Novellas in November: Daisy Miller by Henry James

This review is my contribution to the Novellas in November Reading Challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at BookishBeck.

Daisy Miller [1879] ★★★1/2

Daisy…continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence” [Henry James, 1879: 44]. In this story, young and wealthy American living abroad Frederick Winterbourne becomes infatuated with Daisy Miller, an unmarried American girl touring Europe with her mother and brother. Daisy Miller is a bold and flirtatious girl who continues to mystify Winterbourne daily since their fateful meeting in Switzerland. Now, in Rome, Italy, Winterbourne’s puzzlement turns into true incredulity and then horror as he watches Daisy’s interactions with one handsome Italian Giovanelli. But who is Daisy Miller, really, and how “common” she really is and how “innocent”, or not? Henry James (The Turn of the Screw [1898]) penned a novella which showcases the societal power of prejudice to the fullest, even if it also gives the feeling of being generic and predictable.

In Daisy Miller, Henry James contrasts the themes of social customs vs. natural inclinations, societal appropriateness vs. natural feelings and because of his interest in the construction of the identity of a woman in society in the nineteenth century, the focus is one woman who seemingly defies all conventions while still remaining within “the zone of gaily charm, detachment, and even childish innocence”. How to understand this person, then? And where to draw a line between a young unmarried woman’s reckless behaviour signalling her societal downfall and simply her want of joy and innocent flirtations which only logically accords with her natural character? This question puzzles not only the author but also the main character: “He asked himself whether Daisy’s defiance came from the consciousness of innocence or from her being, essentially, a young person of the reckless class” [Henry James, 1879: 59].

The author is clear: no matter how beautiful and intelligent a woman is, as can be seen from his novel The Portrait of a Lady [1881], how much goodness she possesses, as can be seen from his book Washington Square [1880], or how naturally brave and bold she may appear (Daisy Miller), she is never a match for the tyranny of social rules and conventions, no match for society’s ruthlessness, prejudice or its vindictiveness and scheming. We are told that Daisy Miller is a person who is too familiar with her family’s courier and likes “to entertain” her gentlemen friends at home. But what does this entail, if anything? Should we immediately brand Daisy as an “immoral” woman or give her a benefit of a doubt knowing how naturally high-spirited, enthusiastic and overly-friendly she really is? The society is almost always unforgiving: “He [Winterbourne] felt sorry for her – not exactly that he believed that she had completely lost her head, but because it was painful to hear so much that was pretty and undefended and natural assigned to a vulgar place among the categories of disorder” [Henry James, 1879: 58]. Contrasting the American and European conventions/traditions, Henry James writes about one of his favourite themes – the Continental stifling of that pure and bold American spirit in a girl (see also The Portrait of a Lady). Incidentally, in both The Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller, the true tragedy is arguably very subtle and can only be glimpsed through contemplating the whole set of circumstances leading to the final act.

Unfortunately, much like Henry James’s Washington Square, which follows a rather too simple and predictable a story, Daisy Miller also feels like a general outline of what could have been a much more developed novel. Daisy Miller’s relative “bareness” and lack of ideas is especially striking when it is compared to Edith Wharton’s later novel The House of Mirth [1905]. There, Lily Bart, a young woman from once aristocratic but now impoverished family, is not that dissimilar to Daisy Miller, but Wharton certainly managed a much deeper and thought-provoking character study. There is even a distant echo of Daisy Miller in the character of Ellen Olenska from Wharton’s most famous work The Age of Innocence [1920].

Daisy Miller is considered one of Henry James’s first successes, and even despite the novella’s relative superficiality, it must still be considered an important book even for the mere fact that it laid down important ground and themes to emerge later in the author’s more substantial works where he contrasted European and American social traditions and emphasised the theme of that symbolic “slaughter” of female identity, personality and freedom, elements that are constantly being sacrificed at the altar of social appropriateness and “the rules of the game”.


12 thoughts on “Novellas in November: Daisy Miller by Henry James

    1. Thank you! Yes, as much as hate saying this, I really don’t believe this book is anything very special if you read The Portrait of a Lady. I don’t know if you read Washington Square, but as in that book, the author spent a lot of time placing the main character in the context and then just ended the story instead of showing some kind of interesting psychological or other development on her part, even if briefly.

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    1. What things did you pick up in this book? I also wanted to include all the references to the Roman fever. It’s fascinating. While I researched this, I also stumbled across Edith Wharton’s short story “Roman Fever” which I am now dying to read. The character of Eugenio is also curious I think. Something tells me he was pulling many strings in the background.

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      1. Rereading my review I note that Issaw it as a study in contrasts — seasons, class, and cultures. I avoided talking about malaria for fear of spoilers, but when the story ends up in the Colosseum I thought James was introducing another symbol, that of conflict and an echo of all those contrasts.

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  1. Society never seems to suspend its harsh judgement of women. It’s a recurring theme in fiction and nonfiction as history repeats.

    Oddly enough, my daughter forwarded a new release by Taylor Swift to me today on the same theme. I apologize if I’ve sent you way too many song links today. 🙂

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  2. I can see your argument that people who are interested in Henry James might read this novella to see how the ideas of the author have been developed over time. Since I haven’t read any James yet, I would rather start with one of his most well-known works such as The Portrait of a Lady or The Turn of the Screw.

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