Henry James, “Daisy Miller”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Cornhill, 37 (June 1878): 678-698; 38 (July 1878): 44-67; collected in Daisy Miller: A Study (New York: Harper, 1878)
Born into a socially prominent and wealthy family on 15 April 1843, in New York City, the novelist Henry James grew up around some of the most important figures of the period. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, was his father’s close friend. As a child his family traveled extensively in Europe, where his father hired private tutors for his five children. At the age of twenty-one young James abandoned formal study in science and law, deciding instead to become a professional writer. He also moved abroad, first to Paris, before settling in London in 1876. A key participant in the intellectual life of his day, he became acquainted with Henry Adams, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was a friend of William Dean Howells, and he knew many of the leading European writers of the time, including Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola, George Eliot, and Matthew Arnold. His brother William James became a prominent Harvard professor of psychology and the leading pragmatic philosopher of his generation. Having lived as an expatriate in Great Britain for most of his life, Henry James became a British citizen in 1916, at least in part to protest the reluctance of the United States to enter World War I on the side of the Allies. He received the Order of Merit from King George V in 1916 and died of pneumonia later that year. His ashes are buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
James first submitted “Daisy Miller” to Lippincott’s in Philadelphia, but the story was declined because the editors deemed it an affront to American womanhood. He next sent the manuscript to the Cornhill in London, where it was first published. The story was soon pirated in the United States in the absence of international copyright laws. It proved to be a critical, if not entirely a commercial, success. Several reprints of the novella were published, some with extensive illustrations, and James later even converted the story into a play. The script, published privately in 1882 in England and in the Atlantic Monthly the following year, is quite different from the original, especially in its happy ending. In 1909 James substantially revised the story for the New York edition of his works.
Daisy Miller and the vacationing Winterbourne meet in Vevey, Switzerland, when Daisy’s younger brother introduces them. While the boy is convinced that New York surpasses anything found in Europe, Daisy is fascinated with high society, to which she aspires. An American living abroad since childhood, Winterbourne is unsure what to make of his young countrywoman’s attitude and initially regards her as a mere flirt. He pursues his interest in Daisy despite the efforts of his Aunt Costello to discourage it. Her primary objection is the relationship the Millers have with Eugenio, their courier, a servant whose function is to lead the family on their tour of Europe. Eugenio’s apparent intimacy with the family prompts the disapproval of the American expatriate community, who consider it vulgar. Mrs. Costello refuses to meet Daisy and studiously avoids her throughout the story. Despite these objections, Winterbourne tours the Chateau de Chillon with Daisy—significantly, without a chaperone.
The two young people inadvertently meet again in Rome when he visits the parlor of his American friend Mrs. Walker, who submits to the rules and fashions of European high society. When Daisy persists in behavior Mrs. Walker considers risky or “unsafe,” such as meeting a man alone in the middle of the afternoon, Mrs. Walker also criticizes her. Mrs. Walker invites the Millers to a party, but, as if to demonstrate how little she understands, Daisy asks to bring a friend, the “third-rate” Italian Mr. Giovanelli, who apparently is her suitor. Both unaware of and unconcerned with the way she is seen by other expatriate Americans in Rome, Daisy behaves as she pleases. Following the lead of Mrs. Walker, Winterbourne tries to convince Daisy of the need for caution and discretion in her public activities, particularly her casual attitudes about her frequent rendezvous with men. She is dismissive, refusing to take any advice seriously, and insists on her right to do precisely as she pleases, regardless of the opinions of others.
When Daisy arrives at Mrs. Walker’s salon with Giovanelli, she becomes something of a spectacle. Mrs. Walker turns her back on Daisy and promises Winterbourne she will ostracize her in the future. Throughout the story Winterbourne has persisted in defending Daisy, suggesting she is merely “uncultivated,” but walking through the Colosseum one night he sees her and Giovanelli there together in the darkness. He decides that the “riddle” that is Daisy had become “easy to read,” that she is common, if not compromised. Warning of the dangers of “Roman fever,” or malaria to her health, he convinces her to return to her hotel, although she insists that she does not care. She returns too late, however, and falls ill. While Daisy is dying, Winterbourne visits her family regularly; Giovanelli, not at all. At her burial Winterbourne learns from Giovanelli how innocent Daisy truly was. Winterbourne realizes he has “misread” Daisy’s character and admits to his aunt that he has “lived too long in foreign parts.” Nevertheless, he returns to Geneva and a “very clever foreign lady” there.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. The fiction of Henry James is best known today for its treatment of the so-called international theme. The clash between groups is sometimes a difference of age, class, or culture. How does “Daisy Miller” contrast the different social codes observed by old money and the nouveau riche as well as by Europeans and Americans? See Pahl and Wadsworth for ideas about approaching this topic.
- 2. James is sometimes regarded as a writer with a comic sense. Can “Daisy Miller” be read as a burlesque, or parody, of a sentimental romance with its standard plot of love triumphant? Or consider the different meanings the characters assign to such terms as “intimate,” “flirt,” “society,” and “cool.” Even though “Daisy Miller” ends on a sorrowful note, can it be regarded as a comic novella of manners? Read and evaluate Ohmann’s argument in this regard.
- 3. James also selected suggestive names for many of his characters. How is Daisy like the flower and what does her surname suggest? How is Winterbourne an appropriate name? Does it suggest reasons he fails to understand Daisy? Why does James refer to Geneva as a “little metropolis of Calvinism”? Why does he return to Geneva at the close of the story? Does Mrs. Walker’s name suggest anything about her character? Or Giovanelli’s name, which means “little Giovanni”? Read and respond to Montero’s article.
Viola Dunbar, “The Revision of ‘Daisy Miller,’” Modern Language Notes, 65 (May 1950): 311-317.
An analysis of James’s revision of the novella for the New York Edition and his more-carefully nuanced characterization of the heroine.
Lisa Johnson, “Daisy Miller: Cowboy Feminist,” Henry James Review, 22 (Winter 2001): 41-58.
Summarizes much of the feminist criticism on the story, emphasizing Daisy’s activities in the middle of the story rather than the approbation she receives in its beginning or her untimely end. Johnson regards Daisy as a free agent in control of her life, an admirable figure who makes her own decisions.
Paul Lukacs, “Unambiguous Ambiguity: The International Theme of ‘Daisy Miller,’” Studies in American Fiction, 16 (Autumn 1988): 209-216.
Argues that from its first publication James’s novella has always invited two distinct readings: that Daisy’s innocence is a virtue or that it is willful ignorance.
George Montero, “What’s in a Name? James’ ‘Daisy Miller,’” American Literary Realism, 39 (Spring 2007): 252-253.
Discusses character names and their thematic significance.
Carol Ohmann, “Daisy Miller: A Study of Changing Intentions,” American Literature, 36 (March 1964): 1-11.
Argues that the novella is a comedy of manners, “of different ways of living,” and Daisy is nothing if not ignorant.
Philip Page, “Daisy Miller’s Parasol,” Studies in Short Fiction, 27 (Fall 1990): 591-601.
An analysis of James’s narratological technique in the novella.
Dennis Pahl, “‘Going Down’ with Henry James’s Uptown Girl: Genteel Anxiety and the Promiscuous World of Daisy Miller,” LIT, 12 (June 2001): 129-164.
Reads James’s work as an effort to understand the complexities of class difference between the uptown elite and the downtown nouveau riche.
Kimberly C. Reed and Peter G. Beidler, eds., Approaches to Teaching Henry James’s Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw (New York: MLA, 2005).
A valuable resource for students and teachers, with background readings and several critical essays. As the title indicates, this text emphasizes pedagogical approaches to two of James’s novellas. Three of the essays treat issues of gender and sexuality in “Daisy Miller.”
William T. Stafford, “Henry James the American: Some Views of His Contemporaries,” Twentieth Century Literature, 1 (July 1955): 69-76.
A compilation of early responses to the fiction of Henry James, and hence a helpful guide to understanding how “Daisy Miller” was first received by readers and scholars.
Sarah A. Wadsworth, “Innocence Abroad: Henry James and the Re-Invention of the American Woman Abroad,” Henry James Review, 22 (Spring 2001): 107-127.
Notes similarities between “Daisy Miller” and Mary Murdoch Mason’s Mae Madden, suggesting that James designed his story around a popular literary theme at the time, that of the American woman abroad.