The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Henry James's "Daisy Miller: A Study" (1878)

Henry James (1843-1916) was born into a prosperous and cultivated family; his father was a philosopher of mystical leanings, hiséé sister Alice a gifted observer and author of an admired diary, and his brother William an influential psychologist, author of The Will to Believe, and founder of a school of American "pragmatism." Unlike the other writers studied in this course, James could afford to write until he became self-sustaining, and during a period in which commerical interests seemed increasingly to dominate American society, his works portrayed with some scepticism a class of wealthy Americans, their hangers-on and their European allies and counterparts. James lived with his family in Europe during his adolescence, and later resided for periods in France and Italy before moving to England in 1876. He wrote stories and essays for periodicals, then turned to novels and novellas; The Passionate Pilgrim and Roderick Hudson were published in 1875, followed by The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1878) and--among others, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Princess Casmassima (1886), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). He died in England in 1916 after becoming a British citizen during the first World War. His prefaces to his novels lay out his artistic ideals for narrative point of view, description, plotting, and characterization. He also wrote several quasi-autobiographical stories exploring psychological themes, among them "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903). Though interested in the social movements of the time (e. g., anarchism, feminism), several of his works provide biting satires of would-be reformers. "Daisy Miller" may be seen as an early example of the "new woman" genre; and its heroine's death as an authorial "punishment" on the woman who oversteps familiar bounds, even if she remains technically "innocent."

Many of James's novels explore the ideals, illusions, and failures of manners and morals which lay behind confident exteriors. His observers are usually slightly detached, and often preoccupied with "the American personality," but also removed from it. Aspects of the pattern of "Daisy Miller" are sometimes repeated--an innocent narrator or character meets Europeans whose slightly sinister sophistication and guile is too much for the bumptuous (The American), trusting (The Golden Bowl), or sexually inexperienced (The Ambassadors) protagonist/observer. The device of using a narrator who is neither entirely American nor entirely European enables James's narrator to criticize several cultures from a seemingly neutral position. Sexuality and love are viewed through a veil of innuendo and scepticism. Much of the plot interest turns on the narrator's effort at understanding the puzzle of others's lives, determining the degree to which the characters understand their own fate, and deciding on the extent to which he (always he) should mete out or withhold judgment on them, and less often, on himself. His characters are cultured, comfortably off, and free to devote their lives to affairs of the emotions or heart, and they often use this leisure for unwise or disappointing ends.

  1. What forms of pride might this story have evoked in American readers of James's time? What anxieties about the nature of their own society might it have evoked?
  2. To which aspects of the plot and characterization do you think James's British readers might have responded favorably?
  3. What are the implications of the story's subtitle, "A Study"? Of the names "Winterbourne" and "Daisy"?
  4. To what degree do you think the character of Daisy Miller might have embodied traits of a wealthy American girl of her day? Are there unrealistic or uncharacteristic aspects of her character, and if so, do these matter?
  5. What does the story mean by "innocence"? Why is Daisy Miller's relative "innocence" of importance to all who meet her?
  6. To what extent is this story organized around stereotypes? Are these stereotypes still current? Would they have bothered readers of the time?
  7. What themes does this story share in common with those by Irving, Hawthorne and Melville we have read? What are some major contrasts?
  8. To what extent is the plot determined by the fact that the title character is a young, attractive woman? Would the attitudes conveyed by Winterbourne have been relatively tolerant, restrictive, or typical for his day? How did contemporary novels treat themes of pre-marital sex and adultery?
  9. What effect is created by opening the story in a Swiss hotel frequented by expatriates? Do some aspects of the opening description predispose the reader to expect some of what follows?
  10. What do we learn about the narrator in the opening sections--and what don't we learn? How is his "character" useful in permitting the unwinding of the plot?
  11. How would you characterize James's style? His descriptions? What are some instances of irony in his descriptions? (e. g., Winterbourne's response to Randolph's description of his father, the constant references to Schenectady)
  12. What do we learn about Daisy, her brother and mother from their first meetings with Winterbourne? What are his first judgements of Daisy? ("in her bright, sweet, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony"). What seems unusual to Winterbourne about her manner of greeting him and her reaction to his invitation to the Castle of Chillon?
  13. To what degree is Daisy intelligent? Interested in other cultures? Perceptive about other people? What are her social preferences? Does she seem to have friends of her own sex? What are her motivations in Europe? Which aspects of her portrayal seem critical? (e. g., "her light, slightly monotonous smile"). Can you tell when she makes mistakes of language?
  14. Can this story be read as a comment on the expectations for wealthy young women of the period? On the lack of formal education or active endeavors for women?
  15. Are Daisy and Winterbourne temperamentally well-suited to become friends?
  16. How is Mrs. Costello characterized? Mrs. Walker? Whose opinions do they represent? To what extent are their opinions founded on evidence? What does Mrs. Costello mean by saying, "But she is very common."
  17. In what sense is Mrs. Costello correct/or incorrect when she warns Winterbourne, "You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent"?
  18. How is Daisy's mother portrayed? To what extent is Daisy the victim of unusual circumstances? What can you infer from this novel about the lives and health of prosperous middle-aged women of the period (or the author's view thereof)? Had Daisy lived, what do you think would have become of her?
  19. How does Daisy react to the news of the varied stages of her social rejection? To what extent does it distress her? ("You needn't be afraid. I'm not afraid!")
  20. Which events in the first section parallel Daisy's ill-omened nighttime tryst with Giovanelli? Can Winterbourne be viewed as a possible admirer of Daisy? Why doesn't she accept his offer of a nighttime boat ride?
  21. According to the values of his society, should Winterbourne have accompanied Daisy to Chillon? Is their trip a sign of flirtation? How does Daisy react to the news that he must return to Geneva?
  22. What is ominous about the ending of the story's first section? The opening of the second? What is the symbolism of the shift from "Les Trois Couronnes" to Rome? How is the story's progression aided by the division into two sections?
  23. To what extent are manners and morals conflated in the society represented in this story? Is it possible to separate these two within the plot--or does the narrator also see them as nearly identical?
  24. What opinions and acts reveal Randolph's and Mrs. Miller's failure to adjust to life in Europe?
  25. What are some signs of ignorance or failure to sense danger in Mrs. Miller's reactions to Daisy's behavior? ("Of course, it's a great deal pleasanter for a young lady if she knows plenty of gentlemen.")
  26. Under what circumstances is Daisy warned that she may contract a fever? What symbolism or indirection seems to surround such concerns? In your opinion, to what degree were their concerns valid?
  27. What are some humorous moments in their conversation with Mrs. Walker?
  28. What moments in Daisy's conversation foreshadow her death? ("We are going to stay all winter if we don't die of the fever; and I guess we'll stay then.") How would you characterize her conversation--artless? honest? simple? naive? heedless?
  29. What is the reader supposed to think of Giovanelli's character and intentions? ("He had practised the idiom upon a great many American heiresses") Why is Winterbourne annoyed that she is content to accompany both men?
  30. What drives Winterbourne's concern with Daisy's sexual behavior, in your view? What is the author's purpose in presenting his narrator as much more tolerant than either of the older women who judge Daisy?
  31. Why does Daisy reject Mrs. Walker's invitation/demand that she enter the latter's carriage? Over what do Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne quarrel? Why does Winterbourne not return later to accompany Daisy and her attendant? How does Daisy offend Mrs. Walker by her behavior at the latter's party, and how does the latter respond?
  32. What is Daisy's definition of "flirtation"? ("Did you ever hear of a nice girl that was not [a flirt]?") On what grounds does she criticize Winterbourne? Does she seem sincere? What advice does Winterbourne give her? ("When you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place.")
  33. Why do you think she is offended at the mention of a possible love for Giovanelli? What does Winterbourne seem to mean when he says that she seemed a person who would never be jealous? of whom he could never be afraid? What personal lack does he regret in himself ("his want of instinctive certitude")?
  34. What are some symbolic elements of Daisy's night in the Colesseum? What role does Winterbourne play in prompting her departure? How does he judge her?
  35. What symbolism surrounds her death? What is the significance of the message she sends him before her death, and what motivates it?
  36. What to-him important recognition comes to Winterbourne at the grave site? What role is assigned Giovanelli in her death?
  37. What effect is created by ending the story with Winterbourne's final conversation with his aunt? What mistake has he made? Has he indeed lived too long in foreign parts?
  38. What is the significance of our final piece of knowledge, that Winterbourne continues to live in Geneva without known occupation as before? What has he learned, if anything, from this encounter? What has the reader learned? Are we expected to judge him, or her, or Europeans and Americans, or all of the above?
  39. May there be some autobiographical aspects of this story?

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