By Henry James (1843-1916)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
Revised in 2010.©
.......Daisy Miller is a short novel, or novella, centering on conflicts arising from interaction between artless American tourists and sophisticated Europeans. The Cornhill Magazine, a British publication existing between 1860 and 1975, published the story in London in 1878.
.......The action takes place in the 1870s in Vevey, Switzerland, a small resort town on the northeastern shore of Lake Geneva; at the Château de Chillon, a medieval castle on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, near Montreux; and in Rome, Italy. In Rome, the action takes place in hotels and streets; a residence on Via Gregoriana; a public park on a hill called the Pincio; St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican; the Doria Palace on the Via del Corso; the Palace of the Caesars on the Palatine Hill; a villa restaurant on the Caelian Hill; and the Colosseum (originally called the Flavian Amphitheater), near the Roman Forum. Geneva, Switzerland, is the temporary residence of one of the main characters, Frederick Winterbourne, but no action in the novel takes place there.
Twenty-seven-year-old American who received his education in Geneva, Switzerland,
the city where he temporarily resides. After living so long in Switzerland,
he is well versed in European customs and traditions. He becomes fond of
fellow American Daisy Miller when he meets her in Vevey, Switzerland. He
has difficulty understanding her behavior. In particular, he cannot determine
whether she is naive and innocent or calculating and experienced.
.......Except for a few first-person intrusions (see, for example, pars. 3 and 4 in Chapter I), Henry James tells the story in third-person point of view from a limited perspective—that of Frederick Winterbourne, a twenty-seven-year old American who has lived in Europe for a considerable time. Winterbourne is in every scene; all the action is described as he perceives it, not as any other any other character perceives it. One may compare Winterbourne to a magnifying glass through which the storyteller sees the action up close, then describes significant events in detail.
.......The main conflict centers on the tension that arises between Daisy Miller and sophisticated Americans in Europe. They cannot abide her outspokenness and her flouting of prevailing European customs and traditions. Mrs. Walker says she is "reckless." Mrs. Costello labels her and her mother "horribly common."
There ain't any society—or if there is I don't know where it keeps itself. Do you? I suppose there's some society somewhere, but I haven't seen anything of it. I'm very fond of society and I've always had plenty of it. I don't mean only in Schenectady, but in New York. I used to go to New York every winter. In New York I had lots of society. Last winter I had seventeen dinners given me, and three of them were by gentlemen . . . . I've always had . . . a great deal of gentlemen's society........Winterbourne, amused and charmed by the loquacious lady, wonders whether she is “simply a pretty girl from New York" or “a designing, an audacious, in short an expert person." After continuing to monitor her jabber, he concludes that she is just a “pretty American flirt," not a sophisticated coquette in the European sense.
.......Daisy expresses a wish to see a local tourist attraction—the Château de Chillon, a medieval castle several miles southeast, noting that she and her mother had scheduled a trip to it the previous week but canceled it because her mother suffered a bout of indigestion. Seeing it with Randolph was out of the question because he prefers to stay at the hotel. When Winterbourne offers to escort her to the castle with her mother, who would act as chaperone, Daisy readily accepts the offer but says her mother “ain't much bent on going."
.......Before leaving the enchanting young lady, Winterbourne tells her he will introduce her to his aunt at the Trois Couronnes. Later, when he asks his aunt—a wealthy widow of high station—whether she has noticed the Millers at the hotel, she replies, "Oh yes, I've noticed them. Seen them, heard them and kept out of their way. Calling them “horribly common," she says they are the kind of Americans to be ignored. Daisy herself is “of the last crudity," Mrs. Costello says, and is having “an intimacy with her mama’s courier." Mrs. Costello then declares, “I must decline the honor of her acquaintance."
.......In the evening, Winterbourne runs into Daisy in the hotel gardens. When she announces that she will be “ever so glad to meet your aunt," Winterbourne makes excuses, saying his aunt is always indisposed because of terrible headaches. Seeing through his excuses, Daisy says, “She doesn’t want to know me!" However, she tells Winterbourne not to be concerned. By and by, her mother appears, and Daisy introduces her to “Mr. Frederick Forsyth Winterbourne." Mrs. Miller is dressed elegantly, with diamond earrings. Daisy informs her that she will be going to the castle with Winterbourne, and Mrs. Miller does not object.
.......Although the hour is late, Daisy asks Winterbourne to take her for a boat ride on Lake Geneva, and he enthusiastically assents just as Eugenio comes on the scene. He and Mrs. Miller frown disapprove of the boating excursion. But after Daisy complains, Eugenio says, “As Mademoiselle pleases." Oddly, this reply disappoints Daisy, who says, “Oh I hoped you'd make a fuss! I don't care to go now." She turns to Winterbourne and says, “Good-night—I hope you're disappointed or disgusted or something!" Winterbourne is bewildered.
.......Two days hence, they meet in the large hall of the hotel for the trip to the castle. At Daisy’s suggestion, they take a steamer rather than a carriage. On the short trip, Winterbourne becomes somewhat disappointed in her because “she was clearly not at all in a nervous flutter—as she should have been to match HIS tension; she avoided neither his eyes nor those of any one else; she neither coloured from an awkward consciousness when she looked at him nor when she saw that people were looking at herself."
.......At the castle, Daisy listens attentively to Winterbourne’s description of the place as they walk through winding passages, embrasures, and vaulted rooms, or stop to look down into oubliettes (dungeons whose only entrance is a trapdoor in the ceiling). But he soon discovers that she is more interested in his personal history than in the history of the castle. She asks him about “himself, his family, his previous history, his tastes, his habits, his designs," then recites details of her own history.
.......Winterbourne manages to wedge in more information about the castle—in particular, about François Bonivard (1493-1570), a hero of Geneva who fought to preserve the city’s liberties and was imprisoned in Chillon castle. (Bonivard was the subject of Lord Byron's famous poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon.") Impressed with Winterbourne's knowledge, Daisy tells him he ought to accompany her family on its travels so everyone can learn from him.
.......“Don’t you want to come and teach Randolph?"
.......Winterbourne tells her that he cannot do so because he has engagements in Geneva and must return there the following day. This news agitates Daisy, and she spends ten minutes telling him how “horrid" he is. She then taunts him about "the special charmer in Geneva" that she presumes he is returning to see. Although he denies the existence of such a lady, she persists in talking about her. “Doesn’t she give you a vacation in the summer?" Finally, she agrees to stop teasing him if he will promise to visit her in Rome in the winter. He does so, noting that his aunt will be taking an apartment there in January.
.......In the ensuing months, Winterbourne’s aunt moves to Rome and writes letters to her nephew in Geneva. One of them says that the Millers are in Rome, too, and that Daisy is “very intimate with various third-rate Italians, with whom she rackets about in a way that makes much talk."
.......After Winterbourne arrives in Rome, he goes to Via Gregoriana to visit an old acquaintance, Mrs. Walker, whom he had met in Geneva when she had two children enrolled in a school there. Shortly after he arrives, the Miller family is announced to the hostess, and in walks Daisy with a male companion. With them are Mrs. Miller and Randolph. Daisy scolds Winterbourne for not visiting her first, then chats with Mrs. Walker while Winterbourne listens to Mrs. Miller discuss her ailments. She says she’s disappointed in Rome; Randolph says he hates it.
.......When Daisy turns her attention again to Winterbourne, she jabs him about leaving her in Vevey and returning to Geneva, then turns her attention back to Mrs. Walker, saying she will be attending the latter’s upcoming party with a guest, Mr. Giovanelli. “He's a great friend of mine and the handsomest man in the world—except Mr. Winterbourne!" she says.
.......When the get-together ends late in the afternoon and everyone begins saying good-bye, Daisy declares that she is going to walk to the Pincio, a public park on a hill, to meet Mr. Giovanelli. Mrs. Walker warns her that it is unsafe to walk the streets alone when evening draws on. And her mother tells her that "You'll catch the fever as sure as you live. Remember what Dr. Davis told you!" Daisy then asks Winterbourne to accompany her, and he eagerly offers his hand.
.......On their way, the pretty American attracts stares on the crowded streets as she gabs on about the wonderful hotel she is staying in and the variety of its guests—Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Americans. At the Pincio, Daisy sees Giovanelli leaning against a tree, watching women in carriages go by. He is a little man with a handsome face, a cane, and a glass eye. Winterbourne says he intends to remain with Daisy after she meets the Italian. She replies that he sounds imperious and that she never lets anyone dictate to her.
.......Meanwhile, Giovannelli comes over and Daisy introduces the two men. The Italian speaks English “cleverly," Winterbourne thinks, and the latter surmises that Giovannelli has had plenty of practice on American heiresses. Daisy takes the arms of both men, and they walk. After observing Giovannelli, Winterbourne concludes that he is not a real gentleman but an imitation. He is disappointed that Daisy cannot see through him. After a quarter-hour, Mrs. Walker pulls up in a carriage and calls over Winterbourne to tell him Daisy must not be seen walking with two men or her reputation will suffer. Winterbourne tells Mrs. Walker that she is making too much of Miss Miller’s behavior, adding, “She’s very innocent."
.......“She’s very reckless," Mrs. Walker says. For good measure, she adds that Daisy’s mother is an imbecile. When Mrs. Walker motions for Daisy to get into the carriage, Daisy goes on her way with Giovanelli, then retraces her steps and introduces her friend to Mrs. Walker. The latter asks Daisy to come with her, but Daisy refuses. Mrs. Walker points out that it is improper to be seen walking with two gentlemen and that she’ll be “talked about." When she asks Winterbourne what he thinks, he tells her to obey Mrs. Walker. But Daisy says, “I hope you have a lovely ride," then walks off with Giovanelli. Winterbourne gets into the carriage and says, “I suspect she meant no great harm." Mrs. Walker then informs him that Daisy has been doing everything she’s not supposed to do—“Flirting with any man she can pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o'clock at night. Her mother melts away when the visitors come."
.......When Mrs. Walker urges Winterbourne not to see Daisy again, he tells her he likes her very much, then exits the carriage and walks to his aunt’s hotel.
.......At Mrs. Walker’s party three days later, Mrs. Miller arrives alone, nervous that she must fend for herself in Italian society. While Winterbourne listens nearby, she tells Mrs. Walker that Daisy will be considerably late. Believing Daisy’s tardiness is a ploy to spite her for having reproached the young lady in the Pincio, Mrs. Walker says she will not speak to Daisy when she arrives.
.......In the ensuing days, Daisy becomes even more of a pariah among Americans in Rome because of her untoward behavior. Even Winterbourne avoids her.
.......One Sunday, when Winterbourne and his aunt are visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, they see Daisy and Giovanelli there strolling. Mrs. Costello raises the possibility that Daisy will marry Giovanelli, but Winterbourne thinks neither wants to marry. When his aunt asks about the Italian’s background, Winterbourne says—based on inquiries—that he seems respectable but moves only in the lower circles of society because he has no title, such as count or marchese. Mrs. Costello runs into friends, and they all have much to say about the brazen American girl. Outside, when Winterbourne sees Daisy ride off with Giovanelli, he pities her because he feels she has sunk very low.
.......One day, after Winterbourne chances upon a friend outside the Doria Palace on the Via del Corso, the friend discusses the magnificence of a Velasquez (Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez—1599-1660) portrait of Pope Innocent X he had just seen in the Doria’s gallery. He says he also saw a portrait of a different kind in the same gallery—“that little American who's so much more a work of nature than of art and whom you pointed out to me last week." He is, of course, referring to Daisy, whom he saw with Giovanelli in a secluded nook where the Velasquez portrait hangs.
.......“The girl's a charming beauty," he says, “but I thought I understood from you the other day that she's a young lady du meilleur monde [of better society; of the higher classes; literally, of a better world]."
.......The implication of this remark upsets Winterbourne, and he immediately takes a carriage to Mrs. Miller’s to enlighten her about her daughter’s scandalous behavior. But when he tells her what he heard, she says she thinks Giovanelli is a gentleman and that Daisy may even have decided to marry him.
.......Thereafter, Daisy ceases to receive invitations to parties; no one wants her around. Several days later, Winterbourne sees Daisy again at the Palace of the Caesars on the Palatine Hill. As usual Giovanelli is at her side. When Daisy remarks that Winterbourne ought to get someone to walk with, he says, “I’m not so fortunate as your gallant companion." Daisy replies that Winterbourne’s remark indicates that he thinks she sees too much of Giovanelli.
.......“Everyone thinks so," Winterbourne says. Daisy says that “they’re only pretending to be shocked." Then she tells Winterbourne that she is engaged to the Italian and asks him whether he believes her. He assures her he does. She does not believe him, then adds, "But IF you possibly do [believe me], well, I ain't!"
.......A week later, after dining at a villa on the Caelian Hill, Winterbourne is walking in the vicinity of the Colosseum on his way back to his hotel when, at about 11 p.m., he decides to enter the great amphitheater, once the scene of gladiatorial contests and other brutal entertainments, to bathe himself in a little of its aura. In the distance, he notices two people seated on steps at the base of the arena.
.......“Well, he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!" Daisy Miller says loudly enough for him to hear. At that moment, Winterbourne reaches a conclusion about Daisy: “She was a young lady about . . . whose perversity a foolish puzzled gentleman need no longer trouble his head or his heart." He walks toward them, thinking of the risk Daisy is taking “lounging away such hours in a nest of malaria." He warns her that “this is the way people catch" the Roman fever and scolds Giovanelli for bringing her to the Colosseum. Giovanelli says he warned her “it was a grave indiscretion, but when was Mademoiselle ever prudent?"
Moments later, Daisy and Giovanelli get into their carriage. As the driver cracks his whip, Daisy says, “I don’t care whether I have Roman fever or not."
.......Several days later, news of Daisy’s Colosseum adventure is the stuff of gossip among Americans in Rome, although Winterbourne himself had never told anyone he saw Daisy there late at night. A day or two later, another story about her makes the rounds: She is very ill and doctors are attending her. When Winterbourne arrives at the Millers' hotel to check on Daisy’s condition, Mrs. Miller says Daisy has spoken of him.
.......“She wanted you to know she never was engaged to that handsome Italian who was always round. I'm sure I'm very glad; Mr. Giovanelli hasn't been near us since she was taken ill." She says Daisy reminded her three times to be sure to deliver that message to Winterbourne.
.......A week later Daisy dies and is buried in the Protestant cemetery near the old wall of Rome. Giovanelli is there. He tells Winterbourne, “She was the most beautiful young lady I ever saw, and the most amiable." To which he added in a moment: "Also—naturally!—the most innocent."
....... “The most innocent?" Winterbourne says.
....... “The most innocent," says Giovanelli. "If she had lived I should have got nothing. She never would have married me."
.......Winterbourne leaves Rome. The following summer, he visits his aunt again at Vevey and tells her that he thinks he did an injustice to Daisy. He also says, "She sent me a message before her death which I didn't understand at the time. But I've understood it since. She would have appreciated one's esteem."
.......Later he returns to Geneva, where “there continue to come the most contradictory accounts of his motives of a sojourn: a report that he’s ‘studying’ hard—an intimation that he’s much interested in a very clever foreign lady.
.......Henry James drives the story with accomplished writing centering on character development rather than plot twists and turns. In portraying his characters, he chooses words carefully, as a gifted painter chooses colors, in order to shade or highlight a passage with just the right connotation, implication, or undertone. Note the judicious word choice (warm starlight and indolent sylph), as well as the alliteratively soothing phrases, in the following sentence from Chapter 2. (Alliterations are in colored boldface.)
He [Winterbourne] found her [Daisy] that evening in the garden, wandering about in the warm starlight after the manner of an indolent sylph and swinging to and fro the largest fan he had ever beheld.Here are four more passages demonstrating James’s skill as a wordsmith
Her mother [Mrs. Miller] was a small spare light person, with a wandering eye, a scarce perceptible nose, and, as to make up for it, an unmistakeable forehead, decorated—but too far back, as Winterbourne mentally described it—with thin much-frizzled hair. Like her daughter Mrs. Miller was dressed with extreme elegance; she had enormous diamonds in her ears. So far as the young man could observe, she gave him no greeting—she certainly wasn't looking at him. Daisy was near her, pulling her shawl straight—Chapter 2.
The collision between
the cultures of the Old World and the New World. Henry James published
Miller in 1878, a time when many Americans were making fortunes in
the burgeoning industries of the U. S. Some of these newly rich Americans
lacked the culture and sophistication to move in the high social circles
to which they gained entry with their money. When they traveled to Europe,
they often suffered ridicule from the long-established denizens of the
upper niches of society, the aristocrats. Americans in Europe who had adopted
European ways also ridiculed their gauche countrymen. In Daisy Miller,
the Millers are among the parvenus, the newly rich. They have enough money
to buy the best clothes, hire the best help, stay at the best hotels, and
so on but lack the cultural savoir-faire that the European aristocrats
pass on from one generation to the next. Without realizing it, the Millers
violate long-standing social customs and traditions. They give offense
without meaning offense. Daisy Miller sees no reason to alter her behavior,
for she genuinely believes there is nothing wrong with it.
The climax in Daisy Miller occurs when Winterbourne encounters Daisy in the Colosseum and reaches this conclusion about her: “She was a young lady about . . . whose perversity a foolish puzzled gentleman need no longer trouble his head or his heart."
Daisy Miller: The
protagonist represents the common, unsophisticated Americans who visit
Europe. Her first name is the same as one of the most common plants. One
variety of this plant, the English daisy, grows wildly in the United States.
Her surname is one of the most common in America—in
some cities and towns more common even than Smith—suggesting
that she is one of the hoi polloi. Daisies have white raying petals surrounding
a bright yellow disk. It is interesting that Daisy Miller wears white muslin
in the opening chapter while exhibiting a sunny disposition.
Winterbourne: You're a very nice girl, but I wish you'd flirt with me, and me only.April Daisies: This phrase appears in the final chapter at the burial of Daisy Miller in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome when the narrator says, “Winterbourne stood staring at the raw protuberance of the April daisies." Raw protuberance suggests that raw, new, unsophisticated Daisy Millers will take the place of the deceased Daisy Miller.
Mrs. Walker: Her name suggests, ironically, that she does not walk the streets of the common people (as Daisy does when going to the Pincio park) but instead rides in the carriage of the uncommon people (the European and American sophisticates and aristocrats). The symbolism of Mrs. Walker’s name manifests itself when she rides in a carriage to the Pincio to “rescue" Daisy from her ambulatory indiscretions.
Randolph Miller: This boisterous ten-year-old represents boorish American tourists (adults as well as children) and their sometimes clumsy, crude, or tactless behavior.
Polish Boys: These children, mentioned in the second paragraph of Chapter 1, represent discipline and decoroum and, thus, are foils of Randolph Miller.
Eugenio: The name derives from a Greek word meaning well born. Eugenio, of course, is a mere servant, a courier. However, the Millers regard and treat him as an equal. Thus, Eugenio is well born to the Millers. He symbolizes the American principle—stated in the Declaration of Independence—that “all men are created equal."
Roman fever: This disease, malaria, seems to represent the ill effects of the sophisticated Europeans and Americans who criticize, chastise, and defame Daisy, her mother, and her brother.
Painting of Pope Innocent X: This Velasquez work appears to represent the contrived and artificial ways of European and American aristocrats and sophisticates vis-a-vis the natural and unpretentious ways of Daisy Miller. A key passage suggesting this interpretation of the painting appears in Chapter when Winterbourne encounters a tourist friends outside the Doria Palace, where the Velasquez portrait hangs:
He met one day in the Corso a friend—a tourist like himself—who had just come out of the Doria Palace, where he had been (79) walking through the beautiful gallery. His friend "went on" for some moments about the great portrait of Innocent X, by Velasquez, suspended in one of the cabinets of the palace, and then said: "And in the same cabinet, by the way, I enjoyed sight of an image of a different kind; that little American who's so much more a work of nature than of art and whom you pointed out to me last week." In answer to Winterbourne's enquiries his friend narrated that the little American—prettier now than ever—was seated with a companion in the secluded nook in which the papal presence is enshrined.Colosseum: This ancient amphitheater represents society looking down upon an enemy of the state in the arena and displaying the thumbs-down death sentence.
term Roman fever was coined to describe malaria, outbreaks of which
occurred frequently in Rome over the centuries. The city was a hotbed of
the disease because of swampy areas in it that became breeding grounds
for mosquitoes carrying disease-causing parasites.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character
in the novel is the most admirable? Which character is the least admirable?
Explain your answers.