Daisy Miller  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Daisy Miller is an 1878 novella by Henry James. It portrays the courtship of the beautiful American girl Daisy Miller by Winterbourne, a more sophisticated compatriot of hers. His pursuit of her is hampered by her own flirtatiousness, which is frowned upon by the other expatriates they meet in Switzerland and Italy.


Plot summary

Daisy Miller and Winterbourne first meet in Vevey, Switzerland, where he is vacationing from his studies. They are introduced by young Randolph Miller, Daisy's young brother. Randolph considers his hometown of Schenectady, New York, to be absolutely superior to all of Europe, especially for the number of candies. Daisy, however, is absolutely delighted with the continent, especially the high society which she wishes to enter.

Winterbourne is at first confused by her attitude, but soon determines that she is nothing more than a young flirt. He continues his pursuit of Daisy in spite of the disapproval of his authoritarian and snobbish aunt Mrs. Costello, who spurns any family with so close a relationship to their courier as the Millers have with their Eugenio. She also thinks Daisy is a shameless girl for agreeing to visit the town with Winterbourne after a mere half hour together. The two have a fine time touring the Château de Chillon, then Winterbourne informs Daisy that he must go to Geneva the next day. Daisy extracts a promise from him to meet her in Rome, and they part.

In Rome, Winterbourne and Daisy meet unexpectedly in the parlor of Mrs. Walker, a fellow American. Daisy is undeterred by the open disapprobation of the other Americans in Rome, and her ineffectual mother seems quite unaware of the underlying tensions. Winterbourne attempts to extricate Daisy from her situation, but she refuses to take any of it seriously.

One night, Winterbourne takes a walk through the Colosseum and, at its center, sees Giovanelli standing in front of Daisy. Winterbourne tells himself that Daisy is too common for him to love. He warns her about the danger of "Roman Fever" to her health, and she rushes home, although protesting that she doesn't care. Daisy falls ill, and dies a few days later.

Key themes

This short story serves as both a psychological description of the mind of a young woman, and an analysis of the traditional views of a society where she is a clear outsider. Henry James uses Daisy's story to discuss what he thinks Europeans and Americans believe about each other, and more generally the prejudices common in any culture. In a letter James said that Daisy is the victim of a "social rumpus" that goes on either over her head or beneath her notice.

The names of the characters are also symbolic. Daisy is a flower in full bloom, without inhibitions and in the springtime of her life. Daisy contrasts sharply with Winterbourne, who is more ambivalent and unwilling to commit to any relationship. Flowers die in winter and this is precisely what happens to Daisy, after catching the Roman Fever or, to put it more bluntly, the attention of foreign men. As an objective analogue to this psychological reality, Daisy catches the very real Roman fever, the malaria that was endemic to many Roman neighborhoods in the 19th century.

Critical evaluation

Daisy Miller was an immediate and widespread popular success for James, despite some overheated criticism that the story was "an outrage on American girlhood". The story continues to be one of James' most popular works, along with The Turn of the Screw and The Portrait of a Lady. Critics have generally praised the freshness and vigor of the storytelling.

Despite changes in times and customs, the forthright if naive Daisy can still cast a spell on today's readers. The touches of humor help offset the pathos of the tale, and the supporting cast is vividly portrayed. While some may feel that James tries to overload a simple story with too many trappings of tragedy, few readers will be unaffected by Daisy's fate.

In 1909 James revised Daisy Miller extensively for the New York Edition of his fiction. He deepened the tone of the story but some feel he robbed the original version of its color and immediacy. Fortunately, both the early and late versions of the tale are available online (see below) so readers can compare for themselves.

Derivative works

James converted his story into a play that failed to be produced, much to his chagrin. He published the play in The Atlantic Monthly in 1883, and it shows many changes from the original story. In particular, a happy ending was inserted to please what James believed to be the preferences of theater-goers.

A 1974 film adaptation directed by Peter Bogdanovich starred Cybill Shepherd as Daisy. Joaquin Miller]]'s The One Fair Woman, and much of the early output of E.M. Forster.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Daisy Miller" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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