Why did James create such a beguiling and bewildering character? Since the publication of James's novel in 1878, Daisy has worn several labels, among them "flirt," "innocent," and "American Girl." Daisy's representation of an American Girl of the late 19th century is evident. Her free-spiritedness and individuality reflect the social movement of the American middle-class.
The “depths” of Daisy Miller that Kelley refers to could be read as “unsounded,” since the reader receives little insight to her feelings, and “unappreciated,” based on the perceptions of most characters. James likely viewed Daisy as admirable because of the individuality displayed in her actions, attitudes, and contrast to Winterbourne.
When she enters the novella, Daisy quickly defies European conventions: after speaking with Winterbourne as though they had been long acquainted, he notes, “She had a spirit of her own” (472). Though perhaps not surprising to modern audiences, Daisy shocks Winterbourne, her mother, and Eugenio when she asks Winterbourne to take her out in a boat at night, declaring, “That's all I want -- a little fuss” (483). This assertive nature is later seen when Daisy invites Winterbourne to travel with the Millers and teach her brother Randolph, likely violating the etiquette with which Winterbourne is so familiar (471); ignoring the expectations for subtlety that Winterbourne complies with, Daisy tells him, “I don't want you to come [to Rome] for your aunt, I want you to come for me” (485).
In Rome, Daisy continues conducting herself independent from the external influences of society. Mrs. Costello, who represents the geographically transcendent society, remarks that Daisy is a “dreadful girl” (477); she updates Winterbou...
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...s too late[;] she was ‘carried away’ by Mr. Giovanelli” (501), and similarly when he acknowledges to Mrs. Costello that he had mistakenly thought Daisy reciprocated his affection (506). Thus when Winterbourne reveals “it was on his conscience that he had done [Daisy] injustice” (506), he probably refers to his deciding that she was not respectable (503), in addition to his comment about whether she was engaged.
Daisy Miller can be viewed as an endorsement for individuality: James celebrates Daisy's independence in the face of society's imposition while ruining Winterbourne’s prospects for happiness as a consequence for his passivity. Readers should pity Winterbourne, and thusly admire and sympathize for Daisy; regardless of her dying, Daisy did not live unhappily like Winterbourne does.
James, Henry. Daisy Miller. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
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