On Daisy Miller by Henry James

Note: I don’t intend to call this an analysis. It’s rather a series of observations I have had throughout my reading. Putting them down on this blog, I’m trying to provide myself with the opportunity of getting back to it and carry out a more thorough analysis in the future.

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

The Declaration of Right and Sentiments, Seneca Falls (NY), 1848

“If, after what happens—at Vevey and everywhere—you desire to keep up the acquaintance, you are very welcome. Of course a man may know everyone. Men are welcome to the privilege.”

Daisy Miller, Henry James, 1878

It was the first time I was reading a text written by Henry James. The story is about a group of Americans, residing in Europe; some of them permanently and the others just visiting. The most notable characters are:

-Frederick Winterbourne: an American gentleman in Switzerland who belongs to the high ranks of the society. Winterbourne’s first name is almost never mentioned.

-Daisy Miller: a pretty American young girl who, during her tour in Europe, comes to make acquaintance with Winterbourne but not only with him.

-Mrs. Costello: Winterbournes’s wealthy aunt who resides in Switzerland almost permanently.

-Mrs. Miller: Daisy’s mom who is a very simplistic and easygoing lady and barely minds her children’s upbringing.

-Mr. Giovanelli: A young stylish Roman gentleman who appears as Winterbourne’s rival for Daisy’s attention.

-Ms. Walker: A friend of Millers and Winterbourne who is based in Rome.

-Randolph: Daisy’s young brother whose pieces of wit sometimes lead to a turning point in the story.

-Eugenio: Millers’ courier.

The story is written in 1878. It’s a year past the Reconstruction Era and the damages of the Civil War are partially repaired. As a result, a middle class is shaped whose embodiment in James’ text is the Miller family, with a father who has a business in Schenectady (NY). Such middle class, their values and their attitude, is not accepted by the classical American aristocracy who, probably, might have sought shelter in their ancestral Europe from a war hit and shattered country i.e. Mrs. Costello. The middle class is reproached for “treating the courier like a family friend”; for being “too common”; for having conceded too much liberty to their young daughter so she might be “looking for someone to carry her off.” Mrs. Costello, on the other hand, imposes her superiority through ageism to Winterbourne as well by considering him “innocent” because “he has been away from the country for so long” although it might be possible to estimate that the period she has been away is clearly longer than the period where Winterbourne has. On the other hand, Ms. Walker is the newer generation of such aristocracy who tries to bear with the emerging middle class but at some point is worn out by the excessiveness of their derelictness.

When I ordered the book I expected the narration to be about a certain girl. Unexpectedly, it was about a boy: Fredrick. He is said to be studying and he is one of the people who is loved by everyone and “has no enemies.” At the beginning of the story the narrator mentions “a foreig woman” whose company he is said to be enjoying, and of whom nothing is ever mentioned, except at the end of the story in the very same manner as in the beginning. To some extent I believe the name of “Winterbourne” for Fredrick, and the continuous mentioning of it while almost never being called Fredrick, is not a mere coincidence. Fredrick’s journey in the book starts in a summer morning but he is abandoned by the writer in Winter, quite at the state where he was at the beginning of the book. Winterbourne, although sharing Mrs. Costel’s economic and cultural background, also shares Ms. Walker’s flexibility whereas in his case, the flexibility is based on being in love, rather than a mere social matter. Winterbourne’s odyssey starts with falling in love (mentioning her aunt as someone who can provide the guarantee), thriving in love (visiting the Chateau and trying to convince his aunt), staying in love (getting used to Daisy’s “commonness”), struggling in love (trying to win Daisy back in Rome), falling out of love (conceding to Mr. Giovanelli) and melancholy (setting back in the typical aristocratic position, warning Daisy about the way she is being perceived.) As stated previously, the story ends with Winterbourne almost at the exact initial coniditon, in winter!

Daisy Miller is a girl who does not mind being adventurous and enjoying men’s company. She is, as she admits, inevitably scared and insecure. Moreover her forcible attitude and her subversiveness towards those who are trying to bind her adventurousness is quite visible. She’s daughter of a mom who obviously has failed to earn the children’s trust. Daisy does not seek either her approval or refusal, and Randolph (the younger son) refuses to receive the education he needs from the teachers she suggest. The point that she is traveling around Europe on her own, indeed with her children but not in her husband’s company, which was considered important in that period, is another telling matter about their conjugal life. However Daisy’s rebelliousness and the consistency she shows in it, despite the lack of any specific talents, is another demonstration of the recurring theme in European literature in that period. Henry James, although being an American, had close association with European writers and travelled extensively throughout Europe. Therefore, it’s understandable that his work might have a rather European theme.

About the Edition: The book that I read belonged to Penguin Classics. It comes with a nice chronology of Henry James’ life, and the introduction that he has written to the story. If you, like me, are reading the book for the first time, you had better read the introduction after reading the story. There is also an introduction by David Lodge. The book has a fair price, and unlike what many publications these days are doing to their classics, it has a very beautiful cover too!

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