Points to Ponder
THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE'S EYES: When reading Daisy Miller, we are constantly being caught between conflicting value systems. This is a key trick for Henry James, and one of his greatest -- and most frustrating -- talents: when we read about how one of his characters reacts to the actions of statements of someone else, we're never sure whether we're supposed to agree or not. After all, what if the viewpoint character is wrong?
In Daisy Miller, Winterbourne -- who is generally our viewpoint character, although the tale is told in the third person -- alternates between wanting to believe in Daisy Miller, and buying into the condemnation heaped upon her by the haughty community of expatriate Americans in Europe, which includes Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello (Winterbourne's aunt). The reader is likely to be even more confused: To us, it seems strange that these women are so shocked by what Daisy Miller does. What's so wrong about a teenage girl wanting to talk to male friends, or go for a walk downtown in the late afternoon? How is this stuff shocking?
Reading Daisy Miller is a kind of balancing act. We have to try to get ourselves into the mindsets of these people, to become as prudish and narrow-minded as they are, in order to understand why they're so upset by what Daisy does. Do you agree with Mrs. Costello when she criticizes Daisy for being "common" and "vulgar"? What about Mrs. Walker's fears that Daisy will lose her reputation? And now -- a more difficult question -- what about Winterbourne himself? He is sometimes on Daisy's side, sometimes on his aunt's, quick to make assumptions about Daisy but, for some reason, never actually motivates himself to seek out the answers. He finally decides he can consign her to the ranks of a bad girl when he meets her in the Colosseum, and then seems to realize, only after her death, that he may have been wrong. How do you feel about Winterbourne? Do you like him? Do you trust his moral judgments? What about the elements of his own life that we know nothing about (for instance, whether or not he really has a lover in Geneva)? As you think about this question, remember -- as you may remember if you've read The Turn of the Screw -- that Henry James is also famous for having developed the creepy device of the "unreliable narrator."
THAT 'AMERICAN GIRL': The literary critic Leslie Fiedler has written of Daisy Miller:
"Daisy is. . . the prototype of all those young American female tourists who continue to baffle their continental lovers with an innocence not at all impeached, though they have taken to sleeping with their Giovanellis as well as standing with them in the moonlight. What the European male fails to understand is that the American Girl is innocent by definition, mythically innocent; and that her purity depends upon nothing she says or does. . ."
What do you think of this "definition" of the American Girl? Fiedler wrote this commentary in the twentieth century; today, a century and a quarter after the publication of Daisy Miller, our ideas and archetypes about innocence and "girlhood" continue to change. What are your stereotypes surrounding "the American girl"? How are they related to innocence and sexuality? How do they contrast with the stereotypes Americans hold about European girls and other "foreigners"? What, do you think, are the stereotypes Europeans might hold about young American women today?
Finally, do you think "American girls" have more freedom today than Daisy Miller did in the 1870s? You might think about one of the most telling moments in the book: Daisy's small confrontation with Winterbourne, just before they meet Mr. Giovanelli in the Pincio. "I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything that I do," she says. When Winterbourne presses her, she laughs sharply: "I do nothing but listen to gentlemen!" she says. When it comes to questions of independence, freedom and social conventions, to what degree -- if at all -- is this still true for "American girls" today?
THROWING HER TO THE LIONS?: In his preface to the edition of Daisy Miller printed in 1907, Henry James made this odd statement: "...My little exhibition [i.e. the book] is made to no degree whatever in critical but, quite inordinately and extravagantly, in poetical terms." Though Daisy Miller may not seem extravagantly poetic, it is in fact full of oppositions and symbolism which its practical tone can obscure.
One element with symbolic value is the dreaded disease, "Roman fever." This disease -- which is, in fact, the very dangerous sickness also known as malaria -- has a slightly unreal feel to it throughout most of the story. It's only mentioned when Daisy wants to do something unconventional: it's when she goes walking with Mr. Giovanelli in the Pincio, or spend the evening with him in the Colosseum by moonlight, that a proper acquaintance like Mrs. Walker or Winterbourne will warn her that she's in danger of catching "the Roman fever." It's easy to pick up the symbolism: when Daisy "exposes herself" to public view by going out with Giovanelli, her favorite commonplace Roman, she's metaphorically exposing herself to danger. Ironically, the danger finally turns out to be real after all.
Another symbolic image is the Colosseum, where Daisy's final encounter with Winterbourne takes place -- and where, we learn later, she has contracted the disease that will kill her. When Daisy first sees Winterbourne in the moonlight, before she recognizes him, she says to Giovanelli: "Well, he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!" The Colosseum was, in fact, a site in which early Christians were sacrificed in Roman days. Winterbourne's reaction to seeing Daisy there with Giovanelli, which is to decide he doesn't need to bother thinking highly of her any longer, might be viewed as suggesting that he has finally decided to let Daisy be sacrificed to the conventionality of his aunt's set. By abandoning his faith in Daisy, has Winterbourne betrayed or sacrificed her? Has he betrayed himself?
Winterbourne's change of heart is swift and private, but Daisy certainly realizes something is wrong when, on asking Winterbourne if he believes she's engaged to Giovanelli, he answers: "It doesn't matter what I believed the other day. I believe it makes very little difference whether you are engaged or not!" Daisy's reaction is to say, in a strange, small voice, "I don't care whether I have Roman fever or not." Clearly, Winterbourne has finally succeeded in hurting her.
In this scene, many of the book's themes and images come together: Winterbourne's feelings toward Daisy, the question of Daisy's relationship with Giovanelli, themes of disease, innocence, knowledge and judgment. What do you make of this moonlit scene -- the climax of the book, and Daisy and Winterbourne's final encounter? Does Winterbourne finally revolve his struggled with his own feelings about Daisy? And do those feelings change, yet again, after his conversation with Giovanelli over Daisy's grave, as Winterbourne is left to stare at "the raw protuberance among the April daisies"? What of Daisy's final message to Winterbourne, and Winterbourne's comment to his aunt that she was right: he had been "booked to make a mistake"? What might this mistake have been?
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