American innocence vs. European vice in Henry James’ Daisy Miller

by Mădălina Stănescu

Henry James represents one of the writers interested in capturing fundamental aspects of the national experience and of the international encounters, as he wrote in the 19th century, when industrialization reached full speed and crossing the Atlantic was much faster, making it easier for Americans and Europeans to discover each other. It was the first time after the Civil War when the well-off Americans could afford visiting Europe, and that revealed that they had different manners, values and customs. The international theme was one of James’s biggest concerns and it was the theme that brought him fame. His works have autobiographical characteristics, because, like many of his heroes, James left his home land for Europe in order to find a better place and to enrich his experience of life and, therefore, he found himself on a different territory, with another mentality and another way of life. His experience is reflected in his works as all illustrate the European experience of young Americans, who come to the Old World to enrich their knowledge, but who find themselves against a space of difference. The importance of the international theme stands in the fact that it helped shaping and understanding better the American and European culture, as James himself said in the Preface to volume XIV, that “Europe only makes sense due to the existence of an America, and vice versa” (qtd. in Oltean 110). Therefore it is the meeting between the two nations that leads to the configuration of the American distinctiveness.

In order to explore the differences between the two civilizations and the effect that these have on the identity of the one coming from the New World, it is important to describe the prototype of the American in Europe as opposed to the personality of the Europeans. The heroes and heroines created by James incarnate, as Righelato notices, beauty, innocence, freedom, “vitality, frivolity and freshness” (xv) as they are open to experience and they seem to be more morally evolved. On the other hand, Europeans are characterized by “cynicism” (Lund 129), “corruption” (Weisbuch 219) and sophistication (Righelato xiv). The Americans in Europe are projected in contrast with the Old World’s way of life: “in the social setting with which they are identified, in the ways the speak, as well as in what they say, the various characters range themselves along an axis that runs from the natural to the cultivated, from the exuberant to the restrained” (Ohmann 5). In addition to this, Buitenhuis observes that another distinction is between “European surfaces” and “American depths”, or between “complexity” and “simplicity” (qtd. in Oltean 25). The American hero, beautiful, charming, simple, and to a certain extent ignorant, acts in a free, natural manner, a manner “not artificial and constrained” (Kar 31), as opposed to the self-consciousness of the ones he meets. Briefly, as Cushing Strout reveals, the features of The New World, spotted as qualities, are in opposition to those of The Old World, seen as inadequacies:

“On the one side stand Liberty, Happiness, Innocence, and Simplicity, pointing toward the Future, while separated by a pool of water […] stand Despotism, Misery, Corruption, and Sophistication, wrapped in the shrouds of the Past” (qtd. in Spiller 114).

Thus, Americans in Europe, as symbols of the New World, are characterized only by positive traits, while the ones they meet, symbols of the Old World, are characterized only by negative traits, meant to emphasize the huge contrast existing between these two cultures. It is this contrast that is responsible for Americans’ misunderstanding of the new space and their difficulties in living among the people from the Old Continent.

Henry James’s Daisy Miller, published in 1878, focuses exactly on these aspects, describing the opposition between two national cultures and between those pertaining to them. It presents Daisy Miller, a charming spontaneous American girl, who ends up being the victim of the rigid social conventions of the new world she confronts herself with. As Riquelme puts it, the short story shows “the quality of being English and the quality of being American” (585) and, as Lund observes, it shows “an innocent young American woman attempting to live in the structured society of ancient Europe” (126). She, as Anderson describes her, represents the “apparently simple American hero” who is projected in the struggle to understand “the complex Europeans and expatriates with whom she becomes involved” (38). The story marked a very important moment in the history of the American literature, as it represented a time when the American writers were able to give an idea about their country’s individuality: “The new nation, having achieved a clear idea of its own identity, began […] successfully to export its forms and techniques to Europe” (Lund 126). Thus, it represents one of the works dealing with American integrity and independence, after having won it and it reveals how the new comers perceive Europe and what are the effects of this experience on their personality.

The story deals with the differences in mentality of the two countries, and it also informs about the way in which the new comer looks upon his own country and culture after having the opportunity to see a distinct one. The journey, the international dialogue may have a positive effect on the American, as it gives him the possibility of comparing his home country with another one and judging upon the qualities of these conflicting societies. Daisy, on one hand, is absolutely delighted with the Old Continent and with the high society she wishes to enter: she says that Europe is “perfectly sweet” (DM 13). Her brother, Randolph, on the other hand, considers Schenectady, his hometown, to be far superior to Europe, particularly in the quality of candy available: “I can’t get any candy here – any American candy. American candy’s the best candy” (DM 9). He also affirms, when talking about his father, that the latter is “in a better place than Europe” (DM 12).This illustrates the Americans’ view on the old continent, which can vary from person to person, some of them considering The New World greater than anything, and others not.

Daisy represents one of the new comers upon whom Europe seems to have cast a spell. She is naïve and only sees the best side of everything, not being able to predict that this lack of understanding of another way of life will bring her loss. As Lund observes, she is “an innocent colonial captivated by a more worldly” space (130). The girl’s imagination cannot broaden to such an extent as to capture the thought that she should obey the requirements of a divergent culture, since her social awareness emerges as having such limitations that it can be described as very primitive. She perfectly fits the prototype of the American in Europe, given the fact that she counts as a beautiful but rather ignorant person. Unfortunately Daisy cannot be said to be of a remarkable intelligence or education, taking into consideration the fact that she has not been given the opportunity of a proper instruction. As Righelato informs, “she has had little guidance” and “no one has formed her taste” (x). She is, as Winterbourne notices when he first sees her, “strikingly, admirably pretty” (DM 10) and he admits he has not seen “for a long time anything prettier than his fair countrywoman’s various features” (DM 11), but, nevertheless he thinks she is “completely uncultivated” (DM 19).

James uses Daisy’s story to analyze the traditional views of a society where she is a complete outsider and to discuss the prejudices common in any culture. From the very beginning her attitude is wrong in the eyes of the others, her actions being against the moral beliefs of the society. Winterbourne’s aunt exclaims that she is a “dreadful girl” (DM 19) when she finds out Daisy has agreed to go on a little trip with her nephew after only half hour’s acquaintance. Thus, she is considered to be a flirt, although in her naivety and ignorance she finds nothing improper in going to Chateau de Chillon accompanied by someone she has just met. A second example of the restraint and formality of Europe, set against the openness of the American visitors is given by Daisy when complaining about her brother’s lack of playmates: “He hasn’t got any boys here. There is one boy here, but he always goes round with a teacher; they won’t let him play” (DM 12). Her statement suggests that the European restrictions are widely spread and, again, gives an idea about differences in mentality because she, a symbol of the “carefree exuberance and of the noisy frivolity” cannot understand why these people have “to hold their little boys in check” (Ohmann 2). Thirdly, the rigidness and conventionalism of the Europeans can be seen even when they speak. For instance, Winterbourne’s language is very formal and conservative, or, as Daisy notices, is “stiff”, when, alternatively, she speaks freely. As Ohmann’s “Daisy Miller: A Study of Changing Intentions” says, Winterbourne’s language is “studiously formal, his opening conversational bits, unimaginative and conventional”, while Daisy’s speech is of “an extravagant, if unoriginal, enthusiasm” (3).

The Americans cannot defend themselves against the cynicism and hypocrisy of a decadent society and it is this society’s rigidness, as opposed to their energy, that causes a tragedy. A first clue of the corrupting and destructive influence that Europe has on the outsider is offered by Randolph, whose health seems to have to suffer:

“I haven’t got any teeth to hurt. They have all come out. I have only got seven teeth. […] She [mother] said she’d slap me if any more came out. I can’t help it. It’s this old Europe. It’s the climate that makes them come out. In America they didn’t come out. It’s these hotels” (DM 9).

This seems to be the first sign of the old world’s evilness, which can bring nothing good for the ones trying to live among corrupting factors, and it offers a preview of what the consequences of such a society might be for the inexperienced, young American.
The New World and the Old World appear as the spaces where the former’s lack of familiarity with another culture and other traditions comes against the latter’s sophistication and spirit of superiority. Daisy’s behavior causes many rumors, as she is unaware of how her conduct should be in fact and does not understand what she does wrong. She compromises herself by talking to young men without anyone’s supervision, walking around with them and even meeting them late at night. She truly believes what she does is not at all immoral, and she takes satisfaction in the company of men: ”I have always had a great deal of it [society] […] I have always had […] a great deal of gentlemen’s society” (DM 14).She also cannot comprehend why flirting would be considered morally wrong, especially if she is a young yet unmarried woman, and finds it absurd when Winterbourne tries to inform her about what the others might think about her if she continues to act like that:

” ‘It [flirting] seems to me much more proper in young unmarried women than in old married ones’, Daisy declared.
‘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” (DM 45).

Her actions cause consternation in a world where everyone follows strict social rules. Mrs. Costello considers her “hopelessly vulgar” (DM 31) because she “goes about alone with her foreigners” (DM 30). Mrs. Walker is probably the only one who tries to save the girl. When she acknowledges the fact that Daisy’s walking around with two men at night will ruin the girl’s reputation forever she attempts to protect and save her from disaster, but Daisy does not seem to care and does not take into consideration the woman’s words. The climax of Daisy’s compromising herself is represented by the moment of her walk at the Colosseum, in the company of Giovanelli. It is the moment when Winterbourne lets her know he is not concerned anymore if her actions are moral or not. The fact that he reaches an erroneous conclusion about her pleases him as he now feels free of blame and he no longer needs to commit himself. This idea is sustained by Ohmann’s affirmation:

When he finally comes upon her with Giovanelli in the Colosseum at night, he thinks that she has certainly compromised herself. And he is relieved. For his personal feelings for Daisy have gradually been overwhelmed by his intellectual involvement in the problem of Daisy. He is relieved and ‘exhilarated’ that the ‘riddle’ has suddenly become ‘easy to read’ (5).

However, it looks as if Winterbourne’s opinion is the only one that matters for Daisy, idea supported by the message transmitted by the girl for him on her deathbed. Another of the girl’s statements, alluding to this idea, is the one that expresses the fact that Daisy does not find it important anymore if she lives or dies: “I don’t care […] whether I have Roman fever or not!”, since she lost the esteem of the single person whose respect mattered. After her death Winterbourne becomes conscious of the fact that he has made a mistake and that he did not succeed in interpreting Daisy’s conduct as it was in reality. His long stay abroad has made him too much accustomed to a stricter system of values, and he is no longer able to correctly evaluate a person’s actions. As Ohmann suggests, he has lost the capacity to live and to love because he has become so rigid in his values, and it is exactly this fact which is mocked at by James: “The authorial voice concludes the tale by mocking Winterbourne’s return to the narrow social code of restraint and prejudice” (6).

Given the fact that the idea of Winterbourne’s misreading Daisy was discussed, one must state that Henry James portrays not only the fate of the American as an outsider in the old continent, but also the character and opinions of the Europeanized Americans. He is able to describe the ruptures which traveling changes bring about by analyzing Winterbourne’s reactions. His misinterpretation of Daisy’s deeds stands as an example of how Europe’s experience changes one’s view on life. He has become accustomed to different social values, estranges himself from the American attributes and condemns the actions of his own compatriots, when he should have been a binder for these two opposed groups. At a certain moment he recognized that “he had lived at Geneva so long that he had lost a good deal; he had become dishabituated to the American tone” (DM 14). The fact that he lost all connection with his home country and the American civilization and was absorbed by a more inflexible one is the reason why he is so cruel to the young girl. The young man gives up excessively quickly in his effort to persuade his fellow countrywoman to stop acting in such a way that may cause gossip. More significantly, he does not come off victorious in his try to understand her because he cannot become aware that Daisy can be the emblem of unsophisticated, or, as he likes to say, uncultivated, innocence. He fails to accurately understand Daisy, in contrast with Giovanelli, the representant of Europe, that same Europe which judges the girl so harshly, and that is why the author looks full of irony upon Winterbourne. The Italian, a man far from being regarded as a gentleman by the community, but rather seen as a seducer, asserts her purity, while the American believes she has become dishonest:

“The freedom of her behaviour is finally interpreted as corruption by Winterbourne, but, ironically, his reading is corrected by that of Giovanelli, […] who, after Daisy’s death, has the last word in affirming her innocence” (Righelato xii).

In “The Genteel Reader and Daisy Miller” Randall manages to capture this entire aspect, pronouncing the verdict that “the Roman moves toward comprehension of Daisy’s character, the American away from it” (571). He affirms it even more clearly a little further, saying that:

“it is the American-who is traditionally supposed to judge people as individuals, free from class bias-who makes a dreadful blunder, and the European who is traditionally supposed to see everything in terms of manners and social class-who comes to a true understanding of Daisy’s worth” (572).

This fact points, once more, to the changes that Americans in Europe suffer. It seems that their identity is partly erased, and the European experience makes them unable to understand the personality of the people from their own country.

One important aspect related to the New World is its innocence, and whether or not the American can preserve this quality in a space of vice and complexity. As Oltean puts it, an important question arises: “Is it possible to keep your American innocence despite the corruption?” (Lecture). Daisy Miller also deals with Winterbourne’s struggle to understand whether the young American girl is innocent or not, as she always appears to be highly intriguing. Daisy finds her values in conflict with the European ones and she does not understand the new social conventions. It looks as if everything she does is wrong and she gets criticized for it. Up to a point Winterbourne considers her to be innocent yet uncultivated, but in the end public opinion gets in the way of his true evaluation, and he accepts and adopts the general view. As Randall states, he “misjudges character through manners” (568) because “he is entirely too much in awe of public opinion and hesitates to judge or act for himself” (569). The end of the tale comes as a disambiguation of all the mystery created around the main female character, and one can tell that she was, in fact, beyond doubt, innocent. What is tragic is that she never understood the results that her actions might bring upon herself, and, as Buitenhuis detects, she “dies innocent and wronged, but she can hardly arouse deep feelings of sympathy since she has very little comprehension of the causes of her fate” (145). A naïve and blameless person, she lives her European experience with great greediness, but, regrettably, she is touched by the “destructive power” (Mariani 249) that the old, mean continent encompasses. The contrast between Americans and Europeans is remarkably used by James with the purpose of highlighting the American’s innocence, provided that, as it has been stated before, only in the presence of each other their traits can be fully identified, or, as Oltean explains, “these two poles of the world give sense to each other” (Spaces…104)

Another important aspect of Daisy as a symbol of America is her independence and the way she tries to conserve it no matter what. She listens neither to Winterbourne nor to Mrs. Walker, the ones attempting to make her discover the proper way to behave, until it is not too late. Unfortunately she is strong-willed and her response is an abrupt and determined one: “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do” (DM 37), meant to emphasize her wish of autonomy. Randall observes she “refuses to take advice from anybody, man or woman” (572).This is because Daisy wants to be free, and, as her own name hints, she is in the springtime of her life and she wants to carry her existence far from being constrained, as she has no inhibitions. Kar sees Daisy’s option of submitting to the society’s demands as a way of “losing her identity” (35). In view of that, she preserves her individuality despite the general public’s judgment and does not enclose herself within the boundaries of the social mores she fails to identify herself with.

In conclusion, Daisy Miller shows the outcome of European life on the American’s identity, and the way in which an American, in the person of Daisy Miller, may end up to be the victim of a different social and moral system, which she cannot understand. The differences between America and Europe, or, more exactly between the New and the Old World, and Europe’s sophistication and corruption, reflected in the opinions of its inhabitants, can lead to disaster the young inexperienced American who finds himself/herself confronted with these bizarre values. Nevertheless, Henry James portrayed Daisy Miller as a person who can preserve her identity, by not allowing the new society to restrict her freedom, even if it is this attitude that leads to her death.


Works by Henry James:

DM– Daisy Miller and Other Stories. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2006.

Other Works Cited:

Anderson, Charles. Person, Place, and Thing in Henry James’s Novels. Durham: Duke University Press, 1977.
Buitenhuis, Peter. “From Daisy Miller to Julia Bride: A Whole Package of Intellectual History.” American Quarterly 11.2 (1959): 136-146.
Kar, Annette. “Archetypes of American Innocence: Lydia Blood and Daisy Miller.” American Quarterly 5.1. (1953): 31-38.
Lund, Michael. “Henry James’s Two-Part Magazine Stories and ‘Daisy Miller’.” The Henry James Review 19.2 (1998): 126-138.
Mariani, Umberto. “The Italian Experience of Henry James.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19.3 (1964): 237-254.
Ohmann, Carol. “Daisy Miller A Study of Changing Intentions.” American Literature 36.1 (1964): 1-11.
Oltean, Roxana. “Colonial Hysteria, The American, and James’s Paris.” The Henry James Review 24 (2003): 269-280.
——. Lecture. Bucuresti, Universitatea Bucuresti. 2007.
——. Spaces of Utopia in the Writings of Henry James. Bucuresti: Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2005.
Randall III, John H. “The Genteel Reader and Daisy Miller.” American Quarterly 17.3 (1965): 568-581.
Righelato, Pat. Introduction. Daisy Miller and Other Stories. By Henry James. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2006 vii-xvi.
Riquelme, John Paul. “Toward a History of Gothic and Modernism: Dark Modernity from Bram Stoker to Samuel Beckett.” Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (2000): 585-605.
Spiller, Robert E. Rev, of The American Image of the Old World, by Cushing Strout. American Literature 36.1 (1964): 114-115.
Weisbuch, Robert. “James and the American Sacred.” The Henry James Review 22.3 (2001): 217-228.

American innocence vs. European vice in Henry James’ Daisy Miller

5 thoughts on “American innocence vs. European vice in Henry James’ Daisy Miller

  1. Awesome text, it’s been a while since I’ve been on here. I see that nobody has lost their passion. Good to be back.

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