Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller is a classical novella of initiation written by Henry James. It relates how a sophisticated man of the genteel society called Winterbourne pursues the stunning American girl Daisy Miller. Simultaneously the courtship is constantly thwarted by the other expatriates who frown upon Daisy’s flirtatiousness.

The tale is set in the late 19th century when the Gilded Age ensued as American civil war terminated. Traveling to Europe, specifically to sample the magnificent ancient civilization, increasingly became a prevalent activity for wealthy people. A large number of American artists and architects converged on historic cities like Florence and Rome. For less arty groups, the appeal was more on the life quality. Life in Europe seemed to bring out more gaiety and ease than that in America.

The protagonist, Daisy Miller, comes from a typical merchant family of American newly-rich class. Her father devotes himself to making a fortune while the mother takes her and little brother traveling throughout the Europe. At first, Daisy follows her mother and behaves well. Gradually she has her own society, hangs out frequently and keeps accompanied with fresh acquaintances. Nevertheless elder women compatriots are extremely enraged as the firm supporters for the traditional behavior observed in the patriarchal society. The climax falls on the fierce conversation between Daisy and woman compatriots who tries to persuade Daisy not to flirt with the young acquaintance. In the last chapter, Daisy catches the Roman fever, the malaria that was endemic to many Roman neighborhoods in the 19th century. In the end, she is unfortunately cut off in the flower of her youth, which powerfully depicts the hardships in pursuit of the gender equality at the time of the author’s life.

Daisy represents a lot of things that are associated with being an American: youth, vigor, enthusiasm, idealism and so on. She oozes charming and youthful femininity. Everything seems to be able to tickle her and renders her radiantly happy. Initially unaware of negative reactions toward her wide society, Daisy maintains that women deserve the freedom to make an acquaintance with whomever they like. There is a justification for woman to gain the equal social rights as men. As regards Winterbourne, a member of the genteel society, he is sophisticated in love affairs having sensual relationships with married women before. Winterbourne is at first confused by Daisy’s flirtatious behavior, but he soon considers her as nothing more than a young flirt.

The journey transforms the innocent young girl into such an independent new woman who in the latter period fights against the European traditional power and works hard to gain equal social rights for women. The climax where the fierce confrontation takes place indicates different values in the changing world. It is evident that the European tradition (standing for the Old World) holds prejudices against American spirits (standing for the New World). Prejudices do exist among different cultures, but the case is totally various comparing Europe with America of that time.
The American history is one of immigrants. Until the 19th century, the country had been founded for merely two hundred years or so, a span which was too short for a country to have established its identity. Therefore, the primary task for America was the quest for an identity, a task parallel to that of Daisy Miller, who is full of vitality and endeavors to set up an identity of her own. As for Europe, the cultural origin of the renaissance, its people tended to be conservative and clung to some principles on the ground that women ought not to hang out with male acquaintances. The novella portrays Daisy in a psychological respect as well as the genteel society where the young women is an apparent outsider so as to discuss how Europeans and Americans believe about each other, or more generally the prejudices existed in any culture.

The name of the character is also symbolic. Daisy is a flower growing in full bloom without inhibitions. The flower of daisy dies in winter and this is precisely the case of Daisy who dies of a fever in winter. Yeas later when recalling Daisy Miller, Henry James cites Daisy as pure poetry. If the reader supports the gender equality and is interested in love story and the Europe of the 19th century, I will strongly recommend this book.

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