The time is the1870s, and the place is the expensive resort town of Vevey, Switzerland, a town which fills up with Americans every June. Here we meet a young American named Frederick Winterbourne, who has come from Geneva to visit his aunt. Winterbourne is independently wealthy, has been educated in Switzerland, and is thoroughly Europeanized, to the point that it's rumored he has an older mistress in Geneva -- where he lives, and supposedly spends his time "studying."
In a flowering garden in Vevey, Winterbourne meets a fascinating young American named Daisy Miller. Daisy is travelling with her diffident, hypochondriacal mother, and her obnoxious nine-year-old brother Randolph. The father is a wealthy businessman in Schenectady, New York, who has sent his family overseas to get some culture.
Daisy is strikingly beautiful and charmingly naive, and captivates Winterbourne immediately. But Daisy doesn't seem to understand that her flirtatious American ways are out of place in Europe. She does things like asking Winterbourne to take her rowing on the lake at eleven o'clock at night -- something no proper European girl would ever do. Her mother, Mrs. Miller, is strangely oblivious to the "impropriety" of her daughter's behavior.
To Winterbourne's slight shock and great pleasure, Daisy arranges an unchaperoned day trip with him to visit the famous old Castle Chillon, on the shores of Lake Geneva. However, Winterbourne finds that other people do not think so highly of Daisy as he does: when he wants to introduce Daisy to his snobbish aunt, she tells him that the Millers are "vulgar." Apparently Daisy is far too familiar with men she doesn't know well, and the Millers treat their "courier" Eugenio -- a traveling servant -- like an equal. Winterbourne, for his part, is startled by Daisy's audacity, but intrigued by her innocent straighforwardness. He believes that the Millers are simply ignorant of the social norms, but he can't bring his aunt to his way of thinking.
Nonetheless, Winterbourne and Daisy have a good time together at Castle Chillon. When Winterbourne tells her that he has to leave to return to Geneva the next day, he is gratified by how angry she becomes. Finally she makes him promise to come to Rome to visit the Millers in the winter -- an easy promise for Winterbourne to make, since he has already told his aunt he will visit her there.
In late January of that winter, Winterbourne leaves Geneva for Rome. There, his aunt tells him that Daisy Miller has been carrying on in the same way she did at Vevey -- making friends with Italian "riffraff" and spending time with Italian men, all in shockingly public view. Winterbourne decides not to go see Daisy immediately, but he accidentally runs into the Millers in the home of a mutual acquaintance, a high-society American woman called Mrs. Walker. During the visit, Daisy secures permission from Mrs. Walker to bring a friend to an upcoming party - but when she mentions that this "intimate friend" is an Italian named Mr. Giovanelli, Mrs. Walker is clearly startled and upset.
When Daisy announces she is about to go out for a walk in the Pincian Gardens with this Mr. Giovanelli, Mrs. Walker tries to convince her not to go. She reminds her both that there is a dangerous "Roman fever" going around, and that being seen in public with lower-class Italian men will ruin Daisy's reputation. Daisy, however -- cheerful and polite as always -- refuses to be dissuaded.
Winterbourne walks with her to the Pincio, and meets Mr. Giovanelli, who is a handsome, clever little Italian man, but definitely not a gentleman. Winterbourne insists on sticking with Daisy and Giovanelli as they take their walk, making for an awkward threesome. Suddenly, Mrs. Walker appears in her horse-drawn carriage. She begs Daisy to get into the carriage with her in order to save her reputation. But Daisy steadfastly refuses, turning away to continue her walk with Giovanelli. Mrs. Walker is left humiliated, looking after the pair with tears in her eyes.
Later that week, Daisy comes to Mrs. Walker's party, and brings Mr. Giovanelli with her. Daisy doesn't seem to realize that there's anything wrong, but Mrs. Walker is deeply angry with Daisy. At the end of the party, Mrs. Walker "cuts" Daisy -- turning away from her and refusing to speak with her. For the first time, Daisy seems to start to understand the consequences of her apparently innocent actions.
After this, Winterbourne never sees Daisy at parties any more, since the Americans in Rome have stopped inviting her. Every time he sees her at home, Giovanelli is also there, and they are reported tobe seen together all over Rome. It's clear that Daisy is very interested in Giovanelli, but Winterbourne cannot figure out if the two are "engaged." Nor is it clear what Daisy's feelings are toward Winterbourne. As for himself, Winterbourne cannot decide whether to go on believing Daisy is a "nice girl," or consign her to the ranks of loose women and stop worrying about her.
One spring day, Winterbourne runs into Daisy and Giovanelli in a flowering ruin. Winterbourne tries to tell her that the other Americans now all scorn her for her actions. Daisy doesn't seem to be able to decide whether to believe him. She tells Winterbourne that she's engaged to Giovanelli -- and then, seeing his reaction, changes her mind and says she isn't.
Very late one evening, while walking home from a dinner party past the Colosseum, Winterbourne decides to stop inside to see the huge ruin by moonlight. There, he runs into -- who else? -- Daisy and Giovanelli. Winterbourne feels a strange rush of relief: finally, he can stop trying to think highly of Daisy, since this is proof that she is not a nice girl after all. But he scolds Giovanelli for letting her stay out so late, reminding them of the danger of catching the fever. When he says something to Daisy that lets her know she has lost his esteem, she seems to be very hurt -- saying, as she drives away in the carriage, "I don't care whether I have Roman fever or not!"
As it turns out, Daisy does catch the fever, and a week later she dies. Mrs. Miller, her mother, gives Winterbourne a message from her: half delirious, Daisy mentioned him, and asked her mother to tell him that she was never engaged to Giovanelli after all. At Daisy's funeral, Giovanelli comes up to Winterbourne, saying that Daisy was the most beautiful girl he ever met, and the most innocent. Thinking about what this means, Winterbourne can only stare at the rough earth around her freshly dug grave.
Later, Winterbourne goes back to Geneva to resume his "studies" -- or whatever they are. But the next time he sees his aunt, he tells her that she was right in a comment she made the spring before: Winterbourne, who had lived too long in Europe, was on track to make some large mistake. Now, he feels, he has finally made it.
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