The writer and playwright Henry James is an undeniable classic of the American literature, and his career spans for more than half a century. Since his immigration to Europe, James was always interested in the problem of foreigners abroad. In many of his works, the writer focused on disclosing the nature of American women that was a mystery to Europeans. Especially noticeably, this topic was described in the novel Daisy Miller (1999). It is an exquisite lyrical story about love and the conflict between prim British manners and the innocent frivolity of the young American woman. This paper aims at revealing the nature of the main character, Daisy Miller, and the key message Henry James wanted readers to take away from the novel.
A young American man named Winterbourne, who lives for extended periods in Europe, comes to visit his aunt in Vevey, a Swiss spa town. There, he meets an American girl, Daisy Miller, who travels with her family. From the first minutes of their acquaintance, Winterbourne was impressed by her demeanor that was different from those adopted in secular society. The young man was puzzled by the girl; however, he preferred not to draw attention to some of the strangeness of his new friend and enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time alone with her. After a while, the Millers decided to visit Italy and Daisy invited Winterbourne to travel with them. When he came to Italy, he met Daisy with her new Italian friend named Giovanelli. A week later, he found the couple in the Coliseum and berated them for their foolishness because it was very dangerous to walk in this place and they could get sick with a fever. After walking in the Coliseum, Daisy got ill and a few days later, she died. Winterbourne thought much about Daisy; he understood that he had lived in Europe with its conservative rules for too long, and he was unable to believe that Daisy had innocent, pure, young spirit.
The Symbolism of the Novel
Henry James used symbolism in the names of the main characters of his novel. Daisy’s name means little, modest, innocent, and amazingly beautiful flower. It is a symbol of goodness, modesty, and innocence. A bouquet of daisies used to be a good gift for a young girl who was untutored in love. Drawing attention to this symbolism, one could conclude that Winterbourne was wrong in his judgments about Daisy, as she was a truly innocent and spontaneous girl. It is interesting to note that Winterbourne meets Daisy Miller thrice in the places full of flowers. These places were the garden in Vevey, the Roman Garden, and in the end, he saw Daisy in her grave that was also surrounded by flowers. At the same time, the name of Winterbourne is also especially symbolic. Winter comes at the end of the cycle of the seasons and it is a period of cold, hibernation, and death. As coldness also suggests the death of vegetation, it can be noted that the frosty treatment of Winterbourne probably is what truly killed Daisy.
Is being Innocent a Good Thing or a Danger?
Since the first day of meeting Winterbourne, Daisy Miller keeps surprising him with her beauty as well as her free and relaxed behavior that is not accepted in Europe. Without any embarrassment, she talks to a strange man and captivates Winterbourne by her spontaneity as she tells him about her family, their travel around Europe, and her plans for the future. The only thing that was not very clear for Daisy was the lack of society in Europe because in America, they always traveled with her family, and she was often surrounded by men. Winterbourne is fascinated and puzzled at once; he has never heard young girls talk about themselves in this way. He tries to understand what is behind this strange behavior. He finds a definition for Daisy: “…She’s completely uncultivated… But she is wonderfully pretty, and, in short, she is nice. To prove that I believe it, I am going to take her to the Chateau de Chillon”.
Reading the novel more attentive, one can see more clearly that behind the apparent naivety of the girl there is a very sensitive nature. This nature can catch and understand all the nuances of human behavior and their motives. At the funeral, Giovanelli says to Winterbourne that he has never met such a beautiful, kind, and innocent girl. Frederick Winterbourne regretted he had not believed in Daisy’s innocence, purity, and honesty. After the girl’s death, Winterbourne admitted to his aunt “…I was booked to make a mistake. I have lived too long in foreign parts…”. The good thing about Daisy’s innocence was that under the pressure of society, it was difficult to remain a person with a pure and light soul. Friendly people are always naive and trusting because they are open to the world and they do not expect any pitfalls.
However, on the other hand, the character of Daisy and her innocence suggested immediate danger to her life. Being pure and naive, she had no idea about what standards of behavior were accepted in the place where she lived (the action took place in Geneva, then in Rome). She did what she wanted and went where and with whom she wanted. Confident in her innocence, Daisy did not understand what happened when everyone else had turned their back on her.
Another real danger is that finally, the innocence and freedom of Daisy’s spirit and her disregard for convention leads to her death. As she said:
I never was sick, and I don’t mean to be! I don’t look like much, but I’m healthy! I was bound to see the Colosseum by moonlight; I shouldn’t have wanted to go home without that…If there has been any danger, Eugenio can give me some pills…
Daisy lived and acted, preferring not to go into deep discussions about her actions and lifestyle. Foolish naivety is dangerous because it is uneducable, it does not depend either on experience or intelligence, it is stubborn and unfortunately, lifelong.
The Key Message of the Novel
At first glance, the novel Daisy Miller has an ordinary story about the meeting of two compatriots abroad that results in a difficult relationship. In this work, the task of Henry James as a master of psychological analysis was to convey the inner life of his character with all her complexity and diversity. These young people are typical young aristocrats. They do nothing useful, they have fun, walk, flirt, have empty talks and, of course, gossip about their friends and neighbors. However, the conflict in the story is much bigger than it seems, it is general and even symbolic. It is a clash of the young untutored American soul with the European culture, education, and spiritual fatigue.
Henry James created the image of a woman who became the most popular among his heroines. For the first time, he revealed the female nature in social and psychological terms and embodied the famous American dream – the image of the person who was able to live, to think, to act freely. James’ work reveals the issue that would become central for many writers: the clash of feeling of freedom with class prejudices. The story told by Henry James teaches not to judge a person without knowing what he truly is, not to condemn, if a person is different from other members of society. It is also a lesson teaching the reader not to suppress the individuality and aspirations of a person, even if this person is wrong from one’s point of view.
In his work, Henry James reveals the psychology of the “new” American woman that has incorporated the spirit of the new age, one of the features of which was the development of the feminist movement. One of the main messages of Daisy Miller is that this girl as the personification of natural, bright, honest, and poetic creation cannot exist, as she is, in the world of artificiality and conventionality, the lack of spirituality, like a flower cannot bloom in the cold.