Until one of my professors brought up his knack for exploring difficult emotions, I had forgotten about Henry James. The summer before my freshman year of high school, I attempted to read The Wings of the Dove; I—being fourteen and that book being tediously long—didn’t get very far. But, with my renewed curiosity in James, I decided to pick up the copy of his 1879 short story “Daisy Miller” that had been sitting on my shelf.
My professor was right—its merits lie in the way it addresses jealousy in the protagonist, Winterbourne, and the plot exists only as a way to exhibit the emotional narrative.
The story begins in a tourist town in Switzerland, where American Winterbourne meets an American girl who goes by the name of Daisy Miller. She converses with Winterbourne publicly, telling him about her many suitors back in New York; she allows him to escort her alone to see an old castle. Where most of the town saw Daisy as an uncultivated American from the ‘reckless class’ because of encounters with Winterbourne, he saw her as an eccentric flirt, unbothered by their opinions. Before he leaves for Geneva, she begs him to meet her in Rome that winter.
Shortly after arriving in Rome, Winterbourne visits a friend, fellow American Mrs. Walker. While in her drawing room, Daisy pays Mrs. Walker a visit. After light-heartedly chastising Winterbourne for failing to visit her immediately, she asks Mrs. Walker if she can bring a new Italian friend, Giovanelli, to her party. She happens to be meeting him for a walk later that night, and begs Winterbourne to escort her.
When they meet up with Giovanelli, Daisy fails to send Winterbourne away. It frustrates him that she won’t choose between the suitors, flirting with both in front of the other. Here we are given the first sign of Winterbourne’s judgement of her behavior. He begins to wonder whether she is, as everyone says, not ‘a nice girl’. This is illustrated further when Mrs. Walker tries to rescue Daisy’s reputation by picking her up from her walk to avoid being seen alone at night with two men. When Mrs. Walker asks Winterbourne if he agrees that Daisy is destroying her reputation, he says that it would be best if she didn’t allow herself to be seen with men. This contrasts with how little he thought about others’ disapproval when he was the one being seen with her.
As the story continues, Winterbourne attempts to convince Daisy that she should not be ruining her reputation by running around with a beautiful Italian peasant; people were talking. He finally confronts her about it at Mrs. Walker’s party because everyone is whispering about her. Here, not only do we get my favorite few lines, but we also get the first indication that Daisy knows exactly what she is doing to her reputation. After chastising her, the couple is approached by Giovanelli, who offers to have tea with Daisy. She replies that Winterbourne never offered her tea. He responds defensively, “I have offered you advice,” to which she responds, “I prefer weak tea!” (39) and traipses away.
Although we now know that Daisy cares more about pleasure and companionship that she does about others’ opinions, Winterbourne still continues to question if Daisy is ignorant and naive, despite the evidence otherwise. He becomes increasingly angrier that she is ruining her reputation. In response, she taunts him with the idea that she may or may not be engaged. Finally, Winterbourne concludes that she is just a flirt that he shouldn’t have wasted time trying to figure out: “the riddle had become easy to read. She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect,” (46). Soon after he decided this, Daisy gets sick, dies, and leaves with her mother a message that she would have liked to be with Winterbourne if he did not push her away in jealous anger.
The appeal of the emotional narrative of Winterbourne’s jealousy is that the shifts in his opinion about Daisy aren’t mentioned directly. They are alluded to through his responses to others’ opinions, the third person narrator’s exposition on his thoughts about her and Giovanelli, and the way he questions her intelligence, innocence, and integrity after Giovanelli is introduced—but does not do so beforehand. When it benefits him to view her as innocent and naive, he believes that she is. When she gives him adequate attention, he notices only her beauty and enthusiasm. But he’s always questioning what we, as readers, already know: Daisy is neither ignorant or innocent; she doesn’t care what others say. He wants to believe this just as he does in the beginning, but his jealousy prevents him from doing so.
Even though the emotional narrative is intriguing, the plot relies on two archetypes: the cultural confusion of Americans in Europe, and the woman bought to her demise by her lack of innocence. The former is relatively harmless and is, at least I’ve found it to be, true. It is driven through the question of whether her behavior is normal in 19th century America, even though it is disapproved of in Europe. The latter perpetuates a negative myth without adding depth to the story. The plot seems to exist only as a necessary medium through which the emotional narrative is carried. In fact, the only things the characters do are walk, travel, and, apparently, die.
Yes, Daisy’s death allows Winterbourne to regret pushing her away and see her less as a naive flirt and more as an affectionate pleasure seeker, but it does little more than that. Once the word sickness is mentioned (47), we know exactly how the story ends. After putting that much effort into Daisy’s intriguing characterization, she at least deserves to be given less predictable ending. But in order to teach our hero a lesson, the stereotype had to be reinforced that—from the Biblical anti-heroine Bathsheba to that memorable quote in Mean Girls—the punishment for promiscuous women is death.