Daisy Miller: Damn You Henry James

daisymillerIf read my old blog, eclectic/eccentric, you know that I have a real love-hate relationship with Henry James. If you didn’t read my old blog…well, there you have it. I find James frustrating. I flit back and forth between admiring his work and being pissed at it (pardon the language). Reading The Turn of the Screw always makes me want to hit something despite the fact I think everyone should read it.

Unlike my experience with The Turn of the Screw, with Daisy Miller, I was thoroughly enjoying myself…for the majority anyway. Daisy Miller is a novella focused on an expat in Europe’s response to a visiting American who defies the traditional values and behaviors that restrict other girls her age. In other words, a stuffy Europeanized American condescends to a pretty (he seriously says she’s pretty 100 times) American girl.

In Daisy, James has a female character that embodies the spirit of the American as an ideological (and idealized) concept. Sort of. She is free spirited, independent, and in defiance of societal expectations. In contrast to gender expectations of her time, Daisy bluntly states that she has “never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do”. She clearly doesn’t allow women to instruct her either as she defies Mrs. Walker’s admonitions to adhere to the European social morays saying that she doesn’t “see why [she] should change [her] habits” for European society. Instead, Daisy does what she wants, indicating that “if this is what’s improper…then I am all improper” and European society and Old World values be damned. She is a literary interpretation of the late 19th century’s New Woman.

Winterbourne, our wishing-he-was-rebellious-but-actually-quite-staid narrator, becomes infatuated with Daisy upon first meeting her, and he spends the time he knows her, wavering between fascination and horror. Daisy’s laid-back, do-as-I-please attitude and behavior intrigue him (as does the fact that she is pretty), but he simultaneous judges her behavior in a rather infuriating, condescending attitude. He continually attempts to figure her out, but no matter how he looks at it, Daisy “continue[s] to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence”. She is a truly fascinating character. In turn, Daisy finds Winterbourne quite stuffy. So all’s good and fun…

Warning, there be spoilers below.

But then James goes back to pissing me off since he has Daisy die. Of Roman fever. Which you apparently get from walking alone with men at night. Seriously. Then anger. Why did she have to die? Was it punishment for her eccentric behavior? Is James arguing that Daisy should have conformed to the expectations of European society? Her death certainly seems to indicate such. It reminds me of Jenny’s death in Forrest Gump, a movie that clearly suggests maintaining the status quo and doing your part to further the dominant ideology is the proper way.

In both tales, when two cultures clash, it is the traditional, formal, and staid culture that wins. And no one, not even Winterbourne, is affected by Daisy at all. Everything goes back to normal with prudish virtue…well, except the fact that Winterbourne goes back to his mistress. You know, he’s a guy, so it doesn’t count.

James makes a good run of it, arguing for the fresh-faced, tradition-defying American, but in the end, traditional values win out as Daisy pays the ultimate price for her rebellion. Whether this is the author’s way of promoting the dominant culture or just a way of showing how difficult it is to break away from said culture, well, that is another question.

End of spoilers.

This short, fast-paced, tightly focused novella is well worth the read.

7 thoughts on “Daisy Miller: Damn You Henry James

  1. My favorite book by Henry James was The Bostonians, but I haven’t read it years. Maybe I should go back to him, despite all the issues you point out here.

    best…mae at maefood.blogspot.com


    • James is just an author I can’t wrap my head around. I love him and hate him within the same book. I haven’t read The Bostonians yet, but I probably will at some point.


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