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Daisy Miller is a story related by a young, American man named Winterborne, who lives mostly in Europe. Winterborne meets a lovely young lady named Daisy Miller at a Swiss resort in Vevey. He notices her naiveté, having no reservations about talking to strangers. He befriends this young girl very quickly. He would love to introduce her to his aunt, but she thinks that Daisy is common, vulgar, and refuses to meet her. Daisy and her family decide to leave the resort and visit Italy. Several months passe until Daisy speaks to him again. She invited him to Italy. He finds Daisy with an Italian man named Giovanelli. Winterborne notices that Giovanelli is not what he considers a gentleman. After finding Giovanelli and Daisy at the Coliseum late one night, Winterborne thinks of Daisy as “a young lady whom a gentleman need no be at pains to respect';. Daisy, unfortunately dies of Roman fever a week later. In some messages Daisy sent to Winterborne from her deathbed, he realizes that she was still a very innocent girl and desired his respect. Winterborne realizes that he has indeed lived “too long in foreign parts.'; He has been so influenced by conservative European social conventions that he was unable to appreciate Daisy’s free and natural spirit.
The theme of the novel focuses on the harm that is done when an individual is rejected by society for unconventional behavior. Non-conformists are type cast in a negative way and their individuality is devalued. James presents Daisy as the “free, spontaneous, independent, natural'; (Fogel p.3) American girl who is stereotyped as “disreputable'; (Fogel p.9) by the highly conventional Europeanized Americans she meets in Vevey and Rome. At the same time, James shows how Daisy’s “utter disregard for convention prevents her from successfully relating to others'; (Fogel p.9) and leads to her death when she disregards warnings not to go the Coliseum at night.
James conveys the poetic dimension of Daisy Miller by using symbolism in the names of the characters in the novel. Daisy’s name suggests her innocence and freedom. “Etymologically, daisy means ‘the day’s eye’ suggesting Daisy’s radiance, her fresh ‘morning’ quality, and beautifully fitting into the further symbolism that flowerlike Daisy closes up and then dies after Winterborne cuts her.'; (Fogel p.38) Thrice, Winterborne met Daisy in a garden, a place where flowers grow, once in Vevey and the second time in the Pincian Garden in Rome, and the third, and final time he saw her was at her grave, which was “beneath the cypresses and the thick spring flowers.
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Frederick Winterborne’s surname is also symbolically suggestive. “Winter suggests coldness and the death of vegetation. Winterbornes’s rigidity and his frosty treatment of Daisy in the Coliseum when he believes she has shown herself disreputable chill her, eliciting her exclamation, ‘I don’t care… whether I have Roman fever or not… after which she promptly succumbs to the disease.’'; (Fogel p.39) Though Daisy died of malaria, Winterborne’s frost is what truly killed the flower, Daisy. Had Winterborne pursued his interest in Daisy instead of rejecting her, the story would have turned out differently.
The settings of the story also conveyed symbolism. Daisy Miller began in Vevey, Switzerland, the same setting for Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Hlose, “and it may be that James deliberately introduces his heroine in this same setting because he wishes to remind us of Rousseau’s belief that innocence and contentment of ‘natural’ man have been destroyed by the conventions of civilized’ society.'; Crick (p. 119) The Castle of Chillon, which Daisy visits on an unchaperoned trip with Winterborne, was once used as a prison for religious non-conformists. Daisy being a non-conformist like the Protestants of the prison and the Christians of the Coliseum would meet scrutiny and finally death.
Daisy is the easiest to relate to in this story. She is ahead of her time. In this time and age, she would be considered a normal young woman. Walking with a man in public is no longer considered risqué. Flirting is part of every young person’s life. I could feel Daisy’s pain. A broken heart can sometimes make one feel like dying.
I loved Daisy Miller. It is the best book I have ever read by Henry James. Though I did enjoy The Turn of the Screw, I found this novel easier to relate to because the heroine was a young lady who was about my age. It was also much better than The Bostonians, which I did not enjoy, because all of the characters acted like the Europeans in Daisy Miller.
The most memorable moment of this book was when Winterborne was sitting in the garden of the Swiss resort and was introduced to Daisy’s little brother. Though this moment was insignificant to the novel as a whole, I thought it was funny when the toothless little boy asked Winterborne for a cube of sugar.
I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to view society in a whole new light. Daisy Miller makes one realize how different America is to Europe even though its roots are set there.
Bellringer, Alan W. Modern Novelists: Henry James. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1988.
Crick, Patricia. Notes. Daisy Miller. By Henry James. London : Penguin Books 1996.
Fogel, Daniel Mark. Daisy Miller: A Dark Comedy of Manners. Boston: Twayne Publishers 1990.