Friday, January 20, 2012

Daisy Miller (1878)

Author: Henry James
Title: Daisy Miller
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Price: $1
LCC: PS2116 .D3 1900 

Is Daisy Miller a slut or does she just act like one? A crude way to put it, I know. This is the question that Henry James's protagonist Winterbourne cannot seem to answer. Nancy Bentley has written that so much of James's novels consist of "girl watching." I'm sure the category works for James's other works, but it seems to me to be a most apt description of his novella Daisy Miller. For most of the text concerns Winterbourne watching Miss Miller, thinking about her actions, and questioning her motives. Is Daisy a good girl or a bad girl? Winterbourne just has to know.

Traditionally, critics have seen the novel in terms of manners. Winterbourne has them; Daisy does not. Winterbourne is an American expatriate who has long traveled throughout Europe under the pretense of pursuing his education. Although he hasn't gained much formal education, his European experience has transformed him into a decadent figure, familiar with all the intricacies and pleasures that European society has had to offer him. He is a cosmopolitan by training and thus something of a professional appreciator. As such, when Winterbourne first meets the Millers he is immediately taken with them and views them, somewhat condescendingly, as the picture of American innocence. The Millers seem to him the portrait of American innocence. Daisy's little brother, Randolph, is not so dissimilar to his fictional contemporary Tom Sawyer in that they are both scamps. Mrs. Miller, Daisy's mother, is a naive, matronly woman concerned about decorum but blind to social convention. And then there is Daisy, who Winterbourne views as a harmless American flirt.

In her flirtatiousness Daisy manages to offend the social customs of the American expatriate community. Much to Winterbourne's frustration, Daisy seems unaware of what she looks like to her fellow Americans. Thus, she hasn't a care when she goes off in the company of the strange Italian named Giovanelli. Winterbourne would like to protect Daisy and her reputation, but he is too passive to either take a strand against society or to express a sincere interest in her. Winterbourne is not a man who lives either by his words or by his hands; he is a man that lives by his eyes. Thus he's more content to watch Daisy and Giovanelli parade around the Coliseum at night, but he won't stop her, or try and protect her from the night-borne illness that will eventually take her life.

But is Daisy so innocent? Winterbourne insists on Daisy's innocence and her ignorance, but because James's narration is so bound to Winterbourne's consciousness, I don't see any reason to trust him. Indeed, we do see Daisy quite unhappy when one American matron gives her the cold shoulder. But this is just a gesture, one of many that Daisy makes. What did Daisy Miller know? Maybe Daisy did know how she looked and didn't care. Maybe Daisy did not know how she looked and the classic reading concerning manners holds up. I do know Daisy Miller knew how to have a good time, but I don't know what she knew beyond that. And fun is one thing worth having.

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