. Daisy's essentially decent nature is challenged by trying to adapt, especially to a world where assimilation and desegregation is challenging all the ideas she's had about herself as a liberal and progressive person.
Hear Her Roar
At 72, Daisy probably knows she's not as capable of some things as she used to be, but darned if she'll admit that to anyone, especially Boolie. She doesn't want to accept any help from him; she's fiercely and stubbornly independent. She's got a maid, as most wealthy Southern women did, but she doesn't like to feel dependent on her. And she hits the ceiling when Boolie tells her she's not competent to drive:
BOOLIE: You backed the car into the Pollacks' yard.
DAISY: You should have let me keep my LaSalle. It wouldn't have behaved this way.
BOOOLIE: Mama, cars don't behave. They are behaved upon. You demolished that Chrysler by yourself.
DAISY: Think what you want. I know the truth.
Even after Boolie hires Hoke, Daisy refuses to have a chauffeur.
DAISY: Unless they rewrote the Constitution and didn't tell me, I still have rights!
BOOLIE: Of course.DAISY: What I do not want, and absolutely will not have, is some chauffeur sitting in my kitchen, gobbling up my food, using my phone. I'd hate that in my house.
BOOLIE: You have Idella.
DAISY: Idella's different! She's been coming to me for years. We stay out of each other's way.
While Hoke's waiting for Daisy to relent, he tries to make himself useful around the house, but she shuts that down, too:
HOKE: Good morning, Miss Daisy. Thought I'd see after your zinnias.
DAISY: You leave my flower bed alone!
HOKE: You got a nice piece of ground behind the garage that ain't doing nothing. I could put in tomatoes, butter beans…
DAISY: If I want a vegetable garden, I'll plant it myself.
Hoke just can't cajole her into letting him drive.
DAISY: I'm fixing to go to the Piggly Wiggly on the trolley.
HOKE: On the trolley! Why don't you let me carry you?
DAISY: No, thank you.
HOKE: Ain't that why Mr. Werthan hired me?
DAISY: That's his problem.
Finally, after a week of his wearing her down, she lets Hoke drive her to the Piggly Wiggly—something Hoke likens to the effort it took the Lord to make the world.
Rags to Riches
Everyone wants to be independent. Particularly when you get old and people start treating you like a child, you hang on to whatever control you have left in your life. Daisy's no different. But there's another reason she's so uncomfortable with the idea of hired help: deep down, she doesn't feel rich and she doesn't like people thinking that she is. Even though she, like, really is.
Daisy grew up poor; she got her money when she married into a well-to-do family. Getting by on her own is something that she learned from a young age and she still carries those values.
HOKE: That insurance company gave you a brand new car for nothing.
DAISY: That's your opinion.
HOKE: My other opinion is that a fine, rich, Jewish lady like yourself has no business dragging herself onto a trolley carrying grocery bags. I'll carry them for you.
DAISY: I don't want you! And don't say I'm rich!
HOKE: I won't say it no more.
DAISY: Is that what you and Idella talk about? I hate being discussed behind my back in my own house! I was born on Forsyth Street. Believe me, I know the value of a penny! My brother brought home a white cat once. We couldn't keep it because we couldn't afford to feed it! My sister saved up money so I could become a teacher! We had nothing!
So that's it. She doesn't want people to see her as a pampered, helpless rich lady. One day when Hoke picks her up in front of the Temple, she lets him have it:
DAISY: Miriam and Beulah, I could see what they were thinking when we came out.
HOKE: What's that?
DAISY: That I was pretending to be rich!
HOKE: You is rich.
DAISY: No, I'm not! Nobody can say I put on airs. On Forsyth Street we made many meals out of grits and gravy.
A poor childhood is hard to forget; Daisy's still thinking of herself in some ways as a poor Jewish girl living in the old neighborhood. She's proud that she became a teacher and made her own way.
For all Daisy's bluster, there's still a lot of insecurity under there. As critic Don Shewey writes, "Her physical and social vulnerability, because of her age and because she's Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian society, only exacerbates the sharpness with which she hides her fear and fragility" (source). Hoke, perceptive as he is, probably realizes this; it makes him more patient with her.
Part of Daisy's bossy and controlling demeanor might be left over from her days of having to control a classroom of kids. (Disclaimer: Shmoop loves teachers. Loves them.) She's orderly, obsessive, and is very particular about how things have to be done. We're not sure at first we'd like to have her as our teacher, but the way she handles Hoke's illiteracy makes us suspect that underneath all the badgering and (and maybe slapping upside the head) she'd send our way is a deep commitment to our learning.
When Hoke tells her he can't read, she goes into her teacher mode—ornery as usual, but not demeaning. A white supremacist would have been glad Hoke couldn't read. Daisy's just plain mad about it.
DAISY: What are you talking about?
HOKE: I'm talking about I can't read, ma'am.
HOKE: I can't read, Miss Daisy.
DAISY: You look at the paper all the time.
HOKE: Well, that's just it. I just be looking! I try to dope out what's going on from the pictures.
DAISY: You know your letters?
HOKE: Yes, ma'am. I know my ABC's. I just can't read.
DAISY: Stop saying that! You're making me mad! If you know your letters, then you can read. You just don't know you can read. I taught some of the stupidest children God ever put on this earth. And they all could read enough to find a name on a tombstone. The name is Bauer. Bauer! What does that ''buh'' letter sound like?
DAISY: Of course! ''Er.'' That is the last part. Bauer! What letter sounds like ''er''?
DAISY: So the first letter is...
DAISY: And the last letter?
DAISY: B-R. ''B''-''er.'' It even sounds like Bauer, doesn't it?
HOKE: It sure do, Miss Daisy! It sure do! […] Miss Daisy?
HOKE: I sure do appreciate this!
DAISY: Don't be ridiculous! I didn't do anything!
This is a very moving scene because it gives us our first real look at Daisy's respect for Hoke. She knows he's a smart man who wasn't given educational opportunities. She gives him a task she knows he can accomplish and feel good about. You see Hoke's pride when he's able to find the Bauer gravestone at the cemetery. Later, she gives Hoke a writing instruction book that she used when teaching at an all-white school back in the day. She says something that she thinks will make Hoke feel good about it:
HOKE: Look at that. Ain't nobody never gave me no book before. ''Zaner Method Writing.''
DAISY: I always taught out of these. I saved a few. It's faded, but it works. If you practice, you'll write nicely. But you have to practice. I taught Mayor Hartsfield out of the same book.
Daisy's subtly implying that there's no difference between Hoke and the mayor in their ability to learn. Maybe they'll name an airport after Hoke, too.
DAISY: I've never been prejudiced in my life and you know it.
Daisy really believes that she doesn't have a prejudiced bone in her body. Having probably grown up on the receiving end of prejudice, she sees herself as pretty liberal. What she doesn't see is that her prejudiced attitudes are so much a part of her that she doesn't even recognize them. She pays lip service to tolerance, but many of her actions say otherwise.
Daisy isn't any nastier to Idella and Hoke than she is to Boolie, but she runs her household in a way that totally communicates their subservient status. She makes pickles for Idella to take home to her husband, but she wouldn't eat them in the same room with her. When a can of salmon goes missing from the pantry, she immediately suspects that Hoke's stolen it from her because, you know, "they" are like children—they can't be trusted. When Hoke wants to stop the car en route to Mobile so he can "make water," she angrily tells him he should have used the bathroom at the service station. She forgets that it was off limits to blacks.
Daisy struggles with this difference between her self-image as a liberal and her actual behavior. One great example of this disconnect: she agrees with Dr. Martin Luther King's ideas and goes to hear him speak, but she's uncomfortable inviting Hoke to attend with her. She tries to cover this up, but Hoke sees through it:
DAISY: Boolie says you wanted to go with me to this dinner. Did you tell him that?
HOKE: No, I didn't.
DAISY: I didn't think so. What'd be the point? You can hear him whenever you want. I think it's wonderful the way things are changing.
HOKE: Now what you think I am, Miss Daisy?
DAISY: What do you mean?
HOKE: The invitation to this dinner came in the mail a month ago. Now, if did be you wanted me to go with you, how come you wait till we in the car on the way before you asked me?
DAISY: What? All I said was Boolie said you wanted to go.
HOKE: Next time you want me to go somewhere, you ask me regular.
Talking the talk again, but not walking the walk. Dr. King's words must have felt like they were directed right at her:
VOICE OF DR. KING: History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. And our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.
Unfortunately, still true today.
Reviving Miss Daisy
Is there hope for Daisy to be her best self? Are haters just gonna hate? Fortunately for our lady, her relationship with Hoke helps her get past some of her deep-seated prejudiced ideas. She's not exactly marching on the Georgia statehouse, but she shows some gradual change. Daisy's more evolution than revolution. Let's sum up some of the major wakeup calls on Daisy's rode from totally rejecting Hoke to completely accepting him as a friend, confidante, and equal.
- She realizes she's falsely accused him of stealing based on her prejudices about "the help."
- She learns that he can't read and teaches him.
- On the trip to Mobile, he reminds her that he's only stopping by the side of the road to pee by because the gas station bathrooms are "whites only."
- The Temple bombing makes her realize what it's like to be on the receiving end of hateful and violent intolerance.
- Daisy hears Martin Luther King, Jr. talk about the damage done when good people are silent. She knows he's talking about her.
Daisy's cranky and bossy, but it's Shmoop's humble opinion that she's not hateful at heart. Having said that, we admit she says some hateful things. But during these vignettes in the film, we see that she's ashamed of herself when she finds out she's wrong. Jessica Tandy wordlessly conveys how bad Daisy feels about it. Check out this still photo of Daisy as she listens to Dr. King speak.
It's a subtle process. As critic Don Shewey noted about the original stage production, "Miss Daisy's realization that the decorum she clings to reeks of racial injustice, and the grace and inner strength that Hoke musters not to be destroyed by it, exist almost completely between the lines—which is also why the play demands exceptional actors" (source).
As Daisy and Hoke get to know each other over the years, she gradually lets him into her life. She shares memories of her childhood that she probably hasn't even shared with her son; they mourn for Idella together; they plant a garden side by side. He's still her servant, but he's becoming much more than that to her. As she gets on in years, she accepts more and more of his help. When Boolie calls to see how she's doing on a wintry day, Daisy's just fine, thank you very much:
BOOLIE: Mama, I'll be right out when I can get down my own driveway.
DAISY: Stay home, Boolie. Hoke is here with me.
DAISY: How'd he manage that?
HOKE: He's very handy. I'm fine. I don't need a thing in the world.
BOOLIE: Hello? I have the wrong number. Mama's saying loving things about Hoke.
At the end of the film, as Daisy develops dementia, Hoke's there to comfort her. She tells him he's her best friend. Even though she's confused and agitated, we sense she means it.
Even after Daisy's living in a retirement home and he doesn't work for her anymore, he comes to visit. She doesn't want to talk to anyone else when Hoke's there. We can see in retrospect how important he's been to her all those years, although she'd never admit it then. It took all of Shmoop's 3-pack of Kleenex Ultra-Soft to make it through that final shot of Hoke helping Daisy eat her pie. There was a lot of love in that scene.